1Whosoever believeth He confirms by another reason, that faith and brotherly love are united; for since God regenerates us by faith he must necessarily be loved by us as a Father; and this love embraces all his children. Then faith cannot be separated from love.
The first truth is, that all born of God, believe that Jesus is the Christ; where, again, you see that Christ alone is set forth as the object of faith, as in him it finds righteousness, life, and every blessing that can be desired, and God in all that he is. (89) Hence the only true way of believing is when we direct our minds to him. Besides, to believe that he is the Christ, is to hope from him all those things which have been promised as to the Messiah.
Nor is the title, Christ, given him here without reason, for it designates the office to which he was appointed by the Father. As, under the Law, the full restoration of all things, righteousness and happiness, were promised through the Messiah; so at this day the whole of this is more clearly set forth in the gospel. Then Jesus cannot be received as Christ, except salvation be sought from him, since for this end he was sent by the Father, and is daily offered to us.
Hence the Apostle declares that all they who really believe have been born of God; for faith is far above the reach of the human mind, so that we must be drawn to Christ by our heavenly Father; for not any of us can ascend to him by his own strength. And this is what the Apostle teaches us in his Gospel, when he says, that those who believe in the name of the only-begotten, were not born of blood nor of the flesh. (John 1:13.) And Paul says, that we are endued, not with the spirit of this world, but with the Spirit that is from God, that we may know the things given us by him. (1 Corinthians 2:12.) For eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor the mind conceived, the reward laid up for those who love God; but the Spirit alone penetrates into this mystery. And further, as Christ is given to us for sanctification, and brings with it the Spirit of regeneration, in short, as he unites us to his own body, it is also another reason why no one can have faith, except he is born of God.
Loveth him also that is begotten of him Augustine and some others of the ancients have applied this to Christ, but not correctly. For though the Apostle uses the singular number, yet he includes all the faithful; and the context plainly shows that his purpose was no other than to trace up brotherly love to faith as its fountain. It is, indeed, an argument drawn from the common course of nature; but what is seen among men is transferred to God. (90)
But we must observe, that the Apostle does not so speak of the faithful only, and pass by those who are without, as though the former are alone to be loved, and no care and no account to be had for the latter; but he teaches us as it were by this first exercise to love all without exception, when he bids us to make a beginning with the godly. (91)
“Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been begotten by God; and every one who loves the begetter loves also the begotten by him.” — Ed.
2By this we know He briefly shows in these words what true love is, even that which is towards God. He has hitherto taught us that there is never a true love to God, except when our brethren are also loved; for this is ever its effect. But he now teaches us that men are rightly and duly loved, when God holds the primacy. And it is a necessary definition; for it often happens, that we love men apart from God, as unholy and carnal friendships regard only private advantages or some other vanishing objects. As, then, he had referred first to the effect, so he now refers to the cause; for his purpose is to shew that mutual love ought to be in such a way cultivated that God may be honored.
To the love of God he joins the keeping of the law, and justly so; for when we love God as our Father and Lord, reverence must necessarily be connected with love. Besides, God cannot be separated from himself. As, then, he is the fountain of all righteousness and equity, he who loves him must necessarily have his heart prepared to render obedience to righteousness. The love of God, then, is not idle or inactive. (92)
But from this passage we also learn what is the keeping of the law. For if, when constrained only by fear, we obey God by keeping his commandments, we are very far off from true obedience. Then, the first thing is, that our hearts should be devoted to God in willing reverence, and then, that our life should be formed according to the rule of the law. This is what Moses meant when, in giving a summary of the law, he said,
“O Israel, what does the Lord thy God require of thee, but to love him and to obey him?” (Deuteronomy 10:12.)
3His commandments are not grievous This has been added, lest difficulties, as it is usually the case, should damp or lessen our zeal. For they who with a cheerful mind and great ardor have pursued a godly and holy life, afterwards grow weary, finding their strength inadequate. Therefore John, in order to rouse our efforts, says that God’s commandments are not grievous.
But it may, on the other hand, be objected and said that we have found it far otherwise by experience, and that Scripture testifies that the yoke of the law is insupportable. (Acts 15:2.) The reason also is evident, for as the denial of self is, as it were, a prelude to the keeping of the law, can we say that it is easy for a man to deny himself? nay, since the law is spiritual, as Paul, in Romans 7:14, teaches us, and we are nothing but flesh, there must be a great discord between us and the law of God. To this I answer, that this difficulty does not arise from the nature of the law, but from our corrupt flesh; and this is what Paul expressly declares; for after having said that it was impossible for the Law to confer righteousness on us, he immediately throws the blame on our flesh.
This explanation fully reconciles what is said by Paul and by David, which apparently seems wholly contradictory. Paul makes the law the master of death, declares that it effects nothing but to bring on us the wrath of God, that it was given to increase sin, that it lives in order to kill us. David, on the other hand, says that it is sweeter than honey, and more desirable than gold; and among other recommendations he mentions the following — that it cheers hearts, converts to the Lord, and quickens. But Paul compares the law with the corrupt nature of man; hence arises the conflict: but David shews how they think and feel whom God by his Spirit has renewed; hence the sweetness and delight of which the flesh knows nothing. And John has not omitted this difference; for he confines to God’s children these words, God’s commandments are not grievous, lest any one should take them literally; and he intimates that, it comes through the power of the Spirit, that it is not grievous nor wearisome to us to obey God.
The question, however, seems not as yet to be fully answered; for the faithful, though ruled by the Spirit, of God, yet, carry on a hard contest with their own flesh; and how muchsoever they may toil, they yet hardly perform the half of their duty; nay, they almost fail under their burden, as though they stood, as they say, between the sanctuary and the steep. We see how Paul groaned as one held captive, and exclaimed that he was wretched, because he could not fully serve God. My reply to this is, that the law is said to be easy, as far as we are endued with heavenly power, and overcome the lusts of the flesh. For however the flesh may resist, yet the faithful find that there is no real enjoyment except in following God.
It must further be observed, that John does not speak of the law only, which contains nothing but commands, but connects with it the paternal indulgence of God, by which the rigor of the law is mitigated. As, then, we know that we are graciously forgiven by the Lord, when our works do not come up to the law, this renders us far more prompt to obey, according to what we find in Psalms 130:4,
“With thee is propitiation, that thou mayest be feared.”
Hence, then, is the facility of keeping the law, because the faithful, being sustained by pardon, do not despond when they come short of what they ought to be. The Apostle, in the meantime, reminds us that we must fight, in order that we may serve the Lord; for the whole world hinders us to go where the Lord calls us. Then, he only keeps the law who courageously resists the world.
4This is the victory As he had said that all who are born of God overcome the world, he also sets forth the way of overcoming it. For it might be still asked, whence comes this victory? He then makes the victory over the world to depend on faith. (93)
This passage is remarkable, for though Satan continually repeats his dreadful and horrible onsets, yet the Spirit of God, declaring that we are beyond the reach of danger, removes fear, and animates us to fight with courage. And the past time is more emphatical than the present or the future; for he says, that has overcome, in order that we might feel certain, as though the enemy had been already put to flight. It is, indeed, true, that our warfare continues through life, that our conflicts are daily, nay, that new and various battles are every moment on every side stirred up against us by the enemy; but as God does not arm us only for one day, and as faith is not that of one day, but is the perpetual work of the Holy Spirit, we are already partakers of victory, as though we had already conquered.
This confidence does not, however, introduce indifference, but renders us always anxiously intent on fighting. For the Lord thus bids his people to be certain, while yet he would not have them to be secure; but on the contrary, he declares that they have already overcome, in order that they may fight more courageously and more strenuously.
The term world has here a wide meaning, for it includes whatever is adverse to the Spirit of God: thus, the corruption of our nature is a part of the world; all lusts, all the crafts of Satan, in short, whatever leads us away from God. Having such a force to contend with, we have an immense war to carry on, and we should have been already conquered before coming to the contest, and we should be conquered a hundred times daily, had not God promised to us the victory. But God encourages us to fight by promising us the victory. But as this promise secures to us perpetually the invincible power of God, so, on the other hand, it annihilates all the strength of men. For the Apostle does not teach us here that God only brings some help to us, so that being aided by him, we may be sufficiently able to resist; but he makes victory to depend on faith alone; and faith receives from another that by which it overcomes. They then take away from God what is his own, who sing triumph to their own power.
“For every thing begotten by God overcomes the world,” etc. The neuter gender is used for the masculine, “every thing” for “every one,” as in the first verse; or according to כל in Hebrew, it is used in a plural sense, for πάντες as in John 17:2, “that all ( πᾶν) which thou hast given him, he should give them ( αὐτοῖς) eternal life.”
Macknight and others have said that the neuter gender is used in order to comprehend all sorts of persons, males and females, young and old, Jews and Gentiles, bond or free. Why, then, was not the neuter gender used in the first verse? It is clearly a peculiarity of style, and nothing else, and ought not to be retained in a translation.
“Victory” stands for that which brings victory, the effect for the cause; or it may designate the person, as νίκη means sometimes the goddess of victory. — “And this the conqueress who conquers the world, even our faith.” — Ed
5Who is he that overcometh the world This is a reason for the previous sentence; that is, we conquer by faith, because we derive strength from Christ; as Paul also says,
“I can do all things through him that strengtheneth me,”
He only then can conquer Satan and the world, and not succumb to his own flesh, who, diffident as to himself, recumbs on Christ’s power alone. For byfaith he means a real apprehension of Christ, or an effectual laying hold on him, by which we apply his power to ourselves.
6This is he that came That our faith may rest safely on Christ, he says the real substance of the shadows of the law appears in him. For I doubt not but that he alludes by the words water and blood to the ancient rites of the law. The comparison, moreover, is intended for this end, not only that we may know that the Law of Moses was abolished by the coming of Christ, but that we may seek in him the fulfillment of those things which the ceremonies formerly typified. And though they were of various kinds, yet under these two the Apostle denotes the whole perfection of holiness and righteousness, for by water was all filth washed away, so that men might come before God pure and clean, and by blood was expiation made, and a pledge given of a full reconciliation with God; but the law only adumbrated by external symbols what was to be really and fully performed by the Messiah.
John then fitly proves that Jesus is the Christ of the Lord formerly promised, because he brought with him that by which he sanctifies us wholly.
And, indeed, as to the blood by which Christ reconciled God, there is no doubt, but how he came by water may be questioned. But that the reference is to baptism is not probable. I certainly think that John sets forth here the fruit and effect of what he recorded in the Gospel history; for what he says there, that water and blood flowed from the side of Christ, is no doubt to be deemed a miracle. I know that such a thing does happen naturally to the dead; but it happened through God’s purpose, that Christ’s side became the fountain of blood and water, in order that the faithful may know that cleansing (of which the ancient baptisms were types) is found in him, and that they might know that what all the sprinklings of blood formerly presignified was fulfilled. On this subject we dwelt more at large on the ninth and tenth chapters of the Epistle to the Hebrews.
And it is the Spirit that beareth witness He shews in this clause how the faithful know and feel the power of Christ, even because the Spirit renders them certain; and that their faith might not vacillate, he adds, that a full and real firmness or stability is produced by the testimony of the Spirit. And he calls the Spirit truth, because his authority is indubitable, and ought to be abundantly sufficient for us.
7.There are three than bear record in heaven The whole of this verse has been by some omitted. Jerome thinks that this has happened through design rather than through mistake, and that indeed only on the part of the Latins. But as even the Greek copies do not agree, I dare not assert any thing on the subject. Since, however, the passage flows better when this clause is added, and as I see that it is found in the best and most approved copies, I am inclined to receive it as the true reading. (94) And the meaning would be, that God, in order to confirm most abundantly our faith in Christ, testifies in three ways that we ought to acquiesce in him. For as our faith acknowledges three persons in the one divine essence, so it is called in so really ways to Christ that it may rest on him.
When he says, These three are one, he refers not to essence, but on the contrary to consent; as though he had said that the Father and his eternal Word and Spirit harmoniously testify the same thing respecting Christ. Hence some copies have εἰς ἓν, “for one.” But though you read ἓν εἰσιν, as in other copies, yet there is no doubt but that the Father, the Word and the Spirit are said to be one, in the same sense in which afterwards the blood and the water and the Spirit are said to agree in one.
But as the Spirit, who is one witness, is mentioned twice, it seems to be an unnecessary repetition. To this I reply, that since he testifies of Christ in various ways, a twofold testimony is fitly ascribed to him. For the Father, together with his eternal Wisdom and Spirit, declares Jesus to be the Christ as it were authoritatively, then, in this ease, the sole majesty of the deity is to be considered by us. But as the Spirit, dwelling in our hearts, is an earnest, a pledge, and a seal, to confirm that decree, so he thus again speaks on earth by his grace.
But inasmuch as all do not receive this reading, I will therefore so expound what follows, as though the Apostle referred to the witnesses only on the earth.
7. “For there are three who bear witness [in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one:
8. And there are three who bear witness in earth,] the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree in one.”
As to the construction of the passage, as far as grammar and sense are concerned, it may do with or without the interpolation equally the same. What has been said to the contrary on this point, seems to be nothing of a decisive character, in no way sufficient to shew that the words are not spurious. Indeed, the passage reads better without the interpolated words; and as to the sense, that is, the sense in which they are commonly taken by the advocates of their genuineness, it has no connection whatever with the general drift of the passage. — Ed.
8There are three He applies what had been said of water and blood to it’s own purpose, in order that they who reject Christ might have no excuse; for by testimonies abundantly strong and clear, he proves that it is he who had been formerly promised, inasmuch as water and blood, being the pledges and the effects of salvation, really testify that he had been sent by God. He adds a third witness, the Holy Spirit, who yet holds the first place, for without him the wafer and blood would have flowed without any benefit; for it is he who seals on our hearts the testimony of the water and blood; it is he who by his power makes the fruit of Christ’s death to come to us; yea, he makes the blood shed for our redemption to penetrate into our hearts, or, to say all in one word, he makes Christ with all his blessings to become ours. So Paul, in Romans 1:4, after having said that Christ by his resurrection manifested himself to be the Son of God, immediately adds, “Through the sanctification of the Spirit.” For whatever signs of divine glory may shine forth in Christ, they would yet be obscure to us and escape our vision, were not the Holy Spirit to open for us the eyes of faith.
Readers may now understand why John adduced the Spirit as a witness together with the water and the blood, even because it is the peculiar office of the Spirit, to cleanse our consciences by the blood of Christ, to cause the cleansing effected by it to be efficacious. On this subject some remarks are made at the beginning of the Second Epistle of Peter, (95) where he uses nearly the same mode of speaking, that is, that the Holy Spirit cleanses our hearts by the sprinkling of the blood of Christ. (96)
But from these words we may learn, that faith does not lay hold on a bare or an empty Christ, but that his power is at the same time vivifying. For to what purpose has Christ been sent on the earth, except to reconcile God by the sacrifice of his death? except the office of washing had been allotted to him by the Father?
It may however be objected, that the distinction here mentioned is superfluous, because Christ cleansed us by expiating our sins; then the Apostle mentions the same thing twice. I indeed allow that cleansing is included in expiation; therefore I made no difference between the water and the blood, as though they were distinct; but if any one of us considers his own infirmity, he will readily acknowledge that it is not in vain or without reason that blood is distinguished from the water. Besides, the Apostle, as it has been stated, alludes to the rites of the law; and God, on account of human infirmity, had formerly appointed, not only sacrifices, but also washings. And the Apostle meant distinctly to show that the reality of both has been exhibited in Christ, and on this account he had said before, “Not by water only,” for he means, that not only some part of our salvation is found in Christ, but the whole of it, so that nothing is to be sought elsewhere.
“This is he who came with water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not with water only, but with water and blood: the Spirit also beareth witness, for (or seeing that) the Spirit is truth (or, is true); because there are three who bear witness, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three agree in one.
We see hence a reason why the Spirit is said to be true, even because he is not alone, for the water and the blood concur with him. Thus a testimony is formed consistently with the requirement of the law. We hence also see the import of what is stated when the testimony of men is mentioned, as though he had said, The testimony of three men is received as valid, how much more valid is the testimony of God, which has three witnesses in its behalf? It is called God’s testimony, because the witnesses have been ordered and appointed by him.
When it is said that he came with water and blood, the meaning is, that he came, having water and blood; the proposition διὰ has sometimes this meaning, and it is changed in the second clause into ἐν. We meet with similar instances in 2 Corinthians 3:11, and in 2 Corinthians 4:11. See Romans 2:27
According to this construction, the explanation of Calvin is alone the right one, that the water means cleansing, and the blood expiation, the terms being borrowed from the rites of the law; and a reference is also made to the law when the witness of men is mentioned. — Ed.
9If we receive the witness, or testimony, of men He proves, reasoning from the less to the greater, how ungrateful men are when they reject Christ, who has been approved, as he has related, by God; for if in worldly affairs we stand to the words of men, who may lie and deceive, how unreasonable it is that God should have less credit given to him, when sitting as it were on his own throne, where he is the supreme judge. Then our own corruption alone prevents us to receive Christ,, since he gives us full proof for believing in his power. Besides, he calls not only that the testimony of God which the Spirit imprints on our hearts, but also that which we derive from the water and the blood. For that power of cleansing and expiating was not earthly, but heavenly. Hence the blood of Christ is not to be estimated according to the common manner of men; but we must rather look to the design of God, who ordained it for blotting out sins, and also to that divine efficacy which flows from it.
9For this is the witness, or testimony, of God The particle ὅτι does not mean here the cause, but is to be taken as explanatory; for the Apostle, after having reminded us that God deserves to be believed much more than men, now adds, that we can have no faith in God, except by believing in Christ, because God sets him alone before us and makes us to stand in him. He hence infers that we believe safely and with tranquil minds in Christ, because God by his authority warrants our faith. He does not say that God speaks outwardly, but that every one of the godly feels within that God is the author of his faith. It hence appears how different from faith is a fading opinion dependent on something else.
10.He that believeth not As the faithful possess this benefit, that they know themselves to be beyond the danger of erring, because they have God as their foundation; so he makes the ungodly to be guilty of extreme blasphemy, because they charge God with falsehood. Doubtless nothing is more valued by God than his own truth, therefore no wrong more atrocious can be done to him, than to rob him of this honor. Then in order to induce us to believe, he takes an argument from the opposite side; for if to make God a liar be a horrible and execrable impiety, because then what especially belongs to him is taken away, who would not dread to withhold faith from the gospel, in which God would have himself to be counted singularly true and faithful? This ought to be carefully observed.
Some wonder why God commends faith so much, why unbelief is so severely condemned. But the glory of God is implicated in this; for since he designed to shew a special instance of his truth in the gospel, all they who reject Christ there offered to them, leave nothing to him. Therefore, though we may grant that a man in other parts of his life is like an angel, yet his sanctity is diabolical as long as he rejects Christ. Thus we see some under the Papacy vastly pleased with the mere mask of sanctity, while they still most obstinately resist the gospel. Let us then understand, that it is the beginning of true religion, obediently to embrace this doctrine, which he has so strongly confirmed by his testimony.
11That God hath given us eternal life Having now set forth the benefit, he invites us to believe. It is, indeed, a reverence due to God, immediately to receive, as beyond controversy, whatever he declares to us. But since he freely offers life to us, our ingratitude will be intolerable, except with prompt faith we receive a doctrine so sweet and so lovely. And, doubtless, the words of the Apostle are intended to shew, that we ought, not only reverently to obey the gospel, lest we should affront God; but, that we ought to love it, because it brings to us eternal life. We hence also learn what is especially to be sought in the gospel, even the free gift of salvation; for that God there exhorts us to repentance and fear, ought not to be separated from the grace of Christ.
But the Apostle, that he might keep us together in Christ, again repeats that life is found in him; as though he had said, that no other way of obtaining life has been appointed for us by God the Father. And the Apostle, indeed, briefly includes here three things: that we are all given up to death until God in his gratuitous favor restores us to life; for he plainly declares that life is a gift from God: and hence also it follows that we are destitute of it, and that it cannot be acquired by merits; secondly, he teaches us that this life is conferred on us by the gospel, because there the goodness and the paternal love of God is made known to us; lastly, he says that we cannot otherwise become partakers of this life than by believing in Christ.
12He that hath not the Son This is a confirmation of the last sentence. It ought, indeed, to have been sufficient, that God made life to be in none but in Christ, that it might be sought in him; but lest any one should turn away to another, he excludes all from the hope of life who seek it not in Christ. We know what it is to have Christ, for he is possessed by faith. He then shews that all who are separated from the body of Christ are without life.
But this seems inconsistent with reason; for history shews that there have been great men, endued with heroic virtues, who yet were wholly unacquainted with Christ; and it seems unreasonable that men of so great eminence had no honor. To this I answer, that we are greatly mistaken if we think that whatever is eminent in our eyes is approved by God; for, as it is said in Luke,
“What is highly esteemed by men is an abomination with God.” (Luke 16:15)
For as the filthiness of the heart is hid from us, we are satisfied with the external appearance; but God sees that under this is concealed the foulest filth. It is, therefore, no wonder if specious virtues, flowing from an impure heart, and tending to no right end, have an ill odor to him. Besides, whence comes purity, whence a genuine regard for religion, except from the Spirit of Christ? There is, then, nothing worthy of praise except in Christ.
There is, further, another reason which removes every doubt; for the righteousness of men is in the remission of sins. If you take away this, the sure curse of God and eternal death awaits all. Christ alone is he who reconciles the Father to us, as he has once for all pacified him by the sacrifice of the cross. It hence follows, that God is propitious to none but in Christ, nor is there righteousness but in him.
Were any one to object and say, that Cornelius, as mentioned by Luke, (Acts 10:2,) was accepted of God before he was called to the faith of the gospel: to this I answer shortly, that God sometimes so deals with us, that the seed of faith appears immediately on the first day. Cornelius had no clear and distinct knowledge of Christ; but as he had some perception of God’s mercy, he must at the same time understand something of a Mediator. But as God acts in ways hidden and wonderful, let us disregard those speculations which profit nothing, and hold only to that plain way of salvation, which he has made known to us.
13These things have I written unto you As there ought to be a daily progress in faith, so he says that he wrote to those who had already believed, so that they might believe more firmly and with greater certainty, and thus enjoy a fuller confidence as to eternal life. Then the use of doctrine is, not only to initiate the ignorant in the knowledge of Christ, but also to confirm those more and more who have been already taught. It therefore becomes us assiduously to attend to the duty of learning, that our faith may increase through the whole course of our life. For there are still in us many remnants of unbelief, and so weak is our faith that what we believe is not yet really believed except there be a fuller confirmation.
But we ought to observe the way in which faith is confirmed, even by having the office and power of Christ explained to us. For the Apostle says that he wrote these things, that is, that eternal life is to be sought nowhere else but in Christ, in order that they who were believers already might believe, that is, make progress in believing. It is therefore the duty of a godly teacher, in order to confirm disciples in the faith, to extol as much as possible the grace of Christ, so that being satisfied with that, we may seek nothing else.
As the Papists obscure this truth in various ways, and extenuate it, they shew sufficiently by this one thing that they care for nothing less than for the right doctrine of faith; yea, on this account, their schools ought to be more shunned than all the Scyllas and Charybdises in the world; for hardly any one can enter them without a sure shipwreck to his faith.
The Apostle teaches further in this passage, that Christ is the peculiar object of faith, and that to the faith which we have in his name is annexed the hope of salvation. For in this case the end of believing is, that we become the children and the heirs of God.
14And this is the confidence He commends the faith which he mentioned by its fruit, or he shews that in which our confidence especially is, that is, that the godly dare confidently to call on God; as also Paul speaks in Ephesians 3:12, that we have by faith access to God with confidence; and also in Romans 8:15, that the Spirit gives us a mouth to cry Abba, Father. And doubtless, were we driven away from an access to God, nothing could make us more miserable; but, on the other hand, provided this asylum be opened to us, we should be happy even in extreme evils; nay, this one thing renders our troubles blessed, because we surely know that God will be our deliverer, and relying on his paternal love towards us, we flee to him.
Let us, then, bear in mind this declaration of the Apostle, that calling on God is the chief trial of our faith, and that God is not rightly nor in faith called upon except we be fully persuaded that our prayers will not be in vain. For the Apostle denies that those who, being doubtful, hesitate, are endued with faith.
It hence appears that the doctrine of faith is buried and nearly extinct under the Papacy, for all certainty is taken away. They indeed mutter many prayers, and prattle much about praying to God; but they pray with doubtful and fluctuating hearts, and bid us to pray; and yet they even condemn this confidence which the Apostle requires as necessary.
According to his will By this expression he meant by the way to remind us what is the right way or rule of praying, even when men subject their own wishes to God. For though God has promised to do whatsoever his people may ask, yet he does not allow them an unbridled liberty to ask whatever may come to their minds; but he has at the same time prescribed to them a law according to which they are to pray. And doubtless nothing is better for us than this restriction; for if it was allowed to every one of us to ask what he pleased, and if God were to indulge us in our wishes, it would be to provide very badly for us. For what may be expedient we know not; nay, we boil over with corrupt and hurtful desires. But God supplies a twofold remedy, lest we should pray otherwise than according to what his own will has prescribed; for he teaches us by his word what he would have us to ask, and he has also set over us his Spirit as our guide and ruler, to restrain our feelings, so as not to suffer them to wander beyond due bounds. For what or how to pray, we know not, says Paul, but the Spirit helpeth our infirmity, and excites in us unutterable groans. (Romans 8:26.) We ought also to ask the mouth of the Lord to direct and guide our prayers; for God in his promises has fixed for us, as it has been said, the right way of praying.
15And if we know This is not a superfluous repetition, as it seems to be; for what the Apostle declared in general respecting the success of prayer, he now affirms in a special manner that the godly pray or ask for nothing from God but what they obtain. But when he says that all the petitions of the faithful are heard, he speaks of right and humble petitions, and such as are consistent with the rule of obedience. For the faithful do not give loose reins to their desires, nor indulge in anything that may please them, but always regard in their prayers what God commands.
This, then, is an application of the general doctrine to the special and private benefit of every one, lest the faithful should doubt that God is propitious to prayers of each individual, so that with quiet minds they may wait until the Lord should perform what they pray for, and that being thus relieved from all trouble and anxiety, they may cast on God the burden of their cares. This ease and security ought not, however, to abate in them their earnestness in prayer, for he who is certain of a happy event ought not to abstain from praying to God. For the certainty of faith by no means generates indifference or sloth. The Apostle meant; that every one should be tranquil in these necessities when he has deposited his sighs in the bosom of God.
16If any man The Apostle extends still further the benefits of that faith which he has mentioned, so that our prayers may also avail for our brethren. It is a great thing, that as soon as we are oppressed, God kindly invites us to himself, and is ready to give us help; but that he hears us asking for others, is no small confirmation to our faith in order that we may be fully assured that we shall never meet with a repulse in our own case.
The Apostle in the meantime exhorts us to be mutually solicitous for the salvation of one another; and he would also have us to regard the falls of the brethren as stimulants to prayer. And surely it is an iron hardness to be touched with no pity, when we see souls redeemed by Christ’s blood going to ruin. But he shews that there is at hand a remedy, by which brethren can aid brethren. He who will pray for the perishing, will, he says, restore life to him; though the words, “he shall give,” may be applied to God, as though it was said, God will grant to your prayers the life of a brother. But the sense will still be the same, that the prayers of the faithful so far avail as to rescue a brother from death. If we understand man to be intended, that he will give life to a brother, it is a hyperbolical expression; it however contains nothing inconsistent; for what is given to us by the gratuitous goodness of God, yea, what is granted to others for our sake, we are said to give to others. So great a benefit ought to stimulate us not a little to ask for our brethren the forgiveness of sins. And when the Apostle recommends sympathy to us, he at the same time reminds us how much we ought to avoid the cruelty of condemning our brethren, or an extreme rigor in despairing of their salvation.
A sin which is not unto death That we may not cast away all hope of the salvation of those who sin, he shews that God does not so grievously punish their falls as to repudiate them. It hence follows that we ought to deem them brethren, since God retains them in the number of his children. For he denies that sins are to death, not only those by which the saints daily offend, but even when it happens that God’s wrath is grievously provoked by them. For as long as room for pardon is left, death does not wholly retain its dominion.
The Apostle, however, does not here distinguish between venial and mortal sin, as it was afterwards commonly done. For altogether foolish is that distinction which prevails under the Papacy. The Sorbons acknowledge that there is hardly a mortal sin, except there be the grossest baseness, such as may be, as it were, tangible. Thus in venial sins they think that there may be the greatest filth, if hidden in the soul. In short, they suppose that all the fruits of original sin, provided they appear not outwardly, are washed away by the slight sprinkling of holy water! And what wonder is it, since they regard not as blasphemous sins, doubts respecting God’s grace, or any lusts or evil desires, except they are consented to? If the soul of man be assailed by unbelief, if impatience tempts him to rage against God, whatever monstrous lusts may allure him, all these are to the Papists lighter than to be deemed sins, at least after baptism. It is then no wonder, that they make venial offenses of the greatest crimes; for they weigh them in their own balance and not in the balance of God.
But among the faithful this ought to be an indubitable truth, that whatever is contrary to God’s law is sin, and in its nature mortal; for where there is a transgression of the law, there is sin and death.
What, then, is the meaning of the Apostle? He denies that sins are mortal, which, though worthy of death, are yet not thus punished by God. He therefore does not estimate sins in themselves, but forms a judgment of them according to the paternal kindness of God, which pardons the guilt, where yet the fault is. In short, God does not give over to death those whom he has restored to life, though it depends not on them that they are not alienated from life.
There is a sin unto death I have already said that the sin to which there is no hope of pardon left, is thus called. But it may be asked, what this is; for it must be very atrocious, when God thus so severely punishes it. It may be gathered from the context, that it is not, as they say, a partial fall, or a transgression of a single commandment, but apostasy, by which men wholly alienate themselves from God. For the Apostle afterwards adds, that the children of God do not sin, that is, that they do not forsake God, and wholly surrender themselves to Satan, to be his slaves. Such a defection, it is no wonder that it is mortal; for God never thus deprives his own people of the grace of the Spirit; but they ever retain some spark of true religion. They must then be reprobate and given up to destruction, who thus fall away so as to have no fear of God.
Were any one to ask, whether the door of salvation is closed against their repentance; the answer is obvious, that as they are given up to a reprobate mind, and are destitute of the Holy Spirit, they cannot do anything else, than with obstinate minds, become worse and worse, and add sins to sins. Moreover, as the sin and blasphemy against the Spirit ever brings with it a defection of this kind, there is no doubt but that it is here pointed out.
But it may be asked again, by what evidences can we know that a man’s fall is fatal; for except the knowledge of this was certain, in vain would the Apostle have made this exception, that they were not to pray for a sin of this kind. It is then right to determine sometimes, whether the fallen is without hope, or whether there is still a place for a remedy. This, indeed, is what I allow, and what is evident beyond dispute from this passage; but as this very seldom happens, and as God sets before us the infinite riches of his grace, and bids us to be merciful according to his own example, we ought not rashly to conclude that any one has brought on himself the judgment of eternal death; on the contrary, love should dispose us to hope well. But if the impiety of some appear to us not otherwise than hopeless, as though the Lord pointed it out by the finger, we ought not to contend with the just judgment of God, or seek to be more merciful than he is.
17All unrighteousness This passage may be explained variously. If you take it adversatively, the sense would not be unsuitable, “Though all unrighteousness is sin, yet every sin is not unto death.” And equally suitable is another meaning, “As sin is every unrighteousness, hence it follows that every sin is not unto death.” Some take all unrighteousness for complete unrighteousness, as though the Apostle had said, that the sin of which he spoke was the summit of unrighteousness. I, however, am more disposed to embrace the first or the second explanation; and as the result is nearly the same, I leave it to the judgment of readers to determine which of the two is the more appropriate.
18We know that whosoever is born of God If you suppose that God’s children are wholly pure and free from all sin, as the fanatics contend, then the Apostle is inconsistent with himself; for he would thus take away the duty of mutual prayer among brethren. Then he says that those sin not who do not wholly fall away from the grace of God; and hence he inferred that prayer ought to be made for all the children of God, because they sin not unto death. A proof is added, that every one, born of God, keeps himself, that is, keeps himself in the fear of God; nor does he suffer himself to be so led away, as to lose all sense of religion, and to surrender himself wholly to the devil and the flesh.
For when he says, that he is not touched by that wicked one, reference is made to a deadly wound; for the children of God do not remain untouched by the assaults of Satan, but they ward off his strokes by the shield of faith, so that they do not penetrate into the heart. Hence spiritual life is never extinguished in them. This is not to sin. Though the faithful indeed fall through the infirmity of the flesh, yet they groan under the burden of sin, loathe themselves, and cease not to fear God.
Keepeth himself. What properly belongs to God he transfers to us; for were any one of us the keeper of his own salvation, it would be a miserable protection. Therefore Christ asks the Father to keep us, intimating that it is not done by our own strength. The advocates of freewill lay hold on this expression, that they may thence prove, that we are preserved from sin, partly by God’s grace, and partly by our own power. But they do not perceive that the faithful have not from themselves the power of preservation of which the Apostle speaks. Nor does he, indeed, speak of their power, as though they could keep themselves by their own strength; but he only shews that they ought to resist Satan, so that they may never be fatally wounded by his darts. And we know that we fight with no other weapons but those of God. Hence the faithful keep themselves from sin, as far as they are kept by God. (John 17:11.)
19We are of God He deduces an exhortation from his previous doctrine; for what he had declared in common as to the children of God, he now applies to those he was writing to; and this he did, to stimulate them to beware of sin, and to encourage them to repel the onsets of Satan.
Let readers observe, that it is only true faith, that applies to us, so to speak, the grace of God; for the Apostle acknowledges none as faithful, but those who have the dignity of being God’s children. Nor does he indeed put probable conjecture, as the Sophists speak, for confidence; for he says that we know. The meaning is, that as we have been born of God, we ought to strive to prove by our separation from the world, and by the sanctity of our life, that we have not been in vain called to so great all honor.
Now, this is an admonition very necessary for all the godly; for wherever they turn their eyes, Satan has his allurements prepared, by which he seeks to draw them away from God. It would then be difficult for them to hold on in their course, were they not so to value their calling as to disregard all the hindrances of the world. Then, in order to be well prepared for the contest, these two things must be borne in mind, that the world is wicked, and that our calling is from God.
Under the term world, the Apostle no doubt includes the whole human race. By saying that it lieth in the wicked one, he represents it as being under the dominion of Satan. There is then no reason why we should hesitate to shun the world, which condemns God and delivers up itself into the bondage of Satan: nor is there a reason why we should fear its enmity, because it is alienated from God. In short, since corruption pervades all nature, the faithful ought to study self-denial; and since nothing is seen in the world but wickedness and corruption, they must necessarily disregard flesh and blood that they may follow God. At the same time the other thing ought to be added, that God is he who has called them, that under this protection they may oppose all the machinations of the world and Satan.
20And we know that the Son of God is come As the children of God are assailed on every side, he, as we have said, encourages and exhorts them to persevere in resisting their enemies, and for this reason, because they fight under the banner of God, and certainly know that they are ruled by his Spirit; but he now reminds them where this knowledge is especially to be found.
He then says that God has been so made known to us, that now there is no reason for doubting. The Apostle does not without reason dwell on this point; for except our faith is really founded on God, we shall never stand firm in the contest. For this purpose the Apostle shews that we have obtained through Christ a sure knowledge of the true God, so that we may not fluctuate in uncertainty.
By true God he does not mean one who tells the truth, but him who is really God; and he so calls him to distinguishing him from all idols. Thus true is in opposition to what is fictitious; for it is ἀληθινὸς, and not ἀληθής A similar passage is in John
“This is eternal life, to know thee,
the only true God,
and him whom thou hast sent,
And he justly ascribes to Christ this office of illuminating our minds as to the knowledge of God. For, as he is the only true image of the invisible God, as he is the only interpreter of the Father, as he is the only guide of life, yea, as he is the life and light of the world and the truth, as soon as we depart from him, we necessarily become vain in our own devices.
And Christ is said to have given us an understanding, not only because he shews us in the gospel what sort of being is the true God, and also illuminates us by his Spirit; but because in Christ himself we have God manifested in the flesh, as Paul says, since in him dwells all the fullness of the Deity, and are hid all the treasures of knowledge and wisdom. (Colossians 2:9.) Thus it is that the face of God in a manner appears to us in Christ; not that there was no knowledge, or a doubtful knowledge of God, before the coming of Christ,, but that now he manifests himself more fully and more clearly. And this is what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:6, that
God, who formerly commanded light to shine out of darkness at the creation of the world, hath now shone in our hearts through the brightness of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Christ.
And it must be observed, that this gift is peculiar to the elect. Christ, indeed, kindles for all indiscriminately the torch of his gospel; but all have not the eyes of their minds opened to see it, but on the contrary Satan spreads the veil of blindness over many. Then the Apostle means the light which Christ kindles within in the hearts of his people, and which when once kindled, is never extinguished, though in some it may for a time be smothered.
We are in him that is true By these words he reminds us how efficacious is that knowledge which he mentions, even because by it we are united to Christ; and become one with God; for it has a living root, fixed in the heart, by which it comes that God lives in us and we in him. As he says, without a copulative, that: we are in him that is true, in his Son, he seems to express the manner of our union with God, as though he had said, that we are in God through Christ. (97)
This is the true God Though the Arians have attempted to elude this passage, and some agree with them at this day, yet we have here a remarkable testimony to the divinity of Christ. The Arians apply this passage to the Father, as though the Apostle should again repeat that he is the true God. But nothing could be more frigid than such a repetition. It has already twice testified that the true God is he who has been made known to us in Christ, why should he again add, This is the true God ? It applies, indeed, most suitably to Christ; for after having taught us that Christ is the guide by whose hand we are led to God, he now, by way of amplifying, affirms that Christ is that God, lest we should think that we are to seek further; and he confirms this view by what is added, and eternal life. It is doubtless the same that is spoken of, as being the true God and eternal life. I pass by this, that the relative οὗτος usually refers to the last person. I say, then, that Christ is properly called eternal life; and that this mode of speaking perpetually occurs in John, no one can deny.
The meaning is, that when we have Christ, we enjoy the true and eternal God, for nowhere else is he to be sought; and, secondly, that we become thus partakers of eternal life, because it is offered to us in Christ though hid in the Father. The origin of life is, indeed, the Father; but the fountain from which we are to draw it, is Christ.
21Keep yourselves from idols Though this be a separate sentence, yet it is as it were an appendix to the preceding doctrine. For the vivifying light of the Gospel ought to scatter and dissipate, not only darkness, but also all mists, from the minds of the godly. The Apostle not only condemns idolatry, but commands us to beware of all images and idols; by which he intimates, that the worship of God cannot continue uncorrupted and pure whenever men begin to be in love with idols or images. For so innate in us is superstition, that the least occasion will infect us with its contagion. Dry wood will not so easily burn when coals are put under it, as idolatry will lay hold on and engross the minds of men, when an occasion is given to them. And who does not see that images are the sparks? What sparks do I say? nay, rather torches, which are sufficient to set the whole world on fire.
The Apostle at the same time does not only speak of statues, but also of altars, and includes all the instruments of superstitions. Moreover, the Papists are ridiculous, who pervert this passage and apply it to the statues of Jupiter and Mercury and the like, as though the Apostle did not teach generally, that there is a corruption of religion whenever a corporeal form is ascribed to God, or whenever statues and pictures form a part of his worship. Let us then remember that we ought carefully to continue in the spiritual worship of God, so as to banish far from us everything that may turn us aside to gross and carnal superstitions.
end of the first epistle of John
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Calvin, John. "Commentary on 1 John 5". "Calvin's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany