IS THE BASIS FOR OUR FAITH JUST A LEAP?

For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.  If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God y that he has borne concerning his Son” (1 John 5:9).

Many years ago, a Christian told me,

Even if God and Christ never existed, we come out ahead by believing anyway.  We end up living a good life and doing what was right.  The important thing is that we believe.”

Those statements amount to no more than what many of us have heard as a leap of faith.  That is, the basis of true Christian living is a leap of faith.  There is no rationality for believing.  In fact, according to Soren Kierkegaard, faith and rationality are not on the same side of the ledger.  Rather they are distinct.  Reason requires evidence or empiricism.  With faith, no evidence or warrant for God needs to exist.  We just believe God without the requirements of clear evidence for His existence.  This is known as fideism: believing in God without the need for evidence.  We simply accept it.  With this in mind, we return to Kierkegaard and William Lane Craig’s assessment of his leap:

Kierkegaard believed that there is ultimately no warrant for Christian belief and you simply take a leap of faith to believe.  What he tried to do is to motivate this leap by showing how life lived apart from God ultimately degenerates into despair, boringness, and languishing in absurdity.  He tried to motivate the person to make the leap.  But ultimately for Kierkegaard it is a criterion-less leap of faith.  He thought that Christianity was indeed absurd because it says that God, who is timeless, entered into time in the Incarnation and that this is absurd – the presence of the eternal in the temporal.”[1]

The key to what Craig states is that a leap of faith requires “no warrant [evidence] for Christian belief.”

What does the discussion of a leap of faith have to do with what John claims about Jesus coming in the flesh in the passage we are studying?  It is easy to conclude that faith in God does not require evidence.  Where is He?  How do we really know He exists?  The Gnostics during John’s time took a similar rationality.  Jesus did not really exist.  Rather, He was a mirage, a ghost, an illusion, and not part of reality.  They rejected all evidence of Jesus’ actual existence in the flesh because of their false philosophy that God could not inhabit matter, and Jesus claimed to be the Son of God.  The Gnostics then concluded that Jesus and the Christ were separate entities.  The Christ came upon Jesus at His baptism and left Him before His crucifixion.  Therefore, they denied both the divinity of Christ and the historical reality of His physical death and resurrection.  They then held to a form of leap of faith for their religious and philosophical beliefs.  Their faith had no basis in historical reality.

The Apostle John refuted their claim.  He insisted on the physical presence of Jesus Christ in the world and on His physical resurrection.  He claimed that to deny this historical reality made God a liar (5:10).  He pointed to two key evidences for faith in Jesus: His baptism (water) and His physical death (blood) and resurrection from the dead (5:6).  John also pointed to God Himself, the Triune God, as the strongest evidence.  These sets of evidence coincide with one another.  If Jesus was the Son of God and came in the flesh as the word of God (John 1:1), then the evidence was very clear.  Jesus the Word took on human flesh and existed among men.  The Holy Spirit also gives evidence internally as the witness to the historical reality that Jesus came in the flesh.  In citing the Holy Spirit, John returns to the event of the new birth.  He gave us new birth and through it gives witness to us of the reality of the living Christ.  He writes,

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God…By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:2, 13).

In the above, John essentially makes the same claim as he does in the current passage: Jesus came in the flesh!  Why is this truth so important?  It is important for two reasons:

  1. Not believing this historical reality makes God a liar
  2. Eternal life depends on it

John ties the trustworthiness of God to the historical reality of Jesus coming in the flesh.  God sent Jesus to take on human flesh.  To deny what God did is to make Him a liar.  It is not circular to claim that if God said something, it must be true and fact.  Historical reality supports His word.  One can deny a claim all one wishes, but such a person cannot deny reality.  Many have attempted to deny that Jesus ever existed, but they supply no evidence to support their claim.  If a person makes a claim, that person must support it.

The Apostle John uses his evidential claims of Jesus’ historical existence, death, resurrection, and the testimony of God Himself to segue into the assurance of eternal life for those who believe Him.  Just as God gave testimony of His own Son coming in the flesh, He also gives firm testimony that He gives eternal life to those who believe Him.  We have no greater assurance of eternal life than the word of God Himself.  The basis of this eternal life is the new birth God created in us.  Earlier John connects the new birth to this eternal life when he states,

For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.  And this is the victory that has overcome the world — our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”  (5:4)

John picks up this truth again in discussing the witness of the Holy Spirit within us,

Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself” (5:10).

The same faith that arises from the new birth is the faith the Holy Spirit implanted in us for believing the reality and saving activity of Jesus Christ when He came in the flesh.  This new birth and corresponding faith grounds our assurance of salvation.  That is what God accomplished in us through the new birth can never be reversed.  God proclaimed and gave witness to it.  Jesus provided for it.  The Holy Spirit administered it through the new birth or internal regeneration.  If God did it all, nothing apart from Him can reverse it.  We have assurance of salvation because of God.

Is the basis of our faith just a leap?  No!  Enormous amount of evidence exists for the historical reality of Jesus and His resurrection, the two strongest platforms for our faith.  Faith is not a leap into some dark unknown chasm where no knowledge exists.  Knowledge and truth have their basis in reality.  John teaches us that Jesus did exist, died, and rose from the grave.  We do not rest our faith on something that may or may not have happened as a Christian once claimed many years ago when making the statement,

Even if God and Christ never existed, we come out ahead by believing anyway.  We end up living a good life and doing what was right.  The important thing is that we believe.”

That statement is a leap of faith in that it has no basis or evidence for it.  That is presumptuous faith; that is faith without anything on which to base it.  There are two types of hope.  One hope says, “I hope so.”  The other hope says, “I know and believe that knowledge to be true.”  The first hope is tenuous, vague, and unsubstantiated.  It draws from thin air.  The second hope has evidence from existence.  John teaches evidential faith substantiated by history and God’s word.  This means that every believer has utmost security in God’s hands.

[1] William Lane Craig, “Existence of God: Properly Basic Belief in God,” Reasonable Faith, Lecture 4, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/transcript/s4-29.

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Revisiting the New Birth

Everyone who believes that l Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:1).

In an earlier article, we discussed major waves and undercurrents that occur in John’s letter.  One large wave that occurs regularly is the new birth.  The new birth connects a number of major currents throughout his letter.  The illustration below identifies these connections.

 

New Birth Passage Connecting Practice
1 John 2:29 Righteous/Righteousness
1 John 3:9 (2 times) Does not sin
1 John 4:7 Love
1 John 5:1 Believe
1 John 5:4 Overcomes
1 John 5:18 Does not sin

 

Notice that the sum of the Christian life in the family of God arises from the new birth.  Each time John begins a new line of thought, he starts out with the truth of the new birth.  Upon viewing how he discusses and applies the new birth, a pattern emerges.  The chiasmus defines this pattern.  A chiasmus defines the structure of a written work.  That written work can be in the form of a song or poem.  In the case of John, it appears in this letter.

The chiasmus refers to an inversion structure as shown in the illustration below:

 

1 John 2:29 – Righteous

            1 John 3:9 – Does not sin

                        1 John 4:7 – Love

                        1 John 5:1 – Believe

            1 John 5:4 – Overcomes (Righteousness implied)

1 John 5:18 – Does not sin

 

Notice two structural elements about John’s letter.  First, he reverses the beginning at the conclusion.  When he first addresses the new birth at the beginning, he highlights “righteousness” followed by “does not sin.”  At his conclusion, he reverses the order, placing “does not sin” at the conclusion at 1 John 5:18.  In arranging his message in such a manner, John emphasizes that living life pleasing to God is one in which one does not practice sin.  Not only does he make this statement twice but he also concludes his chiasmus with it for giving greater attention to the believer’s separation from sin.

In the middle of the chiasmus (1 John 4:7; 5:1) where he again refers to the new birth, John cites the two major themes in his letter: love and believe.  Righteousness and not sinning, in essence, refer to the same practice of the Christian life.  Love and the verb form of faith, believe, come as gifts from God through the new birth.  Their close proximity to one another in the letter illustrate that Christians cannot truly love without faith.  That faith gives evidence that one knows God (5:8-12).  Since both love and faith derive from the new birth (4:7; 5:1), they work together in demonstrating that one truly knows God.  That knowledge works its way out on the horizontal plane toward others.

We must realize that there were no chapter and verse divisions in the original letter.  These divisions did not arise until the 15th century.  Given this as the case, the flow of John’s thought process in his letter naturally followed from the various mentions of the new birth.  In other words, statements about the new birth acted as lynchpins for connecting the practices of life before God.  The new birth connects righteousness to love and love to faith.  Together the life of God shines through in the believer through the expressions of God’s nature and character.

Notice how John treats each practice.  They are always in reference to the character and nature of God.  In his first mention, John states,

If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him” (1 John 2:29).

The reason we can practice righteousness in the first place is because God is righteous.  He showed His righteousness to us in Christ.  John just finished discussing another theme of abiding (2:24-28).  Righteousness is the practice of abiding or not practicing sin.  All three truths refer to the same way of living: abiding (2:24-28), righteousness (2:29), not continuing in sin (3:1-9).  The practice of abiding flows naturally into John’s thought of righteousness.  The practice of righteousness encompasses the practice of not continuing in sin.  All three focus on horizontal relationships within God’s family, leading to the practice of love (3:11-4:12).

This practice of love also arises from the character and nature of God just as righteousness does.  Notice how He points to God as the source of love.  He must necessarily reveal His love to us for us to learn how to practice it (4:7).  As creatures alienated from God, love is not natural to us nor do we truly know how to love.  Rather, we pervert it and make it into something it is not – a romantic or emotional notion or something predominately sexual.  Not only must He reveal love to us, He must teach us how to love.  Jesus revealed God’s love (4:9), and the Holy Spirit teaches us how to love (4:14-17).  For this reason, John makes love the core of the new birth.  Love reveals the nature and character of God in the new life He gave us.  It expresses itself in righteous living toward God and others.  It gives us confidence before Him, because it reflects back to Him the essence of who He is.

Although God reveals both righteousness and love, they do not come to fruition until one believes.  Knowing God’s righteousness and love arises from faith (5:1-3).  However, even this faith has its source in the new birth (5:1).  The grammatical tense John uses with his mention of the new birth is the same for every occurrence.  He writes with the perfect tense each time he refers to the new birth.  The perfect tense in both the Greek and English indicate a past action that continues into the present.  John indicates that this action is the new birth.  That is, the new birth gives rise not only to righteousness and love but also to faith.  We believe as a result of the new birth.  Therefore, all the expressions of living the Christian life come from God.

What we are and what we do must arise from God.  We would never know how to live life the way God ordained it unless He revealed the characteristics of that life to us.  The life of God in us through the provision of Christ’s death and the work of the Holy Spirit gives all we need to live righteously, to love God and others, and to have victory over the evil one.  As it works its way from us, the Holy Spirit gives assurance that we belong to God (5:6-8) and grants confidence when we see Him face to face when He comes again.  Think on these gifts of God and consider how they show up in your life.

The Spirit of Truth Vs. the Spirit of Error

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:1-3).

I recently had two Jehovah Witnesses come to the door.  After answering the door, one of the men immediately drew out a pamphlet and began handing it to me.  I greeted them and then asked the question, “Do you believe in the Trinity?”  The reason for this question was twofold: I knew their answer would be “no,” and the Bible raises the Trinity as the basis for the identity and nature of God.  The man replied that the Bible does not mention the Trinity.  This reply is the spirit of error.  It is based on the logical fallacy of argument from absence.  That is, just because the Bible does not mention the word “Trinity” does not mean that it does not teach it.

He then surfaced an argument that the Bible says that the Father is greater than the Son without giving reference to or providing any knowledge of context.  This Jehovah Witness never even made an attempt to explain what he quoted out of context.  It was a statement devoid of reason or thoughtfulness.  If we were to arrange this man’s statement in an argument, we can see just how deceptive and unreasonable it is.  The below is an example of the reasoning underlying this Jehovah Witness’ statement:

Premise: There is only one God

Premise: He is greater than everything that exists.

Premise: God is greater than the Son

Premise: The Son exists

Conclusion:  Therefore, the Son could not be God since His Father, who is God, is greater than Him

Another argument shows how defective the above argument is:

Premise: All humans are of equal kind

Premise: A Catholic priest is human

Premise: A bishop is greater than a priest

Conclusion: Therefore, a bishop is not human

This argument turns on the use of the word “greater,” and assumes it has only a single meaning.  Since neither argument defines the term “greater,” both use it to arrive at a false conclusion.

Let us add another premise to the one about the priest:

Premise: All humans are of equal kind

Premise: A Catholic priest is human

Premise: A bishop is greater than a priest

Premise: The pope is greater than a bishop

Conclusion: Therefore, a bishop is not human

Conclusion: Therefore, the pope is neither human nor not non-human (double negative used for showing the irrationality of this type of argument)

Of what kind of existence would that make the pope?  A rock?  No.  Rocks are non-human.  A plant?  No.  Plants are also non-human.  This type of logic draws ridiculous and irrational conclusions.  Such arguments do not stop the spirit of error from deception.  The Jehovah Witnesses and other erroneous cults like them begin from a departure from the truth.  From that point they introduce deception in attempts to counter the truth.  They prepare their own sacred scriptures, indoctrinate initiates into these deceptions and fallacies, and place the fear of rejection on them if they depart from their teachings.

The spirit of error uses such tactics to draw unsuspecting people away from biblical faith by claiming they are Christian and believe the same Bible.  These two tactics actually reduce to the following: the use of logical fallacies for raising deception and twisting the Scriptures.  The Apostle John calls the spirit of error deception because it:

  • denies what the Bible teaches and twists the Scripture with deceptive arguments, using Scripture hopping, ignoring contexts, and disregarding the grammar and word meaning of the original languages
  • makes generalized statements without contexts and without interpretation
  • shows no knowledge of God and His word
  • accepts what false teachers proclaim without question
  • denies the identity and nature of God.

Those who hold to biblical faith  must be aware of such tactics and be prepared to handle them.  Fallacious arguments and simply quoting a passage, with or without citation, on the surface seem to offer sound replies.  The spirit of error always attempts to make a lie sound reasonable.  However, what seems reasonable coming from the spirit of error is far from truthful.

The Apostle John teaches believers how to discern between truth and error and how to counter the spirit of error.  He called upon the believers in Ephesus in his letter of 1 John to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (4:1).

John then identifies the truth by which to test the words of the spirit of error:  Jesus came in the flesh.  The incarnation identifies the truth of Jesus coming in the flesh.  The false teachers of John’s day did not believe He came in the flesh or rose bodily from the dead.  The Jehovah Witnesses today hold to a similar belief.  Rather, they believed He was an illusion and did not have a physical presence.  Of course, this test was not the only one believers can use to test false teachers.  They also separate Jesus from the Christ and view each as distinct entities.  In doing this, they misuse and misapply the term “Christ” as an equal name like Jesus rather than recognizing it as an office or title.  Consequently, they make Jesus an illusion and material being at the same time while identifying the “Christ” as a spiritual being separate and distinct from Jesus.  John claims that this spirit of error comes from Satan himself (2:13-14; 3:8-12; 5:18).

This error received the name of Docetism, which derives from the Greek word “dokien,” which means to appear or to seem.  The early representation of Gnosticism taught that Jesus did not have a real body, but He was a phantom or illusion.  He seemed to be real.  They held this position because they believed matter was evil, and Jesus could not have inhabited an evil substance as flesh.  Given this conclusion, there was no incarnation or bodily resurrection of Jesus.  For this reason, John continued to focus forcefully on the historical bodily appearance of Jesus (1 John 1:1; 2:28; 3:2, 8, 4:1-6) and His physical second coming (2:28; 3:2).  Yes, John does teach the second coming of Jesus Christ.

We must be careful when hearing people discuss God, Jesus, the human condition and its remedy.  If they raise teachings contrary to the Bible, they are of the evil one and antichrist.  If they deny the Trinity and do not hold the final authority of the Scriptures, they are of the evil one and antichrist.  If they deny Jesus came in the flesh (incarnation), they  are antichrist.  If they deny Jesus died for our sins and rose bodily from the grave, they are  antichrist.  Many from the cults or even among Evangelicals may sound biblical.  However, if they use strange or deceptive arguments and misuse the Scriptures to teach what the Bible does not claim, they are antichrist.  If they generalize with the Scriptures or engage in Scripture hopping (going from one passage to another without regard for context to prove their position), they are antichrist.  If they quote or cite the Scriptures to create new teachings, be careful and listen well.

People use the Scriptures to justify their way of life, behaviors, belief system, and for gaining a following for themselves.  The early Gnostics during John’s time did this.  Cults today also do this.  The best way to counter false teachers is to be knowledgeable of the Scriptures and grounded in sound doctrine.  If you  hear strange teachings, seek out the view of another you trust and whom you believe knows the Scriptures well.  Knowing the Scriptures act as a sound protection against false teachers.

Copyright 2016 Action Faith Books Press

John 3 The Currents of Righteous Living

The Apostle John’s writing style presents a number of difficulties for the modern reader.  The primary audience knew what he sought to convey due to immediate conflict they had with false teachers in their midst and the cultural setting.  These false teachers plagued the church in Ephesus for decades since the Apostle Paul warned the elders prior boarding a ship to leave them for the last time (Acts 20:17-38).  Paul informed these elders,

“I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (20:29-30).

These false teachers had a very different message, one that rejected the righteousness of God and depended on self-reliance.  They twisted the knowledge and nature of God and sought to stir up dissension with members of the Christian fellowship in Ephesus.

With this history in before them, the audience of 1 John recollected both Paul and John’s teachings on righteous living, brotherly love, and caring oversight both exhibited during their times in Ephesus.  When John recalls these teachings in his letter, they connected them to the time he dwelled with them.  John appealed to his interaction with them while with them.  He wanted to remind them that they knew the truth (1 John 2:13-14, 18, 21), and the Holy Spirit imprinted that knowledge in them (2:20).  Although John’s writing style appears meandering to us, it did not appear that way to his original audience because they knew John’s teachings.

The Flow of John’s Message

However, a closer look of the flow of John’s writing reveals more than a meandering style.  An analogy can assist in our understanding of the flow of his message in 1 John 3 as well as with the entire letter.  The strong waves seen on the surface of the ocean represent his message.  The water through these waves appears powerful and overwhelming as we see each wave strongly reaching their peaks and then gushing robustly toward the shore.  However, beneath that surface exists a number of unseen undercurrents that drive the waves.  Some undercurrents flow strongly and appear periodically on the surface of the waters, acting as large cresting waves.  Other undercurrents flow more subtly.  One may not see their strength when viewing the surface from a distance.  However, to one in the water, they brush strongly against the body and act like unseen undertows attempting to sweep the person to the bottom.  John’s writing style resemble this ocean.  His dominant message appears like the strong waves on the surface of the sweeping ocean.  The corresponding themes show up like undercurrents, sometimes subtly and sometimes forcefully, as they support the primary message.

In the case of 1 John 3, John stresses righteous living as his primary message.  Living righteously is the message of power much like the ocean waves.  Several corresponding themes appear like undercurrents in support of this message.  They consist of the following:

  • Appear (2:28; 3:2, 5)
  • Hope, faith (3:3, 23)
  • New birth (2:29; 3:9)
  • Loving others (3:1, 10-11, 14, 16-18, 23)
  • Abide (3:6, 14, 17, 24)

He connects these themes into a single forceful message through a series of comparisons and contrasts.  He also uses them as counterarguments against the false teachers who disturbed these believers.  For example, when John writes of the two appearances of Christ (His birth and second coming), John counters the false teaching that Jesus was simply an illusion and not real.  John replies with a NO!  That is, Jesus did appear physically, and He will appear once again at His second coming.  The theme of the appearance of Christ represents John’s counterattack toward the false teachers.

John’s Message and Supporting Themes

As a thematic undercurrent for his message, John bring up appearance three times, once referring to believers and twice to Jesus.  His first use speaks of His second coming (2:28; 3:2-3).  With his second use, he refers to the historical event of His first coming or the incarnation (3:5).  These two events act as two anchors for hope, faith, the new birth, and loving God and others.  The third time John uses the word “appear” he speaks of the believer’s new unknown state when Jesus comes again (2:28).  Although the future of our state of being when Jesus returns is unknown, we do know that we will be like Him (3:2).

In his typical style, he reverses the historical order for emphasizing that the motivation for the life of righteousness has its grounds in the hope of Christ’s second coming.  For this reason, his writing style appears somewhat meandering.  The connections of these themes are subtle in support of his message.  Notice how he connects the two.  He first states,

“…what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is.  And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure” (3:2-3).

The false teachers (the early stages of Gnosticism) could not comprehend this physical appearance, because their philosophy of matter as evil and impure caused them to reject the incarnation and the second coming of Christ.  The appearance of Jesus, to them, was an illusion.  Jesus could not inhabit evil flesh.  John emphatically counters their false beliefs about Jesus.  Their idea of purity/impurity rested on materialism and not on God’s declaration.  God created everything and pronounced them good.  Evil entered the picture with humanity’s willful rebellion against and rejection of God.

The false teachers failed to distinguish between the good God created and the act of human rebellion.  Rather than seeing the individuals created in the image of God as good, they saw this material creature as evil.  Furthermore, rather than recognizing rebellion against God as evil, they rejected such rebellion and consequent sin.  Purification according to John is not about the false teaching of separation between the body and spirit but the distinction between living righteously (purity) and living lawlessly (3:3-6), which is the true biblical category.  The life of righteousness solidifies hope (3:3).  This hope is the anchor of the soul (Hebrews 6:19).

John uses the undercurrent themes to reinforce living between the two comings of Christ – the incarnation as the first coming and Christ’s return to claim all who believe in Him as the second coming.  Righteous living occurs between the two appearances of Christ as shown in the following illustration.  The events that occur after Christ’s first coming find their source in the work of the Holy Spirit.  John earlier wrote,

John 3 Living Between the Appearances of Christ
Living Between the Appearances of Christ

“But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie— just as it has taught you, abide in him” (2:27).

He affirms this truth later when speaking directly of the Holy Spirit,

“By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (4:13)

As the Holy Spirit directs our lives through the process of living for God, we exhibit confidence and assurance (2:28; 3:21; 4:17) so that we will not show shame when Jesus returns the second time to claim all believers.  The events between the first and second appearance of Christ lead to righteous living.  Righteous living is the primary message John conveys in John 3 and that he threads throughout the letter.  It is the mighty and majestic display of the God who gave us birth to His dear children.  The events John discusses to support this message are the undercurrents that support and strengthen righteous living.  They demonstrate to the world the difference between the children of darkness and the children of God.

Future articles will explore the undercurrents shown in the illustration:

  • The new birth
  • Knowledge and truth
  • Hope & faith
  • Abiding
  • Loving God & others

Born of God: Foundation for Abiding in God

Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you…If you know that He is righteous, you may be sure, that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him” (1 John 2:24, 29).

One of the major themes in 1 John consists of “abiding.”  John’s qualifies his use of the word “abiding” by its fruit, and that fruit rests in the new birth.   John wrote to the Church and individuals in it.  He addressed false teachers who disturbed the fellowship of community.  Along with their false teachings, they saw no use for remaining in fellowship. John set the stage for his discussion on abiding in God by showing the unrighteousness and unfaithfulness of these false teachers,

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19).

They left because they were false confessors.  Those who fail to confess Jesus do not remain in the fellowship of believers.  They stay as long as they get something out of it.  They have nothing to keep them committed, because their focus is on themselves and not on Jesus and His Father.  Therefore, once people rejected their false teachings, they had no use for the fellowship.

The following chart shows John’s teaching of abiding as opposed to what the  false teachers taught.

Contrast of Abiding and Leaving

ABIDING (2:24) LEAVING (2:19)
Believing truth (2:21) Believing a lie (2:22)
Objective witness of the Holy Spirit (2:20) Reliance on subjectivism, inner enlightenment
Believing Jesus’ incarnation (2:22-23) Rejecting Jesus – Jesus and the Christ
Confession (2:23) Denial
Abiding (2:24) Leaving
Eternal life (2:25) Eternal death
Christ’s appearance (2:28) No bodily appearance, an illusion, spiritual
Righteousness (2:29) Unrighteous
Following the new birth (2:29) Following the flesh

The expressions of faith in community could not exist if those in it did not abide together.  Abiding constituted both a community and an individual application given his focus on those who left (2:19).  Abiding together strengthened the bonds of fellowship in community.  They all held  to common faith and teaching.

For these reasons, John highlighted that these false brethren and teaches left because, as he declared,

“…they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.  But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (2:19).

They were unrighteous, not only denying Christ but also rejecting that they were sinners.  John gave an earlier counter argument to their dim view of sin (1:8-10).  The word “righteousness” carries a sense of both living right and being faithful (1 John 2:29).  Righteousness assumes its opposite of living unrighteously or in the presence of sin.  These false brethren were neither righteous or faithful.

Abiding in God was crucial for corporate fellowship.  Those who adopted a false view of God by denying the Son and the Father placed a dagger in the heart of fellowship.  They stirred up controversial teachings and presented a false God and spurious Jesus.  Abiding fellowship was not possible with such false teachings.

The Anchor of the New Birth

While John stresses personal abiding, that abiding hinged on God’s work in the person for producing a new birth from which life (2:25; 3:14; 5:11-13), righteousness (2:29; 3:7), and love (3:1, 10) emanate.  These three words thread their way through this letter.  They express the life of abiding in God.  That is, the weight of the abiding life begins with and rests with God.  He gives birth, and from birth arises the knowledge of the Father and the Son (2:23-24) with the assurance of eternal life (2:25).  Abiding, then, is a fruit of the new birth.

John introduces the theme of abiding prior to his phrase “born of God.”  This later introduction of the new birth is a conclusive statement that summarizes the nature and source of abiding in God.  Righteousness signifies abiding,

 Believers who act righteously in word and deed proclaim their righteous Lord and show the error of the false teachers” (Peter Toon, “Righteousness” in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Books, 1996), p. 689).

He intersperses the word “born of God” throughout this letter and associates it with righteousness and love.  In doing so, he wants to conclude that the new birth is their source.

His first use of “abide” is in 1 John 2:24,

“Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you” (2:24).

He associates it with his introduction of this letter, “That which was from the beginning” (1:1).  What did they hear from the beginning?  The message about the real presence of Jesus, the Word of life or the eternal life.  Notice how John uses “eternal life” in his introduction of Jesus (1:2) and in this passage (2:25).  Because Jesus is the eternal life, we have assurance of eternal life through Him.

In this introduction, John counters the counterfeit doctrine of an illusion of Jesus or at best a simple man and not God.  At the beginning of this section (2:18-19), John again raises the folly of the false teachers.  They left the community of faith to show that their temporary presence did not reflect abiding in God.  Since they did not believe that Jesus actually came in the flesh, they undercut the foundation for the life of faith.  Abiding needed something of more substance – the new birth.  He concludes this section with the necessity of the new birth,

“If you know that He is righteous, you may be sure, that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him” (2:29).

The new birth is the staying power of faith.  Upon first glance, it seems that the practice of righteous gives way to the new birth.  Nothing could be further from John’s thoughts.  The verb John uses means just the opposite.  John uses the perfect tense to express “born of Him.”  The perfect tense indicates the continuation and present state of a completed past action.  What this means is that this past action was the new birth.  This new birth results in continuing to practice righteousness.  Practice suggests progress and not perfection.  John countered the false teaching of being without sin in the beginning of his letter (1:8-10).  In the same way, abiding has its strength in the new birth God gives to us.

Those who deny Jesus is the Christ and came in the flesh lie and do not know or practice the truth (2:21-23).  Because they rejected Jesus, they left the fellowship of believers (2:19).  They did not know His righteousness, because they did not know Him.  They were antichrist (2:18-22), because they held a different view of Him, one contrary to what the Apostles taught, especially John.  They did not know birth from God but speculated about the divine spark within.  These false teachers focused inward for self- knowledge rather than upward for the knowledge of God found in Christ.  Getting in touch with their spiritual origins and destiny through self-knowledge and escape from intellectual error and ignorance was their spiritual birth in a new spiritual body.

Such a philosophy led to the rejection of the true meaning of righteousness, Christ as its source, and the need for abiding in God.  John refuted these teachers and claimed they sought to deceive (2:26).  He affirmed that those who believed the Son had the anointing, the Holy Spirit, the source of true knowledge.  The Spirit will be with them until the final appearance of Jesus (2:28).  Abiding in Christ gives assurance and confidence when believers see Him.  By stressing Jesus’ physical return (appearance), John jabs at the false spirituality of one’s ultimate destiny in a spiritual divine body.  Abiding in God is a vastly different process than these false teachers taught.  Theirs focused inward in search of enlightenment through self-knowledge.  John taught a focus upward toward the knowledge of God and the practice of God’s righteousness.

The New Birth, Abiding, and Their Expressions

As we see from John, his conclusion really gives the anchor for abiding in God,

“…everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him” (2:29).

That is, righteousness comes to fruition through the new birth.  In discussing this first instance of the new birth, the first thought that comes to his mind is the knowledge of Jesus.  His righteousness stands as the source of the new birth.  We understand God’s righteousness through the revelation of Christ.  The new birth God brings about in us bears witness to Christ’s righteousness, the faithful Son over the house of God, whose house we are as the author of Hebrews claims (Hebrews 3:2).  We would not know righteousness apart from Christ.  We would not know Christ apart from the new birth.  We could not practice righteousness without being born again.  The new birth brings us to its fruit: faith, knowing and practicing righteousness, and love.

These outcomes are impossible within knowing God through the new birth.  We express them in community as we show goodness, faithfulness, and love to one another.  When we do, we express our commitment to build one another up in faith.  The false teachers left, showing their lack of commitment to sound teaching that promoted commitment to loving those in fellowship.  Those whom God gives spiritual birth engage in this practice of righteousness, a practice that strengthens fellowship and those in it.

Evidences for Knowing God

1 John Study Notes“And by this we know we have come to know Him…”  (1 John 2:3)

False teachers during John’s time placed knowledge as a high priority in their philosophical worldview.  Today, knowledge also rates very high in our contemporary world.  In both of these cases, knowledge is superficial with a focus on self-advancement.  In John’s time, knowledge emphasized self, mystery, secrets, and initiations into a special group.  It placed theory and speculation above the truth of God.  Today, knowledge assumes similar qualities.  God takes a back seat to secular philosophy, theory, speculation, and self-knowledge.Dead Sea Scroll

False teachers then and those of today turn knowledge upside down, placing the knowledge of God lower than alleged knowledge of ourselves.  Consequently, a large gap exists between the knowledge of our world (and ourselves in it) and God.  This gap has led to the rejection of God and His relationship with the world.  The speculations of atheism and evolution express this divide.  Both reject God as the source of the world and its moral structures.  Therefore, knowledge according to the world has little if anything to do with God and relating to Him.  For this reason, John writes,

And by this we know we have come to know Him…”  (1 John 2:3)

Knowledge According to False Teachers

John saw through the false teachers’ erroneous view of knowledge and sought to correct it.  His corrections also apply to the present time.  John’s correction of knowledge took a 180-degree turn from the false teachers.  The Gnostic philosophy began with self and self-knowledge.  John said that there is a great divide between the claim of knowledge of false teachers and the knowledge of God.  John turned from the inward (subjective) to God (outward/objective).  He declared the knowledge of God has greater importance.

Gnosticism, on the other hand, focused on experience and the spiritual.  However, the spirit had a very different meaning than the biblical one.  It referred to the deeper level of an individual: the intuitive and unconscious.  It was highly subjective, non-specific, and vague.  It was within this subjective deeper level one connected with the incomprehensible and undefinable God.  Gnostics believed one cannot make the journey toward knowing God until one became an initiate or those spiritually ready to listen to the masters who knew the mysteries or secret traditions.  Knowledge consisted of coming to terms with the divine spark within and the escape from ignorance and intellectual error.  Knowledge is coming to terms with our origins (true spiritual nature) and destiny.  However, we cannot know God and ourselves completely while we dwell in the present material world.  He is inaccessible to us in our present material state.  According to one view of Gnosticism (Valentinian),

“…God is incomprehensible and cannot be known directly.  Therefore he defies accurate description.  He is infinite, without beginning or end and is the ultimate origin of all things. He encompasses all things without being encompassed.  Everything including the world lies within the deity and continues to be part of it.  The Godhead manifests itself through a process of self-unfolding in the subsequent multiplicity of being while maintaining its unity” (“A Brief Summary of Valentinian Theology,” The Gnostic Society Library, http://bit.ly/22jEBk5).

One can see the vagueness of knowledge, because it dwells in the mysterious and in secrecy.

Evidence of True Biblical Knowledge

John says NO to this type of knowledge.  He claims that knowledge is not vague or secret at all.  Rather, God is accessible and knowable while we live in the world.  Knowledge does not consist of an inward journey but faith in specific and clear evidences.  There is no divine spark within.  Knowledge does not begin with the subjective self but it beings with God’s objective revelation and His work in us through the new birth (1 John 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18).

John associates knowledge with several other key truths.  These key truths act as John’s rebuttal toward false teachers.  The table below shows these truths and the assertions they refute:

John’s Key Truths

Claims of False Teachers (Gnostics)

Keeping God’s Commands Seeking the divine inner spark
Love God Self-love; self-awareness; self-knowledge
Abiding in Christ Becoming an initiate into secret knowledge
Truth Intuition and consciousness
Light Enlightenment from inward divine spark
External objective knowledge Internal subjective knowledge
God is accessible and knowable God is inaccessible and unknowable
Knowledge is concrete, specific, and clear Knowledge is vague, non-specific, and secretive

These key truths give evidence of knowledge.  When we think of evidence, we associate it with specific observable data, such as evidence in a court of law or for scientific theory.  We view it as that which supports a claim or argument for events.  For example, the evidence for gravity is the event of dropping a heavy object, and it drops to the ground (unless it is a helium balloon).

Although John does not use evidence in exactly the same way, it is analogous.  The evidence for knowing God is keeping His commandments.  When people see that we live by what God says in the Bible, they say, “That person must know God.  He gives evidence by following God.”  The same holds true with evidence of love, truth, and light.  Enlightenment comes from following the light, which is the nature of God.  When we walk into the light, it shines all around us, and we are walking in it.  That light makes our way clear, and we do not want to go off the path into the darkness.  We know what is true when we follow it.  Truth, light, and love are objective qualities found in God.  Those who keep God’s commandments show they know the truth and that it dwells in them.  Those who love God and others give evidence that they know God’s love:

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

God’s love shines from them.  We do not fall in love.  God’s love is no romantic notion that makes us swoon.  Love is not a feeling we learn, simply words on a Valentine card, ecstasy, an inspiration, or a poem as Plato claimed.  There is no vagueness or mystery about love.  John makes clear about love and brings it out of the realm of some mystery into the light where we can know it.  Since God is love, the new birth grants us knowledge of His love so that we may share it with others (1 John 4:7).

True Knowledge Promotes Growth

After correcting the teaching of false teachers, John turns to its dimensions in the lives of those to whom he writes.  He recognized that those in his audience were at different stages of their Christian lives.  He wanted to address all of them in a way that highlighted what they knew, what was important in their knowledge, and that knowledge leads to spiritual progress.  He also wanted them to understand the primary reason for him writing them: their progress rested on clear knowledge at all stages of their lives.  According to John, knowledge and it practice were inseparable.  It found its source in God’s commandment of loving one’s brother (1 John 2:7-11).  Such love is true enlightenment as opposed to the elusive and mysterious false enlightenment of seeking the divine spark within.  Self-seeking rather than loving another motivated this false enlightenment.  It was an “all about me” philosophy.  John claimed emphatically that love was all about God and others.  It did not begin from within.  Rather, it began with God loving us, showing that love committed oneself to God and others.

Those he wrote were real people at various stages of spiritual growth.  He wanted to address how knowledge of God expressed itself in various stages of their lives.  Within his audience were fathers, young men, and children.  The fathers were those who had known God for a number of years and they had well established faith.  These young men knew the Scriptures well and applied them in becoming strong in faith.  These children had come to know God as their Father and His loving forgiveness.  He wrote to them as one congregation with one message: Knowing and loving God is the highest pursuit for believers for all ages and stages of spiritual maturity.  To both the fathers and children John points to God the Father.  To the young men, he stresses the practice of biblical faith and its results: strength in God’s Word and overcoming “the evil one” (2:13-14).

What do we learn from John’s teaching?  The knowledge of God depends on truth.  This means rejecting false teachers, and embracing and growing in the knowledge of God.  This growth involves focusing on God the Father and the word of God.  A sixteenth theologian wrote the following:

“…no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God…it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating Him to scrutinize himself” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, McNeill Edition, pp. 35, 37).

Copyright (c) 2016 Action Faith Books Press

Keys to Reading 1 John

Today, as in times past, biblical Christians face an onslaught of false teachings from those who claim to teach the Word of God.  There are numerous gospels within mainline denominations and cults.  Many whole denominations have followed the way of the world and adopted beliefs, lifestyles, and behaviors contrary to biblical faith.  They have followed the siren sound of worldly philosophies brought forward from centuries and millenniums before.  For this reason, Christians must keep their ears and eyes open for distinguishing between falsehood and truth.  The Apostle John gives bold warning in his letter of 1 John concerning those who seek to bring their false teachings within churches,

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1, ESV).

An insidious philosophy had taken hold in the time of Jesus and the Apostles brought in from Greek philosophy (Plato) that proposed a dualistic way of viewing existence.  Jews and Christians alike were not immune to its lure.  It espoused philosophical beliefs foreign to Judaism and biblical faith.  This dualism identified a spiritual side and a material side, hence dualism.  The spiritual was perfect and pure while the material was corrupt and evil.  False teaches came into Christian fellowships and disrupted them with this dualism.

Exposing False Teachings

The Apostles John and Paul wrote letters warning their congregations of the deception of this sinister Greek false teaching.  John devoted the entire letter of 1 John tearing down the walls of its deception and exposing its philosophical errors.  He leaves us with some very important keys for alerting us of modern day religious philosophies that operate under the cloak of deceptions.  These keys enable us to gain greater understanding of 1 John.  This letter shows us how John engages in corrective teachings that preserve the gospel’s message.  He brings these corrective teachings to application in our relationship with God and other Christians.  These keys for understanding John’s letter consist of the following:

  1. Knowledge/knowing
  2. Spirit/physical dualism
  3. Light/darkness
  4. Truth/lie
  5. Love/hate
  6. Christ followers/anti-Christ
  7. Jesus the Christ vs. Jesus and the Christ
  8. Righteousness/unrighteousness
  9. Fellowship/separation

This Greek philosophy was the early stages of Gnosticism.  This Gnosticism held to a secret knowledge (Sophia) meant only for the initiates whom its teachers guided into a process of self-knowledge.  This secret knowledge was associated with an inward divine spark that led to one understanding one’s spiritual origins.  Light constituted this divine spark, and darkness was simply intellectual error and not really sin.  John fought back against six major errors Gnosticism brought into the early Church related to this secret knowledge.  All of them related to a subjective way of truth as opposed to objective truth found in Jesus.  They consisted of the following:

  1. False Christ – False teachers denied that Jesus came in the flesh, because to them the material was evil. They denied the Incarnation and Jesus’ physical resurrection.  Jesus was an illusion.  They divided Jesus from Christ.  According to these teachers, this Christ came upon Jesus when John (Jesus’ cousin) baptized Him and left Him when Jesus went to the cross.  The Christ remained a pure Spirit untouched by evil.
  2. False knowledge – Secret knowledge based on self or the subjective rather than true knowledge; that is, knowledge of the one true God (objective) and His Son, Jesus Christ.
  3. False spirituality – These false teachers believed in an ethereal spiritual existence based on secret knowledge that gave them an awareness of their heavenly origins and blissful destiny through an internal (subjective) divine spark. They simply had to be in touch (i.e., get in touch with your inner child) with it to gain true spirituality through secret knowledge.
  4. False light – There exist a divine spark (light) in each of us we must come to understand (secret knowledge). This opposed the true Light (Jesus, objective).
  5. False righteousness – People came into righteousness through self-knowledge and a movement away from material evil. Since evil dwelled in sinful matter, one becomes righteous by attaining a higher consciousness of the spiritual as an initiate, perfection of self-knowledge, and escape from intellectual error and ignorance.  It is not a matter of sin but knowledge and escape from ignorance.
  6. False morality – Self-knowledge informed initiates of their spiritual pure state. The physical body held them in slavery.  Once they come to self-knowledge of their perfect and pure spirituality untouched by the material world, they can then think on a higher plane and ignore the restraint of the material world.  That is, they can live as libertines (amoral), because their spirits are untouched by the material existence.

John’s Counterarguments to False Teachings

John not only wants believers to recognize the false claims from false teachers but also desires us to counter and refute them through acknowledgement, practice, and defense of the truth in our own community of faith.  That is the reason he begins this letter as he does.  Therefore, from the beginning words of his letter to the conclusion John’s defense of the truth about Jesus is of the highest importance because of its consequence on relationships with God and others.  Who and what these first century believers believed influenced the way they lived their lives.  His counterarguments to the six false doctrines of Gnosticism consisted of the following:

JESUS – John stressed that the real Jesus dwelled among humanity in flesh and blood (Incarnate) (1 John 1:1-2.  Jesus was not an illusion but a real person.  No cosmic spiritual “Christ” existed.  Jesus came as Christ (Messiah).  To believe otherwise denied the Incarnation, resurrection, the eternal life, redemption and mediation, and fellowship with the Father, five foundational truths of faith.

KNOWLEDGE – Knowledge was NOT some internal secret self-knowledge, self-actualization (Sophia), or enlightenment through an initiation (subjectivism).  It is not the means of getting in touch with the divine spark (light) within for discovering our spiritual origins and destiny.  Rather, true knowledge is the knowledge of the personal God (objective) with whom we have fellowship and whom Jesus came to reveal (1 John 1:3; 2:3-4, 13; 4:7; 5:20).

SPIRITUALITY – True spirituality is not something we strive to attain through escape from material evil and secret knowledge (subjective) but a result of the new birth from God (objective) leading to faith, obedience, and righteousness (1 John 2:29; 3:9; 5:4).

LIGHT – Light is not some internal divine spark of higher consciousness meant for select initiates through which we attain when we escape ignorance.  It is not some sense of the mysterious destiny of ultimate purity and perfection when we come into complete self-knowledge of pure mind once one escapes the material world.  John declares God is light; it is His very nature where no darkness at all dwells (1 John 1:5) in which He has called us to walk in obedience (1:7) in love of God and fellow believers (1 John 3:1).  There is nothing mysterious about walking in light, because it is summed up in the New Commandment of love toward God and others (1:7; 2:9-10).

RIGHTEOUSNESS – Righteousness is not reaching some higher consciousness and perfection through self-knowledge.  Rather, it is a practice of life resulting from the new birth (1 John 2:29; 3:7, 10).  This righteousness exhibits itself in love for fellow believers and being faithful to God (3:9-10).

MORALITY – Morality is not casting off the restraints of the material world and rising to a higher consciousness.  It is not being in touch with our spirit selves and denying sin as that which is associated with the material world.  Rather, morality is living righteously (faithfully) toward God.

Contemporary Elements of Gnosticism

As we can determine in our reading through 1 John, John’s response is hard hitting and specific against the treacherous and cryptic teachings of the false teachers.  These false teachers are attractive because they cloak their teachings in enigma.  Their teachings are all about the inward and subjective while they ignore objective truth and clarity.  Secrecy, the intellect, escapism from reality, and the higher consciousness are the essence of their philosophy.  The elements of Gnosticism have made their inroads into philosophy, religions, and psychology.

Cults as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientology, and the New Age movement have adopted many of Gnosticism’s beliefs and teachings.  Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe Jesus was God, but rather view Him as a lesser god much like the demiurge of Gnosticism.  It also denies Jesus’ physical resurrection.  Rather, He rose spiritually, a Gnostic belief.  Mormons deify humans and make God human according to one of their prophets who claimed, “As man is now, God once was; as God is now, man may be.”[1]

The New Age movement harbors all sorts of cult and occult beliefs and doctrines.  One of the underpinnings of the New Age movement is Gnosticism’s strands of beliefs.[2]  Both the New Age and Gnosticism holds to mysteries, hidden knowledge, and “enlightened minds.”[3]  It encompasses the psychological philosophy of psychologist Carl Jung and the metaphysics of Theosophy, Scientology, and Christian Scientists.  It encompasses astrology and numerous pagan practices.  It has captured whole denominations, such as the Presbyterian Church USA and its Re-Imagining Conference in 1993 with its symbol of Sophia.  While the denomination rejected the Conference then, it continued to hold to the Sophia symbol as one of worship in its continuing “Voices of Sophia Breakfast” in the denomination’s General Assembly.[4]

Warnings!

Such inroads into mainstream denominations and Christian fellowships should alert us to the dangers of ancient religious philosophies posing as Christian and secretly coming into Christian congregations, disrupting and dividing believers.  We must read John’s letter carefully to become aware of these dangers and guard ourselves against them.  John informs us,

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

Not much in philosophy has changed over the millenniums. The same false teachings continue to rear their ugly heads in different ways.  Beware of them!  Hold tightly to John’s warning, listen closely to similar sounding ideas that resemble Christian theology, search the Scriptures, and ask questions.  Many who come in the name of Christ raise false imitations and counterfeits, which sound like Christian teaching.  They offer things like higher consciousness, the higher life, deeper spirituality, inner enlightenment, secret knowledge, divine spark, entry into mysteries, self-actualization, and inward-focus.  They imitate, impersonate, mimic, and copy biblical faith.  In the end, these false prophets give a foreign Jesus and lead astray into false teachings of demons (1 Timothy 4:1).

[1] (Chapter 5: The Grand Destiny of the Faithful: Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow, 2011, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, http://bit.ly/1kH4fIU).

[2] Phil Johnson, “What’s New with the New Age?  Why Christians Need to Remain on Guard Against the Threats of New Age Spirituality,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, 10:4 (Winter 2006), pp. 76-78.

[3] Ibid, 76.

[4] http://www.pcusa.org/news/2012/7/7/voices-sophia-breakfast-thorson-smith-reflects-bac.