Why I Dislike I John So Far

For my daily quiet time, I’m in John’s first epistle to…Christians, I guess. The book doesn’t specify the exact location of its audience.

I still have other write-ups to do for my daily quiet times. There are Luke topics that I want to write about, but I haven’t gotten to them yet.

Yesterday, I read I John 1. Today, I read I John 2-3. I’m somewhat of a Paul-man myself, or a “Paul as Martin Luther interprets him” man. I need to believe in God’s free grace and unconditional love, since I have a lot of sins, plus my deeds are not good enough to please God.

But the Epistle of James looks good next to I John! And, to be honest, I actually like the Epistle of James (Martin Luther’s opinion notwithstanding), and it’s not only because its author shares my name. I like it because James seems to meet people where they are. Consider the following verses:

James 1:5: “If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you” (NRSV).

James 3:3, 8: “For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle…but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”

James 3:14: “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.”

James 4:7-10: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

James 5:13: “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.”

What’s the common theme in these verses? To me, it’s that we shouldn’t lose hope if we find spiritual flaws within us. If we lack wisdom, we should ask God for it, and he’s eager to help us! We should come clean if we have bitter envy and selfish ambition, rather than patting ourselves on the back. We all make mistakes with our tongues, and only God can tame them. We should draw near to God if we find ourselves in a spiritual ditch. And we should pray when we are suffering. James meets people where they are.

Granted, James still has his perfectionist tendencies. In James 1:6-7, he states: “But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” My problem with this passage is that I will always have some doubt when I pray to God. I’m not perfect! James would encourage me a lot more if he said that God is faithful in spite of my doubts.

James also affirms that faith without works cannot save a person (John 2:14). My question here is, “How many good works must I do before I can finally be assured of salvation?” It’s not that I fail to see James’ overall point. James says, for example, that belief in one God is not sufficient to save (James 2:19), and that makes sense. If I believe in one God, yet I don’t have any desire to live a holy life, then what’s so meritorious about my faith?

But, overall, James presents the reader with a place to go, or more accurately, someone to go to. He offers hope, even though he includes works in the salvation process.

I John, however, is more like: “Look, these are the characteristics of a true Christian, and, if you don’t have them, then you’re not really saved.”

There are a variety of texts that indicate this (I John 2:3-4; 3:14, et. al.). But what really disturbed me was I John 1. In vv 6-10, we read the following:

“If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

My problem is this: in order to be assured that I am saved, I need to be walking in the light. But if I say that I have no sin, then I’m a liar. So I just can’t win! I must convince myself that I’m a righteous person in order to have any assurance of salvation, but I also have to see myself as a sinner.

Also, I John presents things as so automatic. If we have a relationship with God, then we’re walking in the light. If we’re walking in the light, then we have fellowship with other believers. But are things that automatic? Does having a relationship with God necessarily mean that I will click with other believers, or fit into their nice little Christian cliques? For me, “fellowship” means Christians socializing. But if one struggles with social skills, then that shuts him out of fellowship!

But maybe I John offers some hope. He calls his readers “forgiven” (I John 2:11-14), so he seems to assume that they’re saved. But not all of them are carrying out the implications of their salvation. On the other hand, he appears to manifest a Calvinist sort of approach, the “there are true believers and false professors” school of thought. He says in I John 2:19: “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.”

Another possible verse of hope is I John 2:8: “Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining.” Is this saying that the people in John’s audience are on the path to holiness, as God sweeps away the darkness within them that there might be light?

Overall, however, I John’s message seems to be that we need to be righteous before we can have assurance of salvation. But how righteous do I have to be?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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