Proof of Life
The first Letter of John, filed among the ‘General Letters’ section near the end of the New Testament is an enigmatic, but hugely significant part of the Bible. At first glance its message seems very straightforward; but on closer inspection (as I discovered recently to my chagrin when I started preachng 1John) it is incredibly complex. That is not to say we should not study it; but it should make us aware – especially if we are trying to preach/teach it – there is more to it than perhaps we bargained for.
By John’s own assertion, the biggest idea he is addressing is how a person can know they have ‘eternal life’ (5.13). It ties in with his stated reason for writing the Gospel that bears his name: ‘…these [things] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name’ (Jn 20.31). He wrote the Gospel to tell people how to find this ‘life-of-the-world-to-come’ and he writes his first letter so they can be sure it is the genuine ‘life-of-the-world-to-come’ they have found.
The verses leading up to this statement help to bring it into focus in terms of where this certainty is located. They do so, not primarily from the perspective of personal assurance – ‘Have I really believed?’ – but in the sense of ‘What kind of gospel have I believed?’ The two questions are not unrelated, but it is the latter which was the more pressing for the churches to which this circular letter was sent.
John was addressing a crisis situation that had arisen among churches under his oversight, probably in and around Ephesus. False teachers – whom he describes as ‘antichrists’ (2.18-19) – had caused a major division within these congregations and caused significant turmoil and confusion. Although John does not explicitly tell us all the details of their teaching, he does give enough clues – as many commentators recognize – to suggest it was an early form of Gnosticism. It set up a false dichotomy between spirit and flesh that in turn led to a distorted view of morality. Since they regarded the spirit as the only thing that mattered, whatever was done ‘in the flesh’ – regardless how wicked – was of no consequence.
However, the most insidious element in this new teaching was its denial of the incarnation as taught by the apostles. That is, they did not regard Jesus as ‘the Son of God come in the flesh’. Instead they saw him as having either been ‘adopted’ in some sense as ‘Son of God’ temporarily (Adoptionism), or else as only seeming to have taken on a human nature, but one that was not real (Docetism). The heart of the apostolic gospel was being challenged and the church plunged into uncertainty and confusion over the nature of the ‘eternal life’ promised in it. So John sets out to clarify what that life is and how a person can be sure they have received it.
The apostle’s argument reaches its climax at the beginning of the fifth chapter where he addresses the ‘proof of life’ question. Just as doctors speak about the ‘vital signs’ that demonstrate a person is alive and not dead – pulse, temperature, heart rate and blood pressure – so John points to the vital signs of its spiritual equivalent. He introduces them in a way that shows their interconnectedness (5.1-2), showing that no one strand of proof in itself is sufficient to demonstrate this really is life from above, but only insofar as it exists in relation to two others.
In that sense John is pointing not just to ‘vital signs’ of new life, but also to what scientists in a different context describe as the ‘irreducible complexity’ of life. Life exists, not when its component parts happen to be in the same place, but when they coexist in the same organism. So with the spiritual life that is constituted through regeneration. John argues that the coexistence of faith, love and obedience in a person’s life individually and the shared life of the church to which they belong are both proof of life and confirmation of the gospel they have believed.
John builds an empirical argument to make his case. He argues for a faith that affirms ‘Jesus is the Christ’. This faith expresses itself in love for God and for his people and does so consciously as an act of obedience to God’s commands (5.1-2). Indeed, echoing the sum of the moral law as being love for God and for our fellow-human beings, he points to obedience as the supreme expression of love and argues (contra the false teachers) that God’s commands are anything but onerous (5.3). This leads him – again in direct response to the distorted Christology of the false teachers – to state unequivocally that faith in Jesus as the Son of God incarnate is the only means by which we can secure victory over the world (5.4-5).
He then presses home his argument concerning the apostolic Christ with an appeal to the threefold witness of ‘the water’, ‘the blood’ and ‘the Spirit’ (5.6-12). Appealing to the Old Testament requirement for two or three witnesses to validate a point in law (Dt 19.15), he makes it clear that the Holy Spirit has provided that validation in regard to the incarnate deity of Jesus Christ through the testimony given at Jesus’ baptism (Mt 3.16-17) and in the saving efficacy of his death – affirmed by his resurrection (Ro 1.4). So, when someone trusts in Jesus as the ‘Son of God’, the Holy Spirit affirms their faith is affirmed within them (5.9-10).
John leaves his readers in no doubt as to the vital significance of the Spirit’s testimony to this core gospel truth. ‘And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life’ (5.11-12). Assurance of salvation can never be divorced from the assured testimony of the apostolic gospel. The vital signs of spiritual life that is real go far beyond how we may feel about our faith to the orthodoxy of the Christ in whom we place our trust.