Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (January-March 1993) 89-105.

          Copyright © 1993 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

                    WHAT IS THE MESSAGE

                                OF 1 JOHN?

 

                                            Gary W. Derickson

 

            Within modern-day scholarship two distinct and

disparate views have developed concerning the message of 1

John. They have arisen as a consequence of two variant percep-

tions of the purpose of the epistle. These are the Tests of Life

(Salvation) and Tests of Fellowship (Practice of Life) views. The

purpose of this article is to describe these views and how they are

defended and to evaluate each view.

 

                                     TESTS OF LIFE VIEW

 

THE VIEW DESCRIBED

            The Tests of Life view, the older of the two positions, com-

mands the majority of scholarly support.1  The basis of this view

is the dominance given the purpose statement in 1 John 5:13 in

determining the overarching message and controlling the inter-

pretation of difficult passages. According to this view John's pur-

 

Gary W. Derickson is Assistant Professor of Bible, Western Baptist College, Salem,

Oregon.

 

1 Proponents of this view include Raymond Brown (The Epistles of John, The

Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982); John Calvin (The Gospel ac-

cording to St John 11–21 and The First Epistle of John, Calvin's New Testament

Commentaries, trans. T. H. L. Parker (reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959–61);

C. H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, Moffatt New Testament Commentary (New

York: Harper & Brothers, 1946); D. Edmond Hiebert, The Non-Pauline Epistles

and Revelation, rev. ed. vol. 3 of An Introduction to the New Testament (Chicago:

Moody, 1977); idem, "An Expositional Study of 1 John," Bibliotheca Sacra (April

1988 through July 1990); Robert Law, The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle

of St. John (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1909; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969);

John F. MacArthur, Jr., The Gospel according to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,

1988); I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commen-

tary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978); John R. W. Stott, The

Letters of John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerd-

mans, 1964); and Brooke F. Westcott, The Epistles of John (reprint, Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1966).

 



90   BIBUOTHECA SACRA  / January–March 1993

 

pose in writing the epistle was to encourage his readers, who were

understood to be believers, to assure themselves of their salvation

by verifying the validity of their profession through tests of spiri-

tual life. These tests include doctrinal agreement with the apos-

tles' teaching and submission to their standard of conduct,

namely, loving the brethren and living righteously.

            Eternal life, understood as a soteriological term, is the sub-

ject of the epistle, with Christian certainty serving as the domi-

nant theme throughout the work. Salvation is the subject of the

epistle's prologue in its focus on the "Word of Life" and the apos-

tolic proclamation of "eternal life" (1:1-2).2 With eternal life as

its central subject, the epistle develops three tests by which mem-

bers of the believing community can recognize that they do indeed

possess that life.

            These three tests of the Christian life are belief (truth), righ-

teousness (obedience), and love. These indicate whether a person

has eternal life, and is therefore in communion with God, or does

not and is merely professing faith.3 Passing these tests produces

assurance of salvation, since there is a correlation between pos-

session of life and production of fruit as evidence of eternal life.4

John's purpose was not to cause his readers to doubt their salva-

tion, but to find assurance in it.5 Fruit can be used either to reveal

 

2 F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 37; Calvin,

The First Epistle of John, 231; Kenneth Grayston, The Johannine Epistles, New

Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 41; C. Haas, M. De

Jonge, and J. L. Swellengrebel, A Translator's Handbook on the Letters of John,

UBS Helps for Translators 13 (London: United Bible Societies, 1972), 125; Hiebert,

"An Exposition of 1 John 1:1-4," Bibliotheca Sacra 145 (April-June 1988): 199; Stott,

The Letters of John, 56, 58, 187; Rodney A. Whitacre, "Johannine Polemic: The Role

of Tradition and Theology," Society of Biblical Literature, Dissertation Series No.

67 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982), 150.

3 James M. Boice, The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 14-15;

Robert S. Candlish, The First Epistle of John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.),

102; J. N. Darby, Notes on the Epistles of John (London: G. Morrish, n.d.), 22, 27;

Theodore H. Epp, Studies in the General Epistles of John (Lincoln, NE: Back to

the Bible Broadcast, 1957), 47-48; Jerry Horner, "Introduction to the Johannine

Epistles," Southwestern Journal of Theology 13 (Fall 1970): 49; J. A. T. Robinson,

Twelve New Testament Studies (London: SCM, 1962), 127; Law, The Tests of Life, 5-

7; Ray C. Stedman, Expository Studies in 1 John (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1980),

338. Stott identifies his view with Law's three tests "by which we may judge

whether we possess eternal life or not" (The Letters of John, 58).

4 Epp, Studies in the General Epistles of John, 5-7; Law, The Tests of Life, 208; Alfred Plummer,

The Epistles of St. John, The Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 1894), 120; Stott, The Letters of John, 59-60.

5 C. J. Barker, The Johannine Epistles, Lutterworth Commentary (London: Lut-

terworth, 1948), 80; Bruce, The Epistles of John, 123; Stott, The Letters of John, 187;

Wilhelm Thusing and Alois Stager, The Three Epistles of St. John and the Epistle

of Jude, New Testament for Spiritual Reading, trans. David Smith, ed. John L.

McKenzie (New York: Herder & Herder, 1971), 98.



                        What Is the Message of 1 John?                         91

 

the absence of eternal life in an individual or to assure him of the

presence of that life.6

            John used "eternal life," "fellowship," "to know God," and

"abiding" synonymously when describing the Christian.7 Eter-

nal life is a soteriological term, though quality of life is not com-

pletely removed from its meaning.8  Koinwni<a ("fellowship")

should be understood soteriologically so that "to be in fellowship"

is equivalent to having eternal life, or being "saved."9 Fellow-

ship means participating and having partnership in the common

possession of eternal life, not communion or relationships as one

would expect in a family. Knowing God also refers to possessing

eternal life (salvation), on the basis of John 17. Abiding is un-

derstood as reflecting the Pauline concept of being "in Christ"

rather than that of walking in the Spirit. Therefore even the af-

firmations of 1 John 1:5-10 are tests of spiritual life.10

            First John was not written with an evangelistic intent as was

the Gospel of John.11 But its purpose is related to that of the Gospel

of John in that the Gospel was written so that the readers could

have eternal life (salvation), whereas the epistle was written so

that the readers could know that they have eternal life.12

 

6 MacArthur, The Gospel according to Jesus, 22, 33, 126, 178; Paul R. Van Gorder,

In the Family (Grand Rapids: Radio Bible Class, 1978), 57-69; Stott, The Letters of

John, 58; Homer, ""Introduction to the Johannine Epistles," 47.

7 J. L. Houlden, A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, Black's New Testa-

ment Commentaries (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 65; Andre Feuillet, "The

Structure of First John: Comparison with the Fourth Gospel: the Pattern of Chris-

tian Life," Biblical Theological Bulletin 3 (June 1973): 200; J. Ireland Hasler, The

Message of Life (Greenwood, SC: Attic, 1949), 12; Greville P. Lewis, The Johannine

Epistles, Epworth Preacher's Commentaries (London: Epworth, 1961), 48; Stott,

The Letters of John, 58.

8 Bruce, The Epistles of John, 39; C. Crain, Readings on the First Epistle of

John (New York: Loizeaux, n.d.), 13-14; Van Gorder, In the Family, 7.

9 J. Allen Blair, The Epistles of John (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux, 1982), 25; Boice,

The Epistles of John, 31; Bruce, The Epistles of John, 28; Donald W. Burdick, The

Epistles of John, Everyman's Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1970), 22; Crain,

Readings on the First Epistle of John, 37-39; Hasler, The Message of Life, 13;

Lewis, The Johannine Epistles, 12-13; Stott, The Letters of John, 58; Van Gorder, In

the Family, 19.

10 Bruce, The Epistles of John, 28; Darby, Notes on the Epistles of John, 13-14;

Plummer, The Epistles of St. John, 120; Westcott, The Epistles of John, 298.

11 G. S. Barrett, The First Epistle General of St. John (London: Religious Tract

Society, 1910), 206.

12 Ibid, 207; E. M. Blaiklock, Letters to Children of Light (Glendale, CA: Regal

Books, 1975), 103; Blair, The Epistles of John, 8; Maurice Bogaert, "Structure et

Message de la Premiere Epitre de Saint Jean," Bible et Vie Chritienne 83 (1968):

35; Burdick, The Epistles of John, 91; Robert Cameron, The First Epistle of John

(Philadelphia: Rowland, 1899), xii, 240; Epp, Studies in the General Epistles of

John, 5-6; Grayston, The Johannine Epistles, 140; George E. Henderlite, Notes on

the First Epistle of John (N.p., n.d.), 66; Hiebert, The Non-Pauline Epistles and



92   BIBLIOTHECA SACRA  / January–March 1993

 

            The relationship of the Gospel of John and 1 John is evidenced

by the similar fashion in which John stated his purpose near the

end of each work.13 Since John 20:31 governs the message of the

Gospel and 1 John 5:13 is used similarly in the epistle, the latter

verse governs the message of the entire epistle, and not just that of

the preceding paragraph.14

            The other purpose statements in 1 John are subsidiary to the

primary purpose of providing assurance of salvation. Thus 1:3-4

and 2:1 are to be understood in reference to assurance of salva-

tion.15 These other purpose statements should be considered

within the light of the overarching soteriological purpose.

 

THE VIEW DEFENDED

            The principal argument used to support the Tests of Life view

is the perceived relationship between John 20:31 and 1 John 5:13.

As John 20:31 is a comprehensive purpose statement of the Gospel,

so 1 John 5:13 serves a parallel role within the epistle.16

 

Revelation, 201; Horner, "Introduction to the Johannine Epistles," 47; Houlden,

"Salvation Proclaimed: II. 1 John 15-20: Belief and Growth," Expository Times 93

(1981/82): 132-33; Lewis, The Johannine Epistles, 119; Plummer, The Epistles of St.

John, 120; David Smith, "The Epistles of St. John," in The Expositor's Greek Testa-

ment, 5 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 5:197; Stott, The Letters of John, 187;

Henry C. Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1952), 306; W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Apostle John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946), 231;

William E. Vine, The First Epistle of John (Bangalore: Scripture Literature Depot, 1934), 156.

13 Boice, The Epistles of John, 167; Brown, The Epistles of John, 632; Bruce, The

Epistles of John, 122; Feuillet, "The Structure of First John," 211; Robert Govett, Govett on I

John (Miami Springs, FL: Conley & Schoettle, 1985), 148; Plummer, The Epistles of St. John,

120; Stott, The Letters of John, 186; Bruce Vawter, "The Johannine Epistles," in The Jerome

Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968) 2:411.

14 Barrett, The First Epistle General of St. John, 206; Boice, The Epistles of John,

11; Brown, The Epistles of John, 91, 632; Bruce, The Epistles of John, 27; Rudolf

Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, trans. Kendrick Grobel (New York:

Charles Scribner's Sons, 1955), 2:83; Burdick, The Epistles of John, 91; Gordon H.

Clark, First John (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, n.d.), 160; Dodd,

The Johannine Epistles, 133; Epp, Studies in the General Epistles of John, 99-103;

Feuillet, "The Structure of First John," 211; George Goodman, The Epistle of Eter-

nal Life (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1936), 8, 57; Haas, De Jonge, and Swellen-

grebel, A Translator's Handbook on the Letters of John, 124; Henderlite, Notes on

the First Epistle of John, 66; Hiebert, The Non-Pauline Epistles and Revelation,

201; Law, The Tests of Life, 405; R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of I and II Epis-

tles of Peter, the Three Epistles of John, and the Epistle of Jude (Minneapolis:

Augsburg, 1966), 531; Marshall, The Epistles of John, 243; Robinson, Twelve New

Testament Studies, 126; Thusing and Stager, The Three Epistles of St. John, 97-98;

Westcott, The Epistles of John, 188.

15 Goodman, The Epistle of Eternal Life, 8; Hiebert, The Non-Pauline Epistles

and Revelation, 200; Vine, The First Epistle of John, 17-19.

16 Brown, The Epistles of John, 608; Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, 133; Feuillet,

"The Structure of First John," 211; Goodman, The Epistle of Eternal Life, 7-8; Stott,

The Letters of John, 86.



                       What is the Message of 1 John?                       93

 

            Brown, Cameron, and Feuillet develop their arguments for

the parallel relationship of 5:13 to John 20:31 on the premise that 1

John was patterned after the Gospel of John.17 They point to the

similarities between the two prologues as well as key vocabulary .

and grammar.18 Others holding the Tests of Life view do not see

a parallel pattern between John and 1 John and so do not use this

argument to defend the relationship of 1 John 5:13 to the remain-

der of the epistle.19

            First John 5:13 states that John wrote the epistle so that his

readers might know that they have eternal life. This view of the

verse is proper because it is grammatically permissible and pref-

erable.  Tau?ta ("these things") refers either to the preceding

verses (5:11-12) or to the epistle as a whole.20 In the Tests of Life

view tau?ta refers to the entire epistle because there is nothing

within the context that necessarily limits its focus "to what im-

mediately precedes."21 Law, though seeing 5:13 as governing the

whole epistle, admits that the immediate context of 5:11-12 is the

referent, of tau?ta, but he agrees with Marshall that it still sums up

the entire epistle.22

            Another defense of the Tests of Life comes from the use of

"eternal life" in the prologue and conclusion, which indicates

that it is the subject of the epistle.23 Arguing for this pattern in Jo-

hannine thought, Bogaert points to the example of another inclu-

 

17 Brown divides the epistle into the following sections: the Prologue (1:1-4); Part

One (1:5–3:10): "The Gospel that God is light, and we must walk in the light as Je-

sus walked"; Part Two (3:11–5:12): "The Gospel that we must love one another as

God has loved us in Jesus Christ"; and the Conclusion (5:13-21): "A statement of

the author's purpose" (The Epistles of John, 124). Also see Cameron, The First

Epistle of John, xii; and Feuillet, "The Structure of First John," 194-216.

18 Brown, The Epistles of John, 124-25; Feuillet, "The Structure of First John,"

198.

19 Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, xxii-xxvi; Law, The Tests of Life, 5; Stott, The

Letters of John, 61.

20 Brown, The Epistles of John, 608; Marshall, The Epistles of John, 243, n. 1; A.

E. Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, The

International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: Clark, n.d.), 142; and Rudolf

Schnackenburg, Die Johannesbriefe (Freiburg: Herder, 1984), 273.

21 Haas, De Jonge, and Swellengrebel, A Translator's Handbook on the Letters of

John, 124; Plummer, The Epistles of St. John, 120.

22 Law, The Tests of Life, 405; Marshall, The Epistles of John, 243, n. 1; Stott, The

Letters of John, 86; Clark, First John, 160; Vine, The First Epistle of John, 156.

Bogaert, "Structure et Message de la Premiere Epitre de Saint Jean," 35;

Grayston, The Johannine Epistles, 140; Law, The Tests of Life, 184; Thusing and

Stager, The Three Epistles of St. John, 7. Brown follows the same general theme

when he posits an inclusion formed by John's use of tau?ta gra<fomen; in 1:4 ("We are

writing this") and tau?ta e@graya in 5:13 ("I have written this"), with 1:4 looking

ahead and 5:13 looking back at the body of the epistle (The Epistles of John, 608).

Though it is a different inclusion, it serves the same function.



94   BIBLIOTHECA SACRA  / January–March 1993

 

sion which marks off the section of 1 John that addresses false

teachers under the discussion of discerning spirits.24

            John's frequent use of the word "know" argues for assurance

of salvation rather than maintenance of fellowship.25 This in-

forms the meaning of other terms related to eternal life and as-

surance.

            John's theology, it is argued, focuses on soteriological issues

rather than sanctification. Thus key terms, including koinwni<a,

should be understood soteriologically. Fellowship should be un-

derstood this way because it is used by John in a manner similar

to his use of other terms in the epistle that are clearly soteriologi-

cal. Since salvation is a necessary prerequisite for fellowship,

John used the term in this soteriological sense.26

            Some commentators see numerous purposes being worked out

in the epistle.27 But, as noted earlier in the description of this po-

sition, the majority of those who hold the Tests of Life view con-

sider 1 John 5:13 as stating the overarching purpose of the epistle.

Though the i!na clauses in 1:3-4 and 2:1 are recognized as purpose

statements, they are viewed as secondary or subordinate to the

purpose statement in 5:13.28 Though fellowship and joy are rec-

ognized as purposes for John's writing, they do not control the in-

terpretation of the remainder of the epistle but are related to the

message of the introduction.29 The purpose clause in 2:1 applies to

 

24 Bogaert, "Structure et Message de la Premiere Epitre de Saint Jean," 40.

25 Blair, The Epistles of John, 8; Boice, The Epistles of John, 12-15; Robinson,

Twelve New Testament Studies, 127; Stott, The Letters of John, 56-60; Thomas, The

Apostle John, 233.

26 Cameron, The First Epistle of John, 7-11; Epp, Studies in the General Epistles

of John, 13.

27 For example Strauss sees six purposes for the epistle, which are to proffer fel-

lowship (1:3), promote joy (1:4), prevent sin (2:1-2), proclaim forgiveness (2:12), pro-

tect saints (2:26), and provide assurance (5:13) (Lehman Strauss, The Epistles of

John [New York: Loizeaux Brothers, 1962], 30-79). Thiessen sees four purposes:

"(1) to enhance his own joy (1:4 . . .), (2) to keep them from sin (2:1), (3) to lead them

into an assurance of salvation (5:13; cf. 2:12), and (4) to warn them against error

(2:26)" (Introduction to the New Testament, 10). For the purposes of this study,

only those which are introduced with a i!na clause are considered, namely, the pur-

poses in 1:3-4 and 2:1, as they relate to 5:13. Thomas blends the various purposes

into one summarizing sentence and says that the epistle teaches that "we are to

have the fulness of joy because of our freedom from sinning, and this, in turn,

comes from spiritual assurance" (The Apostle John, 233). Of note is his failure to

mention fellowship.

28 Law, The Tests of Life, 20, 405; Simon J. Kistemaker, James and I-III John, New

Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), 237; Plummer, The Epistles

of St. John, 120; Vine, The First Epistle of John, 156.

29 Barrett, The First Epistle General of St. John, 29; Hiebert, "An Exposition of 1

John 1:14," 207-9; Law, The Tests of Life, 45-46; Plummer, The Epistles of St. John,

120; Smith, "The Epistles of John," 170; Stott, The Letters of John, 68-71.



                     What Is the Message of 1 John?                         95

 

the immediate context of 1:5-10 and addresses the question of how

a believer is to deal with sin in his life, which is revealed by

walking in the light.30

 

                     TESTS OF FELLOWSHIP VIEW

            The Tests of Fellowship (Practice of Life) view is rather re-

cent in its development, with the earliest written representative

being Guy H. King.31

 

                           THE VIEW DESCRIBED

            According to this view, 1 John was written to encourage be-

lievers to maintain fellowship with God and to provide assurance

of that fellowship through tests of spiritual communion. It was

written to believers whose relationships with God were brought

into question by false teachers whose claims to a special relation-

ship with God left common believers in doubt of their status.

            The purpose of the epistle arises from the prologue, specifi-

cally from John's stated purpose in 1:3.32 He wrote to promote fel-

lowship horizontally between believers as well as vertically be-

tween them and God.33

            This purpose statement, expressed by the i!na clause in 1:3,

governs the message of the epistle.34 The other purpose statements

in 1:4; 2:1; and 5:13 are secondary to the overarching purpose of

promoting fellowship between believers and between believers

 

30 Cameron, The First Epistle of John, 38-41; Crain, Readings on the First Epistle

of John, 53-59.

31 Guy H. King, The Fellowship (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1954). Other

proponents of this view include C. C. Ryrie, Biblical Theology of the New Testa-

ment (Chicago: Moody, 1959); idem, "I, II, and III John," in The Wycliffe Bible Com-

mentary, ed. Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison (Chicago: Moody, 1962),

Zane C. Hodges (The Gospel under Siege (Dallas, TX: Redencion Viva, 1981); idem,

Absolutely Free! (Dallas, TX: Redenci6n Viva, 1989); idem, "1 John," in The Bible

Knowledge Commentary, New Testament, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck

(Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1983); J. Dwight Pentecost, The Joy of Fellowship (Grand

Rapids: Zondervan, 1977); John G. Mitchell, An Everlasting Love (Portland, OR:

Multnomah, 1982); idem, Fellowship (Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1974); and J. W.

Roberts, The Letters of John, The Living Word Commentary (Austin, TX: R. B.

Sweet, 1968).

32 Hodges, The Gospel under Siege, 52-53; Ryrie, “I, II, and III John," 1466.

33 Hodges focuses on the aspect of fellowship with the apostles rather than with

God ("1 John," 833). Ryrie ("I, II, and III John," 1466), Roberts (The Letters of John,

24), and King (The Fellowship, 16) see the epistle as stressing fellowship with the

Father, though not without including fellowship within the church body. Cf. Ed-

ward M. Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John" (ThD disc., Dallas Theological Seminary,

1986), 162.

34 Ryrie, "I, II, and III John," 1466; Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John," 161.



96    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA  / January—March 1993

 

and God the Father.35 Hodges argues that 1:3 expresses the

overall purpose of the epistle.36 He says the three terms of address

in 2:12-14 refer to all the readers rather than three groups of

individuals differentiated by age or spiritual maturity.37

            The controlling theme of fellowship is given in the purpose

statement of 1:3.38 Though it is not the subject of the prologue,

fellowship, not eternal life, is the subject of the epistle.39 This

subject is then discussed in the various sections of the epistle.40

            The tests given within the epistle enable the readers, under-

stood as believers, to recognize when they are in fellowship with

God in the sense of communion, not whether they are His

children. The tests are not given to produce assurance of the pos-

session of eternal life, of inclusion in God's family, but of the

"functioning" of that life within the fellowship of God's family.41

Performing according to these tests does not produce a knowledge

of God in the sense of saving knowledge, but in the sense of a

growing acquaintance that results from God's self disclosure

based on the believer's obedience to His commands as revealed in

the Upper Room Discourse.42 Failing the tests indicates not an

absence of salvation, but an absence of fellowship which must be

restored.

            In this view John differentiated between mature and imma-

ture believers.43 The tests provided by John detail those areas

wherein a believer must respond properly to have fellowship with

God.44 For example failure to walk in the light results in broken

fellowship between the believer and God the Father, though not a

departure from the "family."45 Thus those who walk in the light,

obey God's commands, hold sound doctrine, and love one another

are mature believers. One who fails to follow the pattern provided

by the apostolic band are immature, though saved.

 

35 Hodges, "1 John," 884; Judith M. Lieu, "'Authority to Become Children of God':

A Study of 1 John," Novum Testamentum 23 (1981): 213; Mitchell, Fellowship, 16-

17.

36 Zane C. Hodges, "We Believe In: Assurance of Salvation," Journal of the Grace

Evangelical Society 3 (Autumn 1990): 5.

37 Hodges, "1 John," 890.

38 Ibid., 881; Mitchell, Fellowship, 14; Pentecost, The Joy of Fellowship, 17.

39 Ryrie, "I, II, and III John," 1466; Hodges, "1 John," 883.

40 Ryrie, “I, II, and III John," 1465-66.

41 Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John," 135.

42 Hodges, "1 John," 888.

43 Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John," 1-2.

44 Hodges, "1 John," 884.

45 King, The Fellowship, 17; Ryrie, Biblical Theology of the New Testament, 341.



                      What is the Message of 1 John?                      97

 

            The fellowship of which John wrote was directed either God-

ward or among believers.46 Pentecost represents the former un-

derstanding, while Hodges sees it promoted by John as horizonal

in nature, specifically with the apostles.47 Ryrie sees John's

purpose as promoting fellowship with both God and the apostles.48

            The terms of "fellowship," "abiding," "eternal life," and

"knowing God" are related, though understood as describing as-

pects of the believer's relationship to the Father within His fam-

ily. They develop John's doctrine of sanctification rather than

regeneration. Fellowship should be understood in its natural

sense as expressing relationship or communion, rather than

merely possession of a common property. Abiding should be un-

derstood in the Pauline sense of walking in the Spirit rather than

being in Christ. This is supported in part from the Johannine use

of abiding in John 15, which need not be understood soteriologi-

cally. Eternal life refers to quality of life, as in John 10:10, rather

than salvation. Knowing God is not equivalent to being saved,

but is the result of walking with Him in fellowship.

            A relationship between the Gospel of John and 1 John is iden-

tified by the Tests of Fellowship position. But this relationship is

seen in the prologues of the two books rather than their conclu-

sions. For example Ryrie says the prologue of 1 John 1:1-4 "cor-

respond[s] to the opening eighteen verses of the Gospel and three

verses of the Revelation."49

            Though related to the Gospel, the epistle has its own distinct

purpose. The epistle develops the concept of the believer's experi-

ence of eternal life in the way of fellowship with other believers

and the Father, while the Gospel focuses on obtaining eternal

life.50 A parallel does not exist between the purpose statement of

John 20:31 and that of 1 John 5:13. Rather, 1 John 5:13 is under-

 

46 Grayston, though identified with the Tests of Life view, nonetheless identifies a

key element in the definition of the Tests of Fellowship position when he proposes

that "the writer" was promoting fellowship "between the two groups" (The Johan-

nine Epistles, 33). Though Grayston interprets the majority of the epistle from the

perspective of tests of spiritual life, his assessment of John's purpose as revealed

in the prologue reflects the "fellowship" understanding of koinwni<a. Of note is his

rejection of Johannine authorship, which he seeks to defend in part by suggesting

that Kou vla is "non-Johannine language." Houlden, also holding to a Tests of Life

view, notes that fellowship appears in John's writings only in the first main sec-

tion of this epistle "and accords well with the Johannine concern for unity in the

Christian body" (A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles, 54). Thus he also sees

koinwni<a being used in its broad sense of communion rather than soteriologically as

another term for salvation.

47 Hodges, "1 John," 883-84; Pentecost, The Joy of Fellowship, 17.

48 Ryrie, "I, II, and III John," 1466.

49 Ibid.; Roberts, The Letters of John, 19.

50 Mitchell, Fellowship, 13.



98   BIBLIOTHECA SACRA  / January—March 1993

 

stood as a subpurpose, referring only to the immediate context,

and being written in order to strengthen the readers' confidence

in their fellowship with God through the confidence that results

from assurance of salvation.

            Assurance of salvation, if its teaching is not eliminated from

the message of the epistle, is only a supporting aspect of the mes-

sage. It is introduced late and discussed as a prerequisite to

enjoying fellowship as a family member in God's household.51

Assurance of salvation is a result of maintaining fellowship with

God the Father.52

 

THE VIEW DEFENDED

            In this view John introduced his subject at the beginning of

his work, not at the end.53 Since the epistle was written to be read

aloud to a listening audience, John logically stated his purpose at

the beginning of the writing. Johnson, though not writing a com-

mentary on 1 John, offers an argument that strengthens the Tests

of Fellowship approach to the epistle.

            The subject is commonly introduced at the beginning of the text

            or in some shared context with the original readers. For commu-

            nication to take place, the reader must understand what the au-

            thor is talking about. If the author fails to introduce his subject

            somehow, then what he says has no relation to any subject in

            particular. Communication of a message is thereby thwarted.54

He concludes from this that "an alert and perceptive reader will

look for the subject in the beginning of the book."55

            Though 5:13 contains a purpose statement, the grammar of

the sentence relates it to the immediate context rather than to the

epistle as a whole. John's use of gra<fw ("I write") with o!ti in the

epistle argues for 5:13 being a secondary purpose statement, sub-

sidiary to the purpose statement in 1:3.56

            Fellowship is based on salvation.57 Hodges says that John

wrote in order to "assure his readers that, despite anything the

antichrists have said, the believers do indeed possess eternal

life."58 Pentecost notes that, though a believer's misunderstand-

 

51 Hodges, "1 John," 902; Ryrie, "I, II, and III John," 1477; Roberts, The Letters of

John, 138; King, The Fellowship, 110.

52 Mitchell, Fellowship, 17.

53 Hodges, The Gospel under Siege, 52.

54 Elliott E. Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids:

Zondervan, 1990), 83.

55 Ibid.

56 Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John," 156-61.

57 Ryrie, "I, II, and III John," 1477.

58 Hodges, "1 John," 902.



                 What Is the Message of 1 John?              99

 

ing these truths does not affect his eternal destiny, it does effect

his stay on earth. Further, without the comfort of the knowledge of

one's salvation, the believer cannot "enter into the peace of God,"

that is, fellowship.59 Thus it should be noted that the Tests of Fel-

lowship view has no problem seeing a focus in the last section of

the epistle on assurance of eternal life. But it must be seen as a

subcategory of the broader subject of fellowship. One must be as-

sured of his salvation in order to enjoy fellowship with God, and

so John concluded his epistle by focusing on that issue.

            In this view John 20:30-31 is not a comprehensive summary

of the message of the Gospel of John. This verse refers to Jesus'

signs after His resurrection, not the book as a whole. Jesus' res-

urrection rather than salvation is the referents.60

 

                    THE TWO VIEWS EVALUATED

IS THE SUBJECT ETERNAL LIFE OR FELLOWSHIP?

            Grayston's observation that I John argues a particular

lifestyle that corresponds to eternal life not only expresses the

view of the Tests of Life position well, but is quite valid. The sub-

ject of the epistle's prologue is not fellowship, but the apostolic

proclamation of the "Word of Life" and "eternal life." Thus it is

legitimate to see this as the subject of the epistle rather than fel-

lowship, which occurs in a purpose clause rather than as an object

of the verb. The subject of eternal life can be said to be introduced

in the prologue along with the theme of fellowship.

 

THE TESTS ARE TESTS OF EITHER SPIRITUAL LIFE OR FELLOWSHIP

            As noted, both views see the epistle as including three tests.

Each view links those tests to their assumed subject. The problem

with both views is that they run into logical problems when pushed

to the limit. The Tests of Life view ends up holding that failure

indicates a lack of life. Every Christian who is honest must ad-

mit to some habitual sin, whether great or small. Yet if the prac-

tice of sin or righteousness in 1 John 3 proves the presence of death

or life, then one is forced to decide "how much is too much." Thus

arguing that John intended these tests as indicators of the pres-

ence or absence of eternal life is both indefensible and danger-

ous. The question is legitimately asked, After giving such im-

possible tests as "proofs" of eternal life, how could John then say

that he wrote to assure them of their possession of eternal life?

The tests, if absolute and if proving the presence or absence of life,

 

59 Pentecost, The Joy of Fellowship, 132.

60 Mitchell, An Everlasting Love, 400.



100      BIBLIOTHECA SACRA  / January—March 1993

 

can only cause one to doubt his salvation whenever he sins.

            The same can be said for the Tests of Fellowship view. To

support the position that a believer must pass the tests in order to be

in fellowship with God, Hodges notes that the terms in 2:12-14 de-

mand that John's readers be "genuine Christians" and that his

purpose not be their assurance of salvation. If John wrote to be-

lievers and eternal security is accepted, then he must necessarily

have addressed issues of fellowship among believers rather than

issues of salvation, since none of the readers would need to be

saved.61 This argument has merit and is difficult to reject out-

right. Further, the Upper Room Discourse gives a strong support

for this view, since Jesus addressed His disciples (with Judas ab-

sent) about issues of their relationship to each other and to the Fa-

ther, much as is indicated in the prologue of I John. Jesus gave

them the "new commandment" to love one another (John 13:34),

which then became one of the tests in the epistle. The three occur-

rences of the test of love for the brethren are in 1 John 2:7-11; 3:10-

24; and 4:7-5:5. Of note is the reference to this test being an "old

commandment" which they had had "from the beginning." As

love for other believers was not a test of salvation in the Upper

Room, but one which proved their identity to "all men" as Jesus'

disciples (John 13:35), it should not be seen as a test of salvation in

the epistle. Thus love was indeed a fruit that indicated a relation-

ship to Christ. But this relationship was that of a disciple, which

Jesus later defined as "friend" (John 15:14-15). Also, "abiding"

in John 15 is understood as referring to sanctification not soteri-

ology. This works well for the first cycle of tests in 1 John 1 and 2.

However, it does not work so well in chapter 3. Though the tests in

chapter 1 determine whether one is in fellowship or not, the con-

trast between being in the family of God or the family of Satan in

chapter 3 (as well as the mention of assurance of eternal life

through proper confession in chapter 5) indicates that these tests

do more than demonstrate fellowship alone.

            It is better to see these tests serving both purposes as well as

enabling the discerning Christian to identify false teachers who

also professed faith. Rather than tests to be administered to one-

self, they were given by John to be administered to others who ap-

proached the community of faith. In this light the tests did more

than produce assurance of salvation or demonstrate fellowship.

They also served as standards by which men's teachings can be

measured to identify whether they are servants of God or of Satan.

 

61 Hodges, "1 John," 883.



                      What is the Message of 1 John?                           101

 

DO "THESE THINGS" IN 5:13 REFER TO THE ENTIRE EPISTLE OR THE

IMMEDIATE CONTEXT?

            The strength of the Tests of Life view is that, while recogniz-

ing the place of 1 John 5:13 within the immediate context, it sees

the verse as having a broader referent, namely, that of the epistle

as a whole. Also this view seeks to identify the referent of tau?ta

without doing injustice to the context of the passage within which

the term functions.  Tau?ta normally has a near referent.62

Robertson relates the use of tau?ta with i!na in 5:13 to John 15:11,

and 17.63 In both cases the term clearly refers to the immediate

context. However, tau?ta in these two verses cannot be used to shed

light on John's use of tau?ta in his epistle, since they occurred in

Jesus' conversation and not as part of John's authorial com-

ments. In Revelation 10:4 and 22:19 tou<t& is also used in quoted

speech. Thus a determinative pattern of use does not seem to be

provided in other Johannine literature.

            Curtis, who holds the Tests of Fellowship view, examined

John's use of tau?ta in 1 John and found that he used it three times

to "express the content of what he was writing."64 He noted that,

though the term could be used to refer to either the previous or the

following content, in 1 John 1:4 it is preferable to see it referring

to what had just been written. The use of tau?ta in 2:1 clearly has

the previous verses (1:6-10) in view and not the epistle as a whole,

especially since 2:7-8 is without a purpose clause "and the specific

object of gra<fw is the new commandment." Further, tau?ta

e@graya in 2:26 also has the previous paragraph and its teaching on

false teachers as its referent.65 Thus in 1 John tau?ta seems to in-

dicate a near referent rather than the entire epistle.

            Does the relationship of 5:13 to its immediate context neces-

sarily limit the meaning of tau?ta? If 5:13 is functioning to link

verses 5-11 with verses 14-21, as Marshall says, then it is neces-

sarily tied to the immediate context and the weight of proof must

fall on any who would attempt to broaden its scope.66 That John

used linking verses is evidenced by the difficulty that commenta-

tors have in determining the proper places to divide various sec-

tions of the epistle. The prime example is the problem of 2:28-3:1.

 

62 H. E, Dana and J. R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament

(New York: Macmillan, 1927), 127.

63 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Nashville: Broad-

man, 1934), 699.

64 Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John," 161.

65 Ibid.

66 Marshall, The Epistles of John, 243.



102   BIBLIOTHECA SACRA  / January—March 1993

 

Key terms in these verses serve to link the surrounding sections

by providing a "bridge" from one to the other.67 These include the

verb me<nete in 2:28, which links it to 2:22-27 where me<nw occurs five

times, and Jesus' parousia in 2:29, which links it to 3:1-3 and His

promised appearance. Brooke describes 2:28-29 as "transition-

al," since the verses are difficult to place in either section based

on their content.68 In the same way, 5:13 has transitional terms

that link it directly to its immediate context and mitigate against

its serving as a comprehensive summary of the entire book.

Specifically zwh>n ai]w<nion links 5:13 to verses 11-12, while ei]dh?te

links the verse to what follows in 5:15 and 19. This does not

disallow the possibility that the verse could serve a double pur-

pose. But it does indicate that the argument from grammar alone

is not a sufficiently strong position to necessitate a view that the

verse summarizes the entire epistle.

            The argument that the epistolary aorist e@graya in 5:13 means

that John thereby referred to the whole epistle, especially when ex-

pressed as tau?ta e@graya, is also weak. Robinson agrees with

Vine and Houlden concerning the meaning of e@graya, that "the

writer looks at his letter as the recipient will."69 But does this

mean that the writer was referring to the whole epistle? The pres-

ence of similar expressions in 2:1 (tau?ta gra<fw) and 2:26 (tau?ta

e@graya), which clearly refer to their immediate context, mitigate

against this.70 The pattern John followed is that he used the

phrase when summarizing a specific section of instruction.

 

IS 1 JOHN 5:13 PARALLEL TO JOHN 20:30-31?

            Some argue, as noted earlier, that John's use of a summariz-

ing purpose statement at the conclusion of his work is a stylistic

feature characteristic of his writings and so the two verses serve

parallel functions within the two works.71 This argument de-

pends on the Gospel of John so that, if John 20:30-31 cannot be de-

fended as a clear purpose statement covering the full scope of the

Gospel of John over against the Gospel's prologue, then neither

must the statement in 1 John 5:13 refer to the entire epistle. There-

fore two questions must be answered in evaluating this nearly

 

67 Kistemaker, James and I-III John, 287.

68 Brooke, Johannine Epistles, 64.

69 Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 845.

70 Hodges, "1 John," 902.

71 Boice, The Epistles of John, 167; Bruce, The Epistles of John, 122; Dodd, The

Johannine Epistles, 133; Feuifet, "The Structure of First John," 211; Goodman, The

Epistle of Eternal Life, 7, 211; Govett, Govett on I John, 148; Plummer, The Epistles

of St. John, 120; Stott, The Letters of John, 186; Vawter, "The Johannine Epistles,"

2:411; Westcott, The Epistles of John, xxxix.



                      What Is the Message of 1 John?                      103

 

unanimous position held by the Tests of Life view. First, does

John 20:31 actually serve as a comprehensive purpose statement

for the Gospel? Second, if so, are the roles of 1 John 5:13 and John

20:30-31 similar? Mitchell, who holds the Tests of Fellowship

view, proposes that John 20:30-31 refers only to chapter 20, with the

signs being Jesus' appearances to Mary, the 10 apostles, and then

Thomas.72 Lenski responds well to Mitchell's position. He be-

gins by arguing that the term "signs" refers to all of Jesus' works

as well as His miracles and was linked to His discourses in the

Gospel.73 Further, the language of 20:30-31 seems to indicate,

Lenski says, far more than the four resurrection appearances of

Jesus, and the phrase "in this book" must refer to more than John

20.74 This, along with John's description of Jesus' miracles as

"signs," mitigates against Mitchell's position and argues for the

whole Gospel being in view in 20:30-31.

            However, does this necessarily require that the purpose

statement be comprehensive, and therefore the controlling pur-

pose for the Gospel? It can function in such a manner only if it

can be demonstrated, that the contents of the Gospel can legiti-

mately be summarized in all that 20:30-31 contains. And this

cannot be demonstrated, since John said nothing in 20:30-31 about

Jesus' revelation of the Father (John 1:18), which, as a major

theme introduced in the prologue of the Gospel, is developed

throughout the Gospel, and especially in the Upper Room Dis-

course. Rather than looking to John 20:30-31 as summarizing the

purpose of the Gospel, one should look to the prologue wherein the

contents of the entire Gospel are clearly introduced in seminal

form.75 Thus John 20:30-31 should not be viewed as the control-

ling, comprehensive purpose statement of the Gospel, but rather as

a purpose statement secondary to the broader purpose of describ-

ing Jesus as the Word of God who reveals the Father, as well as

being the One who gives life to those who believe in Him.76 So the

argument that 1 John 5:13 is a comprehensive purpose statement

 

72 Mitchell, An Everlasting Love, 400.

73 Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1943),

1394.

74 Ibid., 1395; Frederic L. Godet, Commentary on John's Gospel (1866; reprint,

Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1978), 995.

75 Feuillet, "The Structure of First John," 198-99; Stephen S. Smalley, John: Evan-

gelist and Interpreter (Exeter: Paternoster, 1978), 93.

76 A message statement for the Gospel of John is, "Jesus, the Christ, the Son of

God, reveals the Father and gives eternal life to those who believe in Him." This

accounts not only for the role of the signs in revealing Jesus and describing truths

concerning salvation, but also for His conversations with the Jews in John 5, 7, 8,

and 10, and with His disciples in John 13–17 wherein He revealed the Father.



104    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA  / January–March 1993

 

of the epistle because 1 John was purposefully patterned after the

Gospel can be answered in part by recognizing that John 20:30-31

is not a comprehensive purpose statement for the Gospel and that

the prologue of the Gospel of John presents more themes and re-

flects a broader purpose.

 

DOES THE SOTERIOLOGICAL EMPHASIS OF THE GOSPEL DETERMINE

THE PURPOSE OF 1 JOHN?

            Does the soteriological emphasis of the Gospel of John neces-

sitate a soteriological emphasis for the epistle? Though John may

have emphasized issues of regeneration in the Gospel, he was in

no way obligated to continue that emphasis in his epistle.77 In fact

this becomes apparent in his two other epistles, which do not focus

on issues of regeneration. Since they are recognized as having

been written in the same period of John's ministry and reflecting

a situation similar to that of 1 John, their emphasis on walking in

the truth and showing hospitality to legitimate representatives of

the church should inform the meaning of 1 John more than that of

the more chronologically distant Fourth Gospel.

 

DOES 1 JOHN 1:3 GOVERN THE MESSAGE OF THE EPISTLE?

            Some writers suggest that 1 John 1:3 presents the purpose of the

epistle.78 Curtis argues that gra<fw tau?ta ("I write these things,"

5:13) introduces "intermediate purposes." He therefore says that

5:13 plays a subordinate role and that its i!na clause ("that you

may know") is consequently also subordinate. But the i!na clause

in 1:3 ("that you may have fellowship") is not limited in the same

way.79 Curtis fails to show that this is a trait in other Johannine

writings. The occurrence of gra<yon . . .tau?ta in Revelation 1:19

does not follow the pattern of the epistle, since there the tau?ta

refers to all that follows, namely, the majority of the Book of Rev-

elation. Also tau?ta . . . ge<graptai i!na in John 20:30-31 would

seem to mitigate against Curtis's contention, since John does not

have another purpose statement within the Gospel, especially not

in the prologue. Any purpose in the prologue must be found by in-

ference rather than direct statement. Thus the argument for a

pattern in the epistle is weak since this pattern cannot be demon-

 

77 John's focus on regeneration is evident, not only from his extensive treatment

of Jesus' teaching on salvation and faith, but also in the statement of John 20:30-31,

which clearly serves to focus the attention of the reader on that aspect of the

Gospel before concluding with the epilogue.

78 Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John," 161; Lieu, "'Authority to Become Children of

God': A Study of 1 John," 213; Mitchell, Fellowship, 16-17; Ryrie, "I, II, and HI John,"

1466.

79 Curtis, "The Purpose of 1 John," 156-61.



                      What the Message of I John?                            105

 

strated elsewhere, and the evidence of the Gospel, which is simi-

lar in subject and pattern to the epistle, certainly stands contrary

to his contention.

 

                                 CONCLUSION

            The two views of the purpose of 1 John clearly differ in both

their understanding of John's purpose for writing the epistle and

the meanings he gave to key passages and terms. Whatever in-

terpretive error each view makes can be linked to their perception

of purpose and the influence that purpose is allowed to exercise

over the interpretation of difficult passages.

            A more recent development, which recognizes the place of

both purpose statements in the message of 1 John, is reflected in

the work of Smalley.80 Rather than identifying salvation or fel-

lowship as the one controlling purpose, he looks to the problems

facing the church that are revealed through textual clues and sees

the author "recalling his divided community to the fundamentals

of the apostolic gospel, and answering the heretical extremes of

those who were taking too 'high' or too 'low' a view of the person of

Jesus."81 Thus each is a purpose rather than the purpose. The

word for fellowship (koinwni<a) is allowed its normal, nonsoterio-

logical sense, while assurance of salvation is recognized as an

issue addressed near the conclusion of the epistle.82

            Approaching the epistle in this way—from the perspective that

the author's overarching purpose is not found in either purpose

clause—allows each passage in the epistle to be interpreted with-

out undue influence from either subpurpose. Further, it allows

formulation of an understanding of the message of the epistle to

grow out of all its affirmations rather than a single assertion.

The influence of those purposes on their immediate contexts must

be recognized and properly utilized in discerning John's in-

tended meaning, while the message of the epistle as a whole, as

introduced in its prologue, must be given its due place when ap-

proaching its other sections.

            Interestingly this problem has arisen because I John is one of

the few biblical documents in which the author stated his purpose

in writing. Unfortunately John does it twice. Therefore both

statements must be carefully considered in seeking to ascertain

the message of 1 John.

 

80 Smalley, 1,2,3 John, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1984).

81 Ibid., 15. Others such as Brown (The Epistles of John, 632) see the same histor-

ical situation, but still find in 1 John 5:13 the dominant purpose and see the epistle

as focusing on issues of eternal life rather than fellowship.

82 Smalley, 1,2,3 John, 12-13, 289-91.


This material is cited with gracious permission from:                   y

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204          

www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu