In recent months I have become aware of some heresies pertaining to John’s first epistle that are spreading among fundamental Baptist churches.
Though there are difficulties in 1 John, these can be resolved by applying sound principles of Bible interpretation. The first two of these are to interpret Scripture according to context and to compare Scripture with Scripture.
Applying these principles we find that there are two “keys” to the proper understanding of John’s first Epistle.
First, the epistle was WRITTEN TO BELIEVERS that their fellowship with God might be perfected and their joy might be full.
“That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full” (1 John 1:3-4).
“These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God” (1 John 5:13).
The word “fellowship” is used four times in 1 John 1:3-7.
The epistle is clearly and definitely not written to unbelievers. It is not about how to be saved; it is about how to stay in fellowship with God after you are saved.
There is a heresy that 1 John 1:9 is for the unbeliever and that the believer cannot be out of fellowship with God.
This is taught, for example, by Guided By Truth Ministries, as follows.
“For the believer, verbally ‘confessing’ our sins through prayer does not cause us to be forgiven. We may ask God to forgive us but He has told us through His word that He already has. We can certainly thank Him for forgiving our sin, but to keep asking for it means we are ignoring Him and His Word. He teaches us to rest in forgiveness, not keep seeking it. ... With this truth in mind, we must ask, what does 1 John 1:9 actually mean? Can we actually break fellowship with God and not be in His good graces if we have un-confessed sin? ... Those who admit their sin will be saved. Those who already have are already forgiven. There is no teaching here to the contrary. This passage is referring to the one time event that happens to those who are saved. It is not teaching how a Christian should receive forgiveness but rather how those who admitted they had sin became Christians. ... Knowing that it is impossible to be in darkness after accepting the light of the world we can further understand that in 1 John 1:6, 8, & 10 John is speaking of those who have never accepted Christ. ... GOD NEVER DECLARES A ‘BREAK IN FELLOWSHIP’ WITH US. This concept is not found in Scripture. ... The Bible tells us that we will still sin, but when we accept Christ as our Savior, we are referred to as saints. He has forgiven all of our sins. There is no need for us to keep dwelling on our sin. He took them away to be remembered no more. This confession idea is out of sync with the truth of Salvation and only keeps our mind on sin rather than on the forgiveness already imputed to us” (“Forgiveness and 1 John 1:9,” Guided By Truth Ministries, n.d.).
This heresy is also taught by Steve McVey in 52 Lies Heard in Church Every Sunday.
“Don’t get bogged down in a faulty understanding of 1 John 1:9 when the rest of the New Testament teaches that our sins have been absolutely forgiven--past, present, and future. ... The idea that we’re out of fellowship with God when we do wrong is a lie. It’s one of those cliches. It sounds good, but it’s not biblical. THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO TO PUT YOURSELF OUT OF FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD. ... You are in fellowship with God all the time” (McVey, 52 Lies, pp. 72, 73, 75).
This heresy forces a meaning upon John’s words in his first epistle that is unnatural. He plainly is talking about “fellowship” in 1 John 1, using the term four times. This heresy flies in the face of the Bible's own words.
The author of the previous statements err in failing to make a clear distinction between relationship and fellowship. That is really the heart of the matter, and the issue is that simple.
Relationship and fellowship, standing and state, position and practice are plainly taught doctrines of the Christian life and are emphasized in the New Testament epistles and a proper understanding of these things is essential for stability and fruitfulness in the Christian life.
Paul says we have been cleansed of our sins (1 Cor. 6:11; Col. 2:13), which refers to the believer’s eternal position in Christ; whereas John says we are cleansed from our sin as we walk in the light (1 John 1:7), referring to daily fellowship with the Father.
Paul says in one place that we have put off the old man and put on the new man (Colossians 3:9-10), referring to the believer’s unchanging position in Christ, but he says in another place that we are to put off the old man and put on the new man as a daily way of life (Ephesians 4:22-24), referring to one’s practice and fellowship.
The difference between relationship and fellowship is brought out clearly in Ephesians. The first three chapters describe the believer’s position in Christ, while the last three describe his practice in this world. Positionally, the “old man” is dead in Christ and we are already seated in the heavenlies with Him, but as a matter of practice we are to put off the old man and put on the new (Eph. 4:22-24). This pertains to fellowship.
The two aspects of sanctification (relationship and fellowship) are seen in Ephesians 5:8 -- now that we ARE light, positionally and relationally, let's live like it day by day, practically and as a matter of fellowship.
We are children of God by faith in Christ the moment we are born again, but that doesn't mean that He is pleased with everything we do in this present life and that does not mean that I am in fellowship with Him no matter how I act. It is the same thing in a human father-child relationship, though on a far less perfect basis. Growing up, when I disobeyed my father, I was still his son but I wasn't pleasing to Him and we didn't have proper fellowship. That could only be restored by my actions toward him.
John says there are two things that keep us in fellowship with the Father, walking in the light (obedience) and confession of sins. God isn't "mad" at His children in any frail human sense when we sin, but He can definitely be displeased and the onus is on us to stay in sweet fellowship by honoring and obeying Him and acknowledging our sins before Him rather than hiding them and excusing them.
The idea that there is nothing to do to get out of God's fellowship makes no sense in light of the New Testament's many warnings.
Why does God chasten His children if they can't get out of fellowship (Heb. 12)?
How could there be a sin unto death if we can't get out of fellowship (1 Cor. 11:27-32; 1 John 5:16-17)?
If it is not possible to be out of fellowship through sin why did Paul fear becoming a castaway for not keeping his body under subjection (1 Cor. 9:27)?
If it is not possible to get out of fellowship, why does Paul warn about loss at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3)?
These questions could be multiplied.
Second, the epistle of 1 John was written to protect believers from false teachers.
“These things have I written to you concerning them that seduce you” (1 John 2:26).
The things that John writes about pertaining to not hating the brethren (1 John 2:9, 11; 3:15; 4:20) and pertaining to the obedience that characterizes true brethren (1 John 2:3-4) are geared to refuting the false teaching that was spreading in that day.
The false teachers separated themselves from the true apostles and preachers (1 John 2:19). They denied the Christhood and Sonship of Jesus (1 John 4:2, 15). They were of the world (1 John 4:5). They did not love the true brethren (1 John 4:7-8) but rather hated the brethren (1 John 3:15). Diotrephes in 3 John is an example. They denied the propitiation of Christ (1 John 4:10). They lived in unrighteousness (1 John 3:7-8).
These false teachers are further described in Jude. They turned the grace of God into lasciviousness (Jude 4, 7, 16, 18). They denied Jesus (Jude 4), such as denying His divinity, and denying His humanity, and denying that Jesus was the same as Christ, etc. They despised dominion (Jude 8). They followed a works religion (Jude 11). They were covetousness (Jude 11). They assumed positions of spiritual authority to which God had not called them (Jude 11). They honored man rather than God (Jude 16).
This spirit of error and apostasy eventually grew until it became the Roman Catholic Church, with its doctrine of infant baptism and baptismal regeneration, whereby unregenerate people are proclaimed Christians even though their is no change and no regenerating power in their lives, and whereby the true brethren were so hated that they were “excommunicated” and imprisoned, persecuted and killed.
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