1 JOHN 5:4-12. 4 For whatsoever is begotten of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that hath overcome the world, even our faith. And who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God? 6 This is he that came by water and blood, even JesusChrist; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. 7 And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is the truth. 8 For there are three who bear witness, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and the three agree in one. 9 If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for the witness of God is this, that he hath borne witness concerning his Son. 10 He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in him: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he hath not believed in the witness that God hath borne concerning his Son. 11 And the witness is this, that God gave unto us eternallife, and this life is in his Son. 12 He that hath the Son hath the life; he that hath not the Son of God hath not the life.
1. This epistle selection was primarily arranged for this particular Sunday because it treats of baptism and of the new birth of the believing Christian.
It was in former time customary in the Church to baptize immediately after Easter those who had accepted the Christianfaith and had been instructed in its precepts. This day is also called “Dominicam in albis,” and by us Germans “Weiszer Sonntag” (White Sunday), because the candidates for baptism were clad in white linen as indicative of their cleansing and new birth; just as today children to be baptized are arrayed in a white christening-robe.
THE NEW BIRTH.
2. While this lesson does not treat of the resurrection of Christ, it has reference to its fruits: faith, the very essence of Christianity, here expressed as being born of God; and the evidence of the Holy Spirit, received through baptism, which assures us we are children of God and have, through Christ, eternallife and all blessings.
3. Though John’s language is, as usual, plain and simple, yet, in the ears of men generally, it is unusual and unintelligible. The world estimates it as similar to the prattle of children or fools. What, according to the world’s construction, is implied by the statement, “Whatsoever is begotten [born] of God overcometh the world?” Overcoming the world, the unconverted would understand to mean bringing into subjection to oneself every earthly thing and assuming the position of sovereign of the world. Yet more absurd in the ears of this class is the saying that we must be born of God. “Did one ever hear of such a thing,” they might exclaim, “as childrenborn of God? It would be less ridiculous to say we must be born of stones, after the idea of the heathenpoets.” To the world there is no birth but physical birth. Hence such doctrine as our lesson sets forth will ever be strange, unintelligible, incomprehensible, to all but Christians. But the latter speak with new tongues, as Christ in the last chapter of Mark (verse 17) says they shall, for they are taught and enlightened by the Holy Spirit.
4. Clearly, then, when the Scriptures speak of being born of God, it is not in a human sense; the reference is not to the conditions of our temporal lives, but to those exalted ones of a future existence. To say we must be born of God is equivalent to saying that if man is to be redeemed from sin and eternaldeath, to enter into the kingdom of God and into happiness, his physical birth will not suffice; all which nature, reason, free-will and human endeavor may afford is inadequate. Physical birth, it is true, answers for everything in the way of temporal possession and achievement, everything great, powerful, noble, rich, wise, learned; in short, every exalted and desirable thing of earth. But all such possession and achievement serves only the physical existence; it is swept away by death, to which event it is ever subject.
Hence becomes necessary a new and different birth, a birth more significant than that of the natural man even in the case of emperors, kings, or the wisest and most influential of earth. For as Isaiah says (ch. 40:6): “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth.” The demand is for a divinebirth, a birth in which parentage is wholly of God; a birth signifying the operation of God’s divinepower in man, a power achieving something beyond the attainment of his natural capacities and effecting in him new understanding and a new heart.
5. The process is this: When the individual hears the Gospel message of Christ — a message revealed and proclaimed not by the wisdom and will of man, but through the Holy Spirit — and sincerely believes it, he is justly recognized as conceived and born of God. John in his gospel (ch. 1:12) says: “As many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name.” And in the first verse of the chapter including our text, he tells us: “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God.” Through that faith, for the sake of his Son, God accepts us as his children, pleasing to him and heirs of eternallife; and the Holy Spirit will be sent into our hearts, as is explained later.
6. This doctrine condemns those arrogant teachers who presumptuously expect to be justified before God by their own merits and works. They imagine that their wisdom, learning, good judgment, intelligence, fair reputation and morality entitle them, because of the good they are thus enabled to do, to the favor of God and to reception up into heaven. But the Scriptures clearly teach the very reverse, that all these things are nothing in the eyes of God. It is sheer human effort; it is not being born of God.
However wise and powerful you might be, if even the noblest, most beautiful, fruit human nature can produce, your could not see the kingdom of God unless you became a wholly different person, unless you were born anew, according to Christ’s words in John 3:3. And this is something impossible to your natural powers. You certainly cannot make yourself of other parentage than you are. God must begin the work in you, communicating his seed — his Word — by virtue of which the Holy Spirit operates in you, enabling you, by faith, to cling to the promise, as said before.
7. Now, he who is thus born of God, John declares, overcomes the world.
Verily, this is a significant and forcible assertion the Holy Spirit makes; it represents a tremendous power, a great work. The child of God must, indeed, attempt and accomplish great things. The birth effected through the Word and faith makes men true sovereigns, above all earthly rulers; it gives them power even to overcome the world, something impossible to any Roman or Turkish potentate. They effect not their victory by physical force or temporal power, but by the spiritualbirth, through faith. As John says immediately after the clause we are discussing, “This is the victory that hath overcome the world, even our faith.” Here is his own explanation of what he means by being born of God.
THE TWO KINGDOMS.
8. Now, in order to understand the nature of the spiritualvictory and how it is effected, we must know just what John means by the term “world.”
13. It requires something more than mere human wisdom and skill, more than human power, to withstand and overcome an enemy so formidable as the devil. As said before, the Christian must be fortified with the knowledge of how to guard against his wiles and deceptions and how to withstand him. Hence a Christian is called a person who is born of God. He must be different from an intelligent heathen and a skillful worldling to rightly understand God’s Word and apprehendChrist through faith, and must use such knowledge as weapons of offense and defense in the conflict. Thus will he be able to withstand the devil and the world and to gain the victory. God’s Word and faith are the power which will bring him through; he cannot be overcome so long as he adheres to them.
14. For example, if I have faith and am born of God, I will not pollute myself with unchastity and fornication, I will not bring disgrace upon another’s spouse or child. The new birth will indeed teach me not to reject shamefully the treasure I have in Christ, not to lose it willingly, and not to drive from me the indwelling Holy Spirit. Faith, if it truly dwells in me, will not permit me to do ought in violation of my conscience and of the Word and the will of God.
17. That John has reference to faith in Christ is plainly evident from his query, “Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?” The apostle’s purpose therein is to make plain just what the true Scriptural faith is and what it implies. For there are other beliefs which the world calls faith. The Jews, the Turks, the Papists, claim they also believe in God who createdheaven and earth. That such belief is not the true faith, however, is proved by the fact of its ineffectiveness. It does not contend and overcome, and it permits the believer to remain as he is, in his naturalbirth and under the power of the devil and sin.
18. Thus we have the first part of our sermon on the new birth and faith.
For the second part, John shows whence and by what means comes the faith productive of victory; he says: “This is he that came by water and blood, even JesusChrist; not with the water only, but with the water and with the blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three who bear witness [in earth], the Spirit, and the water, and the blood,” etc.
19. John speaks of Christ’s kingdom, and of the office the Holy Spirit bears outwardly and visibly in the ChristianChurch, represented in the ministerial office and the sacraments. He says: “There are three who bear witness [in earth].” John, as usual, employs the word “witness” in connection with the thought of preaching; it is a word he frequently uses. For instance, in the beginning of his gospel, where he speaks of John the Baptist, he says (ch. 1:7): “The same came for a witness, that he might bear witness of the light.” So, in his use of the phrase “witness” or “bearing witness,” we are to understand simply the publicpreaching of God’s Word. Again, Christ says ( John 16:9-14), that the Holy Spirit shall bear witness of him; that is, he shall publicly fill the ministerial office. This is God’s own witness to his Son. And here John tells us we have the victory over the devil and the world, through faith, for the sake of Christ the Son of God.
20. This witness Christ himself ordains shall ever go forth, and remain, in the Church. To this end Christ sent the Holy Spirit; to this end Christ himself called and gave the Holy Spirit to the apostles and their successors, ministers, preachers and teachers, as Paul tells us ( Ephesians 4:11-13), who are to exercise the Word, that the Word may resound always and everywhere in the world, reaching to children’s children, and on down to future generations. Were the witness not in the Church, the pulpit — in fact, the entire outward administration of the Church — would be useless, for every man could read the Scriptures for himself. But for the sake of the uninstructed masses and the constantly rising young who, as yet in ignorance of the Word, need admonition — for the sake of these, the Spirit must bear public witness or administer the preachingoffice that they, too, may learn to know the grace of God manifest and given to us through Christ, and that God’s wondrous works may be publicly recognized and extolled by us in opposition to the devil and the world.
21. Wherever such witness is borne, there certainly will be some fruit. The witness never fails of effect. Some surely will be reached; some will accept and believe it. Since it is the witness of the Holy Spirit, and the apostle says here, the Spirit beareth witness, he will be effective, producing in us that to which John refers when he says we are children of God, and have the victory and eternallife. So the Word — the Gospel message accompanied by the witness of the Spirit — and faith are vitally related. In the last analysis they are inseparable. Without faith, preaching will be fruitless; and faith has origin in the Word alone. Therefore, we should gladly hear and handle the Word. Where it is, there is also the Holy Spirit; and where the Spirit is, there must be at least some believers.
Even if you have already heard the Word and obtained faith, it will always continue to strengthen you as you hear it. One knows not at what hour God may touch and illumine his or another’s heart. It may be in a time when we least look for it, or in the individual of whom we have least expectation. For the Spirit, as Christ says, breathes where he will, and touches hearts when and where he knows them to be receptive.
22. It is relative to the power and energy wrought by the Holy Spirit that John speaks, indicating the source and means of the power of this witness, when he says of Christ, “This is he that came by water and blood,” etc. In this sentence is included all we possess in the kingdom of Christ, and here is extolled the efficacy of our belovedbaptism and the blood or sufferings of Christ. Here John unites all the elements in one bundle, so to speak, making a triune witness. They bear joint witness to our faith and confirm it — these three: the water, the blood and the Spirit.
BAPTISM BY WATER AND BLOOD.
23. Christ comes, first, “by water”; that is, by holy baptism. He employs baptism as an outward sign of his work in the new birth of man and in man’s sanctification. This water by which Christ comes cannot be a mere, empty sign; for he comes not merely to cleanse or bathe the body with water, but to purify the whole man from all pollution and blemishes inherent in him from Adam. Christ has instituted a cleansing wholly unlike the Mosaic ablutions under the Old Testament dispensation. Moses came with various laws relating to washings and purifications, but they were only cleansings of the body or of the flesh and had daily to be repeated. Now, since these ceremonials contributed nothing to man’s purification in God’s sight — a thing to be effected by nothing short of a new birth — Christ came with a new order of cleansing, namely, baptism, which is not a mere external ablution from physical impurities, but a washing effective in man’s purification from the inward pollution of his old sinfulbirth and from an evil conscience, and bringing remission of sin and a good conscience toward God, as Peter says. 1 Peter 3:21. Paul, also ( Titus 3:5), calls baptism the “washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.”
24. Christ first instituted baptism through John the Baptist. To distinguish it from the Mosaic baptism, the old Jewish rite of washings, Christ styles it “a baptism unto repentance and the remission of sins.” He designs that therein man shall perceive his inner impurities and know them to be, in God’s sight, beyond the power of outward Mosaic ablutions to reach; shall know also that purification of the conscience and remission of sins must be sought and obtained through the power of Christ the Lord, who instituted baptism.
25. Secondly, that this cleansing of sin may be effected in us through baptism, something more than mere water must be present. Mere water could effect no more than do ordinary washings, and no more than Jewish and Turkish baptisms and washings effect. There must be a power and force accompanying the water effective to work inward purification, the purification of the soul. Therefore, John says, Christ came, not by water alone, but also by blood; not the blood of bulls, or of calves, or of goats, those Old Testament sacrifices, but his own blood, as Paul declares. Hebrews 9:12. He comes through the preachingoffice of the New Testament, which is his rule upon earth, imparts to us the effective power of his shed blood, his sacrifice for our sins, and thus applies to us the treasure wherewith he purchased our redemption.
26. Hence there is now in baptism this efficacy of the blood of Christ. That is the true caustic soap which not only removes the uncleanness of the outer man, but penetrates to the inner nature, consuming its impurities and cleansing them away, that the heart may become pure in God’s sight. Thus, the blood of Christ is so effectively mingled with the baptismal water that we must not regard it as mere water, but water beautifully dyed with the precious crimson blood o£ our clear Savior, Christ. Baptism, then, cannot rightly be regarded a physical cleansing, like the Mosaic ablutions, or like the cleansing the bathhouse affords; it is a healing baptism, a baptism or washing with blood, instituted by none but Christ, the Son of God, and that through his own death.
27. In the record of Christ’s passion, careful note is made of the fact that blood and water flowed immediately from the spear-thrust in Christ’s side as he hung upon the cross; it is pointed out as a special miracle. The design there is to teach that Christ’s shed blood is not without significance, but stands for a washing or bath whose efficacy is present in the baptism with water; and that from the slain body of Christ issues an unceasing stream of water and blood, flowing on down through the entire ChristianChurch, wherein we must all be cleansed from our sins. What makes baptism so precious, so holy and essential is the mingling and union of the water with the blood of Christ; to be baptized into Christ with water is really to be washed and cleansed with the blood of Christ.
28. To these two John adds a third witness, “the Spirit.” The Spirit bears witness with the water and the blood; in fact, through these other two he operates. It is the Holy Spirit himself; not as he is invisible up in heaven in his divine essence, but the Spirit who publicly manifests himself through his external office and permits himself to be heard through his Word. As John here asserts, the Spirit bears witness on earth with both the water and the blood.
30. Such is the kingdomChrist unceasingly develops through the ChristianChurch. In him we have eternal purification when to the water is added the Spirit, who through the Word enkindles the heart and purifies it, not with the cleansing qualities of the water alone, but with the healing efficacy of the blood of Christ, whereby sins are exterminated and God’s wrath appeased. Although the work of our redemption was wrought once for all in Christ’s blood shed upon the cross and is sufficient to cancel the sins of the entire world, yet Christ so instituted it that the same efficacy should remain forever, and be daily distributed and offered to us through the Holy Spirit.
32. Note, this text is a grand sermon on the witness Christians have here on earth, which the apostle in concluding explains and extols in beautiful and comforting words. He calls it a witness that God himself bears to his Son and that serves to assure us of being the children of God and possessors of eternallife. For he says: “And the witness is this, that God gave unto us eternallife,” etc. This is indeed an excellent witness, which God himself witnesses and declares to you, and the Holy Spirit brings and reveals to you. God cannot lie nor deceive, he is the eternal, unchangeable truth, as already mentioned. If you believe this witness, you certainly have received and possess it, as John again says: “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in him.”
36. Note particularly the consolation of Paul’s concluding words. Here he embraces in one clear word the whole substance of the Gospel when he says: “He that hath the Son hath the life; he that hath not the Son of God hath not the life.” How could he speak plainer and more forcibly? What is the need of further inquiry and investigation or discussion of this theme?
Do you wish to have assurance of eternallife? According to this verse, you have it truly if you possess Christ the Sort of God; and you have Christ when you believe this witness and preaching as John says, and you should confidently rely upon it in life and in death as the divine, eternaltruth. But if you believe not, you have not life; and all effort and suffering on your part, yes, combined with the effort and suffering of the whole world, will profit you nothing. You have not the Son of God if you do not believe God’s witness of him but charge God with falsehood.