“But they were never of us…” – what did John really mean?

In I John 2, the apostle John warns the early church of the coming of (and in some cases, the current existence of) false teachers who posed a serious threat to the Christians throughout the region. And in doing so, he makes a statement that I think has been misused in a very dangerous way.

Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. (1 Jo 2:18-19)

Leaving aside the inspiration for any number of creepy Hollywood concepts of the devil incarnate taking over the world, John here warns of false teachers, and in this book, a specific type of false teacher. Many people have honestly but incorrectly (I believe) used this passage to teach that a Christian – once saved – can never again turn away from God and be lost. The idea is that a person who “had gone out from us” indicates a person who the apostles sent, “were not of us” means they weren’t truly Christians to begin with, and “would have continued with us” means that they would have remained faithful to God.

The implication, some claim, is that once you truly convert to Christ, there’s no going back, even if you wanted to!

Christians or false teachers?

Let’s assume that this is in fact referring to the concept of “true” versus “false” salvation (a point I do not believe the text supports.) is John then saying that when a Christian turns his back on God, he was never really saved, and he is leaving the faith to show fully that not everyone that is a Christian is really a Christian?

The problem is that this verse doesn’t actually say that. It never addresses their state at the time they became Christians. It addresses their state when they went out from the apostles. The question of whether someone can change their mind, or stray from the truth isn’t the point in this passage and has to be addressed elsewhere.

Think about the context of this passage.

Who is “us:” that would seem to be referring to the apostles. In chapter 1, John says “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life … we proclaim also to you.” That’s a pretty good description of the apostolic mission (John 19:35, John 15:27, Matt. 28:18, Acts 1:21-22, etc…)

Who is “they”: there seems little doubt it’s referring to false teachers – but a specific group of false teachers as well. It’s generally accepted that John is referring to the doctrine of “Gnosticism,” a philosophy that combined Eastern religious ideas with the gospel to argue that anything physical or material is inherently evil. The implication of this was that Christ could not have come in the flesh, and therefore he was not “man” in the sense that the scripture claims him to be (I John 2:22-23, 4:1-4, 5:6-10). They further went on to say that since man’s spirit is distinct from the body, it is not touched by the fleshly acts it commits, so basically people can live however they want, but the spirit remains pure in God’s sight (2:3-6, 3:4-10).

It would stand to reason that if the apostles sent out men who initially believed that the apostolic teachings were true and from God, they would not get out into the field and suddenly decide that Jesus did not come in the flesh. That’s a very basic tenant of the gospel. I believe John’s argument is essentially that no one would receive this teaching from the apostles honestly and in good conscience, and then go out and teach the doctrine of Gnosticism. And I believe that’s the truth. When someone so clearly teaches doctrine contrary to the revealed word, it’s a sign that the person likely never fully understood, and never fully believed the teachings delivered to him.

Christians can fall from grace, if they let it happen!

That has nothing to do with the question of whether someone can be lost, having once been saved. And in fact, this passage makes a very compelling argument AGAINST that doctrine. Ask yourself this question: if the men and women receiving this letter were truly saved, then according to popular wisdom, there is nothing that could pull them away from that. There would be no danger to anyone, except for those who weren’t really saved to begin with. And these people according to Calvinist doctrine are lost regardless, because they were chosen not to receive the word.

And yet, even though John knew these people had received revelation due to the indwelling of the from the Spirit of God (2:26-27) – which doesn’t happen to people who “aren’t really saved (Acts 2:38) ,” he still warns them. Why? Because people can be fooled. They can be lured into doubting what they should not doubt (Gal. 1:6).

John saw a real threat to men and women who had been saved through the blood of Jesus Christ, but would be confronted with a false teaching that might encourage them to lead sinful, immoral lives in blissful ignorance of their error.

In the same chapter, John talks about the Christian’s defense against false teaching:

Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us — eternal life. (1Jo 2:24-25)

You don’t encourage someone to allow something to happen if they don’t have a choice. And you don’t make “if-then” statements if the “if” doesn’t really matter. John writes that if we submit to God’s word and hold on to it, allowing it to live in us and work through us, then we in turn abide in Christ and God. If neither of these are in our control, why the need to encourage it? Why not simply say “it’s happening and this is why you’re chosen, and not because of all the things you’ve done or because of the faith you’ve shown?”

After all, that’s what men teach. But it’s not what God teaches. Peter makes the exact same point:

Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2Pe 1:10-11)

Please don’t be fooled. Don’t become complacent in your salvation. And don’t look at your brother or sister in Christ who’s now caught up in sin and worldliness and living separate from God, and say “that could never be me.”

It can be, if you let it happen.

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