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The Gospel According to 1 John: Are You a Christian?

what is a christian

JC Ryle, a 19th-century (Evangelical) Anglican Bishop, wrote a tract about the marks of a Christian:

But still after every allowance, here we find boldly painted six marks of being born of God. Here is an inspired Apostle writing one of the last general epistles (1 John) to the Church of Christ, telling us that a man born of God, Does not commit sin, Believes that Jesus is the Christ, Does righteousness, Loves the brethren, Overcomes the world, and Keeps himself. I ask the reader to observe all this.

The Bible basis for what Ryle says is found in I John:

Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.

Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.

For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.

We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.

If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.

And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.

He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now.

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.

If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him.

Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law. And ye know that he was manifested to take away our sins; and in him is no sin. Whosoever abideth in him sinneth not: whosoever sinneth hath not seen him, neither known him.

He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.

We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.

Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God.

If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?

Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous. For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?

Denominations, pastors, and individual Christians explain, or should I say explain away, these verses in a variety of ways. Some take the verses exactly as they are written, even though their lives are a direct contradiction to what the verses say. Others go to the Greek text and say that these verses say one thing in the English text but another thing in the Greek text. They do a lot of explaining to get away from what the English text clearly says. It seems to me that the writer of 1 John (and keep in mind some scholars think 1 John is a fraudulent text) is very clear. You SAY you are a Christian? Here is the standard by which to judge yourself. Do you measure up? If not, you are NOT a Christian.

1 John contradicts other books of the Bible. 1 John and the book of James set a very different standard for what a Christian is than Paul does in his writings. Christians go to great lengths to harmonize, smooth over, and mediate the conflict, but since I am not a Christian I have no need to make everything “fit.”

I ask myself, if a person who had never had any contact with Christianity was stranded on an island and only had the book of 1 John to read, what conclusions would he come to? Would he say that salvation is by grace through faith, not of works lest any man should boast? I doubt it.

So much of what is called true, orthodox “Christianity” is actually someone’s interpretation of what the Bible says. As the centuries click by, the interpretations become more complex and varied. It is almost impossible to get a Christian to see that what they call true, orthodox Christianity is actually a man-made religion, shaped and molded over centuries. For the most part, modern Christianity is Paul’s version of Christianity and not Jesus’ version. I suspect the essence of the Judaistic Christianity of Jesus has been irretrievably lost.

Some may ask, since I am an atheist, why do I bother with matters concerning the Bible and Christianity? First of all, I like talking about these things. Second, our culture is deeply influenced and sometimes controlled by Christianity, and how Christians interpret the Bible affects our culture. Third, Christians (mainly Evangelicals and Mormons) tend to evangelize and preach at non-believers, so it is fair to hold them to the same standard they hold others to. Based on the verses above, it is quite evident that no Christian measures up to the Bible’s standard of what it means to be a Christian. Thus, no Christian is a true Christian.

I also know there are a lot of readers who are somewhere between leaving Christianity and agnosticism/atheism. They are still struggling with what they believe or don’t believe. Do they still believe the Bible, and if so, what parts? Do they believe Jesus existed at all? If they do, do they believe what the Bible says about him? Posts like this one are meant to help them settle some of the issues they are struggling with.

For those of you who are or were a Christian, how did you or your pastor explain the verses from 1 John mentioned above?

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    Poor Bishop Ryle. Anyone who can seriously write that God’s people don’t sin must either accept that they themselves are not a person of God, explain away they sins they do commit (or redefine the term to mean something other than the generally accepted definition), and/or suffer from serious cognitive dissonance.

    At least the “Not perfect, just saved” crowd are honest about it.

  2. Avatar

    At Longview Baptist Temple the pastor once suggested that 1 John was the best place for a new believer to begin reading the Bible. The next week we were told no, there are a lot of things that are hard to understand in I John, so that is not the best place to begin.

    This seems to be the canned answer when the Bible says something one doesn’t like: That verse is hard to understand.

  3. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    When I was an Evangelical Christian, I led a Bible study group that nearly fell apart over 1 John. Some believed that it is the litmus test for a Christian. Others saw it as a guide. One member of our group, who claimed knowledge of the original Greek, said that “sin”’referred to intentional acts of wrongdoing. While I could not challenge his interpretation of the original, his assertion seemed to me, even then, dishonest (though I wouldn’t say so out loud). According to such an interpretation, one could claim that one’s transgressions were unintentional or unconscious—which is what people often say when they are making a face-saving apology for the harm they caused someone.

  4. Avatar

    “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” This verse was put to music and sung in youth groups – I found myself singing this song in my mind as I was reading it. It still amazes me how much brain space is occupied for religious crap.

    I don’t remember much discussion about the vast majority of these verses other than the general consensus that if we are “saved” we shouldn’t want to sin as much, and that the closer we were to God/Jesus/Holy Spirit through prayer, Bible reading, limiting exposure to “the world”, and basically immersing yourself in all things Christian 24/7, sin shouldn’t be a problem, with the help of God/Jesus/Holy Spirit. If sin is a problem, you’re not doing it right.

  5. Avatar
    Karuna Gal

    I was raised a Roman Catholic, and we were not encouraged to read and interpret the Bible at all. Maybe that was a good thing, to judge from what you former Evangelical folks say about it. 😄 Mother Church took care of that heavy lifting for her little lambs. My mom had a big R.C. version of the Bible ostentatiously displayed on a table, but I bet I was the only one of my family who ever looked at it, mostly because it was illustrated. Later, when I left Catholicism and became a more fervent Christian. I would read and re-read the New Testament, hoping that God would speak to me through His Word. Good luck with that. I thought it was my fault that I didn’t get His etheric phone call.
    By the way, you all know the Bible is a very important literary and artistic
    resource for Western civilization. There are books about reading the Bible as a literary work. One I read is “The Bible: Designed to be Read as Living Literature, the Old and New Testaments in the King James Version” by Bates and Allison. You can get it on Amazon.

  6. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Karuna—Like you, I was raised Roman Catholic. I don’t think I read the Bible until I became an Evangelical Christian. I can only imagine how much Biblical baggage I’d be carrying if I’d grown up as an Evangelical Christian. Then again, I absorbed my share of Catholic Guilt, not to mention PTSD from being sexually abused by a priest.

    • Avatar
      Karuna Gal

      MJ – You’re right. I guess Catholic guilt is the R.C. equivalent of Biblical 🧳 baggage. The sexual abuse you suffered is horrible and wrong, no matter the denomination!!!!! I’m glad that you had the courage to overcome your trauma and blossom into your true self. 🙂 This is an interesting little tidbit about my mom. My mom’s great uncle was a priest and my mom would stay with him sometimes in his rectory! 😧 I suppose he was a good and sincere person — he died before I was born — but with all the revelations we’ve had about priests and sexual abuse who knows if he did that, too? Maybe to my mom? It’s not outside the bounds of possibility.

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