Why You Can Love 1 John without Being a Heretic

Works, Grace, and Gnosticism


My favorite New Testament book is 1 John. I spent one whole semester at college doing nothing but reading that book over and over (all five chapters of it...very impressive, I know!). But while talking with a friend at said college, I brought up my appreciation for the book in passing, and his response surprised me.

"You like that book? Why? I hate First John, it drives me crazy!"

I paused. Trying not to show my confusion, I asked him why.

He proceeded to tell me of passages that didn't make sense and seemed anti-gospel as the gospel is expressed elsewhere in the Bible. There were a number of sections throughout the book that bothered him, but the biggest issue was in 1 John 1:6-7 and 9. It reads:
If we say we have fellowship with [God] while we 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 his Son cleanses us from all sin...If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (ESV)
I will freely admit that this, and a few other passages in 1 John, sound dangerously similar to a works-based salvation as opposed to our dearly held Sola Gratia. How can verses like these coexist with Paul's comment in Romans 9:16 that "it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy"?

Although rarely heard of today, the answer is surprisingly simple: John was writing to a church highly influenced by Gnosticism.

Gnosticism is a system of thought that was well known throughout the Roman Empire of the first century. Gnostics believed that spirit is good and pure while matter, including our bodies, is evil and of no importance. When combined with Christian teaching of salvation unto eternal life, the common result was that people would argue for doing whatever you wanted to or with your body, since the material part of you didn't matter anyway. After all, it was your spirit or soul which God had saved, so why worry about all manner of sexual immorality, drunkenness, or other physically sinful/harmful acts?

In response to this Gnostic syncretism, John wrote to emphasize the way our belief in and relationship with Jesus as our savior must influence our physical lives as well as our spiritual lives. When John wrote, there was a reason he used so many physical examples — "walking in darkness / light," "fellowship with God / one another," the "blood of Christ" apparently physically "cleansing" us — all of these are pointed references to the active, physical reality in which we live out our salvation as embodied beings.

With that historical caveat in place, I find 1 John to be one of the most beautiful explanations of our salvation and God's love in the Bible. The imagery of "walking in the light" and God as the definition of love in chapter 4 are encouraging ideas in a world that can so often oppress us with its darkness. I highly recommend revisiting this book and remembering the beauty of the God we serve.

TagsBiblical-Salvation  |  Biblical-Truth  |  History-Apologetics

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Published 6-18-14