1 John is for Assurance, not Testing.

My article “Post-Crisis Assurance and the ‘Tests of Life’ Reading of 1 John” was recently published in the Reformed Theological Review (August, 2021). This post gives a basic summary of that essay. Try reading 1 John before and after reading this post (it’s only five chapters long). My hope is that reading the following perspective on 1 John will help you feel a renewed sense of assurance that if you have faith in Jesus, then salvation truly belongs to you, and you should eagerly continue in him with confidence.

Can 1 John be Assuring?

The doctrine of Christian Assurance is about a Christian’s confidence that they are both in right standing with God now, and will continue to be until they reach his kingdom forever. It is a confidence based on faith in Jesus, that he is God’s Son, the long-promised Saviour and Messiah, whose death bore God’s anger against sin (1 John 2:2).

John claims that his purpose in writing this letter was to assure his readers of their salvation (1 John 5:13). Yet, parts of 1 John can seem deeply anti-assurance. This letter is well-known for the kind of deeply confronting statements that can keep you awake at night.

No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. (1 John 3:6)

The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. (1 John 3:8)

This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister. (1 John 3:10)

Yikes! How can that be assuring? Even this letter insists that everyone is a sinner (1 John 1:8), and yet it is so black and white on what genuine Christians will look like!

The ‘Tests of Life’ Way of Reading 1 John

Among Reformed evangelicals (like me), the dominant way of reading 1 John’s teaching on assurance has been as presenting a series of ‘tests’ or evidences of genuine conversion. 1 John is full of matter-of-fact statements of what Christians look like:

We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. (1 John 2:3)

Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. (1 John 4:16)

This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. (1 John 5:2)

Biblical commentators have described these kinds of statements as presenting a set of ‘tests’ intended to determine the genuineness of one’s conversion (see bibliography). The most common view, following Robert Law (1909), is that 1 John presents three “tests of life”:

  1. Confession that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:22-23; 4:2-3; 5:5, etc)
  2. Obedience to Christ’s commands (1 John 2:3-6; 3:4-10, etc)
  3. Love for other believers (1 John 2:9-11; 3:10-20; 4:7-11, etc)

Read 1 John and you’ll find repeated reference to each of these things. By definition, all genuine Christians will bear these marks since they are simply the effects of the Spirit’s work in God’s people. That’s why they can be so easily described as ‘tests’.

Yet, whilst I believe that there is value in this approach to 1 John, it is important to recognise that this is not how the letter presents things. 1 John never asks Christians to “test” themselves (though they are to test others, 1 John 4:1). This idea of “testing” simply doesn’t accuately describe the character of this part of the Bible.

The point is that reading the Bible isn’t just about pulling true facts out of it. The way we frame and formulate those facts is enormously significant.

Consider this idea of “testing”. Read this way, the letter repeatedly invites the reader to a place of self-examination and even self-doubt about their salvation. That isn’t necessarily a particularly “assuring” experience; in fact, it can be deeply unsettling and anxiety inducing. This is deeply unfortunate, since the author’s expressed intention was that his Christian readers would be assured and affirmed in their faith.

Reading 1 John in Context

Recent research on 1 John has convincingly demonstrated that the letter was addressed to early Jewish Christians in the aftermath of a distinctly Jewish argument. (Older scholarship claimed that it addressed a gentile audience influenced by gnosticism, but that is increasingly being rejected, not least because gnosticism didn’t arise until a century after this letter was written!). This Jewish argument was over the claim that “the Messiah is Jesus” (1 John 2:22; 5:1). When one side couldn’t be convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, they departed the community (1 John 2:19), which makes them ‘anti-Messiah people’, or more famously, ‘antichrists’ (1 John 2:18). If there’s anything central to Christian identity, its agreeing that Jesus is the Christ / Messiah. When anyone rejects that claim – whether Jew or Gentile – they place themselves outside Christianity.

John’s purpose in writing the letter was to assure his Christian readers of their right standing before God in light of the dramatic split that they had just experienced in their community. His letter isn’t intended to test his readers’ faith; it is intended to assure them that they have already passed the test of continuing in Christ, even whilst others turned aside.

I am writing to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.

I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.

I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one.

I write to you, dear children, because you know the Father.

I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning.

I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.

1 John 2:12-14

John’s letter is a publication of this church’s victory! They are victors because they know Jesus is the Messiah!

In fact, this letter goes so far as to assure its readers whether they feel it or not. Does your heart condemn you? God is bigger than that problem! Does you heart not condemn you? Good – you should have confidence! Either way, be assured that you belong to God your Father (1 John 3:19-22). Or, to reverse an unfortunate old saying, “you’re saved if you do, and you’re saved if you don’t”.

John’s Strategy for Assuring his Readers

In the journal article, I argue that John ties three things together in the way he speaks to these Christians to get the theological ‘balance’ right.

First, John repeatedly highlights their identity as Christians, and particularly as God’s children. The repeated address ‘children’ keeps these Christians’ assured status in the background of all else he says (e.g. 1 John 2:1, 12, 14, etc).

Second, John highlights various marks of Christian identity (esp. confession, obedience, and love), sometimes in very blunt and absolute ways. These marks are what distinguish Christians from outsiders, and implicitly call them on Christians to remain and continue in those things (cf. 1 John 2:24).

Third, and following the last, the epistle implicitly calls on its readers to continue in their present Christian belief and conduct. The Christian life is one of living in anticipation of Jesus’ return, when we shall be permanently renewed to be as he is (1 John 3:2). We must therefore continue in him until that day.

Using 1 John in Other Contexts

None of this means Christians should never test the authenticity of their faith. Elsewhere the Bible commands that very thing (2 Corinthians 13:5). Furthermore, I am not arguing that we must never use the contents of 1 John as a measure of what genuine Christian conversion looks like. That is clearly part of what is going on in this letter. Besides which, obeying the Bible means that we need draw out principles from biblical passages to apply in new situations. So yes, there is a way of responsibly using the contents of 1 John to test the genineness of one’s Christian profession.

However… the point of all this is that as we apply 1 John’s teaching on assurance today, let’s not neglect the optimistic approach that the letter takes toward professing followers of Jesus. 1 John has very little in common with an interrogating judge demanding “do you really love other Christians?! Do you you really obey Jesus?! What’s your evidence?!” It is more like a comforting pastor telling the people he serves: “can’t you see? You do love other believers! You do obey Jesus’ commands! Isn’t it wonderful that God is clearly at work in you? Let’s continue doing that together!”

There will be times to have the hard word, and to confront people who are fooling themselves if they think they are genuine Christians. But properly recognising John’s approach to assurance helps lift that “pressure-cooker of anxiety” off those who sincerely seek to trust and follow Jesus, especially those struggling with self-doubt. And it does it without allowing complacency, spiritual apathy, or empty presumption about one’s status before God.

In short, 1 John doesn’t just present the theology of assurance; it teaches the pastoral theology of assurance.

Further Reading: Matthew N. Payne, ‘Post-Crisis Assurance and the ‘Tests of Life’ Reading of 1 John’. Reformed Theological Review 80/2 (August 2021): 133-154.

Bibliography (works advocating ‘tests of assurance’):

Akin, Daniel L. 1, 2, 3 John, NAC 38 (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2001).

Bass, Christopher D. That You May Know: Assurance of Salvation in 1 John, NACSBT 5 (Nashville: B&H, 2008).

Carson, D.A. ‘Johannine Perspectives on the Doctrine of Assurance in 1 John’, Justification and Christian Assurance, ed. R. J. Gibson, Explorations 10 (Sydney: MTC, 1996), 59-97. (cf. Carson, D.A. ‘Reflections on Christian Assurance’, WTJ 54, no. 1 (1992), 1-29).

Kruse, Colin. The Letters of John, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).

Law, Robert. The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle of St. John, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1909).

Marshall, I.H. The Epistles of John, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978).

Painter, John. 1, 2, 3 John, SP (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2002).

Perkins, William. A Case of Conscience, the greatest that ever was: How a man may know whether he be the Child of God or no. Resolved by the word of God. (London: Robert Robinson, 1592).

Smalley, Stephen S. 1, 2, 3 John, rev. edn, WBC 51(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007).

Stott, John R. The Letters of John, rev. ed., TNTC (Leicester: IVP, 1988).

Yarbrough, Robert W. 1–3 John, BECNT(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008).