Monday, July 25, 2005

The One-Anothering of 1 John 5:16

John on PatmosFrom time to time the question is asked as to the meaning of 1 John 5:16. This "difficult" passage is less difficult to understand when we keep in mind, as Vos exhorts us to do, the organic nature of revelation.

It seems as though many get hung up on the precise meaning of the "sin that leads to death" and "sin that does not lead to death". Many interpretations have been offered, some quite fanciful. The Reformed community has tended to believe that the sin that leads to death is unbelief, especially apostasizing unbelief (Calvin calls it "defection"). The arguments are quite strong, but many of these arguments resort to a sort of "proof-texting" of unbelief and "life" in a systematic way, without dealing with the immediate context of the passage or John's eschatology, which provides his theological grid in his writing. I concur with Calvin and others, that there is eternal ultimacy in the death and life mentioned, but do so along the lines of John's own argument. Here's why:

1. The entire book of 1 John (and indeed John's Gospel, of which 1 John is a commentary/sequel) has been dealing with "eternal life". To introduce an idea of "life" at this point in John's argument would be to unnecessarily introduce a foreign idea into what to this point has been a thorough and structured argument.

2. Like many other books in the canon that stem from Jewish thought/authors/context, 1 John is a chiasm. A = 1 John 1:1-4. A' = 1 John 5:12-21. Among other things, this places the life/death of 1 John 5:16 in parallel with the "life" that is found in fellowship with the Son/Father in 1 John 1:1,2. And the parallel places the life/death of 1 John 5:16 within the development of "life in the Son" (1 John 1: 1-2, 2:25, 3:14, 5:11-13, 5:20; also John 1:4, 3:15-16, 3:36, 4:14, 5:21, 24, 6:33, 48, 8:12, 10:28, 11:25, 14:6, 20:31, etc.).

3. This isn't the first time in 1 John that "life" as a "consequence" of prayer is proposed in 1 John. The thought is virtually the same as 1 John 1:9 (another parallel), where the perpetual confession is a "component" to the life-giving fellowship of the Son/Father. The perpetual confessing/petitioning is life-sustenance of the fellowship (1 John 1:7's "cleansing" is parallel to the "cleansing" of 1:9) in sanctification. And in 1 John 1:7 this fellowship with the Son/Father is set within the corporate dynamic: to have fellowship with the Son is to have fellowship with each other. Our confessing as life-sustenance in the fellowship is *together* as is our petitioning (1 John 5:16). In fact, the "ask" of vs. 16 is the continuation of the "ask" in vs. 15. We know he hears us in whatever we ask, and we know we have the requests we have asked of him, *especially* when our prayers are with or are on behalf of those who are approaching the mortal precipice of defection from the fellowship of The Son.

4. We must always be mindful of the argument being made in 1 John... the reason John is emphasizing "eternal life" (1 John 5:14) and its ethic (1 John 3:14 - the point of the chiasm) is to encourage those who are being tempted by the antiChrists to leave (which is precisely what the antiChrists had already done: 1 John 2:19) John's fellowship, which John sets within the fellowship of the Son/Father (1 John 1:3). To join the antiChrists is to join death, for that is their end (1 John 3:14). Further, the grounds for this "sin unto death" is in John 8:24/John 16:9 (again, 1 John is the commentary/sequel to the gospel of John and all of the theology/eschatology of the gospel of John is further developed in 1 John) where Christ labels unbelief as the "sin unto death". John continues this thought in 1 John when he posits the commandment to believe as characteristic of those who abide in Christ (1 John 3:23,24) over against those who "keep on sinning" (1 John 3:6,8) as characteristic of those who are "of the devil" (1 John 3:8,10/John 8:44). Implicit in John's assertion that THE WORD appeared to destroy the works of the devil is that Christ appeared to destroy the devil himself, and his children. This is *why* the petitioning of 1 John 5:16 is life-sustenance. The aim of the petition is to keep those being tempted by the antiChrists from defecting to the antiChrists. Joining the antiChrists would and will mortally lead to the errant one's eternal death assuredly as it will the antiChrists (1 John 3:14). This "sin unto death" is what those who "do not have the Son" and "do not have life" (1 John 5:12) do: since they do not have "life", their sin is unto "death". Those who "sin unto death" are those who have not been given eternal life in The Son (1 John 5:11).

5. We cannot rightly interpret 1 John 5:16 outside of 1 John 5:19, where John more explicitly states his purposes for the warning (and indeed, the warning of 1 John 5:21 is *also* in this same paradigm). This places the interpretation of 1 John 5:16/19 squarely within the same thought of James 5:20: the petitioning is part and parcel to a war over a soul that is being led away to an eternal demise. To be outside of the fellowship, and in John's immediate context - to be outside of the corporate fellowship, is to be in the realm of death itself (1 John 3:14). Those who are in the fellowship, when they see a professed brother who is wavering in his belief or sinning in a way that will take him from the fellowship, must attempt to pull him back into the perpetual one anothering/confessing/petitioning of the corporate/eternal fellowship. To do so is to give that person "life" (1 John 5:16) from God himself (1 John 5:1), for this is indeed what the fellowship of the Son/Father gives: life (1 John 1:1,2).

It is with this kind of eternal ultimacy, set within the context of eternal fellowship with the Son and Father, that 1 John 5:21 begins to sound less strange, and more like a forceful admonition which we might more likely ascribe to the book of Hebrews. To be tempted to leave the New Covenant community is to be tempted to leave the fellowship with the exalted and eternal WORD, the I AM of John 8:58. For those being tempted to leave, to affirm anything other than the fellowship of the Son as witnessed by the apostles is idolatry. John, in keeping with the Son's exaltation and inauguration of the New Covenant, "recasts" the 1st commandment in terms of fellowship in/with the Son and the living out of that fellowship in truth. The biblical theology of idolatry is huge here... there is an eschatological/biblio-theological connection between the 1st commandment (which is the encoding of the greatest commandment in stone) and the Johannine prologues of John 1 and 1 John 1. After all, these "antiChrists" are just that: contra Christ. In setting themselves outside of the community and outside of the fellowship of the I AM, they have set themselves up as their own "Christs". They are the embodiment of idolatry in their rejection of the Son and anyone who joins them is chasing after idols.

Just as John's point is no less James' point in James 5:20, it is no less the author of Hebrews' point in Hebrews 10:19-25. 1 John 5:16-19 is a clarion call for all of us to be one-anothering each other in perseverence. So dire is the consequence of shrinking back and joining the antiChrist, to confront, challenge, and pray for (and with) the ones who seem to be headed toward their own destruction. We, together, know we have eternal life because we are in Fellowship with the Son and the Father (1 John 5:13/1 John 1:1-4) and with each other (1 John 1:7). We are inseparably linked with each other in our perseverence. THE WORD, our sustenance, sustains us through The Word and His corporate body.

So who am I watching out for? Who am I one-anothering in the sanctification salvation of our souls? Who is watching out for me? Those who have been "born of God" (1 John 5:1) must be about the business of watching out for each others' souls, making sure that we are "in Him who is True" (1 John 5:20)... and the encouragement, edification, and admonition we give each other not only is the enjoyment of our fellowship in the Son, but is also a protective measure to keep the gaze of our eyes in the confession and petition of our lips fixed squarely on the Source of our Life, Christ himself.


SJ Camp said...

Very good Chad.. (I see you have discovered how to link verses :-). I like it-well done.)

There are five "evidences of being born again in 1 John...) A five fold test for authentic faith. They are:

1 John 2:29 (practice righteous); Ibid. 3:9 (does not practice sin); Ibid. 4:7 (love one another); Ibid. 5:1 (believes Jesus is the Christ); and Ibid. 5:4 (overcomes the world). The converse would also imply those who are not evidencing the fruit of genuine regeneration in Christ and who have possibly rejected the gospel of Christ as well.

Good to remember that the Apostle John wrote this epistle for four key reasons: 1. Full Joy (1 John 1:1-4); 2. Freedom from Sin (Ibid. 2:1-2); 3. Faith Unwavering (Ibid. 2:26-28); and 4. Firm Assurance (Ibid. 5:13). This also adds to the warning to turn from a "sin unto death."

Thank you so much for this post. Hope these thoughts help in this important discussion.

Grace and peace to you,
1 John 2:19

Breuss Wane said...

Steve, thanks for your thoughts. Those "four key reasons" move along John's primary agenda: encouraging those remaining in the community in the midst of persecution from the antiChrists. In the gospel of John the persecution is from without: the Jewish religious "establishment" (highlighted by the ouster of the man born blind and his parents). In the Johannine Epistles, the persecution is from within: the antiChrists were former members... these were family and friends of those who remained.

1 John 4:5 indicates that the numbers were in favor of the antiChrist. By today's standards, as a church leader John would have been considered a miserable failure. In fact, history indicates that until Augustine providentially showed up about 250 years later to take back the "argument", it seemed as though the antiChrists and gnosticism had won the day. The apostle John would have flunked "seeker friendly 101".

Shawn said...

Good stuff!