(PART FOUR OF A FOUR-PART SERIES)
You have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and that no lie is of the truth. (1 John 2:20–21)
The apostle John’s declaration here, which he rephrases a little later in 1 John 2:26–27, makes clear to his “children” that they are the ones who are really “in the know.” Using the pronoun “we,” he includes them with himself and his fellow apostles in a knowledge of “the truth” as a result of the unction of “the Spirit of God,” who is holy and true. Their heavenly enlightenment stands in contrast to the talked-up knowledge of the false teachers (“they” in 2:19; 4:4–5), which is a deception that comes from “the spirit of the Antichrist” and “the world” that receives their teaching (4:1–6).
Emphasizing that being assured of eternal life is bound up with such heaven-sent knowledge, John speaks frequently about “knowing.” He uses two verbs to do so, each of which can be translated by the general word know, but there is a possibility that one could be rendered by a word such as recognize or perceive.1 Put simply, the difference between them is that one verb refers to the process by which one arrives at a conclusion and the other verb to the conclusion itself. The ESV makes occasional use of such a distinction by introducing the expressions “come to know” (2:3; 4:16), “being sure” (2:5, 29), and making “evident” (3:10). But it could be employed with advantage elsewhere: for example, “The reason why the world does not recognize us is that it did not recognize him” (3:1), and “We know that that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding that we might perceive him who is true ” (5:20).
There is, however, another feature in John’s vocabulary of “knowing” that is more significant for the purpose of his letter. It lies in the two clauses “we know that” and “by this you [or we] know that,” which is how he reminds his “children” of what they know and that they do know it. So often, the real hindrance to assurance of faith lies in doubting that one truly knows rather than in not knowing what is known. At the root of this uncertainty, or worse, is a condemning conscience on account of sins committed (3:20). This should not be allowed to terrorize but be pacified by confession and pardon (1:7, 9) and serve as a reminder that one is as loved while on earth as the Son is in heaven (4:17–18). In John’s view, those aspects of saving knowledge form the antidote to all uncertainty and every hesitation about possessing eternal life.
What Is It That Christians Know?
By way of summary, Jesus is the Son of God who has come into the world as its Savior (4:14) and will come again as its judge (2:28; 3:2; 4:17). By his first coming, he dealt the deathblow to “the works of the devil” (3:8), manifested the love of God by his atoning death (4:8–10), and brought newness of life, deliverance from the evil one, and union with God the Father (5:18–20). At his (re)appearing, he will bring in “the day of judgment” on the unbelieving world (4:17; 5:19) and conform believers to himself in face-to-face communion eternally (3:2). These are cardinal elements of apostolic doctrine and of saving faith, and all Christians know and believe them.
And What Is It That All Christians Should Know?
In a word or two, it is that they are “children of God.” John speaks of this essential matter often and in various ways with regard to achieving his pastoral aim. Due attention must therefore be given to how he handles it.
Considered generally, it is foundational for his sermonic address. It is implicit when he describes his relationship to them (see 2:1, 12–13), explicit when he refers to them in relation to the Father (see 3:1–2, 10; 4:4, 6; 5:2), and emphatic by way of contrast with “children of the devil” (see 3:10, 12). He clearly wants them to have this apostolic frame of reference in their minds.
More particularly, the terms John employs with reference to it—namely, a particular noun and form of a verb—are immensely significant. First, the noun, which he uses almost exclusively, stresses the reality of a birth.2 This means that the “children of God” are such only because they have been (re)born. Second, the verb by which he describes that birth is always in the passive voice and the perfect tense.3 By the passive, he meant to make clear that the birth is brought about by the completed action of another—namely, God; and he sometimes added the words “from God” for that purpose (see 4:4, 6; 5:19).4 By his choice of the perfect tense, he indicated that this divine birth has lasting effects in those who are its human subjects.5 It differentiates them from “the children of the devil” (which they once were), delivers from the tyranny of sin, and creates a likeness to God (3:9–10; see also 8:44). As a result of the love of the Father, each “child” is united to the Son and indwelt by the Spirit (3:1, 6, 24).
John is, of course, writing about the birth that Jesus insisted on to Nicodemus as the sine qua non of entry into life in the kingdom of God (3:3–8). This birth is “from above” and is “of the Spirit.” As mysterious as the movement of the wind—and as sovereign—the Holy Spirit translates a person from the realm of death into the realm of life (3:14), creating a new disposition of the heart toward the Father and the Son. Using the expression “by this,” which can be retrospective or prospective, John can point to new characteristics of the believer as evidence of its having occurred. These are righteousness, love, and faith, which are divine graces and not human virtues. His choice of different verb tenses in doing this is again significant. The present tense describes the new direction of the believer’s heart and life, and the perfect indicates that it has been preceded by the new birth; for example, “Everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (see 2:29). He follows the same verbal pattern when he speaks about love (see 4:7) and faith (see 5:10).
A well-known study of 1 John, The Tests of Life by Robert Law, regards the three graces mentioned above as providing those addressed with “an adequate set of criteria by which they may satisfy themselves of their being “begotten of God.”6 This is wholly in accord with John’s stated purpose, and it means that the word test should not be understood in a negative way, even though there are serious admonitions in his letter such as “whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar and the truth is not in him” (2:4) and “whoever does not love [his brother] abides in death” (3:14; also 2:15–17). What should be thought about those? They are to be understood either as rhetorical corollaries to underline John’s positive declarations—for graces can diminish just as they can be increased—or, and this is more likely, as alarm bells being sounded for any who had become misled by the false teachers. Even so, John’s overall aim is positive, because he was not seeking to expose the hypocrite but to recover any who had wavered and even wandered. That positive note must be made loud and clear by any who teach or preach from this letter. Though the composition of the church is mixed, the pulpit should not go hunting for the hypocrite in the pew—such a mentality may have a reverse effect!
God is light and love (1:5; 4:16), and so those who are his children walk in light and love with him and with one another. As light, God is clear and pure. He shows himself in his incarnate Son, and so his children believe that “Jesus is the Christ of God [who] has come in the flesh” (2:22). He also makes known his commandments, and so they confess and resist sin, “walking as he walked” (1:7–2:1–6), purifying themselves to become more and more like Jesus (3:3).
As love, God is self-giving—once and for all in his Son Jesus Christ as “the propitiation for [their] sins” (4:9–10) and continually through him by his Spirit to his children (4:16). They consequently also give themselves, even laying down their lives for each other (3:16–17). In light of Calvary, can this only be a metaphor for supplying each other’s material needs or praying when someone stumbles badly? (5:16–17). It certainly does not include “the way of the world,” which has absolutely nothing in common with the Father (2:15–17).
The emergency that gave rise to this letter makes clear that Christians may either lack or lose assurance of faith. John aims to help such to (re)assure themselves that they are his children (3:19). His prescription for gaining or regaining assurance gives a place to experience and to evidence. Those who lack it are to seek it, not by making a syllogistic connection in their minds between the internal and the external, but by a spiritual use of the apostolic word in fellowship with the Father and with his Son. Being assured that one is a child of God is traceable to the indwelling Spirit whom he gives to his people (3:24; 4:13), who bears witness to Jesus the Christ in them (5:5, 10; see also Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). This is experiential and is inseparable from a changed life. A crescendo of certainties followed by an exhortation that is no less definite and specific bring this apostolic sermon (5:18–21) to a close.
We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. We know that we are from God and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding that we may know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, and in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
Hywel R. Jones is professor emeritus of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
- These are eidenai and ginoskein. It is important to avoid making a hard and fast distinction between their meanings because of John’s fondness for using different words in a synonymous sense (e.g., verbs of “seeing” and “loving”). But we think that a cautious use of two meanings is acceptable—provided the immediate context supports a distinction being made and that making it will serve the main purpose of the letter.
- See 2:1, 18, 28; 3:1, 2, 7, 10, 18; 5:2. The noun is tekna, which is sometimes in its diminutive form teknia by way of expressing affection. Paidia is used as a stylistic variant only in 2:13 and 18.
- The active voice is used once in 5:1 but obscured in the ESV by being rendered as “the Father.” The aorist tense is used once and also in the passive voice (5:18). It refers to the incarnation and by implication to the Father’s sending of the Son as stated in 4:9. The noun “son” is only used in this letter with reference to Jesus Christ.
- KJV’s rendering “of God” is perhaps better than “from God” as in the ESV in order to stress origin and likeness.
- See 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1–2, 4, 18.
- Robert Law, The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle of John (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1909), 6.