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THE PRESENT POSSESSION OF PERFECTION IN FIRST JOHN  

 

Ora D. Lovell

Bethel College

 

Wesleyan Theological Journal

Wesley Center Online

Wesley.nnu.edu

 

 

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.

 

The 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.[1]

 

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.”[2] 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:

 

John 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.[3]

 

The subjects of light and knowledge are often considered by John. So-called sins of ignorance can be avoided by walking in the light.

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:

 

Sin 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.[4]

 

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:

 

No 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.[5]

 

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 an event.

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 sin’s penalty.

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:

 

The 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.[6]

 

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.”[7]

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 sin remains.

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.

 

The 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 statements:

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 life (3:14).

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 conduct.

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 unthinkable.

 



[1] F. W. Farrar, The Messages of the Books (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1888), p. 479.

[2] Except when otherwise stated, all biblical quotations are the personal translation of the author.

[3] Harvey J. S. Blaney, “The First Epistle of John” Beacon Bible Commentary(Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1967), pp. 358–359.

[4] Ibid., p. 357.

 

[5] D. A. Hayes, John and His Writings (New York: The Methodist Book Concern, 1917), pp. 186–187.

[6] H. E. Dana and J. R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1927), p. 81.

 

[7] Ibid, p. 200.