Because We Love the Brethren
1 John 3:14
by Bob Wilkin
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.
One understanding of 1 John, called the tests-of-life position, views the whole book as giving subjective tests by which believers can discern whether they are true or false believers.
One of the verses most often cited to support this understanding is 1 John 3:14. The expression passed from death to life clearly refers to the reception of eternal salvation in its only other use in John's writings John 5:24): "Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life." Those holding to the tests-of-life understanding of 1 John conclude from this that 1 John 3:14 is talking about how a believer can know if he has received eternal salvation or not. To the extent a believer loves other Christians he knows he has eternal life.
When an author such as the apostle John uses the same expression in two different contexts, it is possible that he is using it in the same way in both contexts. However. it is also possible for an author to use the same expression in different ways in different contexts. For example, John sometimes used the Greek word thanatos to refer to physical death (e.g., John 11:4, 13; 12:33, 18:32; 21:19; 1 John 5:16, 17) and sometimes to refer to spiritual death (e.g., John 8:51, 52). Sometimes the same word or words can even be used in a different sense in the same context! For example, in John 11:41 John uses the Greek verb airo in two different senses. John reports that men took away the stone which had closed the tomb of Lazarus and that Jesus lifted up His eyes and prayed.
The question of this article is whether John used the expression passed from death to life in 1 John 3:14 in the same way as he did in John 5:24.
Assurance of Salvation Not in View
That assurance of salvation is not in view is evident for three reasons.
First, unlike John 5:24, the context of 1 John 3:14 is not evangelistic. This strongly suggests that assurance of salvation is not in view.
The apostle John had already asserted that he was writing to genuine Christians. He wouldn't call unbelievers "my brethren" (v 13). Nor would he call them "children of God" (3:2). For that reason any interpretation which suggests that some unbelievers are being addressed in 3:14—which is what the tests-of-life interpretation does—can't stand.
Second, in 5:9-13 John links assurance of salvation with accepting God's testimony concerning Jesus Christ, not with examining one's works. If it is possible to have assurance apart from works as John indicates in 5:9-13, then it is impossible to understand 3:14 as saying that good works are indispensable for assurance—which is what the tests-of-life interpretation does.
Third, assurance of salvation would be impossible if it were based on a believer's love for others. John had already said that no believer has lived or does live a sinless life (cf. 1:8, 10; 3:2). There is no way anyone could be certain that he had eternal life by examining whether he "love[s] the brethren" or not. That is a subjective judgment.
Assurance of Fellowship in View
All of the factors which show that assurance of salvation is not in view in 3:14 show that assurance of fellowship is: (1) Christians are being addressed, (2) There is no conflict with 5:9-13, and (3) Assurance of salvation is not undermined by this understanding.
In addition, a better understanding of the Book of 1 John is the fellowship view. John states the purpose of 1 John in the prologue: "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" (1:3, emphasis added).
The expression passed from death to life can just as easily refer to one's experience as to his position. We might paraphrase 1 John 3:14 in this way: "We know that we have moved in our experience from the realm of death to the realm of life because we love other Christians. Any Christian who doesn't love his fellow believer is still living in the realm of death." In other words, love is an expression of the believer's new life in Christ; hatred is not (cf. Gal 5:13-26; 1 John 1:6-7).
When John says "you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in Him," he is again looking at experience. According to Jesus, hatred is a form of murder (cf. Matt 5:21-26). John is clearly picking up on that point here. Eternal life does not abide experientially in the unloving believer. Jesus said that in order to bear fruit (which requires loving others) His disciples had to abide in Him and He in them (John 15:4-5). He clearly held out the possibility that believers would not always abide in Him, nor He in them.
In 1 John 3:14 John challenges us to live in our experience in a manner consistent with who we are in our position. We have passed positionally from death to life (John 5:24). We are children of God who someday will live sinless lives (1 John 3:2). Loving other Christians is a natural expression of who we are. Hating other Christians is not.
Love is a thermometer of our spiritual health. Christians express the love of God and show that they have passed from death to life in their experience by opening their hearts to brothers and sisters in need (v 17). So, believer, have you passed from death to life today?