By Hoyt H. Houchen
Faith is the need of the hour. From the pen of John we read, “For whatsoever is begotten of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that hath overcome the world, even our faith” (1 Jn. 5:4). In a world of doubt and unbelief, a world of atheism, infidelity, and agnosticism, the emphasis upon faith is most timely. We need faith in ourselves, in our country, in our fellow man, but more important and basic to everything, is the need for our faith in God. This indeed is the victory of the Christian as he strives to please God in a society where sin is rampant.
That faith is essential to salvation, no Bible believer denies. Many are the passages in the New Testament which teach that we are saved by faith (Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:16, 18, 36; Acts 16:31; Rom. 5:1; Heb. 11:6 etc.). The issue that divides us in the religious world is not whether we are saved by faith, but rather, “What is faith and at what point is one saved by faith?” We can well ask, “By what kind of faith is the believer saved?” This the real issue.
In their efforts to prove their doctrine of “faith only” the idea that one is saved the moment he believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (and without any further acts of obedience), denominationalists turn to passages in the New Testament which only mention faith. Their conclusion is that salvation is by faith only.
This study is confined to a few specific texts in the epistle of First John which are relied upon to prove the doctrine of “faith only.” The first passage in the epistle in which the exercise of faith is mentioned is:
1 John 3:23
“And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he gave us commandment.” This verse teaches faith, but it does not teach “faith only.” It is significant, in the first place, that John is addressing Christians. This faith is to be active in the life of God’s children as it continues to work through love (Gal. 5:6). Faith and practice, two inseparable conditions for becoming a Christian, are also essential after one has become a Christian. The “faith only” adherents fail to recognize faith as a work (Jn. 6:29); it is not man’s work, but the work of God in that He provided it as a necessary condition for man’s salvation. Faith works through love. Jesus said in His discourse to His disciples, “If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments” (Jn. 14:15). John wrote in his first epistle, “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments . . .” (1 Jn. 5:3). All through this epistle, the author urges his readers to love one another (2:10; 3:11, 13 etc.). This love, which is continuous, is prompted by belief. One can not believe without loving, nor love without believing. Belief and love go hand in hand. Since love is the keeping of God’s commandments, as we have seen (1 Jn. 5:3), therefore to believe is not merely acknowledging Jesus Christ, but submitting to the other necessary conditions of salvation. These conditions are repentance (Acts 17:30), a confession that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (Acts 8:37), and baptism for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). To believe in the name of Jesus Christ is to believe in all that is revealed about Christ, to accept Him for what He is and for all that He does. Those who rely upon 1 Jn. 3:23 as a proof text for “faith only” fail to consider the fact that John is writing to Christians, and they also miss the point of what is involved in belief.
1 John 5:1
“Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God . . . .” The advocates of “faith only” contend that this verse teaches that one is saved before he is baptized. Again, as in all of these faith passages in John’s first epistle, he is addressing Christians, not aliens. John was dealing with a problem. Some denied the deity of Christ by denying that Jesus was the Christ. Others denied His humanity by denying that Christ was Jesus. Still others believed that the fleshly body of Christ was only a phantom. John was showing who was the genuine child of God. The true child of God would confess that Jesus is the Christ (1 Jn. 4:2, 3). He thereby acknowledged both His deity and His humanity. By confessing that Jesus came in the flesh, he also acknowledged His reality. So, in this passage a line of demarcation is drawn between true believers and heretics. John was not giving a condition for becoming a child of God, in the first place. He was simply pointing out who is the real child of God in contrast to the one who merely claimed to be.
An interesting consideration at this point is the dilemma in which the “faith only” adherents place themselves. We have already observed that John is addressing those already baptized – Christians. But the believer is not the only one who is said to be begotten of God. In this same epistle John declares that, “everyone that loveth is begotten of God” (1 Jn. 4:7). The apostle tells us that whoever believes is begotten of God (1 Jn. 5:1) and everyone who loves is begotten of God (1 Jn. 4:7). If 1 Jn. 5:1 teaches that one who believes is saved before he is baptized, then we simply ask, which comes first – faith or love? If faith comes first and one is begotten of God the moment he believes, then he is begotten of God before he loves God. If love comes first then one is begotten of God before he believes. The argument is made that because one believes before he is baptized and the one that believes is born of indestructible God, therefore one is born of God before he is baptized. But the same argument would prove that one is born before he loves, or he is born before he believes. The argument proves too much, and what proves too much does not prove anything.
Who is the one begotten of God? Other statements in this first epistle reveal to us that the one who is begotten of God is not the one who only believes without any further acts of obedience. We have already seen that the one who loves is begotten of God (4:7). We consider other statements. “He that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also” (2:23). “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God” (4:3). “Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God” (4:15). “He that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him” (3:24). “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar and the truth is not in him (2:3, 4). “Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous” (3:7).
By summing up the foregoing statements we learn who is saved or born of God. (1) He is the one who believes, (2) the one who loves, (3) the one who acknowledges or confesses Christ, (4) the one who keeps the commandments of God and (5) the one who does righteousness. These statements are all found in the same book. Will the “faith only” advocates who use 1 John 5:1 as a proof text of who is born of God, accept these other verses also? They are found in the same epistle.
Faith includes obedience. “But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar? Thou seest that faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect; and the scripture was fulfilled which saith, And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness; and he was called the friend of God. Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith. And in like manner was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works, in that she received the messengers, and sent them another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, even so faith apart from works is dead” (Jas. 2:20-26). So, saving faith is obedient faith. Since faith without works is barren – unfruitful, it follows that the faith referred to in 1 John 5:1 is an obedient faith – a faith that takes God at His word and does what God says to do and in the way that God says to do it.
1 John 5:4
“For whatsoever is begotten of God overcometh the world: and this the victory that hath overcome the world, even our faith.” Again, John is addressing Christians. Here he is encouraging them in the midst of their hardships. In spite of these, they will conquer their foes by faith. “Faith is the Victory,” and as we sing this song, we are reminded of the words in 1 John 5:4. This verse does not hint the idea, much less teach the doctrine, that one is saved when he believes and that before baptism.
1 John 5:5
“And who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God?” The proposition is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Again, John is not presenting a condition before ON is a child of God. He is pointing out that the true child of God is the one who believes this proposition. He confesses both the humanity (Jesus) and the deity (the Son of God). Here is the conqueror of the world in contrast to the one who denies the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Thus, this verse does not teach that one is saved by “faith only.”
1 John 5:10
“He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in him: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he hath not believed in the witness that God hath borne concerning his Son.” When one refuses to believe God’s testimony upon any matter, it makes God a liar. How much then does it do so when one refuses to believe God’s testimony about His own Son? God declared Jesus to be the Son of God (Matt. 3:17; 17:5 etc.). To disbelieve that Jesus is the Son of God is to discredit the witness who is God Himself. John is not teaching here, nor anywhere else, that we are saved by “faith only.”
1 John 5:13
“These things have I written unto you, that you malt have eternal life, even unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God.” Again, in this text, as in all others which mention faith or belief, those who believe and teach “faith only” must prove that the faith or belief is separate and apart from any other act of obedience. This they cannot do. Those who are assured of eternal life are those who continue to believe all that Jesus is and does. Eternal life is conditional – dependent upon a continued faith or belief on the name of the Son of God. To conclude that one is saved by “faith only” before baptism is a mere assumption without proof. It is a complete removal of faith from the context of the entire epistle, and an ignorance of what is involved in faith.
The saved believer is the baptized believer. Luke records the conversion of the jailor in Acts 16. He asked the important question, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (vs. 30). They commanded him, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved” (vs. 31). They then spoke the word of the Lord to him” (vs. 32). Faith is produced by the preaching of the word (Rom. 10:17), so they preached to him so that he could believe. He then took them the same hour of the night, washed their stripes and was baptized. “And he brought them up into his house, and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, with all his house, having believed in God” (vs. 34). Notice the phrase: “having believed in God.” His belief was consummated by his acts of obedience – repentance and baptism. Here is a plain example that the saved believer is the baptized believer.
All conditions of salvation must be summed up and accepted as a whole. Those who believe that salvation is by “faith only” make the fatal mistake of basing their doctrine upon passages which mention faith without considering passages which mention other conditions. When they see a verse that mentions “faith” they assume that it means “faith only.” They fail to realize that all conditions must be accepted as a whole. Repentance saves (Acts 2:38), a confession that Jesus Christ is the Son of God saves (Acts 8:37; Rom. 10:10), and baptism saves (1 Pet. 3:21).
We have examined the so-called “faith only” texts in 1 John and not one of them teaches the doctrine of “faith only.” There is not a passage in the Bible that teaches it. When all will acknowledge that truth is harmonious and that it must be derived by considering all passages upon a given subject, much division and confusion will be eliminated.
Truth is the most valuable commodity on the market today because the salvation of the human soul is dependent upon it. With open hearts may we ever seek it, obey it, and live by it.
- Why is faith important? What is the issue of faith?
- What is the significance of faith and love in 1 Jn. 3:23?
- What does it mean to believe in the name of Jesus Christ?
- What is the problem with which John is dealing in 1 Jn. 5:1?
- How do “faith only” adherents place themselves in a dilemma with regard to faith and love?
- Name some other things by which we are said to be begotten.
- Prove that faith includes obedience.
- What kind of believer is the saved believer?
- What is the basic error of those who teach “faith only”?
- What principle of interpretation will eliminate confusion and division?
Guardian of Truth XXV: 15, pp. 227-230
April 9, 1981