Comments on Various Disputed Passages 1 John 5:4-5

By Michael Gowens

1 John 5:4-5 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? 

Does 1Jo 5:4-5 teach that every regenerate person will live as an overcomer of the world?  The verse is employed as a proof for the premise that the new birth guarantees perseverance in faith and holiness. I insist, rather, that the use of the neuter term “whatsoever” teaches that the born again person is equipped to persevere thru the exercise of his faith in Christ—that the verse, in other words, reveals the means by which the believer may live victoriously over sin—but not that human perseverance in guaranteed so that the child of God never falls victim, Demas-like, to the world.  The following article entitled “Be an Overcomer” is my attempt to synthesize this passage with the context.

1Jo 5:4-5

John’s exhortation to Christian love concludes with the affirmation that God’s “commandments are not grievous” [lit. burdensome] (1Jo 5:3b). That is true in a two-fold sense: (1) In terms of the character of God’s commandments, they are not like the hard rules and regulations imposed by the Pharisees– burdens “grievous to be borne” (Mt 23:4; Ac 15:10)—but are the standards of a loving Father who seeks the highest welfare of His children.  Christ’s yoke is easy and His burden, light (Mt 11:28); (2) In terms of the fact that we have been given the ability to keep them: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world…” (1Jo 5:4a).

When an individual is born again, he is given the gift of faith (Eph 2:8). John Stott writes, “By the use of the neuter ‘whatsoever’ John states the principle in its most general and abstract form. He does so to emphasize not ‘the victorious person’ but ‘the victorious power’. It is not the man, but his birth from God, which conquers.”  The gift of faith implanted in the soul equips God’s child with the necessary resources to live a life of victory over the world that once dominated every part of his existence. It is because God has given us faith that we can say, “His commands are not irksome.”

Does the fact that someone has been born again, then, guarantee that he will overcome the world? Not necessarily. Notice that John proceeds to ascribe the victory not to the fact that someone has been born again, but to the exercise of his faith: “And this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith” (#v. 4b|).  The sequence of thought is clear: First, God has equipped us with the necessary tools to live a victorious life (1Jo 5:4a); Second, We must utilize the resources He has given in order to live victoriously (1Jo 5:4b); Third, Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ – that is, a gospelly-informed trust and confidence in the Savior – is the key ingredient to the Christian’s conquest over sin in his life (1Jo 5:5).

The Premise

Implied in the language of these verses is a truth about the nature of the Christian life. The New Testament frequently depicts the life of discipleship in terms of an athletic contest or military campaign.  In this conflict, the Christian will either conquer or be conquered. He will either be a victor or a victim.  The goal is to overcome, not to succumb in defeat.

Ro 8:37 indicates that every child of God is already victorious – in fact, more than victorious – through Jesus Christ.  In Him, we have been emancipated from penalty of sin. Because Christ won the battle, the warfare is accomplished (Isa 40:1ff).  Positionally, we are victors through the cross.

But in practical terms, God’s people still face the daily challenge to live victoriously in a world that is characterized by ungodliness.  The war is over but the side-skirmishes of daily discipleship continue.  John’s question is, “Will you be a victim to the world, or will you be an overcomer?”  Just as the Lord Jesus “overcame the world” (Joh 16:33), so His followers are called to live lives above the lowlands of this fallen world system.

The Particulars

What precisely does that mean? In what specific areas does the world threaten the child of God?

First, the child of God is called to overcome the world’s obsessions, values, and attitudes. In 1Jo 2:16, John defines “the world” by its dominant characteristics:  “…the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life…” Living in a fallen world, we are bombarded with temptation to sin.  Ours is a world driven by the principle of personal gratification.  Self-fulfillment is touted as the supreme objective in this fallen world system. It urges, “Satisfy your desire for pleasure (i.e. “lust of the flesh”), for possessions (i.e. “lust of the eyes”), and for prestige (i.e. “pride of life”).” But when the child of God falls into sexual sin, pursues materialistic goals, or adopts a way of thinking that is focused on himself, the enemy of Christ has scored a significant victory.

Second, we must overcome the world’s persecution (1Jo 3:1,13).  The world will attempt to silence the Christian’s testimony – to intimidate him to soften his stance – through the pressure of persecution (Joh 15:18ff).  The child of God must not succumb to discouragement, cowardice, or silence in the face of opposition from this ungodly world.  John encourages, “Be an overcomer!”

God’s people must also live victoriously over the world’s distractions and pull upon the heart. Jesus talked about the “cares of this world” which tend to divert attention from Him and His word (Mt 13:22). The sheer abundance of daily cares is frequently Satan’s tool to sidetrack God’s people from “the one thing needful.”  Further, the glittering wealth of Vanity Fair is enticing to man’s old nature, drawing the heart like metal to a magnet.  No wonder Paul warned, “Be not conformed to this world” (Ro 12:2).

In the fourth place, we are called to overcome the temptation to please the world and to court its approval (Jas 4:4). If a Christian loses sight of his Lord and becomes preoccupied with his own popularity, he will inevitably compromise the glory of God (Joh 5:43-44; 12:43). How subtle is the danger!  Many strong men have been defeated at just this point.

Finally, God’s born-again child is called to overcome the world’s wisdom (1Co 1:20-21; 3:19). The journey of Christian discipleship is a precarious act of navigating one’s way through the mine-field of unbiblical ideas.  Every day, we are inundated in popular culture with secular, man-centered ways of thinking. How many of God’s people have set out to honor Him only to be defeated because they were duped by the world’s falsehoods?

The Prescription

Someone wonders, “Is it possible to overcome the world?”  Well, yes. Jesus “overcame the world” (Joh 16:33). How, then, can we overcome?

John answers, “by faith” (1Jo 5:4). Interestingly, this is the only time the noun “faith” appears in 1 John, though the verb “to believe” occurs nine times.  John says, “This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.”

The reference to “our faith” speaks of the action of trusting in Jesus Christ. Of course, this “faith” is first “born of God” (1Jo 5:4a), that is, created by God in the soul at regeneration.  But John takes a further step and claims that this “faith” must be informed by the gospel, move toward Christ and embrace Him in confident trust: “Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1Jo 5:5).

What does this mean in practical terms? It means that the believer in Christ has the strength and resources necessary, through faith in the Savior, to live victoriously.  Regardless of circumstances around him, feelings within him, or consequences ahead of him, the Christian can be an overcomer like his Lord was when he was in the world. By his God, the believer can “leap over a wall and run through a troop” (Ps 18:29).  Because he knows his God, he is “strong and does exploits” (Da 11:32). Through “the blood of the Lamb and the word of God” he can “overcome” the devil (Re 12:11). By pleading the merit of Christ, he can save himself from this ungodly world (Ga 1:4; Ac 2:40). By the knowledge God gives him in the gospel, he can “escape the pollutions of the world” (2Pe 2:20).

Faith, born of God in man’s soul and reaching forth to grasp Christ in confidence and trust, is the prescription for victory in the Christian life.  Through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, you can be an overcomer.

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