Reading through and interpreting 1 John can be a challenge. The author would make a good software developer as he deals with things in a very binary way. His statements are absolute, black and white leaving little wiggle room for readers. However, this writing is very repetitive in nature, echoing the same themes, and saying the same thing over and over. In the software world, we would say that this writing needs some major refactoring (changes that are made to improve readability and eliminate complexity and duplication).
There are two major views on how to interpret 1 John. One view is known as the Test of Life, the other view is commonly identified as the Test of Fellowship. Both views acknowledge that John is providing his readers with a series of tests. They differ on what these tests are being used to evaluate.
The Test of Life view focuses on salvation. The tests are given to help the readers have confidence that they possess eternal life. Failing the tests would indicate that one is unsaved (or at a minimum should have very low assurance that they are).
The Test of Fellowship view focuses on our relationship with God. It starts with the premise that the readers are already saved. The tests are given to determine the strength of our relationship with God. Failing the tests means that one has a weak relationship with God and lacks maturity (but still possesses eternal life).
Often the debate over which view should be adopted focuses on whether 1 John 1:3 or 5:13 should be taken as the definitive purpose statement for the entire work (see this article in Bib Sac). While it is important to wrestle with the numerous “I write so that” statements in the book, I am not sure that this settles the issue.
As I read the book I see three major groups that are identified.
- The author John, who represents the apostolic teaching on Jesus
- the “we” in the “we proclaim to you” of the prologue.
- The community that John was writing to.
- the “you” in the “we proclaim to you” of the prologue.
- The false teachers who split off from the community
- the “they” of verse 2:19 who are represented in many of the claims that John refutes throughout the book.
Whether we see the community and false teachers as reborn or not shapes which interpretive view we will use to interpret 1 John.
The Test of Fellowship interpretive framework fits the book if both the members of the community and false teachers are represented as saved in the letter since the tests are measuring the levels of maturity.
However, if the members of the community are seen as saved but struggling and the false teachers are viewed as unsaved then the Test of Life framework is a better fit.
Assessing the community. John clearly writes to the original readers assuming they are believers (at least most of them). This is clear since he addresses them as little children and says that he is confident that they know the truth (2:21), know the Father, have overcome the evil one (2:12-14), and are children of God (3:1). However, this does not necessarily determine which view (Test of Life/Fellowship) we should adopt. John could be writing to help people assess their spiritual maturity. However he could be encouraging people by reminding them that he is confident that they possesses eternal life .
Why would John have confidence that the community has eternal life? John is clearly writing to people that he knows. Because he has witnessed first hand their faith, walk, and love for others he is confident that they are reborn. John provides the tests in the book so that the community can use them to gain the same confident assurance regarding their salvation that John has.
What are they struggling with? John writes to the original readers who are part of a community that has been split. False teachers, who were originally part of the group, have left but clearly their impact is still felt. Those members remaining with the community are clearly struggling and John wants to help them.
Much of the book is written contrasting two sets of claims about how to know God (2:4-6; 3:6; 4:7-8), how to view sin (1:6-10; 3:4-10), and whether Jesus is the Christ (2:22-24; 3:23-34; 4:1-6; 5:1). The contrasting claims are likely topics that the community is questioning. These are also likely topics that were introduced by the false teachers that left. The people are clearly having doubts about whose teachings about Jesus, sin, and eternal life are correct. Is it John and the apostles (the “we”) or is it the false teachers (“they”)?
John is writing to ask the community who do you identify most with? Who do you have more in common with?
This would explain why John opens up the book emphasizing that he has seen, heard, and touched Jesus. He is defending his claims based on his being someone who followed Jesus during His earthly ministry (1:1-4). It is also why he will appeal to the readers to remain committed to the things that he taught them from the beginning rather than the new and deceiving teachings of the false teachers (2:24,26).
It is in this light that we should also understand the idea of fellowship in this book. The word in Greek emphasizes a relationship. But that relationship is a partnership based on things that are held in common. If we examine verses 1:3 and 1:7 carefully we will notice that John emphasizes fellowship with him (and the apostolic Rule of Faith) rather than with God. John is encouraging the community (and us) that we must partner with him (and the apostles) because he is partnered with God (1:3). John’s partnership with God is based on having common views on Jesus, sin, loving others, and possessing eternal life. Thus partnership with him is a partnership with God. John also says that partnership with the false teachers is a rejection of a partnership with him (2:19) as well as a rejection of a partnership with God (1:3,6; 2:4; 4:5-6). John is writing to ask the community who do you identify most with? Who do you have more in common with? The apostolic faith or the false teachers.
I think a reasonable paraphrase of 1 John 1:3,6-7, with these ideas in mind, could be rendered: we proclaim this message to you so that you may partner with us; for partnering with us is partnering with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (And this partnership is based on agreeing with God’s testimony concerning His Son (5:11)). The false teachers claim to have a partnership with God but we can tell by their talk and their walk that they do not.
John is confident that the community that remains will remain partnered with him on these views because he has seem their talk and their walk and knows that it is made up of believers.
As we examine the book the question we must answer is what does John say about these false teachers? Are they immature saved people who have a weak relationship with God that they need to strengthen? Or are they unsaved people who do not possess eternal life?