In surveying the three Johannine Epistles, we can ask if their tone is focused on judgment or salvation. What’s the right answer? It strikes me that in this set of writings the nature of God as being either judging or saving the world is held in a form of tension where both judgment and salvation are proclaimed. This tension is arguably one of the clearest signs that these epistles are inspired and not contrived by humans, in that many heresies are based on a too narrow view of the deeper truth where extremes are made the sole focus. Because of its embrace of both judgment and salvation, I think that the Johannine Epistles manifest this tension and testify to the deeper truth of how God works which is above our ability to fully comprehend.
Examining the three Johannine Epistles we can see that God exhibits judgment towards those not living in community and in the love of God. Chapter 1 of the first Epistle speaks to this in that the community has fellowship with Jesus Christ our life, and it has been written to bring life to us (vs. 3). Verse 6 points out that we can live in darkness and not live out the truth, and verse 8 points out denying our sin we are deceived and lack the truth. Verse 10 states that the same denial would leave us lacking his word (logos) within us. Without this word I would say that we would therefore be in judgment. Chapter 2 of 1 John shows us another criterion where the truth is not in a person who is not following the commandment of Christ. In addition to being the logos of God, Christ is also the truth (John 14:6). While one could extrapolate and wonder if the commandment of Christ is the command to love one another akin to John 13:34, chapter 2 continues and verses 9 and 11 state explicitly that those who do not love their brothers and sisters are in darkness as opposed to light. Again, the Gospel shows us that the light is Christ (John 1:4-9) and as such a lack of love judges someone to be in darkness. The third judgment from the Epistles of John speak of another cause of judgment. In verses 15-17 of chapter 2 we learn that loving the world (defined as the lust of flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life) makes one unable to love the Father. We are judged when we have that love for the world. The next section speaks of another denial, and is most clear in verses 22 and 23. In verse 18 we learned of antichrists, who are clearly defined as holding to the lie denying Christ the Son, which then leads to denying the Father and Son and living in a lie.
Moving to chapter 3, we see strong judgment again around sin. Here we are not judged for denying sin, but for persisting in sin (1 John 3:5-6), and doing so is such that one is judged as being of the devil (verse 8), and not simply allied with him but the judgment goes to the point of calling them children of the devil (verse 10). This sounds to me like a crescendo of the stakes of what is wrong, and again hearkens to the Gospel when Christ spoke very similar words to some of those who did not believe in him (John 8:44). The second half of 1 John 3 reiterates the judgement on those who fail to love their brother or sister by pointing us to the Old Testament, in which we consider Cain and Abel, and it is argued that hating our brother or sister makes us murderers (1 John 3:15). Applying this even more abstractly, in verse 17 we see that even denying the material needs of our brother or sister is a judgment such that the love of God is not in us when we deny those needs of others.
1 John 4 returns to the idea of antichrist, and here it makes it clear that judgment comes to those with the spirit of antichrist, which denies that Jesus is from God in verse 3. Verse 6 personalizes this denial by stating that this spirit of the world and antichrist can be seen by those who do not listen to “us”. The Johannine message is not only abstract, it is linked to fellowship with John just as was mentioned in chapter 1 verse 3. The second half of chapter 4 elevates the judgment on those who do not love God by linking our darkness to a lack of love for God. Not only is one in the darkness or in sin, this process of not loving others is a denial of God because it states that God is love (1 John 4:8). The denial is not merely murder or a denial of a virtue, it is a denial of the Most High God. Conversely, our confidence at the day of judgment is shown in verse 17 to be based on our living in love. To emphasize that this cannot be fulfilled by only loving God, it is clearly judging those who say that they love God who they have not seen but hate their neighbor who they have seen. They are judged and called liars in verse 20.
The first twelve verses of chapter 5 of 1 John reiterate the need to have and believe the Son, again showing that love and belief in God is our basis for life. In the absence of this we are liars, as verse 10 reiterates. The last half of chapter 5 embarks on a new angle of judgment, in that verses 16 and 17 point out that there is sin that leads to death and is judged to be so heinous that we are told to not even pray for that person. This sounds very judgmental, and again leads to another axiomatic proclamation in verse 8 that we will not continue to sin if we are born of God, hearkening to the Gospel of John in the third chapter. This birth is contrasted in judgment to those of the word, which is under the sway of the evil one.
Turning to the next Johannine epistle, 2 John reiterates that those who deny that Christ came in the flesh are deceivers and antichrists (verse 7) and as such do not have God (verse 9), and then judges in a new way by telling the faithful that those people are not to be welcomed in the next verse. This is perhaps not surprising, but it is clear that the judgment really expands by saying that this commandment to not welcome is so serious that one who welcomes these deceivers is not only guilty of welcoming, they are judged in verse 11 to be just as involved in their wickedness by welcoming them. This is another very serious judgment to consider.
Lastly, to see judgment in the Johannine Epistles we turn to 3 John. In a way 2 John 11 returns in this text because 3 John 9-11 turns the welcome of wicked teachers on its head. There we read that a man named Diotrephes has not welcomed them and the brethren. We read that this lack of welcoming will be called out once the addressee is visited. This is then contrasted with those who do evil, and that those who do so have not seen God. With all of these passages under our consideration and focused on, it would seem as though the Johannine Epistles have set up an us/them dichotomy with no salvation of the world. Of course it judges the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, but what of all of those lost sheep that Christ came to save (John 10:11)?
Moving to looking at vision of the Johannine Epistles as they are linked to the salvation of the world, it could be surprising after all of these verses surrounding dichotomy and judgment that we can see salvation offered to all in the same Epistles that we just reviewed. In 1 John 2:2 we find one of my least favorite verses from my former life as a Calvinist. We read there that Christ “is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” The same Epistle that condemns the love of the world is the Epistle that here sees Christ as the expiation of the sins of the whole world. The world is under the sway of the evil one as we saw, but at the same time the evil one is said to have been overcome in 2:13-14. Chapter 3 of 1 John is arguably likewise a source of seeing a love that transcends our failures as humans. Verse 20 states that if our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts. This interpretation may be disputed as being linked to the world because the context speaks of those who are obedient. I would answer that regardless of the reason for condemnation, does that not factor in the greatness of God? If that’s the case, we must contemplate God’s goodness in his plan of salvation and seek mercy despite our shortcomings. 1 John 4:18 speaks beautifully of the divine plan of salvation in that it professes that there is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear. Fear is related to punishment but this is gone with love. The love of our God who is love itself (1 John 4:8) needs to be factored in and I would argue that if we do so we will see love extending to the whole of creation. In chapter 5 of 1 John verse 20 does speak of the world that is under the sway of the evil one, and yet just as in 2:13-14, 1 John 5:5 says that even one person’s faith can overcome the world. The vision of salvation is one of victory when we think of these verses in 1 John.
If we extend our read on the salvation of the world to 2 John, verse 2 is very important to think of the broad extent of salvation. There we hear that the truth will abide with us forever. Though deception is very common, it does not last as does the truth that abides forever. That shows that even when there is strong deception, the stronger truth is just that: the truth who is Christ our God, who is love. Similarly, in 3 John verse 4, we hear from John that the greatest joy is seen in his children abiding in the truth. What is foremost in the perspective of the Johannine community is faithfulness and obedience to the truth.
Taken together, the message of the Johannine Epistles is one where the conflict between love and hate, selfishness and self-giving, and the Church and the World is one where the Good triumphs. In a way this triumph is so strong that one can speak of the salvation of the world, despite professing that there are fundamental problems with the world in that it does not keep the commandments to love God and neighbor. In reading the Johannine Epistles we are confronted with the portrayal where our life in Christ is one that transcends our weaknesses and brings salvation to the whole world. As the first half of this reflection showed however, this salvation comes to us through the very tangible means of Christ and by extension, his body the Church. This provides a balance between an apathy where the unsaved are without hope of salvation, and also keeps us from an apathy where the world is saved apart from Christ. Instead, justice and mercy come to us united in the Johannine Epistles in Christ who is our life.