Today many people claim to be Christians. In fact, a 1986 Gallup Survey revealed that ninety-four percent of adult Americans believe in God, and that seventy-six percent believe that Jesus is either God or the Son of God. Furthermore, when the question was asked, "Would you describe yourself as a 'born again' Christian or not?" thirty-three per cent said yes.
The problem, of course, is that actions speak louder than words. The same survey revealed that many of the mainline Protestant denominations have experienced sharp losses in membership since the mid sixties. For example, only forty percent told Gallup that they had attended church in the last week, and only ten percent claimed to read the Bible on a daily basis.
This credibility problem is intensified when we move from the pew to the pulpit. A shocking number of Christian leaders have been found guilty of sexual sin or financial misconduct. Sadly, their moral failures have been brought to our national attention by the secular news media, anxious to expose such blatant hypocrisy. If such leaders are representative of the church in general, it seems that we are indeed experiencing a period of unprecedented moral decline.
How are we to respond to this kind of situation? How can we tell the difference between genuine Christians and those who merely profess to know Christ?
John's letters were written for that very purpose. John writes to expose the false claims of those whose conduct contradicts their claims. He also provides strong assurance to those whose lifestyle is consistent with their Christian faith.
First John was written between A.D. 85-95 by the apostle John, the author of the Gospel of John and Revelation. Evidently the letter was circulated among a number of churches in Asia who were threatened by false teachers.
These false teachers embraced an early form of heresy known as Gnosticism. They taught that matter was entirely evil and spirit was entirely good. This teaching resulted in two fundamental errors:
A "new" theology. This centered in a denial of the incarnation. Since God could not be contaminated by a human body, these false teachers did not believe God became man in Jesus Christ. Some taught that he merely seemed to have a body, a view known as Docetism. Others claimed that the divine Christ descended on Jesus at his baptism but departed before the crucifixion, a view known as Cerinthianism. This latter view seems to be in the background of much of 1 John.
A "new" morality. These false teachers also claimed "to have reached such an advanced stage in spiritual experience that they were 'beyond good and evil.' They maintained that they had no sin, not in the sense that they had attained moral perfection but in the sense that what might be sin for people at a less mature stage of inner development was no longer sin for the completely 'spiritual' man. For him ethical distinctions had ceased to be relevant" (F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John[Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1978], p. 26).
What intensified this problem was that these false teachers had once been an active part of the fellowship which John's readers were continuing to enjoy (see 2:19). But because their "new" teaching was so contrary to the apostolic truths of the gospel, they had to part company with the faithful. As you can well imagine, those who remained in the true fellowship were unsettled and shaken by the defection of these new teachers and needed to be reassured. But in the process, the others also needed to be exposed for what they truly were—unbelieving heretics.
In order to accomplish both purposes, John provides a series of tests for distinguishing between genuine Christians and those who falsely claim to know Christ. In response to the "new" theology, he provides us with a doctrinal test: What does the person believe about Christ? In response to the "new" morality, he provides us with a moral test: How does the person respond to the commandments of Christ? Finally, he provides us with a social test: Does the person love other Christians?
In fact, John's entire first letter is structured around these three tests, each of which appears in three separate groups, or cycles, in the letter. After the prologue (1:1-4), there is the first cycle (1:5—2:27), followed by the second (2:28—4:6) and third (4:7—5:12). Then in the conclusion (5:13-21) John again emphasizes his theme of Christian assurance.
In view of this purpose and structure, it is important to realize that the contrasts in John's letter are not between two types of Christians but between genuine Christians and those who merely claim to be Christians. For in the words of John Stott: "John's argument is double-edged. If he seeks to bring believers to the knowledge that they have eternal life, he is equally at pains to show that unbelievers have not. His purpose is to destroy the false assurance of the counterfeit as well as to confirm the right assurance of the genuine" (John Stott, The Epistles of John [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964], p. 52).