James White and Turretinfan on 1 John 5:1

, posted by Godismyjudge

James White and company have used 1 John 5:1 to argue that regeneration comes before faith. (link) I actually called in to the Dividing Line (James White’s webcast) to explain to him my take on the passage and why I do not think it teaches faith precedes regeneration. It’s at the end of the hour long program. (link) James White objected to my approach on the air and Turretinfan has objected to it on his blog as well (link). I would like to briefly summarize the issue, explain the text and then respond to Turretinfan.

1 John 5:1 states: Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.

James White posted a video in which John Piper quotes John Stot as saying: “The combination of present tense ‘believes’ and perfect tense ‘has been born’ is important. It shows clearly that believing is the consequence, not the cause of the new birth. Our present continuing act of believing is the result and therefore evidence of our past experience of the new birth.” (link)

James White strengthens this argument based on John’s repeated usage of this particular grammatical form. He looks at two verbal parallels: 1 John 2:29 in which being born from God comes before doing righteousness and 1 John 4:7 in which being born of God precedes loving. So he concludes that 1 John 5:1 teaches faith comes before regeneration.

When I called in I pointed out that grammatically, the timing of the perfect tense “have been born” is relative to John’s writing of the epistle, rather than relative to “believes”. So grammatically, John is not saying regeneration precedes faith.

James White responded that we needed to look at the context and asked me about 1 John 2:19 and 4:7. I responded first of all by saying 1 John 2:19, 4:7 and 5:1 all provide us tests for assurance. Further, since in 1 John 5:1, “believes” is a present participle, it indicates ongoing action. So the text is about “continual faith” rather than a one-time act of faith.

So I agreed with James White that 1 John 2:9, 4:7 and even 5:1 imply something about the results of regeneration, but I disagreed with him on what that result is (i.e. I maintained it’s about perseverance in faith, he maintained it’s about conversion). Also, I held my ground that the grammar of 1 John 5:1 doesn’t teach faith comes before regeneration, rather that’s something we can derive from the context. James White maintained his position and the call ended.

Now, let’s look at the text itself. 1 John 5:1 states: Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him. In Greek “believes” is a present active participle indicating ongoing action and that “has been born” is perfect passive indicative. Perfect tense indicates a completed action or existing state relative to the time of the speaker or writer. So John is telling his readers that the new birth of all those continually believing that Jesus is the Christ is completed. And this serves John’s overall purpose of allowing his readers to know that they have eternal life by providing them tests. Do I have ongoing faith? Yes? That means I was born again.

This fits in with John’s overall thread of providing tests for assurance. Not sinning (3:9; 5:18), doing righteousness (2:29), and loving the brethren (4:7) are stated as tests for assurance. In each case, these speak of ongoing actions.

Now to Turretinfan.

Me: My main argument was that the timing of the perfect tense “have been born” is relative to John’s writing of the epistle, rather than relative to “believing”.
TF: Dr. White’s response was that you were mistaken about that claim.

Well he didn’t like the claim, but he didn’t actually say I was mistaken. I won’t speculate as to why he didn’t, but some Calvinists realize that the grammar isn’t determinative and so they also turn the context or John’s style or something of the sort. For example, Reymond says:

John’s statement in 1 John 5:1, “Everyone who believes [pisteuōn] that Jesus is the Christ has been begotten [gegennētai] by God,” also bears out the sequential cause and effect relationship between regeneration as cause and faith as effect. It is true, if one were to restrict his assessment of John’s intended meaning to only this one verse, that one could conceivably argue that John, by his reference to regeneration, was simply saying something more, in a descriptive way, about everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ—that he “has been begotten by God,” but that he need not be understood as suggesting that a cause and effect relationship exists between God’s regenerating activity and saving faith. But when one takes into account that John says in 1 John 3:9a that “everyone who has been begotten [gegennēmenos] by God does not do sin, because [hoti] his seed abides in him” and then in 1 John 3:9b that “he is not able to sin, because [hoti] he has been begotten [gegennētai—the word in 5:1] by God,” we definitely find a cause and effect relationship between God’s regenerating activity as the cause and the Christian’s not sinning as one effect of that regenerating activity.

The difference between an explicit and implicit teaching is subtle, but it should not be overlooked since explicit statements drive implications.

Other Calvinists, such as Sam Storms, examine the issue and do not see the passage as saying faith comes after regeneration. (link)

He explained that, grammatically, the tenses have to be contextually understood.

Again, that’s not exactly what he said, but if that’s what he meant, that’s inaccurate. The perfect indicative represents an action as standing at the time of speaking complete. (Burton. P37) Context doesn’t change this, albeit context informs us of how this specific element fits functions in the larger picture.

In the context, we see (among other things) that John is speaking in general. He’s not speaking about a particular person who existed at the time of the writing of his epistle.

John may well have been speaking about the collection of all individual believers rather than the category “believers” in the abstract. But it makes little difference; either way the passage applies to you and me by way of application of a principle derived from the text not via direct statement. That is, unless you want to argue that John had foreknowledge in view here.

“It seems to me that you didn’t understand Dr. White’s response to your attempted grammatical argument.”

Perhaps not. But matters would be worse if he was making the argument you suggest. But from what I heard, I do think he was arguing based on John’s style, not the grammar. Take for example his statement that one could argue the action is contemporaneous. Or his denial that 1 John 5:10 is relevant because the subject matter is different, even though the grammatical construction is the same.

Me: “The text does talk about ‘continual faith’ rather than a one time act of faith.”

TF: “No, it doesn’t make that distinction, and your quotation is fake. You won’t find ‘continual faith’ in the text.”

Perhaps I was quoting James White. Your calling it “fake” is a bit tough on him.

Consider Wallice’s translation of John 3:16 (continually believes) and his explanation as to how present participles work. (link)Page 522

Grammatically, it refers to something that is ongoing in the sense of “happening at the present time” or “occurring now.” Grammatically, it doesn’t refer to something that will continue to occur, nor to something that was previously occurring. Grammatically, it refers only to one point in time, the present.

Well, some Greek scholars leave it there, but others take it a step further. A.T. Robertson says the present participle expresses incomplete action. (link)

Likewise, Painter and Harrington state: “. . . the article with the present participle, as in the previous statement about ‘every person abiding’. Both refer to more than single actions. They imply characteristic modes of being. In v. 6 those abiding are contrasted with those sinning, just as the person doing righteousness is contrasted with the person doing sin in vv. 7-8. Again more than a single action is implied by this construction.” (1, 2, and 3 John By John Painter, Daniel J. Harrington. 2002. P225).

James White also seemed to take it that way.

The present tense of the participle should be emphasized, however. John’s use of the present tense “believe” is very significant, especially in light of his use of the aorist to refer to false believers. The ones who receive eternal life are not those who believe once, but those who have an on-going faith. This is his common usage in the key soteriological passages (John 3, 6, 10). (link)

TF: I think most people would look for a general trajectory of sin or obedience / love. But is that what you (Dan) are proposing here?


“If so, is it only a general trajectory of faith that is in view?”

Present participles do have action in the present, even though the action starts some unspecified time before the present. So a person would have to have faith at the time they examine themselves in order to pass the test. A Christian’s faith increases and decreases at various times. At some times it may be so low the person can’t even tell if they have faith or not. In such cases they will not pass this assurance test.

That would be an unusual position for an Arminian. Indeed, it doesn’t seem like a viable position.
Perhaps you underestimate the breadth of Arminianism in this regard. Exegesis informs systematic, not the other way around.

On the other hand, my explanation isn’t the only one out there. Take for example Ben’s explanation. Ben and I start at the same point: “The word gennao [born] is in the perfect indicative tense. All this tells us is that an event that occurred in the past has continuing results now in relation to the time of the speaker.” (link)

But from there we explain things a little differently. Indeed, Ben would probably be right if you were right, that “believes” is one-time rather than continuous.

There’s a different way to look at the passages. The different way is to see each sin as evidence of human nature that needs to be put to death, but to see conquering sin, obedience, and love as evidence of God’s grace, and consequently of the second birth (which is the beginning of saving grace). That doesn’t mean that we would necessarily obtain assurance from a single event, but we would see each good thing we do as sign of the Spirit’s work in our life.

If the tests are based on single events, why couldn’t we be assured based on singular events? If the passages speak of singular events and we cannot be assured based on singular events, then the texts don’t provide for assurance.

On the one hand, you granted, for the sake of argument, that these passages are tests for assurance, but on the other hand you seem to be saying we cannot obtain assurance based on the tests in these the passages.

Furthermore, we might add that the new birth is not something that would itself give an Arminian assurance, which further undermines Dan’s overall view of the text. In other words, even if we think that there is a link as follows:
faith => assurance
within an Arminian perspective, it would not make sense for a middle link in that chain to be regeneration (new birth):
faith => regeneration => assurance
Instead, that kind of link would tend to work only in a soteriology in which the new birth itself were tied to salvation in an inseparable way.

To get into this discussion we would need to define regeneration — in that regeneration is related to eternal life, of course, regeneration is inseparable from eternal life. But if by regeneration you mean something else, some work of God prior to a person believing and having eternal life, and assuming that you can show that that sense is biblical, perhaps in that sense they are separable.