I, II, III John: Apostasy Arguments

By Larry Ray Hafley

John’s letters were not written to prove, predict, or prophesy the possibility of apostasy. They were written that the joy of those in fellowship with God “may be full” (1 Jn. 1:4). Further, “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God” (1 Jn. 5:13). These stated purposes assert and assure the salvation and security of them that “walk in the light” (1 Jn. 1:7; cf. 2 Jn. 4, 6, 9-11; 3 Jn. 4, 11). The eternal security of one who abides in Christ and “doeth righteousness” is not doubted or denied; it is declared and displayed (1 Jn. 2:28, 29; 3:6-10, 24). Let that not be forgotten as we are forced to leave this point and grapple with the errors of men.

Advocates of the impossibility of apostasy (once saved, always saved; once in grace, always in grace) frequently and fervently turn to John’s triplets to forge their views. It is these arguments that we shall review.

1 John 2:1, 2

The Text: “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”

From this passage it is argued that Christ is the propitiation for all our sins past, present, and future. So, when the child of God sins, he is in no danger because Christ’s atonement has taken care of his sins. Once you are saved, you need not fear the wages of sin. Christ is your propitiation; hence, you cannot be condemned by sin.

There is a germ, an element of truth in that argument. Christ is indeed our propitiation. But note that He is “also” the propitiation “for the sins of the whole world.” Is the whole world thereby saved? No, because there is a great difference between God’s provision and man’s acceptance. The Bible does not say that God will do something to atone for your sins if you will obey the gospel. It says God has made the reconciliation possible. He has accomplished what the lost need. Now, it is up to man to accept. We have access by faith into this grace (Rom. 5:2).

The “whole world” in sin is not unconditionally saved by Christ’s propitiation and reconciliation. Nor is the child of God unconditionally forgiven by Christ’s provision and propitiation. If, however, one argues that the saved are automatically forgiven on the basis of Christ’s death, then he must argue the same thing for the alien sinner because the text says, “not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” To so reason will prove universal, unconditional salvation. That is obviously false. Therefore, the reasoning is fallacious.

1 John 2:19

The Text: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.”

From this passage Calvinists argue that if a person who was allegedly saved turns back to the devil he never was truly saved. He was a professor, not a possessor of eternal life, or so they contend.

John Connally, a Texas politician, was a member of the Democratic party, a protege’ of President Lyndon Johnson. In the 1970’s, he switched to the Republican Party. He was no longer of the Democratic Party’s persuasion, so he left. That does not mean that he never had been a Democrat. He lost his faith in the principles and philosophy of the Democratic Party. If he had not, he “would no doubt have continued” with the Democratic Party. His leaving, though, did not prove that he had not been a Democrat.

“I will therefore put you in remembrance, though ye once knew this, how that the Lord, having saved the people out of Egypt, afterward destroyed them that believed not” (Jude 5). Does that prove they were never truly saved out of Egypt? Some rebelled and revolted against Moses, desiring to return to Egypt (Num. 14:4). Suppose they had returned. Would that have meant they were not “saved out of Egypt” in the first place?

Turn it around. Children of the devil become children of God.. The lost are found and saved. Does that indicate they were never lost to begin with?

Immediately after 1 John 2:19, John warns the saved “concerning them that seduce you” (vv. 24-28). In effect, he is saying, “Remain, abide in Him; do not be like the ones mentioned in verse 19.” They did not “continue,” or “remain,” or “abide in Him.” “Do not let that happen to you,” John warns. According to the doctrine of the impossibility of apostasy, John should have said, “If you do not remain, continue and abide, then you are not saved.” John did not say that, but he should have and would have if he had taught what Calvinists argue from verse 19.

1 John 3:6, 9

The Texts: “Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him.” “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”

Brother Guy N. Woods, in his commentary on Peter, John, and Jude, answers the contention of the advocates of the impossibility of apostasy. Note his timely remarks.

“Whosoever keeps on abiding in him sinneth not.” Here, too, the apostle gives utterance to an idea which is often expressed in one way or another in his Epistles. (1 John 2:24; 3:9; 5:18; 3 John 11). (1) Whosoever abides in him sins not; (2) whosoever is begotten of God does not sin; (3) he that does evil has not seen God. These propositions are developed in much detail throughout the first Epistle; and the ideas which they contain were favorite ones with John. The apostle did not intend to affirm that one who abides in Christ is not capable of committing a single act of sin; such a concept would be in conflict with his affirmation of the universal prevalence of sin, even among the saints (1 John 1:8); moreover, the designation of the means by which to overcome sin through the intercession of Christ (1 John 2:1), implies its possibility. Thus to teach it is possible or even probable that one will attain to a life of sinlessness here, is in conflict with his own teaching in the instances cited, and must not be attributed to him here ….

In the passage under consideration, the verb sinneth not is the translation of ouch harnartanei, third person singular, of the present indicative active, of hamartano. Inasmuch as the chief characteristic of the Greek present tense is to indicate action in progress contemporary with the time of speaking, whereas the English verb does not distinguish between such action in progress, and a single act occurring, the significance of the verb sinneth, as used by the apostle, does not fully appear in the translation. It can be brought to the attention of the English reader only by an expanded translation thus: “Whosoever continues to abide in him does not keep on sinning” (i.e., habitually as he did before his conversion). Had the apostle intended to convey the idea that one who abides in Christ is incapable of committing a single act of sin, he would have utilized the aorist tense. In such a case, however, he would have been in conflict with his own previous statements which assert the fact of sin in the lives of Christians, and the means provided for their removal. The meaning of the verse is, He who has taken up his abode in Christ, and settled down to a permanent existence in him, has terminated his former manner of life and has ceased the practices then characteristic of him. He no longer engages in habitual and persistent sin. That he has broken the hold of sin in his life, and no longer regularly yields to evil impulses as a manner of life, however, is far from asserting that there are never occasional lapses into sin through weakness or ignorance. (Cf. 1 Cor. 9:27; Phil. 3:12.) For these inadvertent lapses, a plan has been provided. (1 John 2:1)

(Woods comments on 3:9) Why is it thought that the phrase “he cannot sin” may not be correctly interpreted to mean that it is impossible for a child of God to commit a single act of sin? “And he cannot sin” is translated from the phrase kai ou dunatai hamartanein. Hamartarein is a present active infinitive, the force of which is, “he cannot continue to live a life of sin” (as before) . . . . Why, then, cannot one thus begotten persist in sin? (1) The seed (the word of God), which forbids it, is in him, controls his life, and directs his energies. (2) A life of sin is inconsistent with the spiritual parentage of the one thus begotten. But does this mean that it is never possible for one possessed of this nature to sin? No . . . . When, in such instances, sin occurs, it is a momentary lapse; it is due to an imperfect holding of the word in the heart; it is recognized as contrary to the higher impulses of the person thus sinning, and it is confessed and put aside with shame” (Guy N. Woods, Peter John Jude, pp. 263-265, 272).

1 John 5:1

The Text: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.”

With this Scripture cited, Calvinists will ask, “Can one be unborn?” You are your Father’s child. Nothing can change that fact. No matter what you do, you will always be the child of your parents. Therefore, when one is born of God, he is God’s child. Nothing can destroy that fact, or so the argument says. In his excellent book, Life In The Son (pp. 89-91), Robert Shank deals with this argument.

But consider three essential differences between physical birth and spiritual birth:

1. Physical birth effects the inception of the life of the subject in toto, whereas spiritual birth involves only a transition from one mode of life to another . . . .

2. In physical birth, the subject has no prior knowledge and gives no consent, whereas in spiritual birth, the subject must have a prior knowledge of the Gospel and must give consent . . . .

3. In physical birth, the individual receives a life independent of his parents. They may die, but he lives on. But in spiritual birth, the subject receives no independent life. He becomes a partaker of the life and nature of Him who begets – a participant, by faith, in the eternal life of God in Christ “who is our life.”

Furthermore, a father may deny and disinherit his children and thereby cut them off from all blessings and inheritance. God will “disinherit” and “deny” those children of his who are unfaithful and who deny him (Num. 14:12; Matt. 25:1, 12; 2 Tim. 2:12).

But Calvinists tell us that we are born children of the devil, totally depraved. We ask, then, can one be “unborn”? Does he ever cease to be his father’s child? Obviously, one ceases to be a child of the devil when he is saved. He is born again. So, one can become a child of the devil; he can, in a sense, be “unborn.”

1 John 5:4

The Text: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.”

If you are begotten of God you will overcome the world; the world cannot overcome you; therefore, you cannot be lost once you are born of God. That is the basic argument from this passage. However, what is it that overcomes the world? “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” Our faith overcomes the world. But one’s faith may be swerved away from (1 Tim. 1:5, 6), shipwrecked (1 Tim. 1:19), overthrown (2 Tim. 2:18), and it may fail (Lk. 22:32). What then?

1 John 5:18

The Text: “We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himelf, and that wicked one toucheth him not.”

See the comments on 1 Jn. 3:6, 9. One that is born of God does not permit sin to reign and rule in his body (Rom. 6:12). He does not live a life of sin, a life devoted and dedicated to sin. That is the thought of the verse. How is this obtained and maintained? The begotten one “keepeth himself.” We are to keep ourselves in the love of God (Jude 21). We are to hear the word of God and keep it (Lk. 11:28). But what if one ceases to keep himself? Will he be saved anyway? No (Jn. 8:51; 1 Jn. 2:3-5).


“Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward” (2 Jn. 8). “Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God” (3 Jn. 11).


  1. Why did John write these letters?
  2. Please explain the doctrine of the impossibility of apostasy?
  3. Are we automatically forgiven of sin simply because Christ died for us? If not, what must the child of God do when he sins? Cite references.
  4. See the example concerning John Connally under the heading of 1 John 2:19. Construct a parallel example. What is the importance of the word “continued” in 1 Jn. 2:19?
  5. Can a child of God commit sin, a single act of sin? See 1 Jn. 1:8-10.
  6. What is the “seed” of 1 Jn. 3:9?
  7. What will the Lord do to those who deny Him and who are unfaithful to Him? See the references given under the heading of 1 Jn. 5:1 and also Jn. 15:6 and Rev. 3:16.
  8. What is it that overcomes the world?
  9. What are some things that may happen to our faith?
  10. What does 2 Jn. 8 imply that we might do?

Guardian of Truth XXV: 16, pp. 250-252
April 16, 1981