This letter was written in about 100 C.E. [1 p.203] to counter the teaching of the Gnostics (from gnosis, Greek for knowledge) who offered "higher things", leading John to emphasise "you have no need to be taught". John states over and over again that his readers know the Gospel, and having accepted Jesus they have come to know the Father, and no other knowledge is necessary.
Throughout this book, the twin themes of salvation by works and salvation by faith (often thought of as being in conflict) are inextricably interwoven. 1 John 5:1 is the key: the tense of the words keeps sinning implies that though we continue to commit sins, a process is going on that is saving us from our sinfulness. Non-Christians appear to think that they could stop sinning if they wanted to (and that they are not bad people really, and will probably scrape a pass into heaven). Those of us who have tried know that avoiding sin is not that easy. Thus our repentance consists of acknowledging that we are sinners; that we would rather not be; and that we rely on God to save us. All of us should occasionally give ourselves a spiritual check-up. We should look for evidence that we are being saved through faith, and that evidence will be found in what we do, or rather what we wish we did. St Paul said that he found himself not doing the good that he wanted to do, but did insteade evil that he would rather not do, so he looked to God for salvation through Jesus. If we can say the same then we are on the same road as St Paul.
The interest in the place of works in salvation fits in with the peculiarities of John's Gospel, which omits the institution of Holy Communion but records the foot-washing instead. John sees Jesus as the prototype for all loving service, and a Christian as someone trying to follow his example. Therefore foot-washing (as an example of humble service to others) is to John more meaningful than receiving bread and wine. Indeed the whole letter is a development of the themes in Jesus's "farewell discourse" in John 13–17[5 p.55f].
The author was able to instruct the churches because he embodied Christian tradition, and was well known, so no name need be mentioned.[4 p.29] One would not expect a short private letter to be written in the same style as a Gospel that is seventy times as long.[4 p.32], but the letters of John address children and friends, as Jesus does John's Gospel.[4 p.35]
The first part of the book (up to 1 John 2:27) urges its readers to test their teachers against three yardsticks:
and these three themes are raised in a rather chaotic order. Then the book concludes with commands to ignore false teachers, love the true ones, and encouragements to Christian love and faith.
John's style is to paint everything in black and white; for example 1 John 4:20 might seem at first glance to say that anyone who is not perfect is lost. However 1 John 4:11 shows that he realises that we do not yet love perfectly; his aim in writing is to encourage us toward the perfection he describes.
© David Billin 2002–2021