"AS HE IS, SO ARE WE IN THIS WORLD" - A HYPER-GRACE SUPPORTING PHRASE IN I JOHN 4:17?
Dr. Duke Jeyaraj
I have often seen Hyper-Grace teachers use the final portion of I John 4:17 – “As He (Christ), is, so are we in this world!” – to teach that no matter how much we sin as believers, God the Father sees us like he sees Christ! Therefore, according to them, just as God the Father would not ever condemn or consign Christ to hell, we as believers can never be condemned or go to hell. In one of his devotional books, a popular hyper-grace false teacher and cultic pastor from Singapore, says (quoting this very verse), “It is wonderful to know that God does not measure and judge you based on your performance today. Instead, he looks at Jesus, and as Jesus is, that is how He sees you... As new covenant believers we do not have to fear the day of judgement… because as he is, so are we in this world!”(100 Days of Favor, page 199).
How do we respond to this?
Before we interpret any Bible passage, we must first figure out the context of that passage. Let us get the context of I John via the writings of Andreas J. Köstenberger. He writes, 'John probably penned his epistles a few years after his gospel, to congregations familiar with the gospel. He seems to imply this by repeated references such as "which you have had since the beginning" (i.e., the gospel; 1 John 2:7) in John's first two epistles (also, e.g., 1 John 1:1; 2:24; 3:11; 2 John 5, 6). Possibly, proto-gnostic (a group who believed it did not matter if you sinned with your body)or other false teachers had infiltrated the congregations under John's jurisdiction and shaken believers' confidence by denying the reality of sin (l John 1:8, 10) and maintaining the necessity of special "inside information" (this is the implication of 1 John 2:20, 27). In his first epistle, written shortly after those teachers had left the congregation (1 John 2:19), John seeks to reassure the still shaken-up believers (see esp. 1 John 5:13; see also 2:20, 27; 3:24; 4:13).'[Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary and Theological Perspective, 2013 Edition].
The hyper-grace teachers' interpretation of I John 4:17 is wrong, because of the following five reasons:
1.THE "PAROUSIA" REASON:
First, we must remind ourselves of the larger message of the Bible Book, this verse is taken from. It is taken from I John. John, obviously, will not contradict what he himself wrote under the inspiration of the Spirit, elsewhere in the same book. What did he write in I John 3:2? This: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be, has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is”. What John is teaching here is very clear: we are not yet fully like Christ here and now! But when Jesus appears the second time (an event called ''parousia"), we will be fully like him!! So, till that time comes, we need to grow in holiness, enabled by his grace, daily! In fact, the very next verse, I John 3:3, which goes this way, “All who have this hope(of Christ’s Second Coming) in him(Christ) purifies themselves, just as he(Christ) is pure,” is a clarion call for daily holy living! So, in a sense we are “already” like Jesus, but “not yet” in the ultimate sense. We believers will be fully like Jesus when the second coming happens. So, in I John 4:17, John was not opening a window for believer to live in sin, because “as Christ is, so we are in this world”!!! Hyper-Grace cult false teachers, in their desperation to seek biblical proof for their false claims, will twist any Scripture according to their convenience!
2. THE "PLURAL PERSONAL PRONOUN" REASON
Second, when we zero-in on the word “we” (a plural personal pronoun) found in I John 4:17[“As He (Christ), is, so are we in this world”] and the rest of the epistle, we can understand that the hyper-grace teacher’s sin-excusing interpretation of I John 4:17 is wrong. The interpretation for this passage should not be in opposition to other “we” passages in this book. In I John 1:6, Apostle John writes, “If we say WE have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth”(ESV). Here Apostle John was making this clear: close fellowship with Jesus will result in the conscious forsaking of sin (‘darkness’). In I John 2:3, Apostle John issues another “we” statement which goes this way: “And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments” (ESV). According to the Apostle, as we understand it from this portion of his letter, knowing Jesus and knocking off the commands given by Jesus [including his commands against lusting(Matt.5:28), loose language (Matt. 5:22), etc] cannot go on side-by-side. I John 3:24 which goes, “Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God” is another “we” statement that re-hammers the same point – lest we miss it the first time, Apostle John mentions it. In fact, he already mentioned this in the Gospel he wrote (Check out John 14:21 – “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves me” and John 14:15 is not much different).
In I John 2:28, Apostle John pens, “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming”(ESV). The message that the Apostle John intends to drive home here is plain as a day. It is this message: “If we don’t abide in Jesus, here and now, he reserves the right to abandon us when he returns! If we shamelessly keep sinning, we will be ashamed on that final day!”
Let us zero-in on every “we” reference in I John because I John 4:17, the Bible reference often-quoted by hyper-grace cultists, also has a “we” in it [“As He (Christ), is, so are we in this world!”]. We want to know from the author’s other “we” references in this letter, if the ‘we’s are allowed to live in sin! The reason we are doing this is because, hyper-grace cultists want to imply from I John 4:19 that ‘staying away from sin’ (what they unfortunately call by a negative word called ‘performance’) is not something we should be bothered about. The next stop in this “We” journey is I John 3:12 which goes this way: “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother”(ESV). Hyper-grace deceivers would like you to believe that “righteous living” has nothing to do with turning from sin! If that were so, why would Apostle John write, “We should not be like Cain, who committed the sin of murder!” If “righteousness” has nothing to do with sin as hyper-grace hell-headers make it to be, then such examples will not be quoted by Bible writers. But such examples are quoted! So, hyper-grace teaching is thoroughly and totally unbiblical!
The final “we” passage we will refer to understand the behavior that God desires from the “we” referred to in I John 4:17 – the Bible verse the hyper-grace cultist builds hype around – is I John 5:18. The question we are asking is direct: Is I John 4:17 promoting, “your sin does not matter to God” teaching? The answer is straight: “If it can be shown beyond any doubt that elsewhere in the same letter, John the apostle promotes this bizarre teaching, then we can come to the conclusion “your sin does not matter to God because when God sees you the believer, he sees Christ”. But as we have seen so far, the evidence in the rest of I John does NOT support this dangerously wrong, taking-people-to-hell, teaching. The climax is the flat rejection of hyper-grace camp’s false derivations found in I John 5:18: “We know that everyone who has been born of God DOES NOT KEEP ON SINNING….”(ESV) (or “make a practice of sinning“ as we read in the New Living Translation).
3. THE ‘PERFECT’ REASON
"Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the Day of Judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world"- that's how 1 John 4:17 reads (NKJV). The basic implication of this verse is this: "those who abide in Christ, there is nothing to fear on the Day of Judgment!" The previous verse – I John 4:16 – speaks about "abiding" (ESV)! If "love perfected" would give us boldness on the Day of Judgment (as I John 4:17 teaches), we must ask the question how is "love perfected"? The answer comes from I John 2:5 which says, "but whoever keeps His word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in Him." The perfected love of God will never be in the possession of the believer who keeps kicking – instead of keeping – the commands of God – that is the message of I John 2:5. So the message of I John 4:17 cannot be that of hyper-grace - "Don't worry about sin; for God sees only the perfect Jesus, not stubbornly sinning, you!"
4. THE PRESENT-CONTINUOUS TENSE REASON
There is another reason as to why we must dismiss as brazen deception the hyper-grace camp's interpretation of I John 4:17 to justify a life of sin. It is this reason: throughout his writings, John uses present continuous tense, deliberately, to make a theological case for continual abiding in Christ and a constant rejection of sin. David Pawson writes, "There is the same use of present continuous tense (in John's epistles/letters as there is in the Gospels). 'Who it is that overcomes [goes on overcoming] the world? Only he who believes [goes on believing] that Jesus is the Son of God' (I John 5:5).'" [Once Saved, Always Saved?, page 49].
Pawson continues: "Recalling the analogy of the vine and the branches, John reminds his correspondents that 'God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has [is having] the Son has [is having] life; he who does not have [is not having] the Son of God does not have [is not having] life' (I John 5:11-12). We cannot have this eternal life in ourselves independently of the Son. We must 'remain' in Him to enjoy it." This is what John implies by his consistent employment of the present-continuous tense in his writings: "The initial act of turning from sin and putting one's faith in Christ is not enough. This must be done continually throughout one's life!" Pawson points out that John's use of the word, "if" in I John 2:24 as another clear indication that the "once saved, always saved" wrong teaching (which the hyper-grace cult teachers embrace) is simply not biblical. Read I John 2:24 for yourself: 'See that what you have heard from the beginning remains (abides, stays) in you. If it does, you also will remain (abide, stay) in the Son and in the Father'.
Howard Marshall points out that in I John 4:2, John says, "Jesus has come in the flesh" instead of using the past-tense to say, "Jesus Christ came in the flesh". He explains why John's first epistle has so many occasions of present continuous tense usage: "The use of present and perfect tenses become significant, if the point is that, Jesus Christ has come and still existed"[The Epistles of John, page 70]. This is what the false teachers of his time, the Gnostics, denied. They wrongly believed and taught that Jesus only became divine when he got baptized and stopped being divine just before he died at the Cross. In our context, the false teachers of our time, the hyper-grace cult teachers, deny the need for daily abiding in Christ, the need for continuous faith in Christ and the need for steady rejection of besetting sin, in the life of a God-pleasing believer.
5. THE 'PACK' REASON
I John 4:17 - 'as He is, so are we in this world' - cannot be used to justify the wrong, taking-people-to-hell teaching of hyper-grace. This is the main point of this essay. The final reason why I believe so is this reason I call as the "pack" reason. Let me explain – in the entire pack of John's writings, John consistently has called for continual abiding in Christ and a constant rejection of a life of sin. Apart from First John, Apostle John wrote, the Gospel of John, Second John, Third John and Revelation. Let us see, in a nutshell, how he calls for the constant abiding of the believer, in Christ,as a condition for getting into heaven, in each of these books:
In John's gospel, Jesus makes it clear that the once saved Judas (his name was written in heaven – Luke 10:20) was now lost (John 17:12). It is in the same Gospel Jesus used the vine analogy to memorably call for the continual abiding of the believer in him. If the believer stubbornly refuses to abide, he would be cut off from the branch(symbolic of losing one's salvation) and be thrown into the fire(symbolic of hell punishment)(See John 15:6).
In Second John there is only one chapter. But even in that lone chapter, John lashes out against the wrong teaching of 'once saved, always saved'. He writes, “Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son" (2 John 8,9 ESV). Without "abiding" there is a real danger of "losing" - that is the message of this portion of Scripture. Lose what? Not just "rewards" in heaven but even a place in heaven! Why do I say that? Read verse 9 again – "Whoever abides in the teaching of Christ has both the Father and the Son". If this is true, the corollary is also true: "Whoever does NOT abide in the teaching of Christ will NOT have the Father and the Son..." In other words, those who stubbornly refuse to ABIDE are on the WIDE road to destruction, hell, a place of torment where the dweller will not have any fellowship with the Father and the Son!
In Third John he writes, "Those who do evil prove that they do not know God" (verse 11, NLT). Those who do not know God-in-flesh, Jesus, will not make it to heaven – this we know from other books John has written.
In the book of Revelation, the Apostle John records, "everyone who LOVES and practices falsehood" will go to hell (Rev. 22:15). So the believer who stubbornly remains in sin, and just loves to sin continuallywithout turning from sin, that's the kind of believer who will go to hell ultimately. John writes the following just after he wrote this: "Nothing impure will enter it (the New Jerusalem, which is symbolic of heaven), nor will anyone who does what is shameful and deceitful" (Rev. 21:27). Note here that he does NOT write, "nor will anyone who DID what is shameful...." So, the thrust of this portion of Scripture is this: "those who CONTINUALLY DO WHAT IS SHAMEFUL AND DECEITFUL without repenting will ULTIMATELY land in hell".
The message of Revelation presented by John (the author who penned seemingly-hyper-grace-promoting I John 4:17) is straightforward. Revelation calls believers to "ENDURE" (Rev. 3:10 makes a command we cannot disobey) and "OVERCOME"(Rev. 2:11). Revelation 2:11 in the accurate-to-the-original-text New American Standard Bible goes this way: 'He, who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death'. This Bible passage makes clear that he who DOES NOT overcome WILL be hurt by second death (the corollary of Rev. 2:11). What is second death according to John? Revelation 21:8 equates second death to hell punishment. So, the message of Revelation 2:11 penned by Apostle John (he was basically recording words that Jesus himself gave him) is this: only overcomers make it to heaven.
So, when we read I John 4:17 - 'As He is, so are we in this world' - we must see it in the light of the entire pack of John's writings. That would mean this: As He is, so are we (we, who are abiding, we, who are overcoming, we, who are persisting, etc) in this world! Let not the hyper-grace cult false teachers con you and take you to hell with them, in this regard! Be careful! Be vigilant!
Let me conclude with what Arthur Pink scripted as a devotional definition of what it means to "abide" in Christ: "To abide in Christ is to have him for our supreme object, to center our affections upon him, to make him our center and circumference – to make him our all in all".
(Dr. Duke Jeyaraj, the author of this piece is the founder of Grabbing the Google Generation from Gehenna Mission, the G4 Mission. This is a reader supported Indian ministry to presentday people. Find out more at www.dukev.org. )