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Can We Know That We Have Eternal Life?

Many Christians point to 1 John 5:13 as proof that being St. John the Apostle’s purpose for writing the epistle was to assure believers of their final salvation based on their present belief. The verse reads:

“I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (RSV).

“I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God” (NABRE).

In either of these popular translations, it looks like an open & shut case, right?

Maybe not.

For starters, this understanding of the epistle’s purpose is questionable. After all, John makes many other “purpose statements” early on and throughout this epistle. For example, he says, “We are writing this so that our joy may be complete” (1:4) and, “I am writing this to you so that you may not commit sin” (2:1). Six additional reasons appear in verses 2:12-14. Thus, it is not at all clear that 5:13 serves as a definitive purpose statement or even that “these things” refers to the entire epistle (and not just the preceding verses).

But even if it is John’s definitive purpose statement, the verse does not necessarily support the assurance of salvation that many take it to be affirming.

In fact, if 1 John 5:13 is taken to be the purpose of the epistle, the idea that it affirms assurance of future salvation based on present belief is actually more difficult to sustain. Limiting “this” (RSV) or “these things” (NABRE) to belief in this passage is impossible given what we see in the rest of the epistle.

It is often difficult to remember that verse numbers, paragraphs, chapters, and section headings are not part of the original biblical text. This makes it is easy to miss a passage’s larger context, which can strongly bear on its proper interpretation. When the entirety of John’s letter is taken into consideration, “these things” turn out to include not only belief (3:23) but a number of other conditions such as:

  • Walking in the light (1:7).
  • Not sinning (2:1 cf. 3:6-9 and 5:18).
  • Keeping Jesus’ commandments (2:3).
  • Walking as Jesus walked (2:6).
  • Not loving the world (2:15).
  • Abiding in the Son and in the Father (2:24-28).
  • Helping our brothers (3:17).
  • Loving in deed and in truth (3:18).
  • Testing the spirits to see whether they are of God (4:1).
  • Loving one another (4:7-21).
  • Having the Son (5:11).

A life of Christian faithfulness seems to be in view here, not merely a present state of belief.

Concerning belief, it is important to note that, grammatically, the word in 5:13 is used to identify the epistle’s recipients (“you who believe in the name of the Son of God”), not to indicate a condition for assured salvation. John could just as well have said, “I write these things to you who live in Asia Minor that you may know that you have eternal life.” Of course no one would argue from such a statement that living in Asia Minor guarantees eternal life! But grammatically it would be the same. Rather than asserting that present belief assures final salvation, 5:13 points those who believe to things (found throughout the epistle) that can assure them of their eternal life. That is not the same thing.

Further, even if belief is taken as the condition for eternal life (cf. 1 John 5:10), the word is in the present tense (so is “have”). Believing in the name of the Son of God may very well guarantee having eternal life, but this does not mean that belief cannot later cease. Even when eternal life is considered quantitatively (as never-ending; John 10:28) rather than qualitatively (as knowing God; John 17:3), that does not thereby make it a condition that cannot be lost. Present assurance (which is all 1 John 5:13 can be said to indicate) is no promise of future assurance. The verse simply does not assert anything about one’s final salvation (unless “final salvation” is assumed to be synonymous with “eternal life”—but that remains to be proven).

We should also recognize that even if present belief is a condition for assurance of eternal life, it is a subjective (personal) issue. John says he writes “so that you may know that you have eternal life.” He does not say, “so that you may know someone else has eternal life.” Thus, even if belief were all that was necessary to attain this future confidence (which is not what this passage indicates), we still would only have hypothetical knowledge of someone else’s salvation. (i.e., If they believe, then they have eternal life.) And again, even this would say nothing of their future assurance.

Of course, very few of these subjective conditions are open to easy assessment, even for ourselves. Do we really know that we are walking with Jesus? Acting righteously? Loving our brothers and not the world? Who can confidently say they’ve stopped sinning? And if these things are difficult for us to know about ourselves, how much more careful should we be when assuring others (whose hearts we cannot know)?

Even if John did write his first epistle to communicate assurance of future salvation to ourselves and others (none of which is demanded by the text), such assurance is not said to be based on belief alone—nor is such assurance said to be permanent. By the time we reach 1 John 5:13, the author has cited numerous conditions of eternal life that are difficult to assess even personally, much less concerning anyone else.

To use 1 John 5:13 to assure others that they have eternal life (or that they will keep it) is therefore unwarranted. Better to simply do what John says: see for yourself! Read the scriptures so that you may know if you have eternal life (cf. 2 Corinthians 13:5). Then remember that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9 cf. John 20:23 and Matthew 18:18).

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