Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 45: Catholic Epistles, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
1 John 1:1-2
1. That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;
1. Quod erat ab initio, quod audivimus, quod vidimus oculis nostris, quod intuiti sumus, quod manus nostrae contrectaverunt, de Sermone vitae;
2. (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)
2. Et vita manifesta est, et vidimus et testamur et annuntiamus vobis vitam aeternam, quae erat apud Patrem, et manifesta est nobis.
He shows, first, that life has been exhibited to us in Christ; which, as it is an incomparable good, ought to rouse and inflame all our powers with a marvelous desire for it, and with the love of it. It is said, indeed, in a few and plain words, that life is manifested; but if we consider how miserable and horrible a condition death is, and also what is the kingdom and the glory of immortality, we shall perceive that there is something here more magnificent than what can be expressed in any words.
Then the Apostle’s object, in setting before us the vast good, yea, the chief and only true happiness which God has conferred on us, in his own Son, is to raise our thoughts above; but as the greatness of the subject requires that the truth should be certain, and fully proved, this is what is here much dwelt upon. For these words, What we have seen, what we have heard, what we have looked on, serve to strengthen our faith in the gospel. Nor does he, indeed, without reason, make so many asseverations; for since our salvation depends on the gospel, its certainty is in the highest degree necessary; and how difficult it is for us to believe, every one of us knows too well by his own experience. To believe is not lightly to form an opinion, or to assent only to what is said, but a firm, undoubting conviction, so that we may dare to subscribe to the truth as fully proved. It is for this reason that the Apostle heaps together so many things in confirmation of the gospel.
1 That which was from the beginning As the passage is abrupt and involved, that the sense may be made clearer, the words may be thus arranged; “We announce to you the word of life, which was from the beginning and really testified to us in all manner of ways, that life has been manifested in him;” or, if you prefer, the meaning may be thus given, “What we announce to you respecting the word of life, has been from the beginning, and has been openly shewed to us, that life was manifested in him.” But the words, That which was from the beginning, refer doubtless to the divinity of Christ, for God manifested in the flesh was not from the beginning; but he who always was life and the eternal Word of God, appeared in the fullness of time as man. Again, what follows as to the looking on and the handling of the hands, refers to his human nature. But as the two natures constitute but one person, and Christ is one, because he came forth from the Father that he might put on our flesh, the Apostle rightly declares that he is the same, and had been invisible, and afterwards became visible. 59
Hereby the senseless cavil of Servetus is disproved, that the nature and essence of Deity became one with the flesh, and that thus the Word was transformed into flesh, because the life-giving Word was seen in the flesh.
Let us then bear in mind, that this doctrine of the Gospel is here declared, that he who in the flesh really proved himself to be the Son of God, and was acknowledged to be the Son of God, was always God’s invisible Word, for he does not refer here to the beginning of the world, but ascends much higher.
Which we have heard, which we have seen. It was not the hearing of a report, to which little credit is usually given, but John means, that he had faithfully learnt from his Master those things which he taught, so that he alleged nothing thoughtlessly and rashly. And, doubtless, no one is a fit teacher in the Church, who has not been the disciple of the Son of God, and rightly instructed in his school, since his authority alone ought to prevail.
When he says, we have seen with our eyes, it is no redundancy, but a fuller expression for the sake of amplifying; nay, he was not satisfied with seeing only, but added, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled By these words he shews that he taught nothing but what had been really made known to him.
It may seem, however, that the evidence of the senses little availed on the present subject, for the power of Christ could not be perceived by the eyes nor felt by the hands. To this I answer, that the same thing is said here as in Joh 1:14 the Gospel of John, “We have seen his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father;” for he was not known as the Son of God by the external form of his body, but because he gave illustrious proofs of his Divine power, so that in him shone forth the majesty of the Father, as in a living and distinct image. As the words are in the plural number, and the subject equally applies to all the apostles, I am disposed to include them, especially as the authority of testimony is what is treated of.
But no less frivolous (as I have before said) than impudent is the wickedness of Servetus, who urges these words to prove that the Word of God became visible and capable of being handled; he either impiously destroys or mingles together the twofold nature of Christ. It is, therefore, a pure figment. Thus deifying the humanity of Christ, he wholly takes away the reality of his human nature, at the same time denying that Christ is for any other reason called the Son of God, except that he was conceived of his mother by the power of the Holy Spirit, and taking away his own subsistence in God. It hence follows that he was neither God nor man, though he seems to form a confused mass from both. But as the meaning of the Apostle is evident to us, let us pass by that unprincipled man.
Of the Word of life The genitive here is used for an adjective, vivifying, or life-giving; for in him, as it is said in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, was life. At the same time, this distinction belongs to the Son of God on two accounts, because he has infused life into all creatures, and because he now restores life to us, which had perished, having been extinguished by the sin of Adam. Moreover, the term Word may be explained in two ways, either of Christ, or of the doctrine of the Gospel, for even by this is salvation brought to us. But as its substance is Christ, and as it contains no other thing than that he, who had been always with the Father, was at length manifested to men, the first view appears to me the more simple and genuine. Moreover, it appears more fully from the Gospel that the wisdom which dwells in God is called the Word.
2 For (or, and) the life was manifested The copulative is explanatory, as though he had said, “We testify of the vivifying Word, as life has been manifested.” The sense may at the same time be twofold, that Christ, who is life and the fountain of life, has been manifested, or, that life has been openly offered to us in Christ. The latter, indeed, necessarily follows from the former. Yet as to the meaning, the two things differ, as cause and effect. When he repeats, We shew, or announce eternal life, he speaks, I have no doubt, of the effect, even that he announces that life is obtained for us in Christ.
We hence learn, that when Christ is preached to us, the kingdom of heaven is opened to us, so that being raised from death we may live the life of God.
Which was with the Father. This is true, not only from the time when the world was formed, but also from eternity, for he was always God, the fountain of life; and the power and the faculty of vivifying was possessed by his eternal wisdom: but he did not actually exercise it before the creation of the world, and from the time when God began to exhibit the Word, that power which before was hid, diffused itself over all created things. Some manifestation had already been made; the Apostle had another thing in view, that is, that life was then at length manifested in Christ, when he in our flesh completed the work of redemption. For though the fathers were even under the law associates and partakers of the same life, yet we know that they were shut up under the hope that was to be revealed. It was necessary for them to seek life from the death and resurrection of Christ; but the event was not only far remote from their eyes, but also hid from their minds. They depended, then, on the hope of revelation, which at length in due time followed. They could not, indeed, have obtained life, except it was in some way manifested to them; but the difference between us and them is, that we hold him already revealed as it were in our hands, whom they sought obscurely promised to them in types.
But the object of the Apostle is, to remove the idea of novelty, which might have lessened the dignity of the Gospel; he therefore says, that life had not now at length began to be, though it had but lately appeared, for it was always with the Father.
1 John 1:3-7
3. That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.
3. Quod vidimus et audivimus, annuntiamus vobis, ut et vos societatem habeatis nobiscum, et societas nostra sit cum Patre et cure filio ejus Jesu Christo.
4. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.
4. Et hæc scribimus vobis, ut gaudium vestrum sit completum.
5. This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
5. Et haec est promissio quam annuntiamus, quod Deus lux est, et tenebrae in eo non sunt ullae.
6. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:
6. Si dixerimus quod societatem habemus cum eo, et in tenebris ambulamus, mentimur, et veritatem non facimus.
7. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.
7. Si autem in luce ambulamus, sicut ipse in luce est, societatem habemus inter nos mutuam, et sanguis Jesu Christi filii ejus emundat nos ab omni peccato.
3 That which we have seen. He now repeats the third time the words, seen and heard, that nothing might be wanting as to the real certainty of his doctrine. And it ought to be carefully noticed, that the heralds of the Gospel chosen by Christ were those who were fit and faithful witnesses of all those things which they were to declare. He also testifies of the feeling of their heart, for he says that he was moved by no other reason to write except to invite those to whom he was writing to the participation of an inestimable good. It hence appears how much care he had for their salvation; which served not a little to induce them to believe; for extremely ungrateful we must be, if we refuse to hear him who wishes to communicate to us a part of that happiness which he has obtained.
He also sets forth the fruit received from the Gospel, even that we are united thereby to God, and to his Son Christ in whom is found the chief good. It was necessary for him to add this second clause, not only that he might represent the doctrine of the Gospel as precious and lovely, but that he might also show that he wished them to be his associates for no other end but to lead them to God, so that they might be all one in him. For the ungodly have also a mutual union between themselves, but it is without God, nay, in order to alienate themselves more and more from God, which is the extreme of all evils. It is, indeed, as it has been stated, our only true happiness, to be received into God’s favor, so that we may be really united to him in Christ; of which John speaks in Joh 17:20-26.
In short, John declares, that as the apostles were adopted by Christ as brethren, that being gathered into one body, they might together be united to God, so he does the same with other colleagues; though many, they are yet made partakers of this holy and blessed union.
4 That your joy may be full By full joy, he expresses more clearly the complete and perfect happiness which we obtain through the Gospel; at the same time he reminds the faithful where they ought to fix all their affections. True is that saying,
“Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.”
Whosoever, then, really perceives what fellowship with God is, will be satisfied with it alone, and will no more burn with desires for other things.
“The Lord is my cup,” says David, “and my heritage; the lines have fallen for me on an excellent lot.” (Ps. 16:5, 6.)
In the same manner does Paul declare that all things were deemed by him as dung, in comparison with Christ alone. (Php 3:8.) He, therefore, has at length made a proficiency in the Gospel, who esteems himself happy in having communion with God, and acquiesces in that alone; and thus he prefers it to the whole world, so that he is ready for its sake to relinquish all other things.
5 This then is the message, or promise. I do not disapprove of the rendering of the old interpreter, “This is the annunciation,” or message; for though ἐπαγγελία means for the most part a promise, yet, as John speaks here generally of the testimony before mentioned, the context seems to require the other meaning, except you were to give this explanation, “The promise which we bring to you, includes this, or has this condition annexed to it.” Thus, the meaning of the Apostle would become evident to us. 60 For his object here was not to include the whole doctrine of the Gospel, but to shew that if we desire to enjoy Christ and his blessings, it is required of us to be conformed to God in righteousness and holiness. Paul says the same thing in the second chapter of the Epistle to Titus, “Appeared has the saving grace of God to all, that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we may live soberly and righteously and holily in this world;” except that here he says metaphorically, that we are to walk in the light, because God is light.
But he calls God light, and says that he is in the light; such expressions are not to be too strictly taken. Why Satan is called the prince of darkness is sufficiently evident. When, therefore, God on the other hand is called the Father of light, and also light, we first understand that there is nothing in him but what is bright, pure, and unalloyed; and, secondly, that he makes all things so manifest by his brightness, that he suffers nothing vicious or perverted, no spots or filth, no hypocrisy or fraud, to lie hid. Then the sum of what is said is, that since there is no union between light and darkness, there is a separation between us and God as long as we walk in darkness; and that the fellowship which he mentions, cannot exist except we also become pure and holy.
In him is no darkness at all. This mode of speaking is commonly used by John, to amplify what he has affirmed by a contrary negation. Then, the meaning is, that God is such a light, that no darkness belongs to him. It hence follows, that he hates an evil conscience, pollution, and wickedness, and everything that pertains to darkness.
6 If we say It is, indeed, an argument from what is inconsistent, when he concludes that they are alienated from God, who walk in darkness. This doctrine, however, depends on a higher principle, that God sanctifies all who are his. For it is not a naked precept that he gives, which requires that our life should be holy; but he rather shews that the grace of Christ serves for this end to dissipate darkness, and to kindle in us the light of God; as though he had said, “What God communicates to us is not a vain fiction; for it is necessary that the power and effect of this fellowship should shine forth in our life; otherwise the possession of the gospel is fallacious.” What he adds, and do not the truth, is the same as if he had said, “We do not act truthfully. We do not regard what is true and right.” And this mode of speaking, as I have before observed, is frequently used by him.
7 But if we walk in the light. He now says, that the proof of our union with God is certain, if we are conformable to him; not that purity of life conciliates us to God, as the prior cause; but the Apostle means, that our union with God is made evident by the effect, that is, when his purity shines forth in us. And, doubtless, such is the fact; wherever God comes, all things are so imbued with his holiness, that he washes away all filth; for without him we have nothing but filth and darkness. It is hence evident, that no one leads a holy life, except he is united to God.
In saying, We have fellowship one with another, he does not speak simply of men; but he sets God on one side, and us on the other.
It may, however, be asked, “Who among men can so exhibit the light of God in his life, as that this likeness which John requires should exist; for it would be thus necessary, that he should be wholly pure and free from darkness.” To this I answer, that expressions of this kind are accommodated to the capacities of men; he is therefore said to be like God, who aspires to his likeness, however distant from it he may as yet be. The example ought not to be otherwise applied than according to this passage. He walks in darkness who is not ruled by the fear of God, and who does not, with a pure conscience, devote himself wholly to God, and seek to promote his glory. Then, on the other hand, he who in sincerity of heart spends his life, yea, every part of it, in the fear and service of God, and faithfully worships him, walks in the light, for he keeps the right way, though he may in many things offend and sigh under the burden of the flesh. Then, integrity of conscience is alone that which distinguishes light from darkness.
And the blood of Jesus Christ After having taught what is the bond of our union with God, he now shews what fruit flows from it, even that our sins are freely remitted. And this is the blessedness which David describes in Ps 32, in order that we may know that we are most miserable until, being renewed by God’s Spirit, we serve him with a sincere heart. For who can be imagined more miserable than that man whom God hates and abominates, and over whose head is suspended both the wrath of God and eternal death?
This passage is remarkable; and from it we first learn, that the expiation of Christ, effected by his death, does then properly belong to us, when we, in uprightness of heart, do what is right and just for Christ is no redeemer except to those who turn from iniquity, and lead a new life. If, then, we desire to have God propitious to us, so as to forgive our sins, we ought not to forgive ourselves. In short, remission of sins cannot be separated from repentance, nor can the peace of God be in those hearts, where the fear God does not prevail.
Secondly, this passage shews that the gratuitous pardon of sins is given us not only once, but that it is a benefit perpetually residing in the Church, and daily offered to the faithful. For the Apostle here addresses the faithful; as doubtless no man has ever been, nor ever will be, who can otherwise please God, since all are guilty before him; for however strong a desire there may be in us of acting rightly, we always go haltingly to God. Yet what is half done obtains no approval with God. In the meantime, by new sins we continually separate ourselves, as far as we can, from the grace of God. Thus it is, that all the saints have need of the daily forgiveness of sins; for this alone keeps us in the family of God.
By saying, from all sin, he intimates that we are, on many accounts, guilty before God; so that doubtless there is no one who has not many vices. But he shews that no sins prevent the godly, and those who fear God, from obtaining his favor. He also points out the manner of obtaining pardon, and the cause of our cleansing, even because Christ expiated our sins by his blood; but he affirms that all the godly are undoubtedly partakers of this cleansing.
The whole of his doctrine has been wickedly perverted by the sophists; for they imagine that pardon of sins is given us, as it were, in baptism. They maintain that there only the blood of Christ avails; and they teach, that after baptism, God is not otherwise reconciled than by satisfactions. They, indeed, leave some part to the blood of Christ; but when they assign merit to works, even in the least degree, they wholly subvert what John teaches here, as to the way of expiating sins, and of being reconciled to God. For these two things can never harmonize together, to be cleansed by the blood of Christ, and to be cleansed by works: for John assigns not the half, but the whole, to the blood of Christ.
The sum of what is said, then, is, that the faithful know of a certainty, that they are accepted by God, because he has been reconciled to them through the sacrifice of the death of Christ. And sacrifice includes cleansing and satisfaction. Hence the power and efficiency of these belong to the blood of Christ alone.
Hereby is disproved and exposed the sacrilegious invention of the Papists as to indulgences; for as though the blood of Christ were not sufficient, they add, as a subsidy to it, the blood and merits of martyrs. At the same time, this blasphemy advances much further among us; for as they say that their keys, by which they hold as shut up the remission of sins, open a treasure made up partly of the blood and merits of martyrs, and partly of the worlds of supererogation, by which any sinner may redeem himself, no remission of sins remains for them but what is derogatory to the blood of Christ; for if their doctrine stands, the blood of Christ does not cleanse us, but comes in, as it were, as a partial aid. Thus consciences are held in suspense, which the Apostle here bids to rely on the blood of Christ.
1 John 1:8-10
8. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
8. Si dixerimus quod peccatum non habemus, nos ipsos decipimus, et veritas non est in nobis.
9. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
9. Si confitemur peccata nostra, fidelis est et justus, ut nobis peccata remittat; et purget nos ab omni injustitia.
10. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
10. Si dixerimus quod non peccavimus, mendacem facimus eum, et sermo ejus non est in nobis.
8. If we say. He now commends grace from its necessity; for as no one is free from sin, he intimates that we are all lost and undone, except the Lord comes to our aid with the remedy of pardon. The reason why he so much dwells on the fact, that no one is innocent, is, that all may now fully know that they stand in need of mercy, to deliver them from punishment, and that they may thus be more roused to seek the necessary blessing.
By the word sin, is meant here not only corrupt and vicious inclination, but the fault or sinful act which really renders us guilty before God. Besides, as it is a universal declaration, it follows, that none of the saints, who exist now, have been, or shall be, are exempted from the number. Hence most fitly did Augustine refute the cavil of the Pelagians, by adducing against them this passage: and he wisely thought that the confession of guilt is not required for humility’s sake, but lest we by lying should deceive ourselves.
When he adds, and the truth is not in us, he confirms, according to his usual manner, the former sentence by repeating it in other words; though it is not a simple repetition, (as elsewhere,) but he says that they are deceived who glory in falsehood.
9 If we confess He again promises to the faithful that God will be propitious to them, provided they acknowledge themselves to be sinners. It is of great moment to be fully persuaded, that when we have sinned, there is a reconciliation with God ready and prepared for us: we shall otherwise carry always a hell within us. Few, indeed, consider how miserable and wretched is a doubting conscience; but the truth is, that hell reigns where there is no peace with God. The more, then, it becomes us to receive with the whole heart this promise which offers free pardon to all who confess their sins. Moreover, this is founded even on the justice of God, because God who promises is true and just. For they who think that he is called just, because he justifies us freely, reason, as I think, with too much refinement, because justice or righteousness here depends on fidelity, and both are annexed to the promise. For God might have been just, were he to deal with us with all the rigor of justice; but as he has bound himself to us by his word, he would not have himself deemed just, except he forgives. 61
But this confession, as it is made to God, must be in sincerity; and the heart cannot speak to God without newness of life. It then includes true repentance. God, indeed, forgives freely, but in such a way, that the facility of mercy does not become an enticement to sin.
And to cleanse us The verb, to cleanse, seems to be taken in another sense than before; for he had said, that we are cleansed by the blood of Christ, because through him sins are not imputed; but now, having spoken of pardon, he also adds, that God cleanses us from iniquity: so that this second clause is different from the preceding. Thus he initiates that a twofold fruit comes to us from confession, — that God being reconciled by the sacrifice of Christ, forgives us, — and that he renews and reforms us.
Were any one to object and say, that as long as we sojourn in the world, we are never cleansed from all unrighteousness, with regard to our reformation: this is indeed true; but John does not refer to what God now performs in us. He is faithful, he says, to cleanse us, not today or tomorrow; for as long as we are surrounded with flesh, we ought to be in a continual state of progress; but what he has once begun, he goes on daily to do, until he at length completes it. So Paul says, that we are chosen, that we may appear without blame before God, (Col 1:22;) and in another place he says, that the Church is cleansed, that it might be without spot or wrinkle. (Eph 5:27.)
If yet any one prefers another explanation, that he says the same thing twice over, I shall not object. 62
10 We make him a liar He goes still further, that they who claim purity for themselves blaspheme God. For we see that he everywhere represents the whole race of man as guilty of sin.
Whosoever then tries to escape this charge carries on war with God, and accuses him of falsehood, as though he condemned the undeserving. To confirm this he adds, and his word is not in us; as though he had said, that we reject this great truth, that all are under guilt.
We hence learn, that we then only make a due progress in the knowledge of the word of the Lord, when we become really humbled, so as to groan under the burden of our sins and learn to flee to the mercy of God, and acquiesce in nothing else but in his paternal favor.
It is more consistent with the passage to take “from the beginning” here as from the beginning of the Gospel, from the beginning of the ministry of our Savior, because what had been from the beginning was what the apostles had heard and seen. That another view has been taken of these words has been owing to an over-anxiety on the part of many, especially of the Fathers, to establish the divinity of our Savior; but this is what is sufficiently evident from the second verse. See 1 John 2:7, 24. — Ed.
Griesbach has substituted ἀγγελία for the word here used, as being most approved; but the other, ἐπαγγελία, has also a similar meaning, announcement, or message, or command, though in the New Testament it is mostly taken in the sense of a promise. — Ed
“Faithful” and “just” are nearly of the same import, having both a regard to God’s promise, only the latter affords a stronger or an additional ground of confidence, inasmuch as the fulfillment of God’s gracious promise is set forth as an act of justice. So that the penitent has here two of God’s attributes, faithfulness and justice, to encourage and support his faith.
We may, at the same time, consider “just” as having reference to forgiveness, and “faithful” to cleansing, according to a very common mode of stating things both in the Old and New Testament, the order in the second clause being reversed. Then “just” means the same as when Paul says, “that he might be just and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus,” Ro 3:26. Forgiveness is thus an act of justice, then, not to us, but to Christ, who made an atonement for sins. — Ed.
That is, that he refers to forgiveness in the two clauses. — Ed