PRESENT POSSESSION OF PERFECTION IN FIRST JOHN
Wesleyan Theological Journal
Debate and discussion have been waged over the
subject of perfection. Some writers deny the possibility of an experience
deserving of such description and definition. All such find it necessary to
explain away many clear, concise, and convincing statements in the sacred
Scriptures. An inspired writer in the person of the Apostle John wrote a brief
epistle in which he presents perfection a doctrine to be declared, a deliverance
to be desired, and a type of deportment to be demonstrated.
For evangelical theology, any consideration of
John’s teaching concerning Christian perfection should begin with an
exegetical study of his First Epistle. In the light of John’s position we find
it necessary to give attention to the matter of sinlessness. However, the
apostle was not a theologian in the strict sense of the word. He does not argue
or present an apology for the faith. In John we see an intuitionist and a
mystic. F. W. Farrar characterizes John’s approach quite well.
Epistle of St. John differs greatly from most of the other epistles. There is in
it nothing of the passionate personal element of Paul’s letters; none of the
burning controversy of the subtle dialectics, of the elaborate doctrine, of the
intense appeal. Nor has it anything of the stately eloquence and sustained
allegorising of the Epistle to the Hebrews; nor does it enunciate the stern
rules of practical ethics like St. James; nor, again, does it throb with the
storm of moral indignation which sweeps through the Epistles of St. Peter and
St. Jude. Its tone and manner are wholly different.
No other book in the Bible deals with so many
theological truths. In the few pages constituting this brief Epistle we read
about the atonement, sin, confession, forgiveness, and cleansing. However, it is
not theology for its own sake, but theological truth as a basis for fellowship
with God and man. John is interested in life, the life characterized by perfect
love or holiness.
The Diagnosis Indicates Alarm Over Sin
Sin is more than human weakness, or a habit needing
correction. According to John sin is a practice which violates God’s law, and
such necessitates the forgiveness of God. This practice is caused by a state of
pollution which necessitates cleansing. In the light of this Epistle we may
properly speak of the twofold nature of sin and the twofold remedy. John makes a
definite distinction between the children of God and the children of the devil.
This is clearly and forcefully stated in 1:10: “In this the children of the
God are manifest and the children of the devil.”
The verb xstiu indicates a state of existence, a mode of behavior, a
manner of life. The picture John draws is black and white; we find no neutral
tints, no intermediate shades. People are on one side or the other. The Church
is identified with God, and the world is controlled by the evil one. John
states, “We know that everyone having been born out of the God is not sinning,
but the one having been born out of God is keeping him, and the evil one touches
him not” (5:18). The absence or presence of sin makes the difference. Men
define sin differently, and this causes a real problem. If sin is defined in the
absolute sense, complete freedom from sinning is impossible. The best Christian
is liable to sin in terms of such a definition. John says, “all
unrighteousness is sin” (5:17). If this were all John said, we would conclude
that any act coming short of keeping the law at all times in all things would be
sin. However, the apostle also states, “Everyone abiding in him is not
sinning” (3:6). In the light of 1 John motive must be considered. Hear John
again, “and the sin is the lawlessness” (3:4). The well known definition,
“Sin is the willful transgression of the known law of God,” finds strong
support in this Epistle. Harvey Blaney writes:
therefore establishes the definition of sin as a willful act by a responsible
person. There is no desire here to dismiss a problem by oversimplifying it.
Armed conflict, mental unbalance, lack of judgment in untried circumstances,
cultural patterns, and many other elements of modern living prevent a clearly
defined distinction between the sin which one has chosen and a wrong which
circumstances have thrust upon him. The final judgment alone will give the
answer. But a distinction between willful and involuntary evil is present in
John’s thought and it is a most necessary theological dogma.
The subjects of light and knowledge are often
considered by John. So-called sins of ignorance can be avoided by walking in the
It is advocated by some evangelicals that John is
teaching freedom from the practice of sin, or from habitual sinning. However,
the statement, “These things I write to you in order that ye may not sin”
(2:1), does not support such a view. The verb sin is in the aorist tense and
indicates an act of sin, not the continuous practice of sin.
We understand John to teach that sin is an act
performed freely by a responsible person. Such an act is to be determined and
defined in the light of God’s revealed will. The Holy Scriptures and the Holy
Spirit are available to provide light, knowledge, motivation, and strength.
John also in his diagnosis presents evidence
supporting the teaching on the principle of sin. He writes, “If we say that we
have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1:8). The
apostle is combating the teaching of the Gnostics. These false teachers
maintained that their bodies were evil, but their spirits were independent of
their bodies and therefore free from sin. Material substance could never be free
from sin, and sin never attaches itself to the soul, spirit, or heart.
Therefore, according to the Gnostics, cleansing was unnecessary. Blaney writes:
is something which we can control, something one chooses to accept or reject,
but sin is also something which controls us. It is both an evil act and the
propensity toward such action. For the act of sin, John prescribes forgiveness:
for the propensity to sin, he offers cleansing.
John gives us an enlightening statement on the
twofold nature of sin and the remedy. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful
and just, that He may forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all
unrighteousness” (1:9). John refers to sins as acts. These are to be confessed
and forgiven. He also speaks of unrighteousness; this is a principle or a state.
It is not something we have done; we can not be forgiven of it. It is a
condition which is cared for by cleansing.
The Deliverance Through the Atonement of the Saviour
D. A. Hayes quotes Bishop Warren concerning the
atonement in First John:
book of the New Testament is so pervaded and saturated with the idea of the
atonement by blood. The book contains but five short chapters. In each of the
first two and the last two is a distinct statement or definition of the atoning
work, while the middle chapter has three. Hence there are seven clear
testimonies, independent and emphatic; a larger number than can be found
anywhere else in the same space. . . . There is no refining of the language of
the Jewish sacrifices. . . . No intimation is allowed that Christ’s death was
an instructive spectacle, a most influential example, a power of emotional
effect on the beholder. But it was a real substitution of the death of Christ
for the eternal death of man.
A study of these passages reveals the following
facts. The death of Christ was universal in its scope, “He is an expiation
concerning our sins, but not concerning ours only but also concerning the whole
world” (2:2). The purpose of Christ’s death is strongly stated and repeated
for emphasis. “Ye know because that He was manifested in order that He might
take away the sins, and in Him sin is not” (3:5). The verb arh is a
first aorist subjunctive. The subjunctive is the mood of probability; it
anticipates realization. The aorist tense denotes action simply as occurring. It
has no definite temporal significance. It does denote time in the indicative,
but such is indicated by the augment. The aorist subjunctive signifies nothing
as to completeness; it presents the action as attained. It refers to a fact or
All conditions necessary for the accomplishing of
the event have been met, and the accomplishment is anticipated. The purpose of
Christ’s death is thus set forth by John. Note an additional passage, “for
this the Son of God was manifested, in order that He might destroy the works of
the devil” (3:8). Again we have the aorist subjunctive in the verb luah,
destroy. Once again John refers to the purpose of Christ’s death. “In this
we have known [and we still know] the love, because He laid down His life in
behalf of us” (3:16). The verb ‘ethken, laid down, is an aorist
indicative active; it indicates point action in the past. The active voice
indicates that Christ gave Himself; His life was not taken. He did not die as a
martyr; He gave himself as the sacrifice for our sins. The sinner’s
deliverance is through the atonement of Christ.
Reference to the twofold nature of sin was made
earlier in our study. Sin as practice, or acts against God and the law, causes
guilt and condemnation. The law never converts, it always condemns. In the light
of the atonement, God can and will pardon the sinner. This is seen in the
statement, “in order that He might pardon us the sins” (1:9). The verb athh can be translated remit, forgive, pardon. It is a
second aorist subjunctive. It is through Christ’s death that God can remit
The atonement not only provides a pardon for sins
committed, but also a cleansing from sinful corruption. In the light of 1 John
and our announced subject the work of cleansing deserves more consideration than
time allows. We begin with the statement, “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 is cleansing us from all sin” (1:7). The verb katharidzei is in the present tense indicating durative
or continuous action. This presents the idea of process. Some have looked to
this passage in the attempt to disprove holiness or sanctification as a crisis
experience. In the judgment of this writer John is telling us that Christ’s
blood avails to keep us clean. However, this is not all John writes on this
important subject. Turn again to the statement, “in order that He may forgive
us our sins and may cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1:9). The verb katharish
is first aorist subjunctive active. The aorist indicates point action, an event
not a process. The verb means to cleanse, render pure. Note carefully the phrase
“from all unrighteousness.” This statement is in the ablative case. Dana and
Mantey state the following concerning the ablative:
name suggests the basal significance of the case: ablativus, that which is borne
away, or separated. Its basal significance is point of departure. This idea may
be elemental in various conceptions. It is involved not only in the literal
removal of one object from the vicinity of another, but in any idea which
implies departure from antecedent relations, such as derivation, cause origin,
and the like. It contemplates an alteration in state from the viewpoint of the
original situation. . . . the use of the ablative comprehends an original
situation from which the idea expressed is in some way removed. Hence, in
simplest terms we may say that its root idea is separation.
The cleansing linked with the ablative case clearly
indicates the removal of the unrighteousness. The idea of separation, basic to
the ablative, is used by John to present a complete change.
John continues the theme of complete deliverance.
“I write to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven through
his name. I write to you, fathers, because ye have known Him from the beginning.
I write to you, young men, because ye have conquered the evil one”
(2:12–13). The verbs forgive, know, and conquer are in the perfect tense.
The perfect is the tense of complete action. Its
basal significance is the progress of an act or state to a point of culmination
and the existence of its finished results. That is, it views action as a
finished product. Gildersleeve significantly remarks that it “looks at both
ends of the action.”
Due to past experience those addressed by John are
presently living in a state of forgiveness of their sins, knowledge of God, and
victory over the evil one. This is the experience of heart holiness.
Once again the apostle writes, “In this the love
has been consummated with us, in order that we may have boldness in the day of
judgment, because just as that one is we also are in this world” (4:17). The
verb translated consummated is a perfect indicative passive. The previous
statement relative to the perfect tense applies here. However, a word relative
to the passive voice is in order. The subject is acted upon; we do not bring our
salvation to consummation. Such is accomplished by another; in this case God is
the One performing the act upon us. In the inspired record He calls this perfect
love (4:18), the destruction of the devil’s works (3:8), cleansing from all
unrighteousness (1:9). Men dare not call it by any term which suggests that the
A brief study of the meaning of teleiow,
translated consummate, is in order. Phillips translation misses the point: “So
our love for him grows more and more, filling us with complete confidence for
the day when he shall judge all men” (4:17). This translation fails to do
justice to the perfect tense, and it also fails to take into account the sense
of completeness basic to the meaning of the term. The attempt to find support
here for growth towards maturity is futile and fatal in the light of 1 John.
Such an attempt may be an excuse for the continuing in sin. At least some take
advantage of the translation at this point.
The place and time of this consummation are clearly
stated by John: “in this world” (4:17). The Bible teaches growth in grace,
but this is not stressed by John. However, his emphasis on walking in the light
clearly teaches that the perfection received must be maintained. According to
John there is a cleansing to be experienced, a fellowship to be enjoyed and a
life to be exemplified.
Deportment Seen in the Activity of the Saints
We now look at the evidence presented by the
apostle. What is the proof of perfection? John is more concerned with conduct
than with creed, more concerned with the product than with the process. This is
his reason for stressing light, love, life. A high premium is placed upon
knowledge. John believes in a knowable salvation. Note the four following
1. And ye know that He was manifested in order that
he might take away the sins (3:5).
2. We know that we have passed out of death unto
3. In this we shall know that we are out of the
truth, and we shall assure our heart before Him (3:19).
4. And in this we shall know that He abides in us,
from the Spirit which He gave to us (3:19).
Light and knowledge are inseparable. We may know
because God gives light. It is no mystical experience which John advocates; it
is based upon historical fact. This certainty has a definite bearing upon our
Love is also a vital part of the evidence. Love
characterizes the Christian; hate is a mark of sin. John says that “Cain, who
was of that wicked one . . . slew his brother” (3:12).
Life is proof of God’s saving work: “we have
passed from death unto life” (4: 14). This sounds Pauline; such is evidence
that we are no longer dead in sin. Men now walk as Christ walked (2:6).
Additional proof is advanced by reference to the
absence or presence of sin. The children of God are free from sin and sinning.
John writes, “In this the children of God are manifest and the children of the
devil, everyone not doing the righteousness is not out of the God . . .”
(3:10). Sinning is not viewed as an impossibility. Any man may sin, most men do
sin, but no man has to sin. John writes, “And he is able not to sin” (3:9).
Man’s deportment is evidence of deliverance from sin. Christ said,
“Wherefore from their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20).
Every path pursued in this Epistle leads to the same
conclusion. The Saviour and sin have nothing in common. Relationship with God
through Jesus Christ is possible for everyone. Such a relationship makes sinning
 F. W. Farrar, The Messages of the Books (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1888), p. 479.
 Except when otherwise stated, all biblical quotations are the personal translation of the author.
 Harvey J. S. Blaney, “The First Epistle of John” Beacon Bible Commentary(Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1967), pp. 358–359.
Ibid., p. 357.
 D. A. Hayes, John and His Writings (New York: The Methodist Book Concern, 1917), pp. 186–187.
H. E. Dana and J. R. Mantey, A Manual
Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927),
 Ibid, p. 200.