Who Were the Original Readers of 1 John?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

The letter of 1 John in the New Testament contains numerous tests for its readers. However, the tests cannot be interpreted correctly unless we know to whom the letter was originally addressed.

Advocates of the Reformed doctrine of perseverance argue that the writer of 1 John is addressing a group of professing Christians.  By their understanding, some professing Christians are false Christians who are not truly saved. The letter is therefore written to a mixed group, some who are truly going to heaven and some who are not.

Given this starting point, these Reformed thinkers then argue that the tests in 1 John are there so that professing Christians can know if they are truly born again or not. If a professing Christian passes these tests in 1 John, then she can have assurance of her salvation. Otherwise, she is a false Christian who is not going to heaven.

There are other possible interpretations of the intended audience of this letter. Joseph Dillow, in his book  The Reign of the Servant Kings, offers what I consider to be a far more plausible explanation of the audience of 1 John. Dillow believes that the text clearly indicates that the apostle John is writing to people who he considers to be true Christians, not just professing Christians.

[John] says of his readers that they are “little children” whose “sins are forgiven for His name’s sake” (1 Jn. 2:12). He calls them “fathers” who “have known Him from the beginning,” and he writes to the young men who “have overcome the evil one” and in whom “the word of God abides” (1 Jn. 2:13-14). They are specifically contrasted with the non-Christian Gnostic antichrists who departed from them.

Furthermore, these people have received an “anointing,” the Holy Spirit (1 Jn. 2:20). This anointing, he says, “abides in you and you have no need for anyone to teach you,” because His anointing teaches them (1 Jn. 2:27).

Dillow presents even more evidence that John considers his readers to be true believers in Christ.

In the clearest possible terms the apostle affirms the regenerate state of his readers when he says, “I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it.” He is confident that the truth is presently “abiding” in them, and he wants it to continue to abide in them (1 Jn. 2:24). He specifically affirms of them “that we should be called children of God; and such we are” (1 Jn. 3:1).

Furthermore, they are now “children of God,” and when Christ returns, he affirms of his readers that they “shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2). They are, he says, “from God” and have overcome antichrists, because “greater is He that is in you than he who is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:4).

In contrast to his regenerate readers, the next verse refers to those who are “from the world.” His understanding of the saved state of his readers is further clarified when he says of them, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God” (1 Jn. 5:13). For John, when a person has believed on the name of the Son of God, he is born again (Jn. 3:15-16). In fact, one who has believed in the Son of God has “overcome the world” (1 Jn. 5:5).

Finally, while the world “lies in the power of the evil one,” we know that “we are of God” (1 Jn. 5:18). Throughout the epistle he uses the term “we” and includes himself in the same spiritual state and facing the same spiritual dangers as his readers.

Dillow concludes from this analysis that there is little doubt that the apostle John was writing to people whom he considered to be true Christians who were going to heaven because of their faith in Christ. For Dillow, “Any system of interpretation which ignores these plain statements in the interests of fitting into a theological scheme must ask, ‘How else could John say it?’ If he wanted to assert that his readers were in fact born again in contrast to the world, how could he make it clearer?”

If the intended readers of the letter are born again Christians, then the tests cannot be methods of assessing whether the readers are born again. The tests must be for assessing something else. More on that “something else” in the next blog post.