By Robert F. Turner
There seems to be a resurgence of interest in “security”perhaps due to emphasis upon “grace”-and both subjects are worthy of our consideration. Because of earlier battles with Calvinists on grace, faith only, and “once saved, always saved,” certain prejudices adhere to the very words (for example, words in my heading); and these can keep us from fairly dealing with scriptural aspects of the subject. We believe the current desire for “security” and “confidence” has also caused some to attempt detailed explanations which “go beyond that which is written”; and this, in turn, has spawned reactions that also “go beyond.” We do not imagine ourselves to be a brotherhood doctor, but are persuaded all saints should keep calm, and lend whatever influence and knowledge they have to a scriptural solution upon which true unity may be established.
Confidence respecting our salvation and security is objectively determined, according to the Apostle John. That means we must look outside ourselves for the proof: must depend neither on our “feelings” nor upon solutions originating in human reason. “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren” (1 Jn. 3:14f). The love of brethren is not the whole story, but he is saying, without the fruit we have no assurance. This continues to be the context. Let us not love in word only, “but in deed and truth” (v. 18). “Hereby (by obeying his commandments) shall we know that we are of the truth. . . ” (v. 19). “Whatsoever we ask, we receive … because we keep his commandments” (v.22). And verse 24 continues this context- “hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the spirit which he hath given us” — possibly referring to the “spirit” of obedience which we learned from Him. We are out of context to say it is the Holy Spirit, subjectively determined.
The very conscientious saint may tremble in recognition of his unworthiness. So, “If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things” (vv 19-20; see Plain Talk, Sept. ’83, for detailed study). He reassures by reminding that God knows us better than we know ourselves. But he does not say good intentions take the place of obedience, nor change his theme that assurance is via God’s promises and conditions. Can we know we are saved? God knows (2 Tim. 2:19); we rest on God’s promises! There are two avenues for negation: ignorance of His truth (light), and failure to walk in His light. But on the positive side: (1) we have the ever present remedy, the blood of Christ; (2) we are told how to obtain its benefits; and (3) sinful man, seeking to obey God, has a heart-seeing merciful Judge. Assurance is as strong as one’s faith in God.
Apparently 1 John was written to counter false assurance being taught by the gnostics of that day. Some contend all matter is evil, hence distinction was made in the human Jesus and the divine Christ. The “spirit” was all-the flesh of little or no importance. Those who claimed this superior knowledge (gnosis) said the “enlightened” one’s soul was steeped in light, and he need not worry much about his conduct. But John declares that Christ came in the flesh, which the witnesses saw, handled, and heard (1 Jn. 1:1-2). He passes to us the divine knowledge necessary for fellowship with God, saying, “God is light” (in very essence, v.5); and, there is no compatibility between the life of ungodly conduct advocated by the gnostics (walking in darkness, v.6), and the Christian life (walking in light, v.7). This is the basic thrust and context of 1 John 1.
The gnostics had invented “details” of assurance contrary to the most basic principles of genuine divine knowledge. And I fear some brethren have missed the point of 1 John 1 by inventing details of assurance not in the text; while others have countered with “details” (mechanically interpreted) which ignore the intent and purpose of John’s language. “If we walk in light” (v.7), and “if we confess our sins” (v.9), are indeed present, active subjunctive; and express linear, ongoing, continuous action. Then, “cleanseth” (v.7) is present active indicative: conforming grammatically with the contingencies; and says the “cleansing” takes place to the same extent we “walk,” confessing our sins. When we say the cleansing takes place “even as we sin” we add an element not in the text, and abuse this passage.
But John is not describing the details of a particular event. He is saying that in the course of a Christian’s life we sin, and we repent, acknowledge our sin and need for mercy, and God forgives us. This happens over and over again, the ever available blood of Christ being a promised benefit to Christians, offering “assurance” that is as strong as our faith in God’s promises. The text does not contemplate a single act of darkness or light. It contrasts “walking” in light, with “walking” in darkness: two conflicting and incompatible realms, or spheres of action (see details in previous article, “Much Ado… “). “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) is not violated should we spend time doing something other than conscious prayer; nor is “rejoice evermore” (v.16) violated should we “weep with those that weep.” We would misuse those passages should we so interpret them. We also abuse 1 John 1:6-7 when we try to break it into a “step” of either light or darkness. It was written in a different vein, for a different purpose, and we should leave it exactly where the Holy Spirit put it.
Some try to “get out” of their first bad exegesis by pleading distinctions in sins. There are legitimate differences in certain aspects of sin, but each is still sin, needing the forgiveness offered upon conditions. But another says “walking” is like a doctor “practicing” medicine. There is some likeness; but the doctor’s past practice will not cure a present patient. He must continue his practice, and we must continue our repenting, confessing, and prayer, to meet today’s needs. We are offered false dilemma: take either “cleansed as we sin” or “sinless perfection,” or “infallible knowledge of sin details,” or “no assurance whatsoever.” These are not true dilemma, for they do not represent the total field. We can scripturally reject all of them, and take 1 John 1 as contrasting two realms-period. And when we do that we also reject “a sin” as removing us from grace, from Christ, His kingdom, etc. Brethren, poor exegesis has begotten poor exegesis; and uncharitable treatment of one another has gotten us into a sorry mess.
A sincere effort is being made to avoid self-justification in this paragraph. The writer knows his terminology is not faultless, and could be or has been ambiguous at times. I have written much on the importance of proper attitude, but never have I said attitude or intention served for obedience. I have written the very opposite. While explaining “walking in light” I have stressed the linear, ongoing, manner of life the phrase depicts. But never have I taught that general direction of life removes the need to actually meet God’s conditions for forgiveness. I have stressed the merciful nature of God, but never dreamed of teaching man could offer comfort on the basis of what he believes God would do in special cases. I have repeatedly stated this was not man’s prerogative. “Whittling on God’s end of the stick” is, so far as I know, my expression which others have copied. When bits and pieces of my Plain Talk articles are offered as proof I espouse “automatic” or “continuous cleansing” “even as one sins,” they are grossly misused.
There are other things to be considered when men are quoted. Even highly respected commentators and exegetes are sometimes wrong. Also, had they been writing at the present time, in the light of current controversy, they may have stated themselves differently. Uninspired writings are not protected by the all-seeing eye of God, so that their principles have universal application. And finally, wide confirmation by men is not equal to proof from God’s word.
Assurance and confidence before God are not to be found in the perfection of our knowledge or doing, per se. This concept led the Jews to ask, “Which is the great commandment?” or “All these things have I observed: what lack I yet?” We must put our trust in God, not in ourselves. But “imputed righteousness,” “difference in sins,” “cleansed even as we sin,” and the like, are also false hopes. They are doctrinal gadgets for assurance, and when carefully compared with the whole of Bible teaching, may leave us in a deeper despair. If we would understand “assurance” and increase confidence in our salvation, we must strengthen our faith in God’s promises and provisions.
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 19, pp. 583, 599
October 3, 1985