1 John 5:1-6 — What Faith Believes
On the Sixth Sunday of Easter the Epistle reading continues our journey through the strange and wonderful world of the First Letter of John — specifically 1 John 5:1-6, with its fascinating exploration of what faith believes. (I wrote about this Sunday’s Gospel a while back and you can read that by clicking here.)
As ever, John’s letter is kind of like a Moebius Strip — see the picture above for an example. Follow all the way around the loop and you find it has only one side. 1 John twists and turns to show a variety of sides of a finite set of issues.
I won’t write about every interesting detail in this short passage. Honestly, anywhere you look there is an opening to a different, but of course interrelated, major theme.
In fact, I’ll just look at one thing.
The Importance of Faith
These six verses give us a nice window into one of John’s rather odd themes: The question of what we are supposed to believe as Christians.
It isn’t an odd topic in itself, or even in the context of the New Testament. Paul, of course, makes faith the main event. We are justified by faith, or by grace through faith. Naturally we want to know what the content of that faith is supposed to be.
Our culture gives us one slice of the question, based on the dominant reading of Paul. We need to believe in Jesus as our “personal Lord and Savior.” If we probe it a bit we probably say we need to believe that Jesus personally bore our sins on the Cross.
However, this isn’t the whole of the New Testament’s story about what faith is.
This letter of John points us in a surprisingly large number of directions about faith. Two are here in this particular passage of the letter. (You get still more if you ponder all the statements about faith in John’s Gospel.)
John clearly thinks faith is super important. But just what faith believes is a bit less consistent.
What does faith believe?
A. Faith that Certain Things Are True.
The two statements about faith within this Sunday’s reading perhaps sound most familiar to those who have been listening to Christian conversation in our culture for, oh, the last one or two hundred years.
Here they are together:
believes that Jesus is the Christ
has been born of God,
and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.
1 John 5.1 NRSV
Who is it that conquers the world but the one who
believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
1 John 5.5
Notice how both include the little pointer word “that”? One must believe “that Jesus is the Christ” or “that Jesus is the Son of God.
These are assertion of doctrinal points. Faith, or “believing,” here at least, starts with holding that these are true statements about Jesus.
Really faith goes well beyond believing these things are true. But it is easy to think John is saying that if we hold these particular opinions we’ve got real faith.
The idea that faith means holding particular propositions to be true has had a big place in Western theology, especially in the Reformed tradition earlier on, and recently in broad swaths of Evangelicalism.
(I won’t go into the still more recent tendency of American Evangelicalism to be kind of wiffly about its commitment to things being objectively true or demonstrably false. That’s a very sad, but different story.)
B. Faith as Trust in a Person
The second kind of faith here (the more important, actually) is about trust in a person. It comes in multiple versions. For this you have to look at the broader context in 1 John.
John has other passages where faith is not nearly so propositional. It is much more personal.
Let me give you some examples.
B1. Believing In God
First is just after today’s passage. Actually it’ a twofer:
believe in the Son of God
have the testimony in their hearts.
Those who do not
believe in God
have made him a liar
by not believing in the testimony
that God has given concerning his Son.
1 John 5.10 NRSV
In this verse we don’t believe “that” something is true. We believe “in” someone. We are to “believe in the Son of God” and we are to “believe in God.”
In our cultural milieu it’s easy to think John is talking about truth claims again: We either do or don’t believe God exists. We do or don’t believe that Jesus lived and did what the Gospels say he did.
We can slip into that way of thinking because the view that faith is propositional is so prominent. Also because atheism is common today. It’s hard to wrap our minds around eras before ours, when atheism really wasn’t conceptually possible.
But in New Testament times, atheism as we think of it wasn’t a thing. What you had was a choice of which God or gods you believed in.
(The Romans called Christians “atheists” because they didn’t believe in the Romans’ gods.)
But if you set aside those modern notions, John is actually talking about something else. “Believing in” Jesus or in God is about where you put your trust.
These references are moving toward faith as something interpersonal, not propositional.
B2. Believing In God’s Name
Then there is a semi-matching pair of verses, one from still earlier in the letter and one from just a smidge further past Sunday’s reading:
And this is his commandment,
that we should
believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ
and love one another,
just as he has commanded us.
1 John 3.23
I write these things to you who
believe in the name of the Son of God,
so that you may know that you have eternal life.
1 John 5.13 NRSV
This is, I suppose, the most foreign to us of John’s references to faith.
Believe “in the name” of Jesus? Duh… his name is “Jesus.” I believe that.
But this is something that has echoes elsewhere in the New Testament and the Old.
Think of Paul telling us
at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
Philippians 2:10 NRSV
And think of all the many passages about the power of names, whether it is important people who meet God and get their names changed, or the great revelation to Moses at Sinai.
When God told Moses his actual name, it was a very big deal.
In the Bible names have power. They point to the essence of who a human person is. And in the divine realm, even with angels names are mysterious. Knowing the Name indicates a kind of connection, an influence, something enormous.
But the angel of the Lord said to him, ‘Why do you ask my name? It is too wonderful.’
Judges 13:18 NRSV
Believing in Jesus’ name is trusting in the core of his identity. It is a deeply interpersonal trust, because it is trust in his deepest nature and his power.
B3. Believing God’s Love
An earlier verse from the same letter is much plainer about this interpersonal quality of faith:
So we have known and
believe the love that God has for us.
God is love,
and those who abide in love abide in God,
and God abides in them.
1 John 4.16
So here, “believing” is all about trusting God’s good will towards us. We find ourselves trusting that the creator of the universe really does love us personally.
It’s absolutely interpersonal. We hear about or we experience the love of God and we say
Wow! God really does love me — and that makes all the difference.
We sort of put the weight of our lives down on it, trusting God to continue being there for us, to continue loving us, forgiving us and guiding us despite it all.
Interpersonal Trust and Truth
The risk is that we choose one or the other meaning of faith.
John’s wisdom here is that, in his circuitous Moebius Strip kind of way, he reminds us of both. We need to trust in God personally. And we need to trust that the things taught about God are true.
This belief “in the name” and the belief “in the love” and the belief “in the Son” or “in God” all go together. They point us to faith as a matter of deep relatedness, of ongoing and transforming relationship.
Interpersonal, relational faith actually goes together with believing that theological statements about God are true, wether we receive them from Scripture directly or through the voice of the Church.
The question we should think about is which one leads to the other.
I remember a drive across the continent some years back. I scanned for radio stations day after day. Every day brought up Christians haranguing the airwaves that people should believe the Bible is authoritative and true. They had less to say about Jesus. It seemed so … backward.
Few people, I would imagine, start with accepting the Bible as true and are then led to a life-changing relational faith in Jesus.
On the other hand, if you encounter Christ, and come to believe in him, trusting his love, then you will find yourself open to what the Bible says. Belief in the truth of doctrinal statements grows in the hearts of those whose lives are knit to God in faith.
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