Perhaps as people partake of the Lord’s Supper, church projectors hurl an eyecatching graphic above the worshippers’ heads. Emblazoned on the screens are the words, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). Or maybe this verse appears as a knockout quote in a church bulletin.
Opportunities to draw the wrong conclusion have appeared. As the old addage says, a text without a context is simply a pretext for a proof text of what we want it to mean.
We know that in everyday conversations, latching onto a single statement while ignoring the context can create havoc. Just ask married couples. The same is true of scripture. The following short case study encourages thoughtfulness with the snippets of scripture we might post.
Nearly two millennia ago, John wrote a very comforting message to God’s people and rightfully so. From within 1 John we learn that this early Christian community had been put into turmoil because of false teachers. (1 John 2:18-19; 2:26) Not only had some within the Christian community become uncertain whether the original message they had embraced was sufficient, but apparently the false teaching had a corrosive impact upon morality and Christian ethics, including loving others. (1 John 2:3-11; 3:4-10)
John provided several principles to reassure his readers of their secure standing with the Lord, as well as to demarcate the dangerous teaching with its practices. In their historical context the true Christian community exuded love for God and for others, while apparently the rival group did not.
Today it is appropriate to encourage disciples that our love provides evidence that we have been born of God. What happens, however, when unbelievers who are unacquainted with scripture read, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God”? Might they perceive an alternative message?
It is certainly possible they might also understand a comforting message, albeit one that teaches, “As long as I am a loving person, I have experienced a spiritual birth and know God.” Of course this latter understanding would promote a works-based salvation built upon one’s own capacity to love. Christ would be irrelevant.
Not only would such an understanding conflict with the rest of 1 John and the New Testament’s teaching, it also misrepresents how John’s statement functions within this letter. John’s little handbook was addressed to the Christian community, not unbelievers. He sought to highlight some characteristics of God’s people that would distinguish them from the rival group. These principles would both reassure Christians of their relationship with God as well as encourage them to remain faithful. They function to identify true qualities and beliefs about those who have been born of God. As such, they do not outline how to become born of God.
I am not suggesting that the practice of quoting a single verse should be abandoned. Rather, I am recognizing that we need to be thoughtful regarding how the messages we promote will likely be understood by those receiving them. Perhaps I am more sensitive to this particular verse than others since my ministry focuses largely upon those outside of Christ.
Let’s be responsible. Consider what is likely to be understood by those receiving the message. After all, when Satan encountered Jesus, he could quote a snippet of scripture to promote his purposes.
Further suggestions regarding the message of 1 John: Squashing Doubt And Fear