Lesson 5 of 6
In Progress

Theological Themes in 1 John


This book insists on the full coming of the Son of God into human flesh–a fully human Savior. Many philosophies and religions of the first and second centuries saw the body or flesh as inherently evil, and this led some people to resist the idea of Jesus as God incarnate. There are indications in 1 John that these ideas had influenced some in the Johannine community, and the author insists that only those spirits who confess that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” are from God (1 John 4:2-3).

Light and darkness

As is often typical of writings produced in the context of conflict or schism, 1 John assumes a strong and unambiguous division between good and evil, light and dark, faith and unbelief, Christians and “the world.” These  binary categories are no doubt an oversimplification of real life, but they serve the author’s purpose of persuading readers/hearers to remain true to what they have been taught.


There is an undeniable tension in 1 John regarding the topic of sin. On the one hand, the author insists that “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” and that it is essential that we confess our sins to be forgiven and cleansed (1:8-9). On the other hand, the author says that “no one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him” (3:6), that “everyone who sins is a child of the devil” (3:8), and that “those who have been born of God do not sin”—indeed, they cannot sin (3:9). 

How do we understand these contradictory statements? Some interpreters have suggested that in chapter 3, the author is talking about those who willfully continue in sin without repentance, rather than those who genuinely seek to “walk in the light” but occasionally fall. The author wants to motivate readers not to sin, while at the same time acknowledging that no one is completely without sin, and that we all depend on the forgiveness and grace of God, mediated through our “advocate” (parakletos), Jesus Christ (2:1).


While the Gospel of John tends to view Jesus’ saving work in a holistic sense as being enacted in his incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension, 1 John puts more emphasis on Jesus’ death as the primary locus of atonement. 1 John uses the word hilasmos (translated “atoning sacrifice” by the NRSV) twice (2:2; 4:10). These are the only occurrences of hilasmos in the New Testament, though the related word hilastérion, meaning “place of atonement,” appears in Romans 3:25 and the verb hilaskomai (“make a sacrifice of atonement”) occurs in Hebrews 2:17. 

The understanding of atonement in these verses is one of expiation – cleansing or removal of sin – rather than propitiation or appeasement of an angry God. Indeed, the sacrifice of atonement is understood as an act of love and mercy on the part of God, enacted by God’s Son. 1 John 3:16 affirms that “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.” 

In 5:6, the author writes: “This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with water and the blood,” likely an allusion to the soldier’s piercing of Jesus’ side in John 19:34. This detail in John 19 leaves no doubt that Jesus suffered a real, human death. Perhaps the allusion to this verse in 1 John 5:6 is meant to emphasize the importance of Jesus’ physical death for our salvation.


Love is at the core of who God is. Likewise, love must guide the life of Christian believers who work and live (“walk”) in the light of God. John famously claims that God is love(4:8). God’s love was revealed among us most particularly in his sending of his Son into the world so that we might live through him (4:9), and this great act of love calls us to love one another. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (4:10-11). Likewise, in 3:16, the author says that “we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Such love is expressed concretely by sharing our goods with those who are in need (3:17).

“Walking” as ethics

John the Elder uses the metaphorical expression walk to speak of the life of faith and discipleship. The importance of Christian ethics –”walking in the light” (1:7) – receives strong emphasis.  The ethics of 1 John is perhaps best summarized in 3:23: “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.”