Many Christians point to 1 John 5:13 as indicating that we can, indeed, know if we have eternal life. It is often used by Evangelical evangelists to assure others of their final salvation based on a simple confession of belief.
Does 1 John 5:13 teach that we can know we if we are saved? It reads, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Sounds like an open-shut case, right? But of course it’s not – why else would I write this blog post? The reason is that this verse might only indicate a test for oneself. Further, belief is only part of John’s equation.
“That You May Know”
We should first recognize that this “test” is a subjective (personal) assessment. John says he writes “so that you may know that you have eternal life” – not so you can know if someone else does. Thus, even if a confession of belief were all that was necessary to attain this confidence, we could only have hypothetical knowledge of someone else’s salvation. (i.e., we could say that, “If your confession is genuine, then you have eternal life.”).
First John 5:13, then, does not help when assessing others’ salvation. Thus, to use it as a promise to someone else that they are saved is dangerous. But what of its value in our own self-assessment. Here, a “mere belief” position may be dangerous as well.
It’s often difficult to remember that verse numbers, chapter divisions, and most certainly section headings are not part of the original biblical text. Since many Bible translations call attention to 1 John 5:13, it is easy to miss contextual clues and themes throughout the letter that bear on its proper interpretation. What we see as we look through 1 John is that belief is not the only criteria for assurance of eternal life.
First, it is important to note that the word “believe” in 5:13 is not the thing that gives assurance – rather, it describes the recipients of the letter (i.e., “it is “those who believe”). For example, John might have said, “I write these things to the people of Asia Minor so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Just as being from Asia Minor does not guarantee eternal life, neither (grammatically) does “being a believer.”
Further, although this verse is often cited as being John’s purpose for writing the entire letter, other “purpose statements” are made throughout 1:4 (“we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete”) and in 2:1 (“I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin”). A whole list of different reasons for his writing occur just a few verses later in 2:12-14. In another example, a similar promise to that of 5:13 is made in 3:18-19 where John says, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him.” So the letter seems to have multiple, but related, purposes that include numerous issues besides belief.
Rather than just the recipient qualification of “belief” in 5:13, or the nearby faith affirmations of, say, 5:10-12, the entirety of John’s letter must be taken into consideration when “these things” are listed (as Dallas Theological Seminary NT scholar W. Hall Harris III agrees). Thus, by the time we reach 1 John 5:13, John has not only said that people must believe in order to know that they have eternal life, he has listed dozens of things people are to do. Here is a sample:
- Walk in the light (1 John 1:7).
- Do not sin (1 John 2:1 cf. 3:6-9).
- Walk as Jesus walked (1 John 2:6).
- Love not the world (1 John 2:15).
- Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning (1 John 2:24).
- Abide in Jesus (1 John 2:28).
- Let no man deceive you (1 John 3:7).
- Act righteously (1 John 3:7).
- Help your brethren in need (1 John 3:17).
- Do not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:18).
- Believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 3:23).
- Do not believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God (1 John 4:1).
- Love one another (1 John 4:7-21).
- Pray for a brother caught in a sin which is not unto death (1 John 5:16).
- Keep away from idols (1 John 5:21).
Belief is certainly one of the tests for knowledge of eternal life (e.g., 3:23), but John also includes things like walking with and loving God, obeying God’s commandments, abiding in God, loving our brothers, not loving the world, keeping from being deceived, practicing righteousness, and ceasing sinning. Thus, if John wrote First John to give assurance of salvation to people, not only does it come by a personal test, one’s “mere belief” does not seem to be adequate for its provision.
John 5:13 does indeed give assurance of salvation, but not simply to “those who believe.” The total Christian life seems to be in view here.
Finally, we should note that very few of these commands are open to easy assessment. Am I walking with Jesus? Do I act righteous? Have I stopped sinning? Do I help my brothers? If these things are difficult for us to know of ourselves, how much more careful should we be about assuring others (whose hearts we cannot know) that they have eternal life?