July 4: 1 John 5:20

1 John 5:20

As discussed in the previous note, a key message in the closing statements of 1 John (in vv. 18-20) is that believers in Christ are, and can remain, free from sin. This freedom is rooted in the very identity of believers—true believers—as the offspring (te/kna) of God. This has been the theme of these notes throughout: believers as the children of God. As we have seen, in addition to the use of the keyword te/knon (“offspring,” i.e., “child”, plur. te/kna), the Johannine writings make use of the verb genna/w (“come to be [born]”) as an idiom with the expression e)k tou= qeou= (“out of God”). This birth language and imagery is basic to the author’s way of describing the true believer in Christ—such believers “have come to be (born) of God”.

The language stems from Johannine tradition—the theological idiom and mode of expression—but the author of 1 John has made particular use of it. Most commonly, a substantive (perfect) participle, with the definite article, is used: “the (one) having come to be (born)” (o( gegennhme/no$). Often it is preceded by the comprehensive adjective pa=$ (“all, every”)—pa=$ o( gegennhme/no$ e)k tou= qeou= (“every[one] having come to be [born] of God”). Through this Divine birth, which comes about as the result of trust in Jesus as the Son of God, the believer shares the Divine attributes and characteristics; being united with the Son, believers (now fellow children of God) share the very attributes which the Son possesses—including sinlessness, and the power to be free of sin (cf. 3:5-6, 8-9).

The point is emphasized again (in 5:18) at the close of the author’s work. Throughout 1 John, this issue of the relation of the believer to sin has been an integral part of the overall message and rhetorical thrust of the treatise. As we have discussed, the central theme of 1 John is the contrast between true and false believers. The author addresses his audience as though they are true believers, while the “antichrist” opponents are regarded as false believers. Throughout, the author exhorts his readers/hearers to reject the false teachings (and example) of the opponents; they are to remain in the truth, remaining faithful to the great duty (e)ntolh/) that is required of all believers (3:23, etc).

This, ultimately, the author’s primary theological (and rhetorical) point. Believers, born of God, are united with the Son—they/we are “in the Son”. Through the Son, we are also united with the Father; the union with Father and Son both, being realized through the presence of the Spirit (3:24; 4:13, and see the Paraclete-sayings in the Gospel). However, it is necessary that believers remain in the Son, and thus remain in this binding union with God. This aspect of remaining/abiding, utilizing the key verb me/nw, has been emphasized repeatedly by the author, just as it is in the Gospel (see especially the Vine-illustration section, 15:1-16). There are two sides to the dynamic of remaining; the Son remains in the believer, through the Spirit, but the believer must also remain in the Son. One can only remain in the Son by remaining in the truth of his word (primarily, the message regarding Jesus’ identity as the Son of God) and in his love.

In the author’s view, the false believers (viz., the opponents) have departed from the truth, and so, by departing from the Community of true believers, have shown themselves to be false believers. By rejecting the opponents, the Johannine Christians will remain faithful to the e)ntolh/ and will keep free of the great sin (viz., violation of the two-fold e)ntolh/). Yet, the consequences of remaining in the Son are even more comprehensive: for it enables the believer to remain free of all sin. The very presence and power of God, abiding in us (as His offspring), protects us from the sin and evil of the world (vv. 18b-19). This is how I understand the second clause of verse 18 (see the prior discussion on 18b). However, it is also possible to read this clause as referring to the believer guarding himself/herself from sin and evil. This, indeed, is also part of the author’s message (see the wording in 3:3), which he alludes to again in his final words (v. 21).

In closing, I wish to discuss briefly the structure of verse 20. This third of the triad of statements (in vv. 18-20) has been carefully constructed by the author, combining an essential Johannine confessional statement with a summary of Johannine theology, as applied by the author for the purposes of his writing. This will be done in the continuation of this note.