For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. First John 5:1 and 5:4 both speak of someone born of God. Verse 1 begins with the masculine, whoever, but verse 4 starts with the neuter, whatever. “By the use of the neuter whatsoever John states the principle in its most general and abstract form” (Stott, 1981, p. 174). Robertson (1933) presses this point, saying that John seeks “to express sharply the universality of the principle” (p. 238). The verb form NASB translates is born is a perfect participle, which “is used of completed action” (Burton, 1976, p. 71). In this case, our text shows that the new birth has already taken place, and John teaches that taking a stand against the world is evidence of the new birth.
“The term world has a wide meaning here, comprehending whatever is against God’s Spirit. Thus the depravity of our nature is part of the world; all lusts, all the stratagems of Satan; in short, whatever leads us away from God (Calvin, 1961, p. 301). The world is “the sum of all the limited, transitory powers opposed to God which make obedience difficult” (Westcott, 1966, p. 179). Further, it is “the kingdom of evil under its prince the devil, God’s adversary” (Alford, 1983, p. 1746). The verb NASB translates overcomes is present tense indicating “a continuous victory” (Robertson, 1933, p. 238). “The clause serves to say that, in the continuing struggle with evil, the Christian is continually given strength to overcome it” (Haas et al., 1972, p. 135).
For example, in 2:13-14, John writes to young men who “have overcome the evil one.” In 4:4, John affectionately says to his spiritual children; You have overcome false prophets and teachers, “because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.” In other words, you have an overcoming spirit because you are born of God. God’s love has been poured out in your hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom God gives to you (Romans 5:5). This overcoming spirit, ongoing victory, is evidence and assurance of the new birth.
And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Smalley (2008) suggests that the words our faith refer first to the church community, and then to the members of the church (p. 259). Too often, evangelicals emphasize the pronoun delimiting faith; they speak of our faith or my faith. They think that faith logically precedes the new birth. This position can lead to the false notion that our faith saves us. But faith is an acknowledgment that we are empty and have nothing to offer God as the basis for our salvation. “To say, therefore, that our faith saves us means that we do not save ourselves even in the slightest measure, but that God saves us” (Machen, 1969, p. 173).
Of course, God saves us through faith in Jesus Christ. “But the one who does the believing is always convinced just exactly that it is not the faith but the object which is helping him; the moment he becomes convinced that the object was not really important and that it was really his own faith that was helping him, at that moment his faith disappears” (Machen, 1969, p. 177). We must remember, faith is the means; Christ is the cause. Victory over the world then becomes evidence of true faith. But why does 1 John 5:4 say, “This is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith”? We understand that “faith receives from another that by which it overcomes” (Calvin, 1961, p. 301). We know that Christ is the cause, and that faith is the instrument. We also understand the use of language and figures of speech. “Thus, by strong metonymy, the victory is identified with the means by which it is won” (Law, 1968, p. 276, n. 2).
And as Stott (1981) puts it, “The new birth brings us willy-nilly [without our direction or planning] into a certain relation to Christ, to God, to the Church and to the world which we cannot repudiate and which marks us out as Christians” (p. 176). This wonderful work of God assures us that we belong to Him (cf. 2:29, 4:7, 5:1). Part of the fruit of this wonderful work is living in opposition to the world. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world.
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Alford, H. (1983). The New Testament for English Readers (Vol. 4). Grand Rapids: Baker.
Burton, E. D. (1976). Syntax of the Moods and Tenses in New Testament Greek. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.
Calvin, J. (1961). The Gospel According to St. John 11-21 and the First Epistle of John (T. H. L. Parker, Trans.). D. W. Torrance & T. F. Torrance (Eds.). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Haas, C., de Jonge, M., & Swellengrebel, J. L. (1972). The Letters of John. New York: United Bible Societies.
Law, R. (1968). The Tests of Life. Grand Rapids: Baker.
Machen, J. G. (1969). What is Faith? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Robertson, A. T. (1933). Word Pictures in the New Testament (Vol. 6). Nashville: Broadman.
Smalley, S. S. (2008). 1, 2, and 3 John, Revised. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Stott, J. R. W. (1981). The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
Westcott, B. F. (1966). The Epistles of St. John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.