Studies in 1 John: Spiral 1 (Part 1)


(See the introduction to this series here)

What you believe about God, self, and salvation are determinative of the genuineness of one’s faith. That is to say, you cannot call yourself a Christian while denying the core tenets of the faith. The doctrines of God, man, and salvation are core tenets. The Apostle John starts his epistle off by confront false beliefs about these doctrines in order to encourage true faith, unity, and godly living. To be a true follower of Christ means to believe what Christ taught about God, man, and salvation.

The first spiral (1:1-2:17) of the epistle of 1 John begins with the doctrinal test (1:1-2:2). Here John explains the key beliefs that evidence true faith. He establishes the truth the apostles have taught and proclaimed in verse 3. This truth is a truth that they have “seen and heard,” namely that “the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us” (v.2). He speaks here of the incarnation. God became man and dwelt among us (John 1:1-18). If it is true that one of the primary heresies that John was writing to confront was a form of proto-Gnosticism, then it makes sense that he would emphasize the bodily form of Jesus. He was touched, he was incarnate. He was God in the flesh. The false teachers who had disrupted the church had seemingly believed that the body was of no significance. But if Christ came in fleshly form this throws quite a wrench into their theological conclusions. It also alters the way we ought to think about our obedience to Jesus. But John continues constructing a theological sound response to the false beliefs about God.

Not only did Christ come in an incarnate, fleshly form, but he came as light. Light is a popular descriptor of Jesus in John’s writings. He loves to refer to Jesus as the light, and in this case he highlights for his readers that light refers to Jesus’ moral perfections. As the perfect representation of the Father (John 1:18; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3), Jesus points to His moral perfections. “Here is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you,” John says (v. 5): God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. This is the truth about God that all true believers must acknowledge. Jesus, the incarnate God-in-the-flesh is morally pure and has nothing to do with wickedness. These beliefs evidently fly in the face of the false teachings that the Christians in Asia minor were hearing. It contradicts not only what they believed about God, but it challenged what they believed about themselves too.

John reminds his audience that they are sinners. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” he says (v. 8). The false teachers seemingly believed that what they did in the body was of no importance. They indulged in all kinds of evil, not specified but repeatedly condemned (3:10). They seemingly “walked in darkness” and in particular refused to love the brethren. Their lives did not match up with the life of Christ. As a result, John warns the churches, “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (6). These false beliefs about man lead naturally to false beliefs about salvation, and those too John aims to correct.

John, as a good pastor, knows the fragile state of some of these believers. He is heavily concerned to reassure them of their right standing before God. It is significant that he does not reassure them by pointing to their faith and their lives, but rather to the truths of Biblical teaching. Particularly, here, he points to Jesus Christ “the righteous” (v. 1). His desire is to reassure them that salvation is found in Jesus Christ alone. He is going to go forward to talk about their conduct, but he grounds their salvation, their forgiveness of sins, in what Jesus has done for them. He grounds it in their “advocate”. He writes:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (2:1-2)

The answer to their uncertainty is not found within themselves, nor within the philosophies of the false teachers. It is found in Jesus Christ the righteous, who is a “propitiation.” Propitiation refers to the removal of wrath. It’s an old word that identifies Jesus Christ as the one who appeases God’s anger against sin and sinners by means of his self-sacrificing atonement for sin and sinners (for more see John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 166-173). Salvation happens, in the body for the body, by means of this savior.

These three doctrines are vital to our faith. What we believe about God, self, and salvation are so significant that to alter them is to completely distort your faith. The challenge to these doctrines that the false teachers brought was enough to unsettle the believers in Asia Minor. To have confidence in our salvation we must have confidence in the character of the God of our salvation. To have confidence in our salvation, we must have a deep knowledge of our inability to save ourselves. To have confidence in our salvation we must have a firm foundation for our hope in Jesus Christ. John begins to outline those three truths here, not just for the original audience but for us today. We need to constantly hear these truths. We need the repeated to us. Our faith is often weak. It is strong doctrinal truth which can reassure us of our standing before God.

There’s are many layers to what John writes in these first twelve verses. We have only touched on one particular aspect of his writing here – the doctrinal test for genuineness of faith. We could examine more of the fellowship aspect that John addresses in these verses or the obedience components. We will see each of those themes picked up elsewhere in the book though. For the moment it is worthwhile to consider what we believe about God, self, and salvation. These three truths reveal the genuineness of our faith. What you believe determines who you are. A true follower of Christ believes what Christ taught about God, self, and salvation.

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