In order to guard against the error of easy-believism (aka antinomianism) on the one hand, and the constant temptation to return to the legal mind—attempting to seek or maintain God’s favor through our works—on the other, it is of utmost importance that we continually remind ourselves of the nature of justification and sanctification as taught in scripture, and as reclaimed and heralded in the Protestant Reformation. Concerning the matter of justification (how a sinner is made righteous before God), the Reformed tradition organizes the doctrine around five main distinctives, i.e. the “Five Solas” of the Reformation. The Five Solas proclaim that one is justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (Sola Fide), in Christ alone (Solus Christus), for the glory of God alone (Soli Deo Gloria), according to Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura).
Scripture, being God’s perfect self-revelation to man, is the sole authoritative basis on which we form these doctrines (Isa 8:20; LBC 1.1, 6, 10). As previously detailed, Scripture is abundantly clear that sinners are justified, sanctified, and glorified by grace alone. “Salvation is of the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9) And God’s gracious salvation is for His glory alone (LBC 5.1). Our God reserves for Himself alone the honor of being the Redeemer of His church. God alone is glorified in the merciful salvation of sinners, and He will not share His glory with another. With the corruption of our natures reaching to every faculty we possess (Rom 3:9-19; LBC 6.2-5, 5.5, 9.4-5, 11.5, 13.2-3, 15.2, 16.5), and God’s holiness being exalted above the heavens (Isa 6:1-8), we could not make a single contribution toward our own righteous standing before the Lord, even if we desired to (Rom 3:20; LBC 7.1-2, 16.5). Scripture is abundantly clear—every person whom God justifies, He sanctifies (Heb 12:14, 10:14), leading to an imperfect yet growing dependence upon and submission to Christ (Eph 4:11-16; Phil 3:8-14). These things have major implications for how we view things such as the assurance of faith, and the ministry of the church.
In His humiliation, incarnation, perfect obedience to the law, vicarious death and resurrection, ascension, session, intercession and advocacy, Jesus Christ has perfectly accomplished everything that is needed for the salvation of every sinner who is united to Him through faith (LBC 3.6, 7.1-2). There is absolutely nothing to add to the utter sufficiency of who Christ is, what He has done, what He is now doing, and what He will do when it comes to salvation. Salvation is in Christ alone, from beginning to end. He alone gets the honor of doing the saving (LBC 8.1), He is perfectly suited to the task (LBC 8.2-10), and His heart toward sinners is one of mercy, kindness, and limitless, reproachless generosity in gifting us the benefits He has won on our behalf (Rom 5:8-10; Heb 4:15; 1 Tim 1:15-16; Tit 3:3-7; Mk 2:17; Mt 9:13, 11:19, 28-29; Isa 40:10-11, 55:1-7). In fact, He is more willing to shower us with His infinite mercy than even the most humble person is to come to Him for it (2 Pt 3:9; Ezk 33:11; Mt 23:37; Lk 13:34, 15:4-6; Isa 65:2). For any and every sinner who is aware of their need for His salvation (Lk 18:13-14; Isa 55:1; Jn 7:37-38; Mt 5:6, 20:30-31), and comes to Him through faith, He immediately, exhaustively, and irrevocably justifies us (Jn 7:37-38; Heb 9:12; Gal 3:10, cf 3:22; 2 Cor 5:18-21; Jn 6:40; Rom 8:1-4; Acts 10:43; Ps 103:3, 10, 12; Jer 31:34; LBC 10.1, 11.1-2, 5, 17.1-3), communicates every benefit He has purchased to us by uniting us to Himself (Eph 1:3), reconciles us to God (Rom 5:10; Col 1:22) and mediates between us (Heb 2:17), adds us to the family of God through adoption (Rom 8:15; Eph 1:5; Gal 4:4-6; LBC 12.1), and pledges through His perfect intercession and advocacy on our behalf to preserve us and deliver us (Heb 9:24; Rom 8:34; 1 Jn 2:1)—despite the malice of every enemy, including our own remaining corruptions (1 Jn 2:1-2; Hos 11:7-8; Jn 10:28-30; Heb 4:14-16; 1 Tim 1:15-16)—to the enjoyment of His own inheritance in glory (Acts 20:32, 26:18; Eph 1:9-12; 1 Pt 1:3-5); which He freely gives to us in Himself. At its heart, justification is the declaration that a wicked person is righteous (Rom 3:21-25, 4:5, 5:1, 6). And that declaration is made on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ alone, and for His sake (1 Cor 1:30; Phil 3:9; Acts 4:12; Rom 3:21-25; LBC 8.1, 11.1).
Often times in our Lord’s earthly ministry, we saw examples of people approaching Him with an interest in eternal life who did not have an awareness of their true spiritual need for the salvation He came to provide (Mt 5:1, 19:16; Lk 14:25, 18:18; Mk 10:17). To such people, our Lord gave the law (Mt 5:20-6:7, 6:16-7:12, 15-23, 19:16-22; Lk 14:26-33, 18:18-23; Mk 10:17-22)—the schoolmaster which is designed to break our self-righteous delusions and reveal our need for Christ (Gal 3:10, 24; 1 Tim 1:8-11; Rom 3:19-20, 7:13; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Deut 27:26; Jam 2:10; LBC 19.5, 6). We have many examples of this in the gospels, and in the epistles (Rom 2; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; Jam 2:8-11 cf 2:12). On the other hand, His message to the helpless was pure gospel, with no mixture of law (Lk 12:32; Mt 9:2, 5:6; Lk 7:50, 15:1-7; Jn 6:37-40, 7:32-38). Salvation is 100% of Christ and by Christ; and as long as one is confused about their supposed involvement in their standing before God, they need the good law of God to reveal their destitution until they see their helplessness, and thus come to Christ on His terms—empty handed—to receive His all-sufficient supply (Mt 5:6; Jn 6:35; LBC 19.1-2, 5-7). And the moment someone comes to Christ on His terms, they are saved to the uttermost—freely and unconditionally.
This distinction between law and gospel which we see frequently in Jesus’ ministry, and in the Apostolic writings is absolutely vital to the right preaching of the word of God. This distinction was central to the preaching and teaching of the Reformers, and the Reformed tradition that formed in their wake, but it rarely finds a place in contemporary evangelicalism. This is in no small part due to the influence of the 19th century’s dispensationalism, which provides little to no theological category for how it is that many of Christ’s statements are indeed a kind, pedagogical application of the condemning law, and not gospel.
Given the exhaustive sufficiency of Christ’s salvation, offered freely through the gospel to all needy sinners who come; faith, through which we are alone justified, is nothing more than an empty, open hand, receiving and resting in Christ alone (Heb 10:11-14; Jer 33:16; Rom 3:21-26; Eph 1:6-9, 2:1-10; Jn 7:37-38; Mt 5:6, 20:30-31; Isa 55:1; Lk 18:13-14; LBC 3.5, 7.1-2, 8.8, 11.2-3, 14.2). There is no frame of mind, Spirit wrought or otherwise, besides the awareness of one’s need for salvation, that is required for one to be justified (Jn 7:37-38; Lk 18:13-14; Gal 2:16; Isa 55:1; Mt 5:6, 20:30-31; LBC 11.2, 14.2). There is no reform of the heart, no fruit of sanctification, no submission to Christ’s Lordship, indeed no motions whatsoever toward loving God or neighbor (all of which are the essence of the internal and external works of the law (Deut 6:1-5; Lk 10:26-28; Matt 22:36-40; Mk 12:28-31)) that are preparatory in order to come to Christ (Hab 2:4; Rom 1:17, 4:4-5; Tit 3:5; Gal 2:16). Such things will be present in the life of a believer (Eze 11:19-20, 36:24-27; Eph 2:10; Mt 7:18; Jn 15:5), but they are fruits of sanctification, and must not be held as the grounds or instrument of justification, lest we endanger the purity of the gospel we preach (Rom 3:28; Gal 1:9; LBC 11.2). The call of the gospel is for any sinner who sees their need to come freely and unconditionally (Mt 5:6, 11:28; Isa 55:1-7); and the moment one does, they are made eternally spotless before God, and counted as righteous according to the perfections of their federal head, Jesus Christ.
Faith alone, as a gift of grace alone, taking hold of Christ alone is the sole instrument of our justification, but it is never alone in the person justified, but is accompanied by all other saving graces, including repentance and the fruits of sanctification (Eze 36:25-27; LBC 11.2). The gift of faith through which one is justified is not merely exercised the moment one believes, but remains as the vital connection between a saint and their Savior until they are taken home to glory (Rom 8:23-25; 2 Cor 3:15-18; Rev 14:12). The Spirit sustains the grace of faith (along with every other grace) throughout a saint’s life, and thereby enables them to accept the teaching of Scripture regarding everything it says, commands, and reveals about the perfections and excellencies of God, and the sufficiency of Christ to justify, sanctify, preserve, and finally save us (Lam 3:22-23; Ps 63:8; Jer 31:34; 1 Jn 2:20, 27).
Sanctification is a monergistic (accomplished by God alone (Jn 6:63; 1 Pt 1:2; Ezk 20:12; Gal 5:6, 22-23; Jn 15:5; Rom 8:10-14)) work of the Holy Spirit, working by and through the same death and resurrection of Christ that justifies us (Heb 10:10; Eph 3:14-21; 2 Cor 5:14-15; LBC 13.1), whereby every sinner who is justified is also set apart as holy and purified for the Lord’s use. The same regenerating grace which produced in us the gift of faith by the gospel—through which we were justified—also creates in us every other grace via the same new heart (Eze 36:25-27; Mt 7:18; Jn 15:5). Through the ongoing exercise of grace by the abiding power of the Spirit, the word of Christ dwells richly in us (Jn 7:37-39; 1 Jn 2:20, 27), the depths of our remaining corruption is revealed with greater clarity, and we are further matured in our dependence upon Christ to save us (Eph 4:11-16; Phil 3:8-14; Heb 12:1-3 LBC 5.5, 13.2, 17.3). As we mature in our understanding of the depths of our sin, and the assurance of the freedom we have in Christ, the Spirit works in us the fruit of gratitude (Col 3:15-17; Heb 3:15-16; Rom 8:10; Ps 118, 7:17, 52:6-9; 2 Cor 3:17, 4:13-15; LBC 16.2-3, 21.1, 3). Knowing the kindness and severity of God, the gratitude we have through the freedom of the gospel and the assurance of faith by it is the fuel for all growth in holiness (Rom 2:4, 8:10; Heb 9:14; Tit 3:3-8; Jonah 2:9; 1 Cor 6:15-20; Phil 3:12; 2 Pt 1:8-9; Lk 1:73-75; Gal 5:13; 1 Jn 3:1-3; Rom 6:1-2, 12:1; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Heb 6:11-12; LBC 11.3, 14.2, 16.2-4). It is by this evangelical grace that the dominion of sin over us is destroyed, the corruption of our flesh is weakened, and our love of God’s law is increased as we grow in our grateful submission to the lordship of Christ (Rom 7:22, 14:17, 6:13; Tit 2:11-14; 1 Pt 1:18-19, 2:9; 1 Cor 6:20, 7:23).
Because of the remaining corruption of our flesh, which continually wages war against our souls (Gal 5:17; Rom 7:14-25), this sanctification will never produce perfect fruits in this life (Rom 8:26-27; Isa 64:6; Jer 17:9; LBC 6.2-5, 5.5, 9.4-5, 11.5, 13.2-3, 15.2, 16.5). Even our holiest works are carried out with mixed motives (Jer 17:9; Rom 7:15, 21), and can never be acceptable to God on their own. But through the mediation of our Lord, they are indeed perfectly acceptable to the Father in Him (Heb 2:17; LBC 8.10, 16.6).
The fruits of sanctification are absolutely never the grounds or the instrument of our justification (Tit 3:4-7; LBC 13.1; 11.1-2). Christ’s church cannot compromise on that point of doctrine. To point to anything beyond the open hand of faith as the instrumentof our justification is to deny the Apostles’ teaching—the teaching reclaimed and faithfully summarized in the Reformed tradition—pollute the gospel, and yield oneself to the essence of Roman Catholic heresy. The Roman Catholic catechism, quoting the Council of Trent (which was Rome’s response to / condemnation of Reformation theology,) says, “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” Given that, as our Lord taught, the works of the law are summarized as loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind, as well as our strength, and our neighbor as ourselves; teaching any sort of interior reform beyond one’s personal recognition of their need for Christ (Mt 11:28-30, 5:6; Isa 55:1-7) and the open hand of faith taking hold of Christ as the instrument or the grounds of justification is adding works to Christ, and is Roman in essence (LBC 16.5).
The assurance of faith is absolutely vital to the Christian life. It is the primary source of our growth in peace, joy, love, thankfulness, and holiness in the Lord (Heb 12:28-29; Col 2:2-3; Jude 20-21; Heb 10:19-25; 1 Tim 4:9-11; LBC 21.1, 3, 16.2-3). The primary basis for Christian assurance is the objective person and work of Christ (1 Pt 1:8; LBC 14.3, 18.2). The essence of a believer’s assurance, therefore, is not something speculative, fallible, or merely subjective, but has its ground in none other than the invincible, living hope on the basis of the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection that is spoken of often in the Apostles (1 Pt 1:3, 20-21; Eph 1:18-23; 2 Thess 2:16-17; 1 Tim 1:1, 6:11-12, 17-19; Col 1:21-27; Rom 5:1-5; Psa 32:1; 1 Cor 15:12; Rom 15:13; 1 Thess 1:3, 5:8-10; LBC 18.2). Various internal and external manifestations of the grace of God in sanctification, the fellowship of the Spirit, hatred of sin, repentance, growth in personal holiness, etc. are inevitable in every justified believer, and can therefore serve to increase and strengthen our assurance (1 Jn 3:18-19; Rom 8:10; Gal 4:4-6; LBC 16.2, 18.2), but they are never properly considered the primary basis of our assurance (Rom 7:22-25). Nor are seasons of apparent spiritual darkness, temptation, weakness, or conscience-wounding sin grounds for despairing for those whose hope is in Christ (Heb 4:14-16; Psa 32:1, 43:5; 2 Cor 4:8-18, 7:5-6; Rom 8:22-39; Phil 1:6; 1 Tim 1:15-16; Isa 40:29; 1 Jn 3:18-20; Jn 10:28-30; LBC 17.1-3)—such dire realities making up the very circumstance we are trusting the Savior, by the promises of His gospel, to keep us through and finally deliver us from (1 Jn 2:1-2; Lk 1:70-75; Ps 63:8; 1 Cor 15:25-26; Eph 6:12-17; Jn 10:28-30; Heb 12:4-14, 13:5-6). It is nonsensical indeed for one who is being sanctified—whose hope is in Christ alone—to look inside themselves, to the remnants of very body of death they’re being set free from, and thereby doubt the grace of God in Christ that is reaching down from outside of themselves through faith; from the One who is seated in the heavenly places. Instead, being prone to doubts, fear, and the remaining corruption of sin within us (LBC 6.2-5, 5.5, 9.4-5, 11.5, 13.2-3, 15.2, 16.5, 17.1-3), believers should continually be encouraged by the ordinary means of the ministry of the church to look outside of ourselves and rest in Christ (1 Jn 2:1-2; Heb 4:14-16, 13:5-6; Phil 1:6; 1 Tim 1:15-16; LBC 18.2-4, 11.2, 13.1). Trusting, as we do, in an all-sufficient Savior, may the cry of the Reformers—“Extra Nos!” (outside ourselves)—be our cry as well.
The Christian life as presented in the Scriptures is not one of endless fruit-hunting to either prove or disprove the genuineness of our faith. The handful of passages that encourage self-examination are being taken out of context and misinterpreted any time they are used to normalize morbid introspection (1 John 1:6-7, 2:3-6, 9-11, 15-17, 22-24, 28-29, 3:6-10, 14-15, 4:5-6, 7-8, 5:2 cf 1 Jn 1:1-4, 7-2:2, 12-14, 25-27, 3:1-3, 16-24, 4:4, 9-19, 5:11-20; 1 Corinthians 11:27-31 cf 11:20-22, 32; 2 Corinthians 13:5 cf 12:19, 13:3-4) in spite of the overwhelming message of the Scriptures—that the object of our faith is someone / something that has occurred outside of ourselves, and that our salvation is began, kept, and will be consummated by that external person. The objective person and work of Christ is sufficient to save, and He is the only sure and effectual anchor for our souls from the beginning of our salvation into eternity (Heb 6:16-20, 9:24). We must be careful to walk in the fear of God in the freedom of our union with the all-sufficient Christ—who is seated in the heavenly places (Rom 8:10; Heb 1:3, 8:1; Acts 7:55; Col 3:1; Eph 2:6)—and continually encourage our fellow brothers and sisters, in the course of our lives in the church, to do the same.
Implications for the Church
Given the sufficiency of Christ, the free nature of grace through faith, the inevitability of sanctification by means of gospel-gratitude, the vital nature of our objective assurance, and the world’s and our flesh’s continual tendency to contradict, deny, forget, and minimize these realities—the church must be, as the Scriptures demonstrate, a gospel-saturated refuge for weary pilgrims (Rev 1:6; 1 Pt 2:9; Rom 1:6-7; 1 Cor 1:2-9; 2 Cor 1:5-7; Gal 1:3-5; Eph 1-3; Phil 1:3-11; Col 1:2-3:11; 1 Thess 1:1-10; 1 Tim 1:15, 1 Pt 1:1-25; 2 Pt 1:1-21; 1 Jn 1:1-4; 2 Jn 1-3; Jude 1-3; Rev 1:1-8). Christ must be the center of everything we are about in the church; and feeding Him to the flock is the biblical goal of every gathering (Eph 4:15-16; Col 3:1, 16-18; LBC 22.1-2). Curving the saints’ focus inward on themselves, failing to give them the law lawfully (1 Tim 1:8-11; Gal 5:13-14; Lk 17:10; Job 35:5-8; LBC 19.5-7) and the gospel purely (Rom 3:21-26; LBC 20.1-2, 4), and neglecting the duty to give the people Christ in favor of any other pursuit is a gross dereliction of duty on the part of the Elders (1 Tim 1:3-4; LBC 22:2). As the Reformers faithfully and enthusiastically affirmed—Scripture points us outside of ourselves to the sufficiency of Christ (Col 3:1; Rev 1:6; 1 Pt 2:9; LBC 8.1-5, 9-10); and therefore the primary goal of every biblical church service is to do the same.
Being made in the image of God after our forefather Adam—the man who was created to earn God’s favor by his works (Gen 2:7-17, 3:22, 24; Hos 6:7; Rom 3:23 cf Heb 2:10; 1 Cor 15:45; LBC 4.2, 7.3, 19.1-2); grace is exceedingly alien and unnatural to mankind. The world and indeed our own flesh battles constantly to return us to a legal mind; and therefore back into slavery to sin (Rom 6:14, 7:5, 7-13). The bold claim of the Scriptures is that being brought out of ourselves, fixed upon the grace of God in Christ, and set free from the condemnation of the law, we are by those means actually enabled to do real works of love—the love which fulfills the very law whose condemnation we’re set free from in Christ (Rom 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; Jam 2:8, 12; Tit 3:3-8; LBC 16.2-3, 21.1, 3). The church, then, is where we gather to have our focus reset by the pure Word, the ordinances, prayer, and the fellowship and correction of the body—to have our souls put back to rest in Christ, our hearts refreshed in His love, and our minds renewed so that we might go back into the turmoil of the world full of gratitude, ready to love our neighbors as adopted sons and daughters of God (Rom 12:2, 8:15-17, Eph 1:5-6; Tit 3:3-8; 1 Jn 3:1; Eph 2:10).
But as Paul rhetorically asked in response to his teaching of these gospel truths across the first 5 chapters of Romans, will this free grace not cause people to adopt the mindset: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may increase?” (Rom 6:1) His answer is our answer—“May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:2) The gospel, rightly understood, renders such a proposition nonsensical to those who are being sanctified (Rom 6:1-14). And such persons are the body of Christ (1 Cor 1:2; Eph 5:23-32; 1 Tim 3:15; Heb 12:23 LBC 26.1-2, 6)—the ones whom the church was instituted to call, disciple, and sustain (Jn 21:15-17)! As Christ promised, there will inevitably be tares among the wheat (Mt 13:25-26, 38-39); but as He also instructed we are not to take it as our mission to weed them out (Mt 13:28-30)—artificially fencing the free grace of God in gospel ministry—lest we starve the flock and thereby tear the wheat up with the tares! The local church, when biblically constituted (Jer 31:31-34; Mt 28:18-20; Acts 2:41-42; 1 Cor 1:2; Eph 5:23-32; 1 Tim 3:15; Heb 12:23), is made up of visible saints (LBC 26.2, 6); and biblical gospel ministry ministers the free grace of the gospel accordingly—freely feeding the riches of Christ to the flock according to the Scriptures. As Jesus instructed, He will see to the tares in the time of the harvest (Mt 13:30, 39-42). And in the meantime, if the He so chooses, He will expose the deeds of any who might continue in obstinate sin (Num 32:23), and through the church’s obedience to the command to discipline her members; they will either be restored to repentance, or the credibility of their profession to be a visible saint will be negated by the church (Tit 3:10-11; 1 Tim 5:8; 1 Cor 5:3-5, 11-13; 2 Thess 3:6; Mt 16:19, 18:18-20; 2 Jn 10-11), and she will obediently purify herself by removing them from membership in the hope that they will some day be restored (Mt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:9-13; 1 Tim 1:20; 2 Thess 3:14-15). Either way, we must be faithful to proclaim the sufficiency of Christ, and the freedom of the gift of salvation in Him (because the Scriptures command it, and the health and sustenance of the saints depends on it!), and trust Christ to grow, prune, and preserve His church; and to purify her (LBC 5.7)—whether in this age or in the harvest—of any who might secretly or publicly misuse the good news and the church (Jude 4); which He has established as the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim 3:15).
Corporate Confession of 1 john 5:18-21
The Big Idea
The recipients of John’s first epistle were apparently dealing with false teaching that had been the cause of major turmoil in the recipients’ church(es). This schism over the person and work of Christ apparently went so deep that the false teachers ended up seceding from the church. John has spent the last five chapters both correcting these errors and painting a portrait of a true believer. His aim was both to inform his recipients regarding the nature of the true church and to provide comfort and assurance to the regenerate in light of the terrifying implications of persisting in heresy (5:13).
In the immediate context (5:16-17), John has just instructed the recipients to pray for a brother committing a sin not leading to death (ἁμαρτίαν μὴ πρὸς θάνατον). On the other hand, there is a sin leading to death (ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον), and they are not to pray for someone who is committing such a sin.
Main Idea of Passage
On the heels of that heavy truth, John ends his epistle with a vital and comforting corporate confession of faith. 1 John 5:18-21 presents the recipients with a series of three corporate confessions, all marked by the triumphant affirmation, “We know that…” (1 Jn 5:18, 19, 20; οἴδαμεν ὅτι). The content of this confession is a glorious affirmation of the essentials of the Christian faith. In this text, we confess the deity of Christ, His advent and prophetic role of revealing the Father to us, our union with Him, and Christ’s preserving work in the life of the believer. The passage (and the whole epistle) is ended with one last exhortation to stay faithful to this confession contrary to the heretical affirmations and denials of the false teachers in their midst.
The passage opens the first affirmation with the first of three uses of the phrase, “οἴδαμεν ὅτι”. The first person plural “οἴδαμεν” functions in all its three occurrences to include the recipients with the author in affirming the truths that bind them together as apostolic Christians. Marshall makes the case that the use of the perfect active indicative emphasizes a state of knowledge, as opposed to the process of coming to know something.1 These are things that, as born again believers, John and his recipients know for certain.
The affirmation of verse 18 is that no one who has been born of God sins, but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one cannot touch him. I believe both genitive phrases are genitives of source, focusing on our identity as new creations of God. As is apparent from my translation above, I take the phrase, “ἀλλ’ ὁ γεννηθεὶς ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ τηρεῖ ἑαυτόν,” ([NA28]) to identify Jesus as the One who was born of God, and as the One who keeps everyone who has been born of God. This translation is based on a variant, which reads ἀυτον in the place of the ἑαυτόν adopted in the [NA28]. Marshall, Kruse, Yarbrough, and Baugh all agree that the variant ἀυτον is probably the original reading.2345 The witnesses to this variant are found in A* B 1852 latt. The reflexive element of ἑαυτόν is part of what makes it unlikely to have been original. Given that reading, the passage would be saying that Christians do not sin because they keep themselves and the evil one cannot touch them. While the concept of watchfulness is not foreign to Scripture, such a theme does not seem to fit well in the consistently Christ-centered theology of this corporate confession, in which we are powerfully comforted by the truth of Jesus’s saving and preserving power.
So according to verse 18, what is it about the keeping power of Jesus that accomplishes our inability to sin in the way dealt with in this text? He keeps us from the “evil one” (ὁ πονηρὸς). This is a reference to the devil, in whom the whole world lies, according to verse 19. This last clause in verse 18 about the evil one not being able to touch him ends with a genitive αὐτοῦ for “him”, the referent being ὁ γεγεννημένος—the ones who have been born [of God]. This unusual use of the genitive is explained by the fact that ἅπτεται takes an object in the genitive.
Verse 19 introduces the second confessional “οἴδαμεν ὅτι” phrase. “We know that we are of God and the whole world lies in the evil one.” The “ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ” is, again, a genitive of source, and the “ὁ κόσμος ὅλος ἐν τῷ πονηρῷ κεῖται” is perhaps either a dative of possession or union, communicating the idea of being in the evil one’s grip. Yarbrough says that the word “κεῖται” carries the idea of languishing, as if the world lies down powerlessly under the devil’s dominion without the strength or slightest ability to rectify themselves.6
The third and final “οἴδαμεν ὅτι” affirmation occurs in verse 20. The weighty truths confessed here are the deity of Christ, His advent and prophetic or revelatory role in making Father known, and our union with God through Christ. “ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ” is a genitive of relation, emphasizing the relation of the Son to the Father. The verb “ἥκω” is translated with a perfective force, in spite of the fact that it is present in form, according to BDAG.7 “The Son of God has come…” The dative of the phrase, “δέδωκεν ἡμῖν διάνοιαν” could be called a dative of conveyance, communicating the idea that Jesus has come and has given us understanding.
The next phrase tells us that He has given this understanding in order that we might know Him who is true. Yarbrough argues for a variant against the [NA28] rendering, replacing the subjunctive “γινώσκωμεν” with a future indicative “γινωσκομεν”.8 This variant has a fairly wide attestation (MSS א A B* P 33. 81. 307. 442. 1243. 1735. 1881), and has added weight due to being the more difficult reading by replacing the expected subjunctive with an indicative. In spite of the merits of his argument, I find that the subjunctive idea better fits with the flow of thought in the passage. John’s focus seems to be on what we have now in Christ, not what we will have.
The articular adjective, “τὸν ἀληθινόν,” contains an implied pronoun—“Him who is true”. I take the two dative phrases, “ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ, ἐν τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ,” as datives of union or location, and the genitive, “αὐτοῦ,” as a genitive of relation. The phrase “ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ” refers to God the Father, and we are said to be in “ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ,” in His Son, Jesus Christ. Two persons are necessarily in view here. We are united with God the Father because we have been united with God the Son, who is one with God the Father. If we are in Christ, we are in God, and no one can be in God apart from Christ.
This final “οἴδαμεν ὅτι” confession ends with a bold declaration of the deity of Christ. There is debate over the referent of the “οὗτός” in “οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀληθινὸς θεὸς καὶ ζωὴ αἰώνιος,” but Kruse makes the case that grammatically, having Jesus as the referent is supported by the fact that “Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ” is the closest antecedent.9 Marshall convincingly argues that, “It is precisely because Jesus is the true God that the person who is in him is also in the Father.”10 Wallace concludes that there is absolutely no grammatical reason that this “οὗτός” cannot refer to Jesus Christ.11
The closing verse, verse 21, contains one last command from the apostle: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” Baugh argues that the aorist imperative, “φυλάξατε,” carries a specialized meaning. It could either have an inceptive nuance (“set your guard out against…”), or a sharp, emphatic warning (“Watch out!”).12
Themes in the Text
The themes touched on 1 John 5:18-21 are some of the most vital truths one can know. In this passage we clearly see the deity of Christ, His advent and prophetic role of revealing the Father to us, our union with Jesus, and His preserving work in the life of the believer. Considering the purpose and content of the letter, it’s not surprising that John would conclude his epistle with such a glorious, acute, doctrinal crescendo. Because of the rich and critical nature of the themes found in these affirmations, there is no shortage of witness to them in the rest of 1 John, or in the Bible as a whole.
Textual Themes Throughout Letter
Verse 18 opens by identifying a certain type of person—one who has been born of God. This is a theme seen throughout the letter in the form of familial titles given to Christians (3:1-2, 10, 14-17), references to God’s seed abiding in us (3:9), and many explicit references to our being “born of God” (3:9, 4:7, 5:1-2). The idea being expressed here is that we have entered our new life in union with Christ by means of God’s grace. The statement being made about everyone who is born of God is that they do not sin. Clearly, John does not have sinless perfection in view here. In 1:9, John reminded us of the promise of God’s faithfulness to forgive our sins when we confess them. In fact, John said that “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1:8) Clearly, then, what’s in view here is a certain kind of sin that the Christian is unable to commit. This understanding comes from 3:4-10. In those verses, John pivots from talking about the kind of sin Christians commit to a lawless sin that Christians are unable to commit. Christians will in fact sin during this lifetime, but our sin will always be before the face of God. Our sin can never again be the lawless rejection of Christ that it was before we were born of God because our minds have been irrevocably opened to His Lordship. All that we do after the new birth is done in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. We are unable to sin lawlessly. This distinction between different kinds of sin is likely what is in view in John’s differentiation between sin leading to death and sin not leading to death in 5:16-17. Verse 18 is undoubtedly given to comfort and encourage the believers that might be disturbed by the thought of the sin leading to death discussed in the previous 2 verses. A hardened, damnable sin is indeed a horrifying thought, so John follows that thought by picking up the reassurance of 3:4-10 that if they are in Christ, they are unable to commit such a sin.
This inability to sin is due to the preservation of Christ in the life of the believer. Our minds are irrevocably opened to the Lordship of Christ because Jesus preserves us in that state. This preservation is seen in the anointing that abides in us and teaches us all things that Jesus has given His people (2:27). This is inextricably associated with the new birth. In fact, the language of 2:27 is almost certainly a reference to Jeremiah 31:34, which promises that in the new covenant, parties to the covenant will no longer teach one another to know the Lord, for all will know Him. This is said to be the result of a transformation of the heart where the Lord puts His law within us. We are kept by Christ and the evil one cannot touch us (cf. Jn 17:12)!
The truth communicated in verse 18 is a precious and gloriously comforting truth in light of the reality of verse 19—that the entire world is subject to the devil. In the world there is fleshly disregard for God, idolatrous lusts, and death (2:15-17). The world does not know God, and hates His children (3:1, 13). False, antichrist, lying spirits fill this world, which lies in the evil one (4:1-6). And through the death and slavery of mankind to sin, the world is powerless to escape his grip. But all who are born of God are of God, and are guarded by Christ, and the evil one cannot touch them! This does not mean that Christians are spared the ravaging effects of sin in this world, but that their final perseverance and future glorification is sealed in Christ.
Verse 20 opens with a confession of the truth that the Son of God has come. This harkens back to the opening verses where attention is given to the corporeal form of Jesus—the Eternal Life was manifested to them (1:2), and they heard Him, saw Him, and touched Him (1:1). God sent His Son into the world so that we might live through Him (4:9). And in His coming, Christ gave us understanding so that we may know Him who is true. Knowing God is a major theme in First John. There are 8 references to knowing God in the letter, and multiple references to those who do not know God. According to 5:20, Jesus came for the purpose of giving us understanding so that we may know God. Surely the knowledge of God is the most noble thing anyone could seek. In fact, Scripture teaches us that knowing God is eternal life (John 17:3)!
Verse 20 goes on to say that not only do we know Him who is true, but we are in Him who is true. And we are in Him who is true because we are in His Son, who is in Him. Union with the Father and the Son is a theme seen throughout First John (2:22-24, 4:4, 15-16). The reason 2:22-24 makes the statement that denial and rejection of the Son is denial and rejection of the Father and confession of the Son is possession of the Father also is because the Son and Father truly are God. To be in the Son is to be in the Father because the Son is the true God and eternal life!
First John paints a beautiful picture of the idea of eternal life. The last statement of verse 20 affirms that Jesus is eternal life. Believers are united with Him, and as He rose never to die again, so we rose in Him and are seated with Him in the heavenly places! 1:1-2 speaks of Jesus as the Word of Life that was manifested. He Himself is the eternal life that was with the Father and was manifested to us! And 2:25 makes the wonderful promise that God the Father has promised His church this Eternal Life! John says it clearly and beautifully in 5:11-13:
And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:11-13)
The epistle ends on what may seem like an abrupt note, and its command may seem out of place. John bids his recipients to guard themselves from idols. Kruse says that this can be taken either literally or metaphorically—literally referring to pagan idols, metaphorically referring to the empty doctrines of the false teachers.13 Kruse, citing Sugit, suggests that since a gloss for “εἴδωλον” in classical Greek is phantom, the unreality of the ideas of the false teachers may be in view here.14 That seems probable, since these false teachers and their doctrines have been a main critique and quite possibly the biggest motivation for John’s entire letter.
Throughout the letter we have seen the black and white contrast of true believers and imposters, and we’ve been taught Christ—the center of who we are, the reason why we are who we are, and the only way that we will remain who we are. Accepting the metaphorical view of this final command, John’s concluding exhortation perfectly sums up the letter—“Christ is your God! The object of these false teachings is not Christ! Stay the course!” Seen this way, verse 21 is a final exhortation to guard themselves from error and cling to Christ.
If enabling us to know God is the reason why Christ came and gave us understanding, one important application for church ministry is that we should carefully study the attributes of God. Given what we see about Him here, what more important study could you do with your church? By means of systematic and biblical theology, we can come to more profoundly understand the infinite glories of our Creator. Understanding what God has revealed about Himself in Scripture will cause us to grow in our capacity to marvel over His person and His work, in light of our sinfulness. This will also equip the church to guard themselves from idolatrous misconceptions about the character of God that cover America today!
Knowing God is eternal life, and that eternal life is in Christ alone! Union with Him alone is union with God. There is no life outside of Christ! The obvious application of this is that we must be rigorously Christ-centered! Foster trust and reliance upon the One who keeps us. To summarize, be a glory of God focused, Christ honoring, Bible saturated, local church minded minister!
Arndt, William F, F. Wilbur Gingrich, Frederick W Danker, and Walter Bauer.A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature: A Translation and Adaptation of the Fourth Revised and Augmented Edition of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-Deutsches Wörterbuch Zu Den Schriften Des Neuen Testaments Und Der Übrigen Urchristlichen Literatur. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Baugh, S. M.A First John Reader: Intermediate Greek Reading Notes and Grammar. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 1999.
Kruse, Colin G.The Letters of John. Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. ; Apollos, 2000.
Marshall, I. Howard.The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.
Wallace, Daniel B, and Daniel B Wallace.The Basics of New Testament Syntax: An Intermediate Greek Grammar, 2000.
Yarbrough, Robert W.1-3 John. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008.
1Marshall, The Epistles of John, 251.
2Baugh, A First John Reader, 79–80.
3Kruse, The Letters of John, 195.
4Marshall, The Epistles of John, 252.
5Yarbrough, 1-3 John, 316–321.
7Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature.
8Yarbrough, 1-3 John, 321.
9Kruse, The Letters of John, 197.
10Marshall, The Epistles of John, 254.
11Wallace and Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax, 326–327.
12Baugh, A First John Reader, 81.
13Kruse, The Letters of John, 200.
Brief Overview of the Offices of Christ
In the vivid and powerful words of the Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, “We as fallen men, ignorant, guilty, polluted, and helpless, need a Savior who is a prophet to instruct us; a priest to atone and to make intercession for us; and a king to rule over and protect us.”1 Christology is surely the sweetest topic in the spectrum of systematic theology, and the threefold offices of Christ are perhaps the most helpful way of understanding the nature of the work of Christ. John Calvin popularized this classification in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (book 2, chapter 15), and it has been commonly used since that time.2 It is important that we understand the nature of this classification, being that it is not so much an innovation foreign to the biblical text, as an essentially faithful interpretation of it.
Erickson, in his Christian Theology, repeatedly stresses the need to maintain balance in our view of the offices of Christ: “It will be important to maintain all three aspects of his work, not stressing one so that the others are diminished, nor splitting them too sharply from one another, as if they were separate actions of Christ.”3 Erickson demonstrates how the errors of liberal theology’s moral influence theory of the atonement—which reduces the cross to merely a display of God’s love—is essentially an overemphasis of Christ’s prophetic office at the expense of the other offices.4 Biblical balance is vital as we take up the noble task of describing the prophetic nature of our Lord’s work.
Christ’s Prophetic Office Defined
As we venture to understand what is meant by calling Christ God’s prophet, it is important that we clearly define what we do and do not mean.
What we do not Mean
Grudem, in his section on the prophetic office of Christ, carefully points out that Jesus is not predominately presented as a prophet in the Gospels, and is never referred to as such in the epistles.5 In fact, Hebrews 1:1-2 seems to specifically avoid calling Jesus a prophet, referring to Him instead as God’s Son, in deliberate contrast, it appears, to a mere prophet. By mere prophet, we mean one such as Elijah who, regardless of the clearly divine blessing on his ministry, received his revelation from without. This non-divine office is what is meant by Muslims, for example, when they call our Lord a prophet. There are many examples of people who seemed, at least at first, to view Jesus this way in the New Testament (e.g. John 4:19, 7:52, 9:17). Jesus, as we will see, is no mere prophet, and is indeed wholly superior in his person and work to any other man called by the title.
While there are many points of similarity between Jesus and the Old Testament prophets—the fact that He was sent by God, related parables (Matt 21:33-41, cf. Isa 5:1-7), often taught in chiasms (Lk 14:11, cf. Isa 22:22), and preached a similar message of both judgment and destruction (Matt 23, 11:20-24, cf. Amos 1-3) as well as salvation and comfort (Matt 5:3-12, 13:44, 46, cf. Isa 40:9, 52:7)—there are notable differences as well.6 Not the least of which, as the Son of God, Jesus represents God both truly and fully in a way that a sent servant like an Old Testament prophet could never embody.7 Indeed, as the promised divine Servant King, Jesus is both the subject and the source of the Old Testament prophesies (1 Pt 1:10-11).8
The fact is, Scripture was written by authors, moved by the Holy Spirit to record in written form God’s perfect revelation to mankind. This grand revelation of God centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ. The Old testament prophets pointed forward to our Lord (1 Pet 1:10-11, Acts 3:22-24, Luke 24:27), anticipating His advent and ministry, and the New Testament writers pointed out the significance of His life in retrospect.9 Since it was an unimaginably high and honorable calling the prophets received in foretelling the person and work of Christ, yet the glory of the One to whom they were pointing infinitely outshines that eminent task, it would be a grave mistake to view Jesus Christ as a mere prophet, in the same sense as those that came before Him. While many aspects are shared between them, Our Lord’s prophetic office is wholly other than theirs, as we will see in the following section.
What we do Mean
While Jesus’ prophetic office has much in common with the prophets’ ministries, His prophetic work altogether eclipses theirs. The Old testament prophets received and spoke the Word of God; Jesus is the Word of God. Other prophets testified to the truth; Jesus is the Truth. The prophets before Jesus not only pointed to Christ as the subject of their words and actions, but typified Him by the very nature of their ministries. In the broad sense of speaking God’s words and revealing Him to us, Christ is the prophet—the archetypical prophet all previous prophets pointed to by the essence of their ministries.
One shared element between the ministries of the Old Testament prophets and Christ’s is that both spoke God’s words to the people (John 14:24). Hodge observes, “When, therefore, the Messiah was predicted as a prophet it was predicted that He should be the great organ of God in communicating his mind and will to men.”10 Since our Lord has true and full knowledge of God, and all things, and the sinless heart to respond correctly to that knowledge, He always speaks what is true of God and man. Unlike the prophets, however, being God in the flesh, Jesus was uniquely qualified to speak of God on the basis of His own authority.
Another common aspect of ministry between the Old Testament prophets and Jesus is that both served to reveal God to man. Erickson broadly defines Jesus’ prophetic role in terms of this foundational aspect of His person and work (Col 1:15).11 As God in the flesh, all that Jesus does, God does, all that He says, God says, and all that He is, God is. When we see Jesus, we see God (John 14:8-9). While the Old Testament prophets also served to reveal God, their revelatory role was much different that Jesus’. The prophets were mere, sinful men that God used in extraordinary ways by giving them visions to relate, words to speak and write, and actions to perform that served to relate God’s message to His intended audience—in effect showing us aspects of the character of God. Making known the Word of the Living God is certainly a glorious calling, but Jesus wholly supersedes this in that He is the Word of God, the very fount of divine revelation.
A third point of similarity between the ministries of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus’ is that their ministries served to enlighten us with the truth (2 Cor 4:6).12 Jesus Christ, as the light of the world (John 8:12, 3:19-21), is the source of all comprehension as Hodge boldly states: “He is the source of all knowledge to the intelligent universe, and especially to the children of men. He was, and is, the light of the world. He is the truth. In Him dwell all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; and from Him radiates all the light that men receive or attain.”13 Any true understanding is made possible because of the Light, Jesus Christ. It is in this light alone that men may come to discern the fear of the Lord. The Old Testament prophets testified of this Light, and reflected a small measure of it as though by a dim mirror, but their whole ministries were but a shadow cast by the brilliance of the Light Himself. All the light of Scripture, whether communicated through prophet, apostle, historian, or psalmist—any revelation of God came through the agency of Jesus Christ.14 During the time of His ministry, not only did Jesus manifest the light through His teachings, but by the very nature of His person—displaying both the communicable and incommunicable attributes of God. To this very day, Jesus is shining His glorious light through the preaching of His Word and the regenerate character of His people, and He will display His light forever by the glory to be revealed in us in God’s presence.15
When we say Jesus is a prophet, we mean that He speaks God’s words, reveals God to us, and enlightens us in the truth in a way that is similar to, yet infinitely superior to the Old Testament prophets. Our Lord is indeed a prophet, but He is not merely a prophet; He is the prophet.
“Hot and brilliant as the sun is in the heavens, we would never see it or feel its warmth without the radiating beams that come to the earth. So it is with God and his Son, who is the radiance of his glory. Without the Son we remain in the dark regarding the glory of God. But with the sun we have an ideal, indeed, a perfect revelation of God.”16
Christ’s Prophetic Office Demonstrated
Lets now turn our attention to the Scripture, to see how we have arrived at the formulation previously described as the prophetic role of Christ. In Deuteronomy 18:15-19 we have the revelatory role of Jesus foretold in terms of His ministry as the great mouthpiece of God. In Hebrews 1:1-3a we see Christ heralded as the Son of God—the exact representation of the Father (cf. Col 1:15), and in John 14:9 we have the words of Christ Himself, declaring His unity with and display of the Father. In John 1:1-18 we see Christ interpreted in retrospect by the apostle John as the God-man—the Divine Teacher who speaks the words of His God and illumines mankind with His light.17 Let’s examine these passages in turn.
Deuteronomy 18:15-19 records Moses’ words to the people of Israel, declaring to them that God was going to raise up a prophet like himself from among the people (18:15a, 18a). This prophet would be faithful to speak every word God put in His mouth, as God led Him. Moses gave a solemn warning that the people must give heed to the words of his archetype, or face the judgment of God (18:15b, 19; cf. Acts 3:22-23). That Jesus was indeed the faithful prophet promised by God was attested to by the crowds that witnessed Jesus’ miracles (John 6:14), and heard His teaching (John 7:40), as well as the apostles who were witnesses of His resurrection (Acts 3:22-24). In a similar, yet infinitely greater way, and just as Moses anticipated, Jesus rose up from the seed of Abraham and fulfilled His prophetic ministry, speaking God’s Words to the people; and indeed, whoever will not heed His Word will perish.
Hebrews 1:1-3a speaks of Christ as the Son of God (1:2a)—the exact representation of His nature. Jesus, as the Son of God, being in perfect unity with the Father, equal to God in all ways, represented God to the world (1:3). The prophets who came before Him, through whom God spoke “in many portions and in many ways” (1:1) pale in comparison to the Son Himself (1:2-3a). All other revelation, whether through men, angels, creation, providence, or visions, all served to point to Jesus Christ (1:2b-3a, 1 Pet 1:10-11, Acts 3:22-24, Luke 24:27). As the giver and subject of these revelations, our Lord Himself surpasses them insomuch as the potter is greater than the clay. Jesus Christ, being the subject of all previous revelation, is Himself infinitely superior to every other revelation given. Jesus reveals God in an infinitely superior way because Jesus is God in human flesh, as the apostle John records our Lord declaring in 14:9 of his Gospel. Jesus is the God being revealed through revelation. As God in the flesh, His revelation shines with all the marvelous glory of God (Heb 1:3a)! Jesus perfectly images God as His representative before mankind (1:3a, Col 1:15).
In John 1:1-18 the apostle John gives us a beautiful expression of the illuminating nature of our Lord. Jesus is identified as the divine Word (1:1)—the eternally existing (1:2) agent of creation (1:3). This passage also refers to Jesus as the Light (1:4-5, 7-9). As the Light of men (1:4), our Lord enlightened every man as He came into the world (1:9). It is only by the illuminating light of Christ that men can be saved (1:12-13; cf. 3:1-21), and although it is only through the Light which was given to all men that true knowledge can be gained (even the unredeemed through common grace (Col 2:2-3)), this illuminating Light is shone upon God’s elect in a special, effectually saving way (3:7-8; 2 Thess 2:13-14; Eph 1:17, 19, 2:1-6; Deut 30:6; Ezek 36:26-27; Rom 8:30, 11:7). Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness (1:5), and without His illumination, knowledge would be impossible (Col 2:2-3). This Light was most clearly and gloriously displayed through the teaching and deeds of Christ in His incarnation (1:14, 16-17).
This brief section did not even come close to exhausting the Scriptures’ insight into the prophetic office of Christ. Still, taking these few passages together, we arrive at the conclusions described in the previous section. Jesus Christ reveals God by speaking His words and personally imaging Him, and is the only light whereby men might gain true knowledge. This is what we mean when we speak of the prophetic office of Christ, and it is a thoroughly biblical concept.
Christ’s Prophetic Office Applied
In order to apply the doctrine of the revelatory office of Christ, we will imagine an all too common scenario, and answer some hypothetical questions involved in such a situation. We will be ministering to a woman who is processing the death of her 18 month old child. The four questions she is struggling through are: “Is God really good? Did God kill my baby? Is my child in heaven? Why did God let this happen?” We will answer each question in light of the truth that Jesus Christ reveals God to us by His words, nature, and enlightenment with the truth.
The first question our grieving mother asks is, “After seeing the death of my little girl, how can I still affirm the goodness of God? Is God really good?” Overall, we supply the answer that yes, God is good, and is able and in fact does work all things, even incredibly difficult things to beneficial ends on behalf of His people.
First we consider how Jesus’ revelation of God through the words He spoke answers this woman’s doubts of God’s goodness. Jesus, by the words He spoke and inspired, unequivocally affirmed the goodness of God. Jesus commanded us to love our enemies (Matt 5:44) so that we might be like our Father in heaven, who gives sunshine and rain to both the righteous and the unrighteous. God is the giver of life and every good gift men receive (Jam 1:17), for the benevolent purpose of causing our happiness (1 Tim 6:17) so that we might in turn worship Him with thankful hearts for His generosity. All of these truths come either directly from Jesus’ incarnate mouth, or through the inspiration of His Spirit. God is benevolent toward all His creatures, especially His covenant people.
Second, we see how our Lord’s revelation of God through His very nature answers the question of God’s goodness. Jesus, as the Son of God, was God in the flesh—everything Jesus did, God did. Therefore, three things Jesus did on earth offer clear proof of God’s goodness. When we look at Jesus we see Him welcoming all who came to Him in humility; healing their diseases, and maladies. He never turned anyone away that came to Him in humble trust. This is a clear picture of the good, merciful heart of God. Jesus showed tenderhearted compassion to all, even to His enemies. Also, consider the fact that He came and preached good news to those with ears to hear. He spent Himself so that others might know and love the truth. This shows God’s goodness. The most obvious display of the good nature of God that Jesus made was in His substitutionary life, death, and resurrection. Jesus went to the cross, willingly accepting the sin of His people as His own, and suffering the penalty for their sins in their place—indeed suffering more than any person that has ever lived. Jesus’ willingness to do this on behalf of unworthy sinners reveals the goodness of God. Indeed, how could we question His goodness in light of His sufferings on our behalf?
Third, Jesus, in enlightening us with the truth, reveals God’s goodness. Through what took place in the gospel, we can see that God both desires and designs suffering to good ends both for Himself and His people. First, we must see that God designed Jesus’ sufferings. Peter, in Acts 2:23 explicitly states that Jesus was delivered over to death according to “the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God”. Second, we need to realize that God brought this about in order to accomplish good. In sending Jesus to suffer, God was displaying benevolence to Jesus, in that He would be exalted above all (Eph 1:20-22; Matt 28:18; 1 Cor 15:25) as a result of His work on the cross, and that as a result of His suffering (Isa 53:10-12), He will see the salvation of His beloved bride. This all results in a wondrous display of the glory of God, and it comes through the prophetic office of Christ, as these truths about the person and work of God are illumined for us. By illuminating us with the truth, Jesus reveals that God is good, and that He both desires and designs suffering to good ends—what evil men intended out of hatred, God indented for good. If God could intend that greatest of all evils for good, what possible suffering could we not affirm the goodness of God in?
The second question our suffering mother asks is, “Did God kill my baby? Is He to blame for this tragedy?” In short, we affirm that death is a result of sin, namely Adam’s sin in the case of infants, yet God is sovereign over all things (Rom 5:12-14). Even though God is sovereign over death, He is never at fault (legitimately chargeable with wrongdoing) when people die.
First, Jesus’ function of revealing God through the words He spoke and the words He inspired in the rest of Scripture speaks to this question. First, we need to see that mankind experiences death because of our sin. God promised that in the day Adam sinned, He would begin to die. The apostle Paul spoke, in Romans 5 of the fact that the guilt of Adam’s sin is imputed to mankind in such a way that even infants, who may or may not have had the opportunity to commit actual sin, still suffer death because they inherit the guilt of Adam’s sin. It is because of human sin that children die. Second, we need to affirm that God is sovereign over all things, including death. Ephesians 1:11 plainly states that God “works all things after the council of His will.” Taking into consideration what we observed Jesus to say in the previous section, we arrive at the conclusion that God is sovereign over all things, and God is good, intending all things for the good of Himself and His people.
Second, we find the question of God’s trustworthiness in the face of death (and by implication His sovereignty and moral innocence in it) answered by Jesus’ display of God’s nature through His actions. In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night before His crucifixion, we see Jesus both acknowledge God’s sovereignty over His coming suffering, and entrust Himself to His good care. In His distress, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” (Matt 26:29) What Jesus’ nature certainly reveals about God in this episode is that He is trustworthy, even when according to His will we are made to suffer. Jesus knows God truly and exhaustively, and therefore the fact that he considered Him worthy of total trust reveals that He is totally pure and trustworthy, even in the darkest situations. It’s helpful at this point to be reminded that the situation Jesus faced was the darkest one anyone has ever or will ever experience. Jesus, in revealing God’s nature by His actions, shows us that God is good and trustworthy, even in the face of an apparently (or actually, in Jesus’ case) unjust death.
Third, by enlightening us with the truth of God, Jesus answers the question of God’s involvement in and culpability for the death of human beings. As we just saw, Jesus, by His actions affirmed God’s sovereignty over His own sufferings and death. Again, in the Gethsemane passage, Jesus both acknowledged God’s sovereignty over His coming suffering, and entrusted Himself to His good care on the eve of His death. By His prayer, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” (Matt 26:29), Jesus affirms the truth of God—He is sovereign over His suffering. Jesus affirms that His coming death is God’s will, and even affirms that God has the ability to stop it by asking Him to let the cup pass from Him if possible. Jesus reveals to us the knowledge that God is sovereign over death, and that He is good and trustworthy in the midst of it. Like Job, one of Jesus’ types, we must affirm, “…The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21b), and give the same response he had to this truth—“Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God.” (Job 1:22)
The woman’s third question, “is my child in heaven or in hell?”, can be responded to by the doctrine of the prophetic office of Christ as well. To summarize our answer, Jesus reveals that God is just, and will do what is right. While we cannot give a concrete answer to what God does with those who die in infancy due to the bible’s silence on the issue, we can affirm with certainty that God is trustworthy, and can be counted on to do whatever is absolutely right. We can rest in Him, despite our gnawing questions, knowing that when we are in eternity, with the full knowledge of how He chose to deal with those who died in infancy, we will be in total, confident, worshipful agreement with Him; knowing that He acted justly.
First, in speaking God’s words, whether during the time of His earthly ministry, or by the inspiration of other men, Jesus reveals that God is just. Deuteronomy 32:4 declares of God, “The Rock! His work is perfect, For all His ways are just; A God of faithfulness and without injustice, Righteous and upright is He.” God is right in all He does and will do. Further, Abraham appeals to God with these apt words, “…Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen 18:25b), and God responds favorably to that appeal to His righteousness.18 Jesus revealed through His inspiration of the biblical writers that everything God does, He does in righteousness. That being the case, we can trust Him completely to do what is right, no matter what He determines is the right thing to do.
Second, Jesus reveals God through His very nature, and helps shed light on the question of the eternal state of those who die in infancy. The prophet Malachi called Jesus “the sun of righteousness” in Malachi 4:2. Such a title is given because righteousness is intrinsic to Jesus’ nature, and as such—to God’s. God can be trusted to do what is right in all situations.
Third, the doctrine of the prophetic role of Jesus can speak to this question in its enlightening aspect. The cross of Jesus Christ demonstrated the perfect justice and righteousness of God (Rom 3:21-26). The sins of every sinner that God ever has or ever will save were perfectly atoned for at Calvary. If God were truly just, we would expect that every sin would need to be answered for. It is the testimony of the Scriptures that every sin will be answered for—either Jesus stood in your place, receiving every bit of wrath your sin deserves, or you will personally pay for them in hell. This is the case because God is just, and the person and work of Jesus enlightens us in this truth. Since God is just, and all He does is done in perfect righteousness, we can trust Him to make the right call regarding those who die in infancy, whatever that call might be—so instead of agonizing over this unanswerable question, we need to trust God, resting in His righteousness.
The fourth and final question our mourning mother poses is, “Why did God let this happen?” In short, our answer is that although we perhaps cannot understand every aspect of how it is so, God allowed this to happen for your good and His glory.
First, through the verbal aspect of Jesus’ prophetic office, we see this question answered. When asked why a man was born blind, Jesus responded, “It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3) Our good and benevolent God does everything He does for His own glory, and the good of His people (Rom 8:28). This man was born blind so that God might use his suffering in a way that brings honor to Himself. We must trust that, just as Jesus said, God has our very best interests, and His own glory in mind in the midst of our suffering. Far from being mutually exclusive, these two things are actually synonymous—the very best thing for us is to glorify God!
Second, Jesus reveals God’s nature and sheds light on the question of why things like the deaths of believers’ little girls happen today. Shortly before His crucifixion, Jesus was able to affirm that His Father had designed His sufferings for His own glory. When faced with the dread of His coming sacrifice, Jesus refused to ask God to save Him from that hour, but instead asked God to glorify His name through the His sufferings. (John 12:27-28) God has designed even your suffering after the loss of your daughter to glorify His name. Just like Jesus in His distress, you can glorify God in the midst of this unspeakable tragedy. While we cannot glorify the righteousness of God as a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of others, we can glorify God in our suffering by responding correctly to it. Jesus glorified God in His suffering by confessing His goodness and trusting Him without reservation. This is an opportunity for you to do the same. Whatever reasons God may have in mind for this tragedy, because of what Jesus revealed of the nature of God, we can be certain of this—you have the privilege of making God look glorious in the midst of your pain by responding correctly to this tragedy—the same way Job did when God took his children—with worship (Job 1:19-20). Jesus, knowing God fully and responding as He did when God called Him to die, revealed that God is deserving of such a response.
Finally, Jesus answers the question of why God allows the death of the children of believing parents through the illuminating aspect of His prophetic office. The revelation that Jesus made of God in the gospel is the greatest indicator of God’s ability to bring benevolent, God glorifying results from suffering. The suffering Jesus went through in His penal substitutionary atonement was the greatest amount of suffering anyone has ever endured, yet it produced the greatest blessing of any action ever performed. As a result of this greatest instance of suffering, God was glorified as sin was decisively denounced, and the vessels of mercy were redeemed for all eternity. God intended, and brought about the greatest blessing ever bestowed from the greatest suffering ever endured. If God was able to produce the most marvelous good imaginable from the most appalling suffering possible, God is able to do the same in this instance as well. Jesus enlightens us with the truth that God designs our suffering for our good and His glory. The person and work of Jesus also reveals that not only does God have the power to carry out His benevolent intentions for the suffering of His people, but as certainly as Christ is risen, He will.
Boyce, James Petigru. Abstract of Systematic Theology. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1887.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1983.
Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press ; Zondervan Pub. House, 1994.
Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946.
Richard D. Phillips (Richard Davis). Hebrews. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub, 2006.
1Hodge, Systematic Theology, 461.
2Erickson, Christian Theology, 762.
5Grudem, Systematic Theology, 625.
6Erickson, Christian Theology, 764–765.
7Richard D. Phillips (Richard Davis), Hebrews, 20.
8Grudem, Systematic Theology, 625–626.
10Hodge, Systematic Theology, 463.
11Erickson, Christian Theology, 763–767.
12Hodge, Systematic Theology, 461.
14Erickson, Christian Theology, 765.
15Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, 291–292.
16Richard D. Phillips (Richard Davis), Hebrews, 20.
17Boyce, Abstract of Systematic Theology, 291.
18Grudem, Systematic Theology, 204.