Faith in the Truth
Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God … For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1a, 4–5)
The foundational mark of an overcomer is believing that Jesus is the Christ (Messiah). That abbreviated statement implies all that is true about Him; that Jesus is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, who came to earth to die and rise to accomplish salvation for sinners. Only the one who believes in the truth about Him is born of God (lit., “out of God has been begotten”) and overcomes the world. All who are born of God are overcomers, and only those who believe in Jesus Christ are born of God.
In the prologue to his gospel, John wrote, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12). The Lord Himself declared, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). In Acts 4:12 Peter boldly told the hostile Jewish authorities that “there is salvation in no one else [other than Jesus; v. 10]; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” Paul wrote, “For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11), and, “There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim. 2:5–6). Any teaching that people can be saved apart from faith in Jesus Christ is biblically untenable (see the discussion of this point in chapter 20 of this volume).
The tenses of the verbs in verse 1 reveal a significant theological truth. Believes translates a present tense form of the verb pisteuō, whereas gegennētai (is born) is in the perfect tense. The opening phrase of verse 1 literally reads, “Whoever is believing that Jesus is the Christ has been begotten of God.” The point is that, contrary to Arminian theology, continual faith is the result of the new birth, not its cause. Christians do not keep themselves born again by believing, and lose their salvation if they stop believing. On the contrary, it is their perseverance in the faith that gives evidence that they have been born again. The faith that God grants in regeneration (Eph. 2:8) is permanent, and cannot be lost. Nor, as some teach, can it die, for dead faith does not save (James 2:14–26). There is no such thing as an “unbelieving believer.”
The question sometimes arises concerning those who profess faith in Christ, but then stop believing in Him. Our Lord described such people in the parable of the soils:
Others [seeds] fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out.…
The one on whom seed was sown on the rocky places, this is the man who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no firm root in himself, but is only temporary, and when affliction or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he falls away. And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. (Matt. 13:5–7, 20–22)
Such false, temporary faith produces no fruit, in contrast to genuine saving faith, which alone produces the fruit that proves one’s new birth:
And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.…
And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. (Matt. 13:8, 23; cf. 3:8; Acts 26:20)
Earlier in this epistle, John explained that those who permanently fall away from the faith were never redeemed in the first place: “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (2:19; cf. the exposition of this verse in chapter 9 of this volume). Their professed faith was never true saving faith. Saving faith is not mere intellectual knowledge of gospel facts, but involves a wholehearted, permanent commitment to Jesus as Lord, Savior, Messiah, and God incarnate.
The content of saving faith, as noted above, is that Jesus is the Christ; He is its object. People who are born of God believe the truth about Christ; those who do not are liars and antichrists. As John warned earlier in this letter, “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son” (2:22). Then, making it unmistakably clear that no one can come to the Father apart from Jesus Christ, he added, “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also” (v. 23; cf. chapter 9 of this volume for an exposition of 2:22–23). No one who rejects Jesus Christ will ever see heaven, since anyone who “does not confess Jesus is not from God” (4:3), and only in the one who “confesses that Jesus is the Son of God [does God abide], and he in God” (v. 15).
John repeated for emphasis the truth from verse 1 that those who believe in Jesus Christ and have been born of God … overcome the world, gaining the victory over it through their faith. The phrase our faith literally reads, “the faith of us.” It could refer to the subjective, personal faith of individual believers, or objectively to the Christian faith, “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3; cf. Acts 6:7; 13:8; 14:22; 16:5; 1 Cor. 16:13; 2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 1:23; Phil. 1:27; 1 Tim. 4:1; 6:10, 21; 2 Tim. 4:7). It is safe to see in this context of believing that John is referring not to the objective content of the gospel as theology, but to the subjective trust by which God makes saints overcomers.
This interpretation is supported by the apostle’s rhetorical question, Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (cf. 4:15). Christians are victorious overcomers from the moment of salvation, when they are granted a faith that will never fail to embrace the gospel. They may experience times of doubt; they may cry out with David, “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? (Ps. 13:1; cf. 22:1; 27:9; 44:24; 69:17; 88:14; 102:2; 143:7; 2 Tim. 2:11–13). But true saving faith will never fail, because those who possess it have in Christ triumphed over every foe. The “great … cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1; cf. Rom. 8:31–39)—the heroes of faith described in Hebrews 11—testify that true faith endures every trial and emerges victorious over them all. Job expressed the triumph of faith when he cried out in the midst of his trials, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him” (Job 13:15).
4. This is the victory. As he had said that all who are born of God overcome the world, he also sets forth the way of overcoming it. For it might be still asked, whence comes this victory? He then makes the victory over the world to depend on faith.
This passage is remarkable: for though Satan continually repeats his dreadful and horrible onsets, yet the Spirit of God, declaring that we are beyond the reach of danger, removes fear, and animates us to fight with courage. And the past time is more emphatical than the present or the future; for he says, that has overcome, in order that we might feel certain, as though the enemy had been already put to flight. It is, indeed, true, that our warfare continues through life, that our conflicts are daily, nay, that new and various battles are every moment on every side stirred up against us by the enemy; but as God does not arm us only for one day, and as faith is not that of one day, but is the perpetual work of the Holy Spirit, we are already partakers of victory, as though we had already conquered.
This confidence does not, however, introduce indifference, but renders us always anxiously intent on fighting. For the Lord thus bids his people to be certain, while yet he would not have them to be secure; but on the contrary, he declares that they have already overcome, in order that they may fight more courageously and more strenuously.
The term world has here a wide meaning, for it includes whatever is adverse to the Spirit of God: thus, the corruption of our nature is a part of the world; all lusts, all the crafts of Satan, in short, whatever leads us away from God. Having such a force to contend with, we have an immense war to carry on, and we should have been already conquered before coming to the contest, and we should be conquered a hundred times daily, had not God promised to us the victory. But God encourages us to fight by promising us the victory. But as this promise secures to us perpetually the invincible power of God, so, on the other hand, it annihilates all the strength of men. For the Apostle does not teach us here that God only brings some help to us, so that being aided by him, we may be sufficiently able to resist; but he makes victory to depend on faith alone; and faith receives from another that by which it overcomes. They then take away from God what is his own, who sing triumph to their own power.
4 Verse 4 builds on vv. 2–3 by describing the benefits of obedience. All those who are born of God “conquer [nikaō, GK 3771] the world” (NIV, “overcome the world”). The conquest metaphor is consistent with John’s dualistic perspective, which sees a hostile relationship between the world and God’s children. But the precise meaning of nikaō here is open to debate, especially since it seems to contrast starkly with the real-life experiences of the Johannine Christians (see Introduction).
Some suggest that nikaō is used in an eschatological sense. Schnackenburg, 229–30, for example, sees here a reference to “the victory that Christ won once for all in salvation history,” the victory that is “repeated in the lives of the Christians.” By participating in the work of Christ, then, believers experience the future victory over evil in the midst of the pain of this world. Rensberger, 129, takes a somewhat similar view with the suggestion that John is touching on the notion that Satan is “the ruler of this world” (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Jesus has conquered the ruler of this world, and all those who believe share the benefits of this victory. Other commentators believe that John is thinking of the moral sphere of human experience. Dodd, 126–27, for example, says that “the world” refers here to “the power of evil inclinations, false standards and bad dispositions.” “Victory” is achieved when believers choose to obey God and resist temptation (cf. Marshall, 228–29; Schnackenburg, 229).
While both of these views are reasonable, the most likely reference point for the believer’s “victory over the world” is John 16:33. First John 5:4 opens with a hoti clause that seems to introduce a traditional slogan or saying, and the phrase that follows is strongly reminiscent of Jesus’ words in the upper room. After assuring the disciples that they will be hated by the world, put out of the synagogues, and persecuted for his name (Jn 15:18–16:4), Jesus predicts that they will soon scatter and abandon him. Despite all this, they should not be discouraged, because “I have conquered the world” (NIV, “overcome the world”; 16:33).
Jesus’ “conquest” seems to consist of his resolution to obey God’s calling and suffer death. By analogy, 1 John 5:4 uses nikaō to describe the true believer’s willingness to serve God in spite of the world’s persecutions. Hence the conquest of the world may be reduced to “our faith”—the fact of holding fast to the orthodox confession in the face of pressure to abandon Christ. The verb nikaō is used with the same connotation in Revelation, where the believer’s “victory” is gained by overcoming the temptation to abandon the faith in the face of severe suffering and possibly death (Rev 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). If 1 John and Revelation were produced by the same person or by members of the same community, these references would also support the interpretation adopted here.
4 How, then, can the believer keep God’s commandments? John’s answer is that he has been given the power by God to overcome the forces of temptation which would prevent his obedience. Everyone born of God has overcome the world. The power that enables believers to overcome false prophets (4:4) also enables them to overcome the world with all its temptations. And what is this power? The means of victory is our faith. The fact that we hold the true faith39 from our hearts is the means whereby the power of the new world operates in us and enables us to overcome the world. It is striking that John says that we have overcome the world. Perhaps he is thinking of the completed victory of Jesus (Jn. 16:33) which repeats itself in the life of the Christian. Or perhaps we should take John’s meaning to be: “this is the means of victory, namely what we believe about Jesus who has already overcome the world.” To believe that Jesus has been victorious is to have the power that enables us also to win the battle, for we know that our foe is already defeated and therefore powerless. And it is precisely faith that we need. To the natural man the power of evil appears uncontrollable, and to the weak Christian the force of temptation appears irresistible. It requires a firm belief in Jesus to enable us to dismiss this appearance of irresistible, uncontrollable evil as being merely appearance. Nor is such faith a means of escape from conflict; on the contrary it is right in the middle of evil’s display of power that the believer is able to call its bluff and proclaim the superior might of Jesus. Such faith is far from being wish-fulfilment or sheer illusion. On the contrary, it rests foursquare on the fact that Jesus Christ has defeated death, and anybody who can defeat death can defeat anything.
Though the sons of night blaspheme,
More there are with us than them;
God with us, we cannot fear;
Fear, ye fiends, for Christ is here!
Lo! to faith’s enlightened sight,
All the mountain flames with light;
Hell is nigh, but God is nigher,
Circling us with hosts of fire.
4. For—(See on 1 Jn 5:3). The reason why “His commandments are not grievous.” Though there is a conflict in keeping them, the sue for the whole body of the regenerate is victory over every opposing influence; meanwhile there is a present joy to each believer in keeping them which makes them “not grievous.”
whatsoever—Greek, “all that is begotten of God.” The neuter expresses the universal whole, or aggregate of the regenerate, regarded as one collective body Jn 3:6, “where Bengel remarks, that in Jesus’ discourses, what the Father has given Him is called, in the singular number and neuter gender, all whatsoever; those who come to the Son are described in the masculine gender and plural number, they all, or singular, every one. The Father has given, as it were, the whole mass to the Son, that all whom He gave may be one whole: that universal whole the Son singly evolves, in the execution of the divine plan.”
the world—all that is opposed to keeping the commandments of God, or draws us off from God, in this world, including our corrupt flesh, on which the world’s blandishments or threats act, as also including Satan, the prince of this world (Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11).
this is the victory that overcometh—Greek aorist, “… that hath (already) overcome the world”: the victory (where faith is) hereby is implied as having been already obtained (1 Jn 2:13; 4:4).
Overcome the World
3. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, 4. for everyone born of God has overcome the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.
- “Love for God.” John is the New Testament writer who provides a number of pithy definitions. For example, in his Gospel he defines eternal life (17:3) and in his first epistle he repeatedly explains spiritual truths (consult 2:5–6; 3:10, 23, 24; 4:2, 10; 5:14). Here he states what love for God means: “to obey his commands.” Love for God does not consist of spoken words, even if they are well-intentioned, but of determined action that demonstrates obedience to God’s commands.
- “His commands are not burdensome.” John reiterates the words of Jesus, “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). The Pharisees and scribes placed unnecessary demands upon the Jewish people of the first century. They added to the Decalogue hundreds of manmade rules that were burdensome to the people (see Matt. 23:4; Luke 11:46).
For the person who refuses to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, the commands are a threat to man’s self-proclaimed freedom. They are a hindrance to his lifestyle and a constant source of irritation.
The child of God, however, knows that God has given him laws for his own protection. As long as he stays within the area delineated by these laws he is safe, for in it he has his own spiritual environment. Therefore, the believer can do anything he pleases within the confines of God’s commands (Deut. 30:11–14).
Augustine aptly remarks, “Love and do what you please.” The Christian desires to obey God’s precepts. With the psalmist he says, “I delight in [God’s] commands because I love them” (Ps. 119:47; also see Rom. 7:22). Although John’s teaching holds for all God’s precepts, the context of verse 3 refers to the commands to believe in Jesus as the Son of God and to love the children of God (v. 1).
- “Everyone born of God.” The Greek says, “all that is born of God.” John wants to place the emphasis not on the individual person but, in general, on all people who have experienced spiritual birth.
- “Has overcome the world.” All who have their birth in God have overcome the world and therefore can claim victory already. They know that Jesus said, “Take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Because Jesus has been victorious, we, too, are victorious with him. Jesus has overcome the evil one in this world and has set his people free from the power of Satan. “The battle has thus been decided, even if it is not yet over.”
- “This is the victory.” Note that John does not say, “This is the victor.” He writes “the victory” to show that the concept itself is significant. Victory and faith are synonymous. John tells his readers that their faith has overcome the world. Their faith, of course, is in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. When believers place their faith in Jesus, then nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:37–39; 1 Cor. 15:57). No evil forces in this world are able to overpower the person who trusts in Jesus. Instead, the believer is victorious over the world because of his faith in the Son of God.
Faith is the victory?
Faith is the victory?
Oh, glorious victory,
That overcomes the world.
—John H. Yates
Practical Considerations in 5:4
Heroes usually are public idols. The younger generation especially adores and imitates successful men and women.
The Bible portrays its heroes, too. Think of David after he killed Goliath. At that time, the women in Israel sang songs in his honor:
“Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands.”
[1 Sam. 18:7]
As he walks through the gallery which features the portraits of the heroes of faith, the writer of Hebrews points to numerous people (Heb. 11:4–32). When we look at these heroes, we tend to regard them as being superhuman. But these men and women were ordinary people who had to face trials and temptations that all of us encounter. What, then, makes them great? Their faith in God made them conquer, and their enduring faithfulness to the truth of God’s Word made them victorious.
Are we who are common people able to claim victory? Yes, here is the reason: The word overcome is significant in the seven letters Jesus instructed John to write to the seven churches in Asia Minor. Note that at the conclusion of each letter Jesus specifically addresses “him who overcomes” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21). Jesus directs his words to common people who are members of local churches. When they are faithful to the end, they indeed are heroes of faith.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, pp. 535–536). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.