Salvation in the Johannine Writings


This is a paper I wrote for a Johannine Theology course with the late Herb Hirt in the Fall of 2009, entitled, “John’s theology of salvation (past, present and future).”

The Johannine writings are some of the more puzzling works of the NT for historians and theologians.  For many years critical scholars observed the highly interpretive quality of the Gospel that bears John’s name and concluded that it must reflect a tradition much later than the first century.  Some also pointed to the explicitly Trinitarian christology of the Fourth Gospel (FG) and argued that the book was designed to combat late second- or third-century heresies.

However, the discovery of late and possibly early second-century FG manuscripts in Egypt indicates a late first-century composition.[1]  Most scholars now place the FG’s composition from 80-100 CE in Asia Minor.

Furthermore, the literary and theological affinities of the FG to the three Epistles traditionally attributed to the Apostle John indicate that these four works are from the same author or school.  The NT Apocalypse also claims to have been revealed to John; the letters to the seven churches in Asia (Rev. 2-3) indicate that the author had connections to this area of John’s ministry.[2]

It is historically demonstrable that John or his close followers in a “Johannine school” in Asia Minor produced the FG, the three Epistles and the Apocalypse.  But many question whether these five books may be used to construct a distinctly “Johannine” theology.  Other apostles had influence in the churches of Asia Minor, most notably Paul, who founded the Ephesian church (Acts 19).  Paul’s some of Paul’s letters (Ephesians, Galatians) circulated in Asia long before the FG and the Johannine Epistles were composed.

Yet the Johannine corpus has some christological and soteriological emphases that are different from those of the Pauline writings.  It is historically and theologically legitimate to examine the soteriology of the five Johannine writings as a set within the New Testament canon.

Formulation of a Johannine Soteriology

It is important to recognize the differences in stated purpose between the FG, the Epistles and the Apocalypse.  The authorial intent and historical will be the basis for interpretation and theological formulation.  The FG’s stated purpose is to record “signs” (σημεια) to produce and strengthen faith that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (Jn. 20:30-31).  The Epistles are written by an elder to Christians he knows personally.  The Apocalypse is a series of visions written to bless, comfort and encourage any Christian that reads them (Rev. 1:3).

Persons and Work of the Trinity

Jesus’s physical presence on earth, his divinity, his death and bodily resurrection are absolute essentials of Johannine soteriology.  Recent literary analysis of the FG has demonstrated that the book was intended as an account of Jesus’s life, albeit an interpretive bios.[3]  Wright argues that the Gospel narratives deconstruct themselves if the resurrection is removed or is not assumed to be bodily.[4]  The doctrine of the Incarnation is foundational to John’s theology.

The doctrine of the Trinity is also pervasive in the FG.  The basis of John’s soteriology is faith in Jesus (Jn. 20:30-31).  The Father draws those who are called to Jesus, and he will raise them (Jn. 6:44).  The Holy Spirit gives life (Jn. 6:63) and is the continuing presence of God within believers for sanctification (14:16-17).  The FG has a more developed trinitarian theology than the Synoptics.  It teaches that the Holy Spirit is a Person, not simply a force,[5] and that Jesus and the Father are ontologically equal (Jn. 10:30).  All members of the Trinity are involved in the process of salvation.

Jesus’s life, death and resurrection accomplish several soteriological purposes.  First, Jesus is “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29).  Second, Jesus is the one who brings eternal life (Jn. 3:36).  Finally, Jesus as the world’s true Lord—God incarnate—will return to resurrect and vindicate his people (Rev. 21-22).

Saving Faith

Faith is central to John’s gospel.  Köstenberger notes that the FG uses the verb πιστευω nearly a hundred times, three times as often as it occurs in the Synoptics.[6]  Words in the πιστ* family occur eleven times in 1 John and thirteen times in Revelation.

Faith for John is not a general belief.  Saving faith has a particular object: Jesus Christ.  Whereas in the other Gospels Jesus’s trustworthiness is based primarily in his vocation as the Jewish Messiah, in the FG Jesus is the Son of God—God made flesh.  John’s Prologue explains that those who receive him as the true light will be made children of God (1:4, 9, 12).

The Johannine writings include several other statements of faith concerning Jesus.  Jesus tells his disciples to “believe in the light” (Jn. 12:36).  Every spirit (of teaching) that “confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” is from God (1 Jn. 4:2-3).  Jesus is the true revelation of the Father, God made manifest (Jn. 1:18).

The goal of salvation in John’s theology is eternal life.  John’s Gospel mentions “eternal life” seventeen times, and his First Epistle uses the phrase six times.  In Revelation, those who are saved have their names written in the “book of life” (3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27; 22:19) and are permitted to eat from the “tree of life” (2:7; 22:2, 14, 19).  Jesus is “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn. 14:6), and “the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25).  He has come to bring “abundant life” (Jn. 10:10).

Regeneration is the way of obtaining eternal life in John’s writings.  The most important passage in this respect is John 3.  Jesus tells Nicodemus that one cannot see the kingdom of God unless he is born again (3:3).[7]  Only the Holy Spirit is capable of regenerating the spirit of man (v. 6).  Nicodemus’s status at birth or place in society is irrelevant; only new life in God’s kingdom is worth anything, and new birth is the only way to participate in that kingdom.[8]  The Evangelist juxtaposes this pericope with the story of the Samaritan woman in chapter 4.  These two people were socially antithetical in first-century Palestine: a male, Jewish Pharisee in the Sanhedrin, and a female, Samaritan, serial polyandrist.  Both come to Jesus on equal ground, sinners in need of the life he provides.

Regeneration is frequently used in 1 John as a way of describing the Christian life.  Nine times in this Epistle the author uses the terms “born of God” or “born of him” (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4, 18).  These verses reveal the goal of regeneration in the Christian life: sanctified living.  The one who is “born of God” in these passages “practices righteousness” (2:29), “does not practice sin” (3:9; 5:18), loves other believers (4:7-8), “believes that Jesus is the Christ” (5:1), and overcomes the world by faith (5:4).  Regeneration is not simply about the hope of eternal life in the future.  Regeneration is the means by which the Christian experiences the life of eternity in the present.

Eschatological Character of Soteriology

Like Paul’s, John’s soteriology has a heavy eschatological emphasis.  Eschatology has often been treated in modern systematics as the sequence of prophesied events at the end of time.  For the early Christian communities, eschatological hope was the basis of saving faith.  Eschatology was their soteriology.

One of the strongest statements of “inaugurated eschatology” in the FG is found in 5:24-25.  Jesus explains that the believer escapes judgment and “has passed (μεταβέβηκεν) from death into life.”  The proleptic use of the perfect announces that a future hope is somehow a present reality.[9]

Salvation from Persecution

In John 16:33, Jesus finishes his final address to his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation (θλῖψιν). But take heart; I have overcome the world.”  According to church tradition John lived longer than all the other apostles did and was the only one not killed for his faith.  John’s experience with persecution was extensive (Rev. 1:9), and he clung to these words of encouragement, spoken at the time of Jesus’s greatest tribulation.

John’s writings frequently speak of persecution.  The book of Revelation in particular is written to comfort and encourage believers experiencing persecution (Rev. 1:3, 9).  Throughout the book, the saints are persecuted by the various draconian and demonic figures: the beast, the dragon, the whore of Babylon and Satan himself.  The Apocalypse represents the cosmic struggle between God and the forces of rebellion against him.  The message of Revelation is that the good King wins and his people are vindicated.  As the book progresses, the imagery becomes increasingly vivid and the terrors more deadly.  John’s message to the church is to hold fast in its allegiance to the good King.

The hope of the persecuted church is her persecuted Lord.  In the throne-room scene of Revelation 5, the basis of the Lamb’s worthiness to open the scrolls of judgment and bring about the end of the age is his sacrificial death for his people (5:9).  The church trusts that Jesus, who went through the greatest tribulation and emerged to be enthroned and glorified, will be faithful to raise and glorify her in the last day.

Judgment and Reward

John’s writings frequently present a stark contrast between those who believe and receive eternal life and those who do not believe and are condemned (Jn. 3:18).  At the Great White Throne judgment (Rev. 20:11-15), all men are judged “according to their works” (κατὰ τὰ ἔργα αὐτῶν).  Those whose names are written in the book of life receive eternal life, but all others are condemned to the lake of fire (v. 15).

In contrast to some of the other writings of the NT, rewards for good deeds and continued faith do not play any role in John’s writings.  The reward for believers is eternal life.

In the FG, the Jews collectively or the Jewish leadership play the role of foil to the believing community.  John does not reject the Old Testament—anachronistically, he is no Marcionite.  He portrays Jesus as the prophet like Moses and the fulfillment of the messages of the prophets (1:45, 5:39-47; cf. Deu.18:15).  But the Jews repeatedly reject the “signs” that Jesus performs (Jn. 2:23; 4:48; 11:47).  This rejection ultimately results in the destruction of the temple.[10]

Believing Community

John’s Gospel and First Epistle both have a strong theology of communal love.  At the Last Supper, Jesus commands the disciples, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34-35).  Jesus’s final sermon to his disciples (Jn. 14-16) is about the love that characterizes the Trinity, which he establishes as a model for the love between his followers.

In 1 John 1-2, fellowship with God is linked to fellowship with and love for other believers.  Anyone whose life is characterized by hatred for his brother cannot truly be a part of the true Christian community (2:11).

Jesus is called the “advocate” to the Father on behalf of sinning believers (1 Jn. 2:1-2).  Sin breaks fellowship between God and man and between men, and Jesus’s priestly work is the means by which the community is maintained.

The believing community is also to be characterized by joy (Jn. 15:11; 16:24).  This joy comes from two sources: the individual’s relationship with God (16:22), and—more often—the loving relationships between believers (Jn. 17:13; 1 Jn. 1:4; 2 Jn. 12; 3 Jn. 4).


John’s theology of salvation is a rich, spiritual account of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ and its application to believers in community.  John’s reflection on Jesus’s life is the product of a lifetime of experiencing God’s love in a Spirit-filled community.  John’s epistles reflect a pastoral care for the sanctification and fellowship of his churches.  The Apocalypse provides the encouraging hope of glorification.

Read alone, the Johannine books convey a holistic soteriology encompassing justification, sanctification and glorification.  Read in the context of a complete NT theology, the Johannine canon provides a strongly spiritual affirmation of a consistent, coherent Christian soteriology.  John’s message does not compete with those of Matthew, Luke, Paul and Peter; it complements and completes the one gospel, the truth that Jesus Christ is Lord.


[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 526.

[2] Johnson (Writings) explains: “The Book of Revelation, furthermore, despite the transmutations effected by the apocalyptic form, shares far more points of fundamental outlook and symbolism with the Johannine writings than with any other part of the canon” (522).

[3] See especially Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

[4] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 680.

[5] In John 14:26 and 15:26, the masculine demonstrative ἐκεῖνος is used to refer to τὸ πνεῦμα, a neuter noun.

[6] Andreas J. Köstenberger, John (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 34.

[7] There is debate about whether γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν should be translated “born again” or “born from above.”  John probably intends both; Nicodemus questions the possibility of being born “a second time” (v. 4), and Jesus’s mention of being “born of the Spirit” (v. 5) could certainly be construed as “from above.”

[8] R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 135.

[9] Köstenberger, John, 188

[10] John enjoys quoting people who said more than they knew; one of these quotes proves that John does not believe that all the Jews are cut off.  In John 11:47-52, Caiaphas says, “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”  John interprets this as a prophecy that Jesus would die for the sins of the Jewish people and all people of any nation who would believe in him (v. 52).

About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, transplanted to Pennsylvania...lived and taught in Eastern Europe for six years…Old Testament professor, ordained minister, occasional liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth.
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