by Zane Hodges, originally published in the July, 1990 edition of Grace in Focus
In the June 1990 GES newsletter we considered 1 John 2:4 and the issue of knowing Christ at the level of personal fellowship with Him. We saw that the verse conditions such experiential knowledge on the Christian’s obedience to God’s commands.
But we did not consider the closing expression of 1 John 2:4. Let us look at the verse again:
He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him [italics mine].
As is the case with the first part of the verse, many have read the closing words as if they indicated the state of being unsaved. But such an understanding of the wolds, “the truth is not in him,” is far from self-evident–no matter how often this view may be repeated. In fact, the claim that these words could only refer to an unregenerate person is nothing less than a petitio principii. That is to say, it begs the question.
A simple examination of the preceding context suggests otherwise. For example, in 1 John 1:8 we read: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (italics added). Here we observe that the expression which we are considering in 2:4b is applied by the inspired writer to us–i.e., to himself and his Christian readers.
Admittedly, great feats of exegetical legerdemain have been attempted in order to show that the first person plural found throughout 1 John 1:6-10 does NOT refer to true Christians. But no unbiased reader could ever reach that conclusion through a straightforward reading of these verses. Indeed, this view is demolished by an attentive reading of the text, beginning at verse 5.
In verse 5 the Apostolic author writes thus:
- This is the message which we [the Apostles of verses 1-4] have heard [see verses 1 & 3] from Him and declare unto you [our readers: Christians according to 2:12-14], that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.
But when the writer continues with, “If WE say,” it is obvious that the we must include at least the Apostles (!) of verse 5. But it is also likely that it includes the you of verse 5 as well–i.e., the Christian readers. After all, the message mentioned in verse 5 is for both the Apostles, who heard it directly from the Lord Himself, and for the Christian readership, to whom it is now declared. Thus the we of verse 6 is most likely to be inclusive of both the speaker/writer and his audience.
It is far-fetched and utterly inadmissible to suggest that the “we” of verse 6 (or, verses 7,8,9,10) refers to neither the Apostles of verse 5 nor their Christian readers! Such an exegesis is not real exegesis at all, but a transparent attempt to evade the obvious meaning of the text.
First John 1:8, therefore, settles the question of whether the concept of the truth not being in someone can be applied to a regenerate person. It can be. It follows from this that the expression cannot be a reference to the absence of the regenerating seed of God’s Word.
What then does John’s expression mean? A little reflection will make the answer obvious. If John is not talking about the absence of a living seed within the individual (and he is not), he must then be talking about the absence of the truth as a dynamic, vital, and fruitful power within the person so described. That is to say, if a person does not keep God’s commandments, this shows that the truth is not dynamically active within him. Wherever the truth is IN a person in a truly vital way, it is always productive. Equally, we may say that if a Christian sinks to the level of supposing himself to be free of sin (1:8), the truth has lost its vital hold on his heart. If the truth is dynamically active within us, such self-deception is not possible. On the contrary, the most godly saints throughout church history have also been those most deeply aware of their own sinfulness.
A good example of this kind of meaning is found later in the epistle in reference to the dynamic operation of love in our lives:
- But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees HIS BROTHER in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in Him? (1 John 3:17)
Clearly we have here a reference to a Christian’s refusal to help another Christian in need. After all it is HIS brother whom he fails to help. It need hardly be said that, if a man is unsaved, a true Christian is not, in fact, HIS brother, since they do not share the same supernatural life imparted by God the Father. Besides, if anyone thinks that no true Christian would ever fail to help another Christian in need, he is not living in the real world!
John’s point is plain and powerful. When I shut up my compassion from a fellow Christian in need–when I fail to help him–this proves conclusively that God’s love is not “at home” in me–that is, it does not “abide” in me as an active and dynamic power. If it did, I would help my brother.
In the same way, the truth is either in me as a Christian or it is not. If it is, then I will be engaged in active obedience to God’s commands. If it is not, I am sadly out of touch with the transforming power of the truth of God.
Thus it is altogether appropriate for each of us as born-again believers to ask ourselves: “Is the truth really in me? Is it working dynamically in my heart and life?” On the answer to questions like these depends the reality of our communion with our living Lord.