There is only one biblical foundation for a Christian’s assurance of salvation: that God the Son came to be our propitiation and advocate. Only when faith is solidly founded there can a believer go on to apply these rigorous tests: Is my belief correct enough? Do I live a holy life? Do I love other believers? These tests are important and biblical, but what’s even more important is that they don’t usurp the place of the one foundation.
That’s the argument of Christopher D. Bass in his new book, That You May Know: Assurance of Salvation in 1 John (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008). It’s an important topic, obviously central to 1 John. In fact, 1 John has so much to say about assurance that the real interpretive task is to bring all those statements together into a unitary picture. Right at the beginning, Bass sets up his assignment as ordering and balancing the various scriptures: “readers [of 1 John] are confronted with the tension between various assurances regarding their present status as children of God and passages that bid them to test themselves, exhort them to live righteously, and warn them of false teaching. To be sure, the very question of assurance of eternal life in 1 John centers on the relationship between such passages.”
The interpreter’s task, in other words, is to recommend an order or hierarchy of the various statements, to demonstrate which ones are to receive the emphasis and which ones are to take a subordinate place. Bass argues that there is one central basis of assurance, the work of Christ, and that the other elements of 1 John’s teaching act in a supporting fashion: “The letter of 1 John teaches that assurance of eternal life is fundamentally grounded in the work of Christ and supported in a vital yet subsidiary way by the lifestyle of the believer.”
The most compelling part of the book is, appropriately, the third chapter, in which Bass turns his full attention to “Assurance Grounded in the Atoning Sacrifice of Christ.” In a deft and concise exposition, Bass expounds the identity of Christ as the one who was from the beginning, with the Father, who is the eternal life that has been revealed to us. The message we have from this one who is the pre-existent, divine word of life is that God is light. Bass explores this light-symbolism in its Old Testament background, spending just long enough on it for us to feel how unapproachable God must be when considered in his character as light: holy, pure, and exalted. The careful reading of the opening sentences poses the question: How can we sinful creatures have fellowship with this God who is light? Once you have felt the problem, 1 John’s answer is obvious, and it shows up in a set of key words that feature prominently in the book: forgiveness of our sins, a son given as the propitiation, and an advocate with the Father.
By turning up the contrast between God’s light and the darkness of sin, Bass pre-emptively eliminates any possibility that the lesser supports of assurance in 1 John might be brought forward as answers to the opening problem. Right belief, righteous conduct, and Christian love are great good things, but it is impossible that they could answer the opening question of how we can have fellowship with the God who is light. Only the son’s atoning sacrifice can do that. In systematic theological categories, we could say the person and work of Christ constitute the only ground of fellowship and assurance. But Bass has done a real service in drawing out the argument in 1 John’s own categories and terminology.
The other chapters fall into place around that central argument of chapter 3. Bass treats the warning and conditional passages of 1 John as tests, and divides them into three categories: tests of right conduct, tests of proper belief, and tests of love for other Christians. John offers these tests so that believers can gain confidence about their own status (they have introspective value), so they can understand what happened to those who fell away (they have retrospective value), and so they can be encouraged to persevere (they have prospective value). What is crucial for Bass is that these tests are seen to have auxiliary value rather than serving as the foundation of assurance.
Bass’ commitment to capturing all the evidence and then showing how it should be ordered also shows up in his handling of the purpose statement of 1 John. This letter has, in fact, about a half-dozen purpose statements, and interpreters have to decide whether they are all on an equal footing or whether one of them stands out. John writes this letter:
That you might have fellowship (1:1-3)
That our joy might be made full (1:4)
That you might not sin (2:1)
Because you are already believers (2:12-14, 21)
Concerning those who are trying to deceive you (2:26)
That you might know you have eternal life (5:13)
Bass argues that the final statement is the main one, and the others complement it; this is one of the arguments behind his overall thesis.
Bass is an advocate for his view of 1 John’s theology; he is convinced and he writes to convince his reader. But he also does a good job of canvassing the full range of views on difficult topics. On the question of whether John expects perfection from his readers, Bass re-states the notorious apparent contradiction between 1:6-2:2 and 3:1-10, and then reports on six approaches to resolving the tension. Finally he opts for an eclectic solution, attempting to gather insights from all six options.
There are some weak stretches in the book. A brief survey of historical views of assurance in the first chapter is so peremptory and dependent on handbooks and secondary sources that it should have just been omitted. The fourth chapter, which argues that “new covenant” is the real, hidden substructure of John’s understanding of his community, is a fine argument in its own right, but is only very tenuously linked to the rest of the book.
But That You May Know ends on a strong note, the final summary and application. Since earning his PhD from Southern Seminary, Bass has gone on to pastor a church in the Boston area, and his eye for pastoral application is keen. He considers a handful of widely diverse case studies and asks what message about assurance each of these people need to hear. His conclusion is that, however certain he is of his interpretation of 1 John and its theological priorities, “application is not monolithic” because people are so different in their spiritual experiences. “The pastor simply cannot have one universal answer for all who come to him. Instead, he must view himself as a physician of souls and be willing to seek to diagnose the nature of the person’s struggle in order to know what type of “spiritual medication” an individual needs.”
That You May Know is volume 5 in B&H Academic’s ongoing series, the New American Commentary Studies in Bible and Theology. Though the series has covered a broad range of topics, a certain family resemblance is beginning to take shape among several of these titles: so far authors in this series have advocated believer’s baptism, a new covenant view of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, a role for Israel in God’s future plan, and now a strong account of assurance of salvation. A certain constellation of Baptist commitments is discernible here, but not in so heavy-handed a way as to distort the individual volumes. The series so far has been uneven in quality, but Bass’ volume takes a place near the high end of the spectrum, as a fine contribution.
Thanks to B&H Academic for the review copy.