Thursday, January 24, 2013

Interpreting 1 John

Interpreting the book of 1 John is a difficult proposition. It seems to be saying that Christians cannot sin (1 John 2:3-6; 3:4-10; 5:18). Scripture should be explained in the simplest way possible. But I cannot reconcile this obvious reading with the rest of Scripture (Philippians 3:12-16; 2 Corinthians 7:9,10; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20) or even the rest of 1 John (1 John 1:8-10; 2:1,2; 5:16,17). Nor does it accord with my experience or that of any other Christian I have known well. Further, 1 John does not picture this as a higher experience, but the normal experience of every Christian. Those who take this view of the book almost always end up qualifying it. They speak of absence from intentional sin or major sin, but there is nothing in the context or the rest of Scripture that invites such a qualification. Further, this approach is highly subjective because we can convince ourselves that our actual sins really were not intentional or major. Apart from clear instruction from Scripture, it is hard to know where to draw the line. Now the verbs here are in present tense in Greek, which implies a continuous or customary action. I think this is part of the answer, but it does not solve the problems with this solution. 

One can see these passages as referring to the new nature of the Christian given by God. This is often coupled with the idea that Christians are at any point in time either totally in the new nature or in the old nature. This does not fit with the teaching of Scripture that growth in Christ is a process (1 Timothy 4:7,8; Hebrews 5:11-14; 12:1,2). It also makes the commandments of the New Testament irrelevant, as we need only be in the new nature and everything else will follow. This is reading in things not found in the passages involved.

The broader context of the book is written against false teachers (1 John 2:18-24; 4:1-6; 5:1). One of their  claims appears to be, you can be a Christian and live however you want (1 John 2:25-29; 5:2-5; 1:5-7). When they claimed to be without sin (1 John 1:8-10), they were not claiming they were morally perfect, but that nothing they did should count as sin. Therefore John (using the present tense with its implications in Greek) is drawing a contrast between two ideas of Christianity. He is not saying that Christians must be perfect, but that there should be a real change in their lives, and that those who claim Christians do not have to live in obedience to God are wrong. This fits with the fact that the epistle does advocate assurance (1 John 5:11-13; 4:15-18; 2:12-14), which would be dubious if it depended on our reaching some high level of holiness. This also fits with the rest of Scripture (Titus 2:11-14; 2 Peter 2:7,8; James 1:21-25). And fits with the reality that Christianity is a growth process, not immediate perfection.   

No comments:

Post a Comment