By Don and Kim Reiher
How should you interpret 1 John? This article contrasts two options. Your interpretation of 1 John depends on the perceived purpose of the book.
The first interpretation proposes that 1 John provides proofs of true saving faith.
All to whom God gives saving faith will show evidence of such faith. In other words, those who possess true saving faith—and thus eternal life—will pass John’s stated “tests” and can have an assurance of their everlasting life. The “these things” of 1 John 5:13 are tests scattered through the epistle, written so his audience can know if their belief is genuine. This is better known as the “Tests of Life” view of 1 John.
The second interpretation notes that the epistle is written to born-again believers who already have everlasting life. The theme can be found in 1 John 1:3-4,“that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us, and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full” (emphasis added). Characteristics of that fellowship are enumerated in 1 John, along with instruction on how to gain and maintain that fellowship (i.e., by abiding in Christ). The attitudes and activities attributed to believers in 1 John are manifestations of a regenerate person who abides (remains) under the control of the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph 5:18b). Throughout the epistle, fellowship with God is described as “walking in the light.” This is known as the “Tests of Fellowship” view of 1 John.
Let’s contrast the two views using thirteen key passages.
1 John 1:6-7
If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).
Test of Life: The claim to “have fellowship with Him” can be restated as, “If we say that we are saved.” “Walk[ing] in darkness” describes people who “say” or profess they are saved, but who aren’t. “Walk[ing] in the light” is a condition that proves one’s salvation.
Test of Fellowship: “Fellowship” denotes a practice of being in fellowship. To “walk in darkness” is to be out of fellowship; “walk in the light,” to be in fellowship. First John 1:6 does not say that if we walk in darkness, we do not have the truth; rather, it indicates that if we walk in darkness, we do not practice the truth.
1 John 1:9
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
Test of Life: Confessing our sins—leading to cleansing and eternal forgiveness—describes what we do to get saved. “Confess” and “believe,” therefore, are synonyms.
Test of Fellowship: Confessing our sins describes what we do to get back in fellowship, not what we do to get saved. Confessing our sins is a work, so it cannot be equated with belief. In many of the nearly one hundred uses of “believe/faith” in John’s Gospel, everlasting life is promised as a result of merely believing in Jesus for it. There is nothing about eternal life in 1 John 1:9. [Note that Rom 10:9-10 does not teach that confession or “calling upon the name of the Lord” is an additional requirement, beyond faith, needed to be born again.]
1 John 2:3-4
And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments (1 John 2:3-4).
Test of Life: This cannot mean that we need to keep God’s commands perfectly to get saved. But if one desires to keep God’s commands, and is heading in that direction, then that person has reason to believe they are truly saved.
Test of Fellowship: In John 14:15, 21; 15:10, the one who loves Jesus, and abides in His love, will obey His commandments. Keeping His
commands enriches and strengthens our fellowship with Jesus. This is a normal expectation in personal relationships. We normally do—or try to do—what our friends ask of us.
1 John 2:9-11
He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But he who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes (1 John 2:9-11).
Test of Life: If a person hates (and continues to hate) his brother, this confirms that they are in darkness, that is, they are not truly saved.
Test of Fellowship: This passage continues the point found in 1 John 1:6-7. These verses do not speak about whether a person has everlasting life, but about a believer abiding or walking in the light versus walking in darkness. Being in darkness (i.e., being out of fellowship with God), is the same thing as walking in darkness.
1 John 2:15
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him (1 John 2:15).
Test of Life: If a person loves the world, they are giving evidence they are not saved. The phrase, “the love of the Father is not in him,” means that this person is not truly saved.
Test of Fellowship: The phrase, “the love of the Father is not in Him,” refers to that person being out of fellowship. Being out of fellowship is characterized by God’s love not being actively displayed, through us, to others. There is nothing in this context about a world-loving person needing to be saved.
1 John 2:17
And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever (1 John 2:17).
Test of Life: The person who desires to do the will of God, and who is moving in that direction, is truly saved. The phrase, “abides forever,” signifies a person going to heaven.
Test of Fellowship: The preponderance of the uses of the word “abide” in John’s writings do not deal with the issue of receiving everlasting life. Instead, abiding is a command to believers to get to work after they come to saving faith (cf. John 15:7).
1 John 2:18-19
Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many anti-christs have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. 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 they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us (1 John 2:18-19).
Test of Life: Those who depart from the teaching of the Apostles, and/or of the church (i.e., “us”) and who deny that Jesus is the Christ, show they were not genuinely saved and only had spurious faith.
Test of Fellowship: There are two possibilities. First, the departures could refer to revisionists who had pretended to believe Jesus had come in the flesh. They were really unbelievers and later left the group. Second, it could be people who had believed Jesus came in the flesh. However, they were influenced by the revisionists, which caused them to leave the group. In neither case does this test prove whether they were ever saved or not. It does not say they were “never” of us or they could never return to “us.” As of the time of John’s writing they were no longer in good standing with the Apostolic circle or its teaching. One hopes they eventually returned to right standing again.
1 John 2:28
And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming (1 John 2:28).
Test of Life: This view believes in one final judgment for eternal destiny which takes place at Christ’s appearing. “Abide in Him” so you will have confidence that you will go to heaven, instead of being ashamed and going to hell as a result of this final judgment.
Test of Fellowship: There are multiple judgments in Scripture. This refers to the Bema judgment. Abide in Him so you will be confident at the Bema Seat of Christ (the judgment for believers regarding rewards; the Bema does not determine who gets into the kingdom). Believers who do not abide in Him now will experience profound regret and shame at this particular judgment.
1 John 2:29
If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him (1 John 2:29).
Test of Life: Doing righteousness gives reason to believe that you are truly saved.
Test of Fellowship: Doing righteousness is an outward manifestation of the “born-again” part of believers. It only occurs while walking in the light, meaning, while we are in fellowship with God. Otherwise, how much righteousness would be necessary to “prove” we are truly saved?
1 John 3:6-9
Whoever abides in Him does not sin. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him. Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God (1 John 3:6-9).
Test of Life: This view does not claim that believers will be sinless in this life, but rather that if your sins are bad and numerous enough—and you sin too long—then you have reason to believe you are not truly saved. [The NIV, ESV and NLT add words to the text to convey the sense of “habitual sin.”]
Test of Fellowship: The NKJV is correct—there is no need to add “continuing to” or “practicing” to the Greek verb, “sin.” Born-again believers, John’s audience here, have already received salvation and eternal life. The working out of eternal life—in their lives on earth—is only possible while they are abiding in Christ. An out-of-fellowship believer is walking in the darkness and needs to get back in fellowship.
1 John 3:14-15
We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him (1 John 3:14-15. NIV removes “abiding” from v 15).
Test of Life: The phrase “does not have eternal life abiding in him,” means that you are not saved. The NIV’s rendering, “no murderer has eternal life in him” is preferred. If a person who claims to be a believer has no desire to love his brother, and is not moving in that direction, then they have reason to believe they are not truly saved.
Test of Fellowship: Born-again believers, John’s audience here, have already received salvation and eternal life, so they cannot be seeking to “have eternal life abiding in [themselves],” i.e., salvation. The working out of eternal life—in their lives on earth—is only possible while they are in fellowship. An out-of-fellowship believer is walking in the darkness and needs to get back in fellowship.
1 John 4:7-8
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love (1 John 4:7-8).
Test of Life: The contrasting phrases, “knows God” and “does not know God,” are references to the saved and the unsaved. If you do not desire to love other believers and are not moving in that direction, then you have reason to believe you are not truly saved.
Test of Fellowship: The word “know” can also refer to a deeper, more intimate knowledge gained through time, by growth in knowledge of a person. A new believer cannot have this kind of knowledge because it takes time. The text does not say you are not born of God; it says you do not know God. See v 11 (“ought to love”) and v 21 (“should live”). These verses do not say you won’t experience love and life. But if you don’t love fellow believers, your Christian experience lacks the enjoyment of God’s love.
1 John 5:1
Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves Him who begot also loves him who is begotten of Him (1 John 5:1).
This actually is a test of whether or not a person is born again! When one believes that Jesus is the “Christ,” in the Johannine sense of the term, at that moment, they are truly born again.
After sharing with Lazarus’ sister the implications of His being “the resurrection and the life,” Jesus asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” (John 11:26b). Beyond an acknowledgement that Jesus is the Christ (John 11:27), Martha’s response was a statement of her faith/belief that He is the grantor and guarantor of everlasting life (John 11:25-26).
John 20:31b admonishes, “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. And that by believing, you may have life in His name.” Note the shared themes in John (11:25-27; 20:31) and 1 John (5:1, 11-13).
These passages reveal that believing Jesus is the Christ is a command to have faith in His promise and ability to give everlasting life, thereby obtaining that life.
Donald Reiher received his MDiv from Capitol Bible Seminary and his ThM from Western Conservative Baptist Seminary. Don and Kim have been involved in evangelism and discipleship with their family, church, and local community in Pennsylvania.