I have always had an alternate view of the purpose of First John. The most common view of the letter is that it was written to enable its readers to gain assurance of eternal life, supported by First John 5:13, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” That purpose statement seems very clear and unassailable. How can I possibly have an alternate view? Has my propensity for lateral thinking misfired in this case? No. My view of the purpose is a nuanced refinement of the common view. The letter provides its readers the criteria to test whether an already existing claim to assurance is true. Rather than giving its readers assurance in the first place, First John assumes that Christians get assurance a different way, by the Holy Spirit. First John itself says, “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit” (4:13).
John’s readers are the remnant left after a terrible church split, one in which the leaders of the splitting faction made many claims about their own spiritual experience and even about their special insight into doctrine, especially with respect to the person of Christ. They seem to have held a view of Christ in which Jesus was an ordinary man possessed by the Christ his baptism and then left alone when the Christ departs from him before the crucifixion. Their teaching seems to be a very early form of the 2nd century heresy of Cerinthus’s doctrine. They also seem to have very exalted claims of their freedom from sin, and their spiritual experience in general. Those who are left behind after fellowship with the leaders and followers must have been left perplexed and confused, especially when comparing their experience against their claims. John writes them to help them sort out the true from the false. His interest is pastoral, he gives his flock the criteria to discern false claims to assurance and real well-founded assurance. He does not write to build assurance but to know that his readers’ assurance is valid.
My lateral view of First John does not apply just to the whole of the book, but also to some of its key passages. For example, 3:1-3, esp. v. 2:
1 See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him.
2 Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.
3 And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.
(1 John 3:1-3 NASB; 1995 update)
Look! Behold! The heavenly Father has bestowed a great honor upon us: we are called children of God. And, that is not merely a name, we really are His children. Yet, we are increasingly becoming a marginalized minority in the United States. Even the Supreme Court has declared that those who share our moral convictions are “enemies of humanity.” We are depicted as closed and tiny minded, hateful knuckle draggers. Our brothers and sisters in other countries are being persecuted viciously. But we really are the children of God. But the world does not recognize us as such because it did not recognize the true Child. We cannot expect to be treated as what we really are.
We know very little about what we shall become. We know that after the intermediate state in which we still remain conscious, blissfully enjoying our presence with Christ, that we will be reunited with our raised and transformed bodies that are somehow continuous with our old body. But the dead, or untransformed, body is like a single seed grain of wheat, but the new resurrection body is like a full stalk of wheat. The complexity and beauty, the glory, of the latter overwhelmingly transcends the simplicity of the little seed. Yet the seed determines that the stalk is wheat, not corn or sunflowers. We know that our bodies will somehow be like Christ’s. We know Christ’s body still bore His wounds. He asked his disciples to fix him breakfast. Yet he can seemingly appear suddenly, maybe moving through walls. He is at times not even recognized until He does something exactly as He habitually did them pre-resurrection. But we still know very little. For example, what age will I be? Will my body be my younger body or my chronically ill body transformed? We will have no need for reproduction, since there will be no death, but will I be as attracted to my wife as I am now? We actually know very little.
But we do know with absolute certainty that we will be like Christ. However, I disagree with the usual explanation of the second sentence of verse 2. Many wonderful sermons use 2 Corinthians 3:18 as a cross reference, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” So, upon our full face-to-face encounter with the LORD, we will be instantly transformed. Seeing Christ will change us into His likeness. What a glorious vision!
However, I believe that the logic is a little different. The fact that we will see Him as He is, the Beatific Vision, is guaranteed to us. That is the starting point in our analysis of this verse. We begin with the promise of the vision, yet we also know “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt 5:8). If the promise of the vision is certain, then the condition of that vision, purity of heart, must be certain also. Amazingly this assurance of purity drives the pursuit of purity, “And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure” (1 John 3:3 NASB; 1995 update).
This passage and the relation between verses 2 and 3 put the lie to the idea about doubt driving the pursuit of holiness. If it does, it’s not the biblical way. Instead, hope and assurance lead to purifying ourselves. Even though the result is guaranteed we respond by being energized, driven to action. We know with certainty that we will be pure; otherwise we will not see Him as He is. Instead of being passive, we become active. To the person struggling with sanctification the starting point is to instill hope.