The Theme of First John
“Did I really mean it?” “Did I really understand, or was I just afraid of dying?” It is not uncommon for Christians to encounter these kinds of doubts about their salvation at some point or another. Christian counselors should be equipped to answer these doubts biblically. While other scriptures may be used to address the issue, the epistle of 1 John is a common source of helpful guidance. The book is so pertinent that many commentators designate “assurance of salvation” as John’s primary theme. Though he addresses a variety of issues throughout the book, the assurance theme does seem to be dominant. For instance, John uses similar forms of the verb “to know” at least forty times. With this in mind, how should a counselor use 1 John to guide a Christian who doubts his salvation?
The “Works and Experience” Approach
I will call the first approach to this subject the “works and experience” approach. This approach gathers questions from 1 John and compiles them as a series of questions which should be asked to a doubting believer. These questions provide a series of “litmus tests” to determine whether or not the doubting believer is genuinely saved. Gromacki explains it this way:
“If a person wonders whether he is really saved, he should carefully read this book and ask himself these questions.”
A sample list of questions may look something like this:
- Do you sin on a regular basis? (1:6; 3:6; 5:18)
- Do you obey God’s commandments regularly? (2:3-4)
- Do you love other believers? (2:9-11; 4:8, 4:20)
- Do you love the world? (2:15-17)
- Do you enjoy obeying God’s commandments? (5:3)
- Does God answer your prayers? (5:14-15)
If a doubting believer generally answers “no” to these questions (but “yes” to #4), then it may be that the doubting believer never was a believer at all. The common solution then is to encourage the doubtful person to pray for salvation again, or to pray for “assurance.”
The “Belief” Approach
I will call the second approach the “belief” approach. This approach asks the doubting believer one question, “Have you believed on the Lord Jesus Christ alone for eternal life?” If they answer “no,” then the solution should be to clarify the gospel and encourage them to put their trust in Christ. If they answer “yes,” then the next step is to determine the reason for their doubt so that they can move forward in confidence.
John’s Big Assumption
To answer the question of which approach is appropriate for counseling, I would like to make some simple observations about John’s writing. The first observation draws attention to a big but subtle assumption in 1 John. John assumed that the people whom he addressed were genuinely born again. For instance, he frequently referred to them in the collective first person, indicating he was personally convinced that they shared the reality of eternal life together with him. In addition, he called them “little children” and “my brethren.” The following direct statements by John underscore this conclusion even further:
- “Your sins are forgiven” (2:12).
- “Ye have known him…ye have overcome the wicked one…ye have known the Father” (2:13).
- “Ye have known him…ye are strong…the word of God abideth in you…ye have overcome the wicked one” (2:14).
- “You…believe on the name of the Son of God” (5:13).
If John at all questioned the salvation of his audience, then he likely would not have used this kind of language.
John’s Stated Purpose
John makes his purpose for writing very clear, both in his gospel and his first epistle. For instance, he states the purpose for his gospel in the following terms (emphasis added):
But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name (John 20:31).
Very clearly, he wrote his gospel with the purpose of persuading men to believe on Jesus Christ for eternal life. And the stated purpose for his first epistle is just as clear:
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 John 5:13).
He wrote his first epistle with the purpose of assuring insecure believers that they definitely were saved and should not be doubtful about it. This is a very important observation. Notice John’s description of his audience. He calls them “you that believe on the name of the Son of God.” This kind of description bears a striking resemblance to his phraseology in John 3:36 and 1 John 5:12, providing additional, unmistakable evidence that John’s readers were believers.
An Important Point
For counseling purposes, it is very important to recognize that John assumed his readers were believers and that he wrote with believers in mind. Why? Because when you counsel a person who doubts whether or not they are genuinely born again, you need to have a clear idea as their counselor about their spiritual condition. This is the difference between the “works and experience” approach and the “belief” approach. The “works and experience” approach works from the assumption that John gave his audience “sample tests” in 1 John to determine if they were genuine children of God. Since John assumed that his readers were believers, then this approach seems to be a misapplication of John’s intentions. The “belief” approach works from the understanding that 1 John addresses the reasons why genuine believers doubt their salvation. There is a significant difference between asking, “Am I saved?” and “Why do I doubt my salvation?” In the same way, there is a significant difference between discussing how to know you’re saved and how to know if you are saved.
Two Reasons for Doubt
John elaborates on two general reasons for doubting genuine salvation. Both of these reasons are woven throughout his epistle in various shades and colors. First, he addresses the influence of false teaching. A form of Gnosticism had crept into Christian circles as early as the late first century AD. This heretical teaching denied both the real humanity and real deity of Christ. It also denied the idea of sin and its spiritual consequences. A genuine believer who entertains any of these notions will inevitably experience insecurity in his relationship with Christ. This leads to the second reason for doubting genuine salvation, contradictory lifestyle. If a genuine believer lives in a way that resembles the life of a lost man (e.g., sinful behavior, no honest confession, selfishness towards the brethren, etc.), then that believer will likewise lack confidence in his relationship with Christ.
John points out at the end of his epistle that lack of confidence in our relationship with Christ, regarding eternal life, will shut down any attempt at an effective prayer life (1 John 5:14-17). A Christian without a prayer life is a Christian without a purpose. Pointless Christianity leads to unbelief, which leads to discouragement, which ultimately leads to depression. The “works and experience” approach seems to short-circuit the purpose of 1 John. The “belief” approach seems to account for the content of the epistle in a more clear and helpful way.
Rather than counseling doubting believers to analyze their works and experience, we should counsel them to answer the simple question of whether or not they have believed on Jesus Christ alone for eternal life, in line with John’s gospel. It they already have, then we should get down to the brass tacks of why they are living a discouraged, defeated life. Are they dismissing unconfessed sin? Are they proudly pretending to be more perfect than they are? Are they holding hatred or bitterness against a fellow believer? Are they bending their ear to false teaching? If so, help them realize that these kinds of things disrupt the basic principles of the Christian life and cause doubt as a result. The solution to their doubt is to agree with God about the ways they are willfully “missing the mark” (1 John 1:9). Christ will give them a clean conscience and a settled confidence that will turn their focus away from themselves and enable them to pray effectively for others.
“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. And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us:” (1 John 5:13-14)
Thomas Overmiller serves as a Bible professor at Baptist College of Ministry in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.
- Robert G. Gromacki, New Testament Survey (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1974), 371. [↩]
- For a similar, more extensive list, see ibid., 371. [↩]
- He uses “we” 80 times and “us” 38 times. [↩]
- 9 times [↩]
- 2 times [↩]
- The word “believe” in its various forms occurs some 95 times in 88 verses throughout the gospel. [↩]
- Another apparent subtheme of I John is a polemic against false teachers who elevated a false kind of mystical knowledge. Their teaching denied the real humanity and deity of Christ. They also repudiated the idea of sin and its spiritual consequences. [↩]
- The phrase “these things write I unto you” occurs four times in this epistle, indicating that John wrote with a definite, yet nuanced, purpose. John wrote that his audience would experience “full joy” (1:4), that they would “sin not” (2:1), and that they would recognize false teachers (2:26). These three purpose clauses seem to be supportive to the fourth and final purpose clause in I John 5:13. [↩]