Can We Know We Have Eternal Life (1 John 5:13)?

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Introduction

Many Christians point to 1 John 5:13 as being St. John the Apostle’s purpose for writing the epistle – namely, to assure believers of their final salvation based on their present belief. The verse reads, “I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God” (NABRE). Another translation has, “I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (RSV). Either way, it looks like an open-shut case, right?

Maybe not.

“So That”

For starters, this understanding of the epistle’s purpose is questionable. St. John makes many other “purpose statements” early on and throughout this epistle. For example, he says, “We are writing this so that our joy may be complete,” (1:4) and that, “I am writing this to you so that you may not commit sin” (2:1). Six additional reasons appear in verses 2:12-14. Thus, it is not at all clear that 5:13 serves as a purpose statement or even that “these things” refers to the entire epistle (and not just the preceding verses).

But even if it is St. John’s purpose statement, the verse does not necessarily support the assurance many take it to be affirming – nor the reason they cite for that assurance.

“These Things”

If 1 John 5:13 is taken to be the purpose of the epistle, the idea that it affirms future assurance of salvation based on present belief is actually more difficult to sustain. Limiting “this” (RSV) or “these things” (NABRE) to belief in this passage is illicit given what we see in the rest of the epistle.

It is often difficult to remember that verse numbers, paragraphs, chapters, and section headings are not part of the original biblical text. This makes it is easy to miss a passage’s larger context which can strongly bear on its proper interpretation. When the entirety of St. John’s letter is taken into consideration, “these things” turn out to include not only belief (3:23) but a number of other conditions such as:

  • Walking in the light (1 John 1:7).
  • Not sinning (1 John 2:1 cf. 3:6-9 and 5:18).
  • Keeping Jesus’ commandments (1 John 2:3).
  • Walking as Jesus walked (1 John 2:6).
  • Not loving the world (1 John 2:15).
  • Abiding in the Son and in the Father (1 John 2:24-28).
  • Helping our brothers (1 John 3:17).
  • Loving in deed and in truth (1 John 3:18).
  • Testing the spirits to see whether they are of God (1 John 4:1).
  • Loving one another (1 John 4:7-21).
  • Having the Son (1 John 5:11).

A life of Christian faithfulness seems to be in view here, not merely a present state of belief.

“You Who Believe”

Concerning belief, it is important to note that the word in 5:13 is, grammatically, a description of the epistle’s recipients (“you who believe in the name of the Son of God”). St. John could just as well have said, “I write these things to you who live in Asia Minor that you may know that you have eternal life.” Of course no one would argue from such a statement that living in Asia Minor guarantees eternal life! But grammatically it would be the same. Rather than asserting that present belief assures final salvation, 5:13 points those who believe to things (found throughout the epistle) which can assure them of their eternal life. That is not the same thing.

Further, even if belief is taken as the condition for eternal life (cf. 1 John 5:10), the word is in the present tense (so is “have”). Believing in the name of the Son of God may very well guarantee having eternal life, but that does not mean belief cannot cease. Even when eternal life is considered quantitatively (as never-ending – John 10:28) rather than qualitatively (as knowing God – John 17:3), that does not thereby make it a condition which cannot be lost. Present assurance (which is all 1 John 5:13 can be said to indicate) is no promise of future assurance. The verse simply does not assert anything about one’s final salvation (unless “final salvation” is assumed to be synonymous with “eternal life”- but that remains to be proven).

“That You May Know”

We should also recognize that even if present belief is a condition for assurance of eternal life, it is a subjective (personal) issue. St. John says he writes “so that you may know that you have eternal life.” He does not say, “so that you may know someone else has eternal life.” Thus, even if belief were all that was necessary to attain this future confidence (which is not what this passage indicates), we still would only have hypothetical knowledge of someone else’s salvation. (i.e., If they believe, then they have eternal life.) And again, even this would say nothing of their future assurance.

Finally, very few of these conditions are open to easy assessment (see above). Do we really know that we are walking with Jesus? Acting righteously? Loving our brothers and not the world? Who can confidently say they’ve stopped sinning? And if these things are difficult for us to know about ourselves, how much more careful should we be when assuring others (whose hearts we cannot know)?

Conclusion

Even if St. John did write his first epistle to communicate assurance of future salvation to ourselves and others (none of which is demanded by the text), such assurance is not said to be based on belief alone – nor is such assurance said to be permanent. By the time we reach 1 John 5:13, the author has cited numerous conditions of eternal life which are difficult to assess even personally much less concerning anyone else.

To use 1 John 5:13 to assure someone that they have eternal life (or that they will keep it) is therefore unwarranted. Better to simply do what St. John says: See for yourself! Read the Scriptures so that you may know if you have eternal life (cf. 2 Corinthians 13:5). Then remember that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 cf. John 20:23 and Matthew 18:18).

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