Does 1 John 5:1 teach that faith is caused by regeneration?

The following is an evaluation of John Piper’s interpretation of 1 John 5:1

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. (1 John 5:1, ESV)

Commenting on 1 John 5:1, John Piper says, “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Son of God has been born of God.  This is crystal clear that the reason you believe is that you have been born of God, not the other way around.”[1]

I take Piper to mean that being born again is the cause of belief.  Piper also seems to be envisioning and emphasizing initial faith more than an ongoing confession of faith.

But Piper’s assertion is anything but crystal clear from this passage.  In fact nothing in the verse or passage indicates that the apostle John is here intending to teach that being born again is the cause of faith or reason for faith.

In his first letter, John gives a long list of evidences to enable his readers to differentiate between a genuine Christian and one who is not a Christian. He never uses the term “Christian” but uses many phrases to describe true believers (Note that the statements describing believers and unbelievers do not necessarily correspond on each line of this table).

Phrases describing a genuine believer Phrases describing a false “believer”
Have fellowship with Him (1:6) Truth is not in us (1:8) (2:4)
We have come to know Him (2:3-4) His word is not in us (1:10)
We are in Him (2:5) Is a liar (2:4)
Abides in Him (1:6, 3:6,24, 4:13,15,16) Is in the darkness (2:9,11)
Is in the Light (2:9) Walks in the darkness (2:11)
Abides in the Light (2:10) The love of the Father is not in him (2:15)
Lives forever (2:17) They went out and are not of us
Has the Father (2:23) Does not have the Father (2:23)
Has been born of Him or of God (2:29, 3:9, 4:7, 5:1,4,18) Has not seen Him or known Him (3:6)
Child of God (3:10) Is of the devil, child of the devil (3:8, 10)
Passed out of death into life, has life (3:14, 5:12) Is not of God (3:10)
Has eternal life abiding in Him (3:15) Abides in death, doesn’t have life (3:14, 5:12)
Are of the truth (3:19) Are from the world (4:5)
You are from God (4:5) Does not know God (4:8)
Knows God (4:7) Has made God a liar (5:10)
He abides in us (4:13,15,16)
Has the testimony in himself (5:10)

In 5:1, John is simply giving one more evidence to help them discern who is a genuine child of God and who isn’t.  Belief that Jesus is the Christ is an evidence that the person is a child of God.  He could have just as easily used one of the other terms he uses throughout the letter—“Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ abides in the light” or “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ knows God,”  or “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God.”  But John chose to use the phrase “has been born of God.”

John’s reason for giving this evidence in 5:1 is explained earlier in the epistle.  John warns about some (presumably early Gnostics) who were denying that Jesus was the Christ

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. (1 John 2:22, NASB95)

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. (1 John 4:2-3, NASB95)

In view of this, he says in 5:1 that belief that Jesus is the Christ is an evidence of having been born again (being a child of God).  This is alongside many other evidences such as loving your brothers, living righteously, acknowledging being a sinner, not defecting from the faith, possessing the Spirit, keeping God’s commands, etc.

This verse is parallel to several others in the book:

Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. (1 John 2:23, ESV)

Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. (1 John 4:15, ESV)

Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself.  (1 John 5:10a, ESV)

In each of these parallel verses, faith or confession that Jesus is the Christ or the Son of God are evidences that the believing or confessing person is a child of God.

What happens if you try to insert the idea of causation into these parallel verses?

John 2:23 — Is the apostle John teaching that having the Father is the cause of confessing the Son? (Surely not—the idea of causation is not present here, only the thought of evidence.)

1 John 4:15 — Is John saying that God abiding in us and we in Him is the cause of our initial confession? John is not teaching that we have to abide in God in order to confess the Son. Again he is not giving the reason for the confession, but saying that the confession is an evidence that someone knows God.

1 John 5:10—Is John teaching that having the testimony in ourselves causes us to believe?  (It would seem that the opposite is true—that believing is what puts the testimony into our hearts).  Again, the issues is not causation, but evidence.

Evidence and causation are different concepts and not necessarily related.  For example, a broken window might be evidence that someone robbed my house, but the broken window did not cause the robbery.  Eroded ground gives evidence that there was a flood, but the eroded ground did not cause the flood.

Why does John use the perfect tense (has been born of God).

John uses the perfect tense because it is the only tense he could use to describe a past completed event.  He could not use present tense (is being born of God).  He could not use future tense (will be born of God).  He could possibly have used the aorist tense (was born of God), but this would not have been as precise.  The appropriate tense for past completed action is the perfect tense.

Here’s an example of another place where the same construction is used (a present tense verb followed by a perfect tense verb)

1 John 5:10b — He who does not believe God has made him a liar.

“Does not believe” is present tense and “has made” is perfect tense.   Is John therefore teaching that their having made God a liar (perfect tense) preceded  their (present tense) unbelief ?  No, on the contrary, their disbelief came first and caused them to make God a liar. Our understanding of the relationship of the concepts discussed causes us to know this despite the fact that “has made” is perfect tense and “does not believe” is present tense.

Just as in John 5:10, the use of the perfect tense in 1 John 5:1 does not indicate that  being born again must temporally or logically precede belief or that it is the cause of belief.  John simply used the appropriate tense to describe an action that was completed in the past, as he consistently does with this phrase (has been born of God) throughout his letter.

An example might be helpful. When someone renounces his citizenship and becomes a citizen of the US there may be many evidences that he has become a citizen.  He may have a passport, a driver’s license, and a home in the States.  One evidence might be that he declares loyalty to the US.  If I was trying to point out evidences of who is and who isn’t a genuine US citizen, along with other evidences, I might say “He who declares loyalty to the United States has become a citizen.” But such a statement would not mean that the loyalty was caused by becoming a citizen or that becoming a citizen is temporally or logically prior to declaring loyalty. On the contrary, we all have knowledge that love for the country and a required declaration of loyalty precede a person becoming a citizen.

In the same way, 1 John 5:1 could just as easily mean that belief in Christ is the cause or means of being born again as the other way around.  This seems to be John’s teaching in other places (John 1:12, 3:16).  But it is not John’s intention in 5:1 to even address this subject.  He’s simply giving an additional evidence to help them discern whether someone has been born of God and is a genuine believer.

Verse 4 could support the idea that faith is the means of being born again when it says that faith is the means of overcoming the world.

For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. (1 John 5:4, ESV)

All who have been born of God overcome the world, but the means of doing so is our faith.  So it could be that the means of being born again is also our faith, as is taught so clearly elsewhere in scripture (see Is Regeneration by Faith or is Faith by Regeneration?

In summary,

In summary, I believe that Piper’s us of this verse is a classic example of proof-texting, finding a verse to fit our theology rather than interpreting the verse in its context and in line with the author’s clear intention.  Unfortunately, I have often done the same thing myself.  The apostle John is not addressing what causes someone to initially believe.  Rather he says that present and ongoing (present tense) belief that Jesus is the Christ is an evidence that a person has been born of God (perfect tense).

______________-

[1] From a sermon entitled, TULIP, part 2, 2008

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3 Responses

  1. Ryan — Thanks for the link. I’ll take a closer look at Piper’s thoughts.

  2. […] [viii] For a discussion of 1 John 5:1, which some have claimed teaches that regeneration precedes faith, see https://davebovenmyer.com/2010/05/03/does-1-john-51-teach-that-faith-is-caused-by-regeneration/ […]

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