(PART SIX OF A SIX-PART SERIES)
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, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:18–21)
John’s letter about assurance can be likened to a musical symphony. An overture (1:1-4) is followed by three movements worked around the themes of faith, love, and obedience, leading to a crescendo of assertions and closed by a coda of stately authority. We have reached the grand finale!
The truths John asserts belong to the bone structure of the faith, but they also touch the vitals of a believer’s assurance. They provide both shape and spirit for authentic Christianity. No one who rejects them can rightly lay claim to eternal life. They echo the grand opening of the letter but in reverse order. Having begun with the eternal one entering time, physically and redemptively, John comes full circle by referring to regenerated humans being incorporated through Jesus into life eternal. Can there be a better way to conclude a tract designed to assure than with such ringing and rising assertions as these verses contain? Surely not!
Each assertion opens with “we know,” and so being sure of one’s own salvation is inseparably bound up with a knowledge every Christian should possess. It is not a matter of ifs and buts being overcome now and then by fits and starts. It is a settled, peaceful, thankful, and joyful conviction. But the plural pronoun “we” points out that it also has a corporate dimension. It is catholic in the true sense of that word, being common to the apostle(s) and “ordinary” believers (see Rom. 8:38–39)—and by extension, to Christians in every age and place. Consideration will now be given to each assertion in turn.
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.
This is about the individual Christian. It says that every believer does “not keep on sinning” and is kept safe. That is something remarkable given the frail condition of the human race and the evil one being abroad and active. But what can John mean by this declaration about not sinning? Let us recall what he has said on the matter of sin. In the earliest section of his letter, he makes absolutely clear that: (1) Christians should neither regard themselves as having “no sin” (see 1:8), nor (2) as having “not sinned” (see 1:10), nor (3) as being permitted to commit a sin (see 2:1). All these were positions taken by those who deviated from apostolic teaching. By contrast, Christians are not to sin as often or as much as they once did. And what is more is that they “do not keep on sinning”—not one of them—and in addition, they are kept safe from the evil one.
Two facts are presented in this verse by way of explanation of how and why this is so. Neither of them is due to human effort or merit, but entirely to God’s grace. The first is that something has been done in them—namely, they have been “born of God.” The second is that something continues to be done for them by another “who” himself “was born of God”—namely, Jesus Christ. Both uses of the verb translated “born” are in the passive voice, God being the agent of the Christian’s regeneration and his Son’s incarnation. But their tenses are different, and that is significant. While both have in view something past and done, the one that refers to regeneration includes the ongoing effects of that action as well, and these are in keeping with the new birth that has taken place. John can therefore write, “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. . . . No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (3:6, 9). The key to all these negations lies in the fact that the verb “to sin” is in the present tense, designating a course of life as a result of a change of character. This means that the newly reborn is delivered from the pervasive dominion of sin and has a new nature that inclines to righteousness in opposition to remaining sinfulness. The Christian is not in a moral “no-man’s land.” There is therefore a real posse non peccare for every Christian, but it refers to occasions when temptation is resisted and a sin is not committed. It is not a state of sinless perfection—not for a moment.
But this is not enough to ensure the Christian’s safety, because there is an evil one who seeks to recover his “lost goods” (Mark 3:27). For this, he uses temptations to sin. These can be sharp and long, for his varied devices are framed according to his knowledge of individual human weaknesses and described as “fiery darts” (Eph. 6:16; James 1:14–15). But the Son of God intercedes and prevents that evil predator from reclaiming the child of God. The verb John uses here, translated “touch,” is used by him in only one other place in the whole of his writings. It is when the risen Lord tells Mary Magdalene, “Do not cling to me” (John 20:17). Watching over his own—and well aware of their frailties and all the plans and ploys of the evil one—Jesus preserves them by his sovereign care and intercession, even when they stumble and fall. The well-known case of Peter is most relevant at this point when Jesus said to him,
“Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to have you that he might sift you as wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith might not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31–32)
We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
This declaration and the one that follows are about Christians as a company. The conflict with the evil one that has just been depicted in individual terms is now broadened to include everyone, in terms of either a relationship to God or to the evil one. All Christians belong to God and resemble him; all in the world belong to and resemble the evil one (John 8:44). This disjunction in humanity began in Eden with the creation of enmity between “the serpent and the woman and between [your] seed and her seed” (Gen. 3:15), and was climaxed in the bruising of the Son’s humanity and his crushing of Satan’s head (3:8). It ran throughout the Old Testament era (see Job and Zech. 3:1) and continues in the war between Satan and “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 12:17).
Christians are “of” or “from” God in the sense that their new life comes from him with all its holy thoughts and desires, words, and deeds. The rest of humanity is unaware of being prompted by the evil one to a worldview and lifestyle in direct antithesis to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ (see Eph. 2:1-3; 4:17-19).
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
In this verse, John makes use of two verbs for knowing (as we saw in part four of this study); and while they could be just stylistic variants, a different shade of meaning is appropriate here because John is referring to knowledge of a fact and of a person. He writes “we know that” and “we know him.” Some distinction of meaning is therefore called for, which has been summed up well by G. G. Findlay in Fellowship in the Life Eternal: “not the ascertainment of a definite fact but the apprehension of an infinite reality” (footnote 427).
The Son of God has come in the flesh (4:2) in order that he might “come by the water” and “by the blood” (5:6)—that is, he became incarnate to become the redeemer. His baptism signalled his identification with sinners, though he had no sin for which to repent; his crucifixion actualized it as a climax of obedience to his Father as he bore their guilt and the wrath of God that was their due. Understanding that “great mystery of godliness” unites a person to the real God through union with his Son, and that is eternal life.
The Coda: Verse 21
Little children, keep yourselves from idols.
What does John mean by “idols”? His description of what is in the world in terms of various lusts (2:15–17) could have a bearing on what he says here, because the nature of coveting is idolatrous. But it is almost impossible to think it was all that was in his mind, because the word idol is so specific in meaning. In addition, John was Jewish and therefore heir to all the Old Testament said on the subject (see Exod. 20:3–4, 22–23); and what is more, he lived in Ephesus where the Temple of Artemis stood (see Acts 19:23–27). “Idols” therefore include any kind of image of the true God, and certainly every image of a false one falls under this ban. But John was also a Christian, and so all other ideas of God but the One who sent his Son to save and the Spirit to regenerate are included as well (see 1 Cor. 8:4-6).
This Epistle implies that believers in Jesus Christ had lost assurance of their salvation, or had been more than badly shaken in confidence about it. Hopefully, it had been recovered through what and how John wrote. It certainly should have had been. But it is not self-perpetuating without continued faithful and loving obedience. It will not last if the living God is not adhered to, because it is a by-product of his presence in the soul. This is what is underlined in this closing injunction. Expressing spiritual affection, the apostle reminds his readers of their relationship to the Triune God as well as to himself. Although the Spirit is not specifically mentioned in these verses, he is the author of the rebirth that makes people “children of God.” As such, they are to keep away from idols that feed on fear and doubt and sap strength. Are images of Buddha in people’s homes ever just forms of art? Or crosses in our churches? And what about crucifixes? Is it not time to curb the possibilities of technology via visual displays on a screen in our churches? Another apostle wrote, “My beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:14). All idols and ideas that challenge the exclusiveness and finality of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ as the one and only way to eternal life are to be rejected. Instead, John’s golden rule for maintaining assurance is to follow the Spirit’s anointing:
Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise he made to us—eternal life. (1 John 2:24–27)
Hywel R. Jones is professor emeritus of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.