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Lectures in Biblical Theology
of The New Testament
by C. D. Cole
Lecture 23 of 23
John’s Doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints by Dr. C. D. Cole
John lays great stress on the necessity, the nature, and the evidences of the new birth. He makes it clear that one who has been born of God will persevere in faith, while mere professors, with no root of the matter in them, will apostatize. He speaks of those who having forsaken the Christian fellowship did not really belong to them, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us,” (1 John 2:19). “Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed,” (John 8:31). And again Jesus says, “He that is of God heareth God’s words: ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God,” (John 8:47). One’s attitude towards God’s word is the acid test of discipleship and the new birth.
I. EVIDENCES OF BEING BORN OF GOD
John wrote his first epistle so that the saved might have assurance of their salvation. “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God,” (1 John 5:13). If one wishes to know whether he has eternal life let him read John’s first epistle to see whether he has the proper marks of a born again person. John gives three characteristics of those who have been born of God.
1. One who has been born of God will live a righteous life. “If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him,” (1 John 2:29). A more literal rendering of the latter part of this verse would read, “Ye know that every one that practices righteousness has been born of God.” It is the perfect tense of the verb and denotes that which is continuous to the present. The first verb is the perfect participle and means “having done and doing righteousness” and the second verb is the perfect tense, which denotes that which is continuous to the present and means, “has been and still is born of God.” The man born of or sprung from God is deeply concerned about living a righteous life. It will not be an absolutely sinless life, but it will be a life progressively righteous and striving for perfection. A righteous life is a life that seeks to please God. Many church members today, as in John’s day, when weighed in these balances are found wanting.
2. One who has been born of God will have the mark of love; his affections will be properly placed; he will have conscious love for God and for the people of God. “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God,” (1 John 4:7). Here again we have the perfect tense of the verbs and should read, “having loved and loving, has been born of God.” To hypocritical Jews, “Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me,” (John 8:42). And John says, “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death,” (1 John 3:14). One who loves God may be assured that he has been born of God. And love is manifested in what we do for the one we love. If we love God we will seek to please Him by a life of obedience. Christ said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments,” (John 14:15). If we love our brother we will seek to do him good. “Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification,” (Rom. 15:2). Every man knows what he loves, and his neighbors know what he loves. Love blows no trumpet; it is manifest in what it does. “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth,” (1 John 3:18). Let the reader weigh himself in these balances; then his feeling of assurance will not be presumptuous.
3. Another evidence of being born of God is one’s faith. “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him,” (1 John 5:1). And once more the tense of the verbs is the perfect, and might be translated, “Everyone having, believed and believing that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.” One who has been born of God is still born of Him and keeps on believing. The new birth is once for all and fruits in a permanent faith. Christ says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life,” (John 5:24). There is a kind of faith which is temporary, but faith as the fruit of the Spirit in regeneration is abiding. The poor sinner when evangelically convicted by the Holy Spirit, and led by the Spirit to trust Jesus as the Christ (the anointed Saviour) will never turn from Him to any other Saviour. There may be an assent of the mind to the historical truth that Jesus is the Christ without the new birth. But saving faith is a matter of the heart and works by love. “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love,” (Gal. 5:6).
II. THE IMPECCABILITY OF ONE BORN OF GOD
John unmistakably teaches that the person who has been born of God cannot sin. He says, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God,” (1 John 3:9). Let us give a more liberal rendering: “Everyone that has been begotten of God does not sin, because His seed (life principle) abides in him, and he is not able to sin, because of God he has been begotten.” Notice first of all, that this verse does not say that a person may be able not to sin; it says that he is not able to sin. It is one thing to be able not to sin, and quite another thing not to be able to sin. Notice again, that the inability to sin is predicated upon the new birth and not upon sanctification. It is because one has been born of God that he cannot sin. Selfstyled sinless people do not claim that anybody is unable to sin, for that would be inconsistent with their doctrine of apostasy. It seems obvious that if one cannot sin he cannot lose his salvation. There are those who teach that when a person has been born of God and is subsequently sanctified, he may be able to live without sin; but they also deny that such a person cannot sin. Our text does not speak of sanctification, but of regeneration. And it plainly says that a regenerated person is not able to sin. So much for what the text says.
WHAT DOES THE TEXT MEAN?
This text refutes several wellknown and prevalent errors in present day preaching.
- It refutes the doctrine of the apostasy of a saved person, the teaching that one born of God may sin and be lost. To quote this text in any translation is sufficient to disprove that a born again person can ever be lost.
2. It refutes the doctrine that any blessing subsequent to regeneration as enabling one to live above sin. The text does not speak of any second or any other blessing after regeneration. The inability to sin is not the result of any second or third or fourth work of grace, but solely because of the initial work of the Spirit in the new birth.
3. This text is against the idea that faith precedes and causes the new birth. The new birth is the work of God, and the Holy Spirit is the whole agent. There is no such thing as selfbirth, either in the physical or spiritual sense. James says, “Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures,” (Jam. 1:18). And John, speaking of believers, says, “Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God,” (John 1:13). Faith is not the cause of the new birth, but the effect. Paul makes faith the fruit of the Spirit. “But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe,” (Gal. 3:22). And so John teaches that the person who practices righteousness, who has his affections placed upon God and holy things, and Who has his trust in Jesus as the Christ, may know that he has been born of God. And again we ask,
WHAT DOES THIS TEXT MEAN?
Let us proceed cautiously and carefully as we try to get at the real meaning of this much controverted text. Does it mean that a born again person cannot sin in any sense whatsoever? To give it such a meaning is to make it mean too much and turns Scripture against Scripture. Moreover, it makes John contradict himself. In writing to believers, John says “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 John 1:8-9). But if we are not able to sin in some sense, there could be no sins to confess. Moreover, John says there is provision made for sinning saints. “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous,” (1 John 2:1). “If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it,” (1 John 5:16), we are told to pray for a sinning brother.
It would contradict every book of the Bible and the experience of every Christian to affirm that no born again person ever sins in any sense whatsoever. And yet our text does teach that the one who has been born of God cannot sin in some sense. And so our task is to discover in what sense the born again person is impeccable.
VARIOUS INTERPRETATIONS CONSIDERED
There are various interpretations of “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God,” (1 John 3:9), and something can be said in favor of most of them. There is truth in these interpretations, but whether it is the particular truth of this particular text is another question. I will give you some of these interpretations and then give, what in my judgment, is the proper meaning of the text.
1. By some the text is thought to mean, that since the born again person the believer in Christ is not under law for salvation, but under grace, and since there can be no sin where there is no law, it logically follows, that if one is not under law, he cannot sin. It is blessedly true that the believer is not under law for salvation, but being under grace, sin cannot have dominion over him. “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace,” (Rom. 6:14); but this can hardly be the meaning of what John says in our text. It does not say that sin is not charged, but that it is not committed. According to the text itself, it is not because of our position in Christ but because of God’s seed (the lifeprinciple) abiding in us, that one cannot sin. It is not where he is positionally, but what he is conditionally, that keeps the born again from sinning.
2. Another interpretation is that the new nature in the born again person cannot sin. There is truth in this, but John is not speaking of the new nature but of a new person. It is “whosoever is born of God.”
3. more likely interpretation is, that according, to the tense of the verb the born again person cannot sin habitually, he cannot practice sin as he once did, he cannot roll sin as a sweet morsel under his tongue. This was the view of Dr. Robertson, who insisted that the tense of the verb demands this interpretation. This is also the view of Dr. C. B. Williams in his translation of the New Testament. He points out that the verb is the present of continuous action. It is true that the person born of God cannot practice sin. The divine life principle remains, in him and he cannot live as an unregenerate. This interpretation is also favored by the context. John says that he that practices sin is of the devil, for the devil practices sin from the beginning. The devil takes no vacation from his career of sinning.
4. I have come to regard the view held by Andrew Fuller as the most probable interpretation. He thought that sin in—“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” (1 John 1:8-9)—is taken properly for any wrongdoing, and if any man says he never does wrong in any sense, he is self-deceived. But in “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God,” (1 John 3:9), it seems to be the sin of apostasy (unbelief) that is in view, according to Fuller. There is much in the context to favor this view. John says that some had apostatized, they had renounced their once professed faith in Christ, and had ceased to meet with the believers. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us,” (1 John 2:19). “If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it,” (1 John 5:16). This also seems to refer to apostasy. It is not any particular act of sin, but a course that leads to apostasy and death. John does not encourage us to pray for those who once professed faith in Christ and then place themselves in the way of unbelief. He does not prohibit our praying for such, but does not command us to do so. John must have had in mind those who had abandoned their profession of faith and had gone out from the believers. Those born of God never give up their faith in Jesus as the Christ and their Lord. They may commit other sins, but they never apostatize, they never lose their faith in Christ. And so persevering attachment to Jesus Christ is the grand mark of a saved person. Peter says that the born again person “Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time,” (1 Pet. 1:5). Consider “We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not,” (1 John 5:18). This text, like the one we have been dwelling upon, affirms that the person born of God does not sin, and that the devil does not touch him. To make this mean that he never commits sin in any sense and that the devil never bothers him is to make it contradict other Scriptures. Some scholars think that the “begotten of God” refers to Jesus Christ who keeps the one born of God. This is the truth, for the believer has no strength of his own, and Christ said, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing,” (John 15:5). Others think John is referring to the seed (lifeprinciple) of God in the born again person that enables him to keep himself. The born again person does not keep himself from every kind of sin, but the devil is not able to make him renounce his faith in Christ as Lord and Saviour. The devil is not able to make one born of God practice a life of sin, nor can be rob him of his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us next consider 1 John 5:4: “For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.” All who are born of God have a faith in Christ that the world cannot take from them. Faith in the victory because it cannot be lost. The one born of God does not have a faith today that may be lost tomorrow. No born again person ever thinks of renouncing his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ for faith in some other so called saviour.
God never saves a sinner and then abandon him to the devil, the flesh, and the world. Christ says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand,” (John 10:2729). The child of God has many foes, but his faith will hold fast to Christ unto the end, and plead nothing before God save the blood of His Son. Concerning the martyrs, accused by the devil before God day and night, John says, “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death,” (Rev. 12:11).
The one who is really sprung from God, born of His Spirit, is secure from within and from without. God’s seed (the lifeprinciple or divine nature) abides within and he is also held in the grip of God’s hand. In the Memorial Supper we declare that we are feeding on Christ by faith and have Him in us as the hope of glory. In baptism we declare that we are in Christ by faith: dead to the guilt of sin and alive to walk in a new life. The ordinances symbolize both the believer’s state and standing. As to our state Christ is in us; as to standing we are in Christ.
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
You who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?
In every condition, in sickness, in health,
In poverty’s vale, or abounding in wealth;
At home and abroad, on land, on the sea,
As your days may demand, shall your strength ever be.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
E’en down to old age, all my people shall prove
My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
Like lambs they shall still in My bosom be borne.
The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, tho’ all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no never forsake.
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