Not Tests but Proofs
The letter of 1 John is the basis of not a little searching preaching and close application along the lines of, “Do you pass the tests of being a true Christian?” Robert Law’s famous commentary is titled The Tests of Life. In the introduction to his fine Tyndale commentary on 1 John, John Stott says that the epistle provide three tests of the reality of true Christian life.
The three tests are: (1) Doctrinal. Do you believe the truth about Jesus Christ, that he is God in the flesh who came into the world to destroy the works of the devil and make propitiation for our sins? (2) Ethical. Do you walk as Jesus walked, obeying the commandments? (3) Social. Do you love the brothers truly and practically? I have always found and still find this summary to be very helpful to understanding and preaching the epistle.
But the question comes: Why is John writing? To whom is he writing and with what purpose? The way the letter is often taught and preached is as though John were writing a letter to a congregation and saying, “Here is how you can distinguish the true and false Christians in your midst. Here is how you can find out if you are really a Christian. These are the tests to apply.”
But, I think that misses the historical context. John is actually writing to a congregation that has experienced schism. There are now two congregations, the congregation that remains, founded on the apostolic message of John, and a congregation that has left, founded by those who think they have more and do more than the apostles. The congregation that has been deserted by some of its members is shaken. The breakaway congregation’s teachers are saying, “We have insight and experiences that have led us to the truth.” In a sense they are saying, “We, not the original congregation, have the truth.”
As John says of the schismatics: “They went out from us, for they were not of us; for had they been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they are not of us” (1 John 2:19). Immediately he says to the continuing church: “But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth” (1 John 2: 20, 21).
John is saying to the congregation not, “Test yourselves to see if you are genuine,” but, “You are the true Christians and the true church.” He is seeking to stabilize, to reassure, to strengthen. He is saying, “See, they don’t believe the truth about Jesus, and they don’t have the Spirit of God. They do not keep his commandments, but think themselves above practical obedience. They do not love, as can be seen in their leaving you, their brethren. But you believe the truth as it taught by the Apostles. You do seek to obey, and, when you do not, you confess your sins, and find forgiveness through the intercession of your advocate, Jesus Christ the righteous. You love each other and have stuck together and cared for one another. These are the proofs of your genuiness.”
This is not to argue that the letter has no testing use. A person who denies the truth about Christ, who highhandedly and persistently refuses to live an obedient life, who hates the brothers is not a Christian no matter what congregation of which he is a member. A church characterized by these negatives is not a true church regardless of what it calls itself.
But John’s purpose in writing is positive. It is not to question assurance but to give it. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5: 13). He gives us not tests of whether we are Christians but proofs that we are.