Saturday, March 13, 2010

James White and Turretinfan on 1 John 5:1

James White and company have used 1 John 5:1 to argue that regeneration comes before faith. (link) I actually called in to the Dividing Line (James White's webcast) to explain to him my take on the passage and why I do not think it teaches faith precedes regeneration. It's at the end of the hour long program. (link) James White objected to my approach on the air and Turretinfan has objected to it on his blog as well (link). I would like to briefly summarize the issue, explain the text and then respond to Turretinfan.

1 John 5:1 states: 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.

James White posted a video in which John Piper quotes John Stot as saying: "The combination of present tense 'believes' and perfect tense 'has been born' is important. It shows clearly that believing is the consequence, not the cause of the new birth. Our present continuing act of believing is the result and therefore evidence of our past experience of the new birth." (link)

James White strengthens this argument based on John's repeated usage of this particular grammatical form. He looks at two verbal parallels: 1 John 2:29 in which being born from God comes before doing righteousness and 1 John 4:7 in which being born of God precedes loving. So he concludes that 1 John 5:1 teaches faith comes before regeneration.

When I called in I pointed out that grammatically, the timing of the perfect tense ‘have been born’ is relative to John’s writing of the epistle, rather than relative to ‘believes’. So grammatically, John is not saying regeneration precedes faith.

James White responded that we needed to look at the context and asked me about 1 John 2:19 and 4:7. I responded first of all by saying 1 John 2:19, 4:7 and 5:1 all provide us tests for assurance. Further, since in 1 John 5:1, ‘believes’ is a present participle, it indicates ongoing action. So the text is about 'continual faith' rather than a one-time act of faith.

So I agreed with James White that 1 John 2:9, 4:7 and even 5:1 imply something about the results of regeneration, but I disagreed with him on what that result is (i.e. I maintained it's about perseverance in faith, he maintained it's about conversion). Also, I held my ground that the grammar of 1 John 5:1 doesn't teach faith comes before regeneration, rather that's something we can derive from the context. James White maintained his position and the call ended.

Now, let's look at the text itself. 1 John 5:1 states: 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. In Greek “believes” is a present active participle indicating ongoing action and that “has been born” is perfect passive indicative. Perfect tense indicates a completed action or existing state relative to the time of the speaker or writer. So John is telling his readers that the new birth of all those continually believing that Jesus is the Christ is completed. And this serves John’s overall purpose of allowing his readers to know that they have eternal life by providing them tests. Do I have ongoing faith? Yes? That means I was born again.

This fits in with John’s overall thread of providing tests for assurance. Not sinning (3:9; 5:18), doing righteousness (2:29), and loving the brethren (4:7) are stated as tests for assurance. In each case, these speak of ongoing actions.

Now to Turretinfan.

Me: My main argument was that the timing of the perfect tense ‘have been born’ is relative to John’s writing of the epistle, rather than relative to ‘believing’."
TF: Dr. White's response was that you were mistaken about that claim.

Well he didn’t like the claim, but he didn’t actually say I was mistaken. I won’t speculate as to why he didn’t, but some Calvinists realize that the grammar isn’t determinative and so they also turn the context or John’s style or something of the sort. For example, Reymond says:

John’s statement in 1 John 5:1, “Everyone who believes [pisteuōn] that Jesus is the Christ has been begotten [gegennētai] by God,” also bears out the sequential cause and effect relationship between regeneration as cause and faith as effect. It is true, if one were to restrict his assessment of John’s intended meaning to only this one verse, that one could conceivably argue that John, by his reference to regeneration, was simply saying something more, in a descriptive way, about everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ—that he “has been begotten by God,” but that he need not be understood as suggesting that a cause and effect relationship exists between God’s regenerating activity and saving faith. But when one takes into account that John says in 1 John 3:9a that “everyone who has been begotten [gegennēmenos] by God does not do sin, because [hoti] his seed abides in him” and then in 1 John 3:9b that “he is not able to sin, because [hoti] he has been begotten [gegennētai—the word in 5:1] by God,” we definitely find a cause and effect relationship between God’s regenerating activity as the cause and the Christian’s not sinning as one effect of that regenerating activity.

The difference between an explicit and implicit teaching is subtle, but it should not be overlooked since explicit statements drive implications.

Other Calvinists, such as Sam Storms, examine the issue and do not see the passage as saying faith comes after regeneration. (link)

He explained that, grammatically, the tenses have to be contextually understood.

Again, that’s not exactly what he said, but if that’s what he meant, that’s inaccurate. The perfect indicative represents an action as standing at the time of speaking complete. (Burton. P37) Context doesn’t change this, albeit context informs us of how this specific element fits functions in the larger picture.

In the context, we see (among other things) that John is speaking in general. He's not speaking about a particular person who existed at the time of the writing of his epistle.

John may well have been speaking about the collection of all individual believers rather than the category ‘believers’ in the abstract. But it makes little difference; either way the passage applies to you and me by way of application of a principle derived from the text not via direct statement. That is, unless you want to argue that that John had foreknowledge in view here.

It seems to me that you didn't understand Dr. White's response to your attempted grammatical argument.

Perhaps not. But matters would be worse if he was making the argument you suggest. But from what I heard, I do think he was arguing based on John’s style, not the grammar. Take for example his statement that one could argue the action is contemporaneous. Or his denial that 1 John 5:10 is relevant because the subject matter is different, even though the grammatical construction is the same.

Me: The text does talk about 'continual faith' rather than a one time act of faith."

TF: No, it doesn't make that distinction, and your quotation is fake. You won't find "continual faith" in the text.

Perhaps I was quoting James White. Your calling it fake is a bit tough on him.

Consider Wallice’s translation of John 3:16 (continually believes) and his explanation as to how present participles work. (link)Page 522

Grammatically, it refers to something that is ongoing in the sense of "happening at the present time" or "occurring now." Grammatically, it doesn't refer to something that will continue to occur, nor to something that was previously occurring. Grammatically, it refers only to one point in time, the present.

Well, some Greek scholars leave it there, but others take it a step further. A.T. Robertson says the present participle expresses incomplete action. (link)

Likewise, Painter and Harrington state: …the article with the present participle, as in the previous statement about “every person abiding”. Both refer to more than single actions. They imply characteristic modes of being. In v. 6 those abiding are contrasted with those sinning, just as the person doing righteousness is contrasted with the person doing sin in vv. 7-8. Again more than a single action is implied by this construction. (1, 2, and 3 John By John Painter, Daniel J. Harrington. 2002. P225).

James White also seemed to take it that way.

The present tense of the participle should be emphasized, however. John’s use of the present tense “believe” is very significant, especially in light of his use of the aorist to refer to false believers. The ones who receive eternal life are not those who believe once, but those who have an on-going faith. This is his common usage in the key soteriological passages (John 3, 6, 10). (link)

TF: I think most people would look for a general trajectory of sin or obedience/love. But is that what you (Dan) are proposing here?

If so, is it only a general trajectory of faith that is in view?

Present participles do have action in the present, even though the action start some unspecified time before the present. So a person would have to have faith at the time they examine themselves in order to pass the test. A Christian’s faith increases and decreases at various times. At some times it may be so low the person can’t even tell if they have faith or not. In such cases they will not pass this assurance test.

That would be an unusual position for an Arminian. Indeed, it doesn't seem like a viable position.
Perhaps you underestimate the breath of Arminianism in this regard. Exegesis informs systematic, not the other way around.

On the other hand, my explanation isn’t the only one out there. Take for example Ben’s explanation. Ben and I start at the same point: “The word gennao [born] is in the perfect indicative tense. All this tells us is that an event that occurred in the past has continuing results now in relation to the time of the speaker.” (link)

But from there we explain things a little differently. Indeed, Ben would probably be right if you were right that believes is one time rather than continuous.

There's a different way to look at the passages. The different way is to see each sin as evidence of human nature that needs to be put to death, but to see conquering sin, obedience, and love as evidence of God's grace, and consequently of the second birth (which is the beginning of saving grace). That doesn't mean that we would necessarily obtain assurance from a single event, but we would see each good thing we do as sign of the Spirit's work in our life.

If the tests are based on single events, why couldn’t we be assured based on singular events? If the passages speak of singular events and we cannot be assured based on singular events, then the texts don’t provide for assurance.

On the one hand, you granted, for the sake of argument, that these passages are tests for assurance, but on the other hand you seem to be saying we cannot obtain assurance based on the tests in these the passages.

Furthermore, we might add that the new birth is not something would itself give an Arminian assurance, which further undermines Dan's overall view of the text. In other words, even if we think that there is a link as follows:
faith => assurance
within an Arminian perspective, it would not make sense for a middle link in that chain to be regeneration (new birth):
faith => regeneration => assurance
Instead, that kind of link would tend to work only in a soteriology in which new birth itself were tied to salvation in an inseparable way.

To get into this discussion we would need to define regeneration. In that regeneration is related to eternal life, of course, regeneration is inseparable from eternal life. But if by regeneration you mean something else, some work of God prior to a person believing and having eternal life, and assuming you can show that that sense is biblical, perhaps in that sense they are separable.


arminianperspectives said...


Nice post. I don't think John is thinking of regeneration in quite the same way as Turretinfan highlighted in his quote at the end of your post. The point is that believing, loving, not sinning, practicing righteousness are all indicators that we are God's children (i.e. born of Him), and it is in the fact that we are God's children that we find assurance.

So it really is descriptive (God's children are believers, lovers, those who practice righteousness, walk as Jesus did, etc.), and it is from that description that one can gain confidence that he or she is indeed a child of God. We also need to realize that the perfect generally emphasizes the present reality and not the past event (though it has elements of both). So “has been born of God” is analogous to saying “is one of God’s children” (cf. 1 John 2:1,18, 28; 3:7,10; 4:4; 5:2, 21) which seems to be all that John intended with the phrase. In His epistle he essentially uses "born of God" as synonymous with "child of God".

Of course there is a time in which one becomes a child of God, but he is not addressing that at all. He is addressing how one can know now that he or she is God's child, and that is through various descriptions of present realities that correspond with the characteristics of God's children. There is no reason to take it beyond this to some sort of proof text for a specific ordo salutis (unless one is particularly desperate to find such proof texts), and certainly there is no grammatical reason to do so (since the relationship of the participle to the main verb is either that of prior action or contemporaneous; in this case, for the sake of consistency, it is better to view them as contemporaneous in all such verses). If we are looking to logical order, John just doesn't give us what we want. This shouldn't surprise us since there is no indication that he intended to say anything about the order of salvation. It doesn’t even seem to be on his radar. That is probably why all but Calvinists seem to miss the supposed fact that these passages teach that regeneration precedes faith.

So in the positive sense John is giving markers for one to find assurance in their identity as children of God. In the negative sense he is giving markers for recognizing what does not characterize God’s children. This is in opposition to the teachings of the anti-christs who seem to have a Gnostic view of spirituality, that one can be spiritually pure without living in obedience. It is in many ways a polemic against the false doctrine that one can be a child of God while living like the devil (as I especially noted in my post you linked to).

The bottom line is that these passages in no way demand the Calvinist interpretation, and in my opinion the fact that Calvinists try to make use of these passages reveals just how difficult it is for them to find support for their peculiar ordo in Scripture.

God Bless,

Godismyjudge said...

Thanks Ben! Of course, assurance is a key topic for John. The part of TF's comments that supprized me a little was when he said beleiving, sinning, loving... are singular events, but we cannot necessarily be assured based on them. If that's teh case, then where do we get assurance from?

God be with you,

Robert said...

Hi Dan,

This whole business with James White and Turretin fan is really sad. They are so obsessed trying to prove that regeneration precedes faith that they have completely ignored the context and structure of 1 John.

I had commented on Billy’s site about their attempted argument and why it fails. I made reference to the fact that in my first year Greek class in seminary we went verse by verse through 1 John since it is considered to be the “easiest” Greek in the New Testament. And in that class we were taught and saw for ourselves that the apostle John is talking to people he presumes to be believers about what are the evidences of them being believers.

As such he follows a very simply formula or structure in presenting this: Since you have been born again, this, this and this will be true of you.

In my post over at Billy’s blog (where Billy was also discussing this) I made a distinction between initial faith when one becomes a disciple of Jesus and the on-going faith of someone who is **already a disciple** of Jesus. John in 1 Jn. 5:1 is not talking about initial faith, he is not talking about how someone becomes a disciple (and so supposedly regeneration precedes him/her becoming a disciple). No, he is talking to people he already believes to be believers (hence the references to being born again are in the perfect in Greek) who he says will have an on-going practice (of things such as loving the brethren, believing that Jesus is the Messiah, practicing righteousness, etc., which is why they are in the present in Greek). Some ****anonymous**** Calvinist wrote in and cited Turretin fan’s blog. I checked over there and Turretin fan who himself is only someone who works at a law firm and shows no evidence of actually knowing Greek, made a disparaging comment about me and my understanding of Greek (“Dr. White happens to be someone who has taught Greek at the seminary level. But yes, I've heard of a number of folks who have taken one semester of something that think they've arrived.”) Apparently this was meant to be some sort of a put down by Turretin fan since I made reference to my first year Greek class in seminary.

Actually, I have not “arrived” when it comes to Greek as apparently Turretin fan must believe concerning the Greek proficiency of James White. And no I did not take only one semester of Greek. Actually, I had three years of Greek in seminary and have been using it ever since. Now I make no claim to be a Greek scholar, and yet anyone who does understand Greek should have no problem seeing the weakness of James White and Turretin fan’s argument from 1 Jn. 5:1. It is actually quite pathetic of these Calvinists to completely ignore the context of 1 John (a book written for persons who are already disciples of Jesus, not a book discussing or explaining how one becomes a disciple of Jesus) in order to proof text from it to try to prove their false doctrine that regeneration precedes faith. In doing so, they are behaving just like non-Christian cultists who do the same thing(i.e. start with a preconceived notion or idea or belief or doctrine, then go looking for any bible verse which could possibly be used to support their preconceived notion, all the while ignoring the contexts and intended meanings of the biblical texts which they cite).

I enjoyed your post Dan. Your example also shows that someone need not even know Greek in order to see the problems with White and Turretin Fan’s eisegetical approach to 1 John 5:1. Anyone who looks at 1 John for themselves whether they know Greek or not will see these guys are proof texting and the text is not discussing or teaching that regeneration precedes faith.


Godismyjudge said...


Thanks for the comment, athough please don't imply that I haven't studied Greek. The Calvinist argument from 1 John 5:1 is initally appealing because it does some have some basis in Greek. If you know a little Greek you can see the argument and if you know a little more you can see what's wrong with it.

God be with you,

drwayman said...

I know a little Greek. He lives right next door...

Robert said...

Hello Dan,

“Thanks for the comment, although please don't imply that I haven't studied Greek.”

I don’t know your proficiency in Greek Dan and if you have studied it and understand it well that is great. The more people who study it the less people can be hoodwinked by someone promoting some sort of appeal from the Greek to support a false doctrine.

I was only making the point that one need not even know and understand Greek to understand the context and meaning of the texts in 1 John. I know “laymen” who have been studying the bible for many years and know the text inside out and because of their knowledge and understanding of scripture know what 1 John is discussing. And they will tell you that it is discussing the evidences of having been born again, not initial faith or how we became believers.

I checked out the Sam Storms (a calvinist) article that you cited and he gets it right as well when he states:

[[“John says in 5:1 that whoever is presently believing in Christ has in the past been born or begotten of God. I.e., a present action of believing is evidence of a past experience of begetting. Is John then saying that new birth or regeneration always precedes and causes saving faith in Christ? Although I believe regeneration (new birth) does precede and cause faith, I do not believe that is John's point here.
When one examines these texts where the terminology of regeneration is used, one finds that John is concerned with describing the consequences or fruit of the new birth:
Question: "How may I know that regeneration has occurred? How may I know if someone has been born again?"
Answer: "That person will not practice sin (3:9; 5:18). That person will practice righteousness (2:29). That person will love the brethren (4:7). That person will believe in Christ (5:1). And that person will overcome the world (5:4)."
John's point is simply that these activities are the evidence of the new birth and hence of salvation. Their absence is the evidence that regeneration has not taken place. He makes this point, not because he wants to demonstrate the cause/effect relationship between regeneration and faith, but because he wants to provide the church with tests by which to discern between true and spurious "believers". “]]

I guess Storms just doesn’t know Greek as well as James White!

“The Calvinist argument from 1 John 5:1 is initially appealing because it does some have some basis in Greek.”

It is a classic case of proof texting in which calvinists begin with the extra-biblical notion derived from their system of theology (i.e. that regeneration precedes initial or saving faith) and then look desperately for any biblical text that could possibly be used to support it. They found that in certain verses in 1 John in the Greek persons having been born again is in the perfect followed by things such as believing, doing righteousness, etc. being in the present. So there they found it! Born again preceding believing! They struck proof texting gold in their quest! Now they present this argument and it appears quite intimidating especially to those unfamiliar with Greek or unfamiliar with the context and intended meanings present in 1 John.

“If you know a little Greek you can see the argument and if you know a little more you can see what's wrong with it.”


Instead of proof texting, the calvinist should be more honest and be forthright and declare that their doctrine of regeneration preceding faith is derived from their system of theology rather than the biblical text. But we will be waiting a long time for THAT to happen! It’s like waiting for a committed Jehovah’s Witness to admit that the WatchTower is a flawed and often mistaken organization. They will deconvert before they admit that! Likewise, the calvinist proof texter would give up his system of calvinism before he gives up his proof texting methods and scriptures used when he engages in his proof texting.


Godismyjudge said...

I know a little Greek. He lives right next door...

He's the one I consulted on this text.

God be with you,

Godismyjudge said...


Yep, the Storms comment was interesting. He specifically discusses the issue and moves away from the idea that the text teaches regeneration preceeds faith.

God be with you,

drwayman said...

It's all Greek to me - Casca

Marshall said...

Look, people like White and Turrentinfan LOVE to argue. They are professional arguers. They love to be right, they love to take great pains to show how smart they are. James White is smart BUT his debates don't prove anything other than he is a good debater. It doesn't lift up Jesus Christ and the redemption of his cross! The funny thing is that his followers kicked me out of his chatroom when I refused to sing his praises. They were like "isn't he wonderful, isn't he great, isn't he blah blah blah the world's most prolific apologist?" I was like I don't think he is all that great and in fact he is just some guy with a website, a ministry, and a radio show! Big deal! White is interested in hearing the sound of his own voice!

Sean Flowers said...

Those who are believing are identified as those who have been born of God. In this identification John connects faith with regeneration. What John doesn't say is "those who have believed have been born of God". Rather, he says, "those who believe have been born of God". Thus, while John is certainly not speaking of initial faith, he is speaking of the close relationship between believing and regeneration, and the latter being the basis of continuing in the former. That is, continuing in faith is the "fruit" of being born again, and is therefore presently the evidence upon which one may have assurance that salvation has taken place. And so, the two above-mentioned authors should have made a distinction between initial faith, and continuing in faith.

So it seems to me, anyway... But, I am not a Calvinist, nor do I wish to settle under any theological system. I couldn't live with that, and I believe those reading this might feel the same way.

Thank you so much for your time!

Good Wishes,
Sean Flowers

Godismyjudge said...

Hi Sean,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree with your explination of the passaged. Regenration causes continutation in faith (but the passage is silent on the order of regeneration and initial faith).

In some ways I agree with you on not adopting a theological system. Certainly 'fitting' passages to a system is bad guy stuff. On the other hand, I do think an important part of understanding scripture is harmonization of various passages and if that's 'system'; I am a system guy.

God be with you,

God be with you,

Sean Flowers said...

Hey Dan,

Thank you for your kind comment!

Yes, this passage is understandably tantalizing for those who believe that regeneration precedes faith. After all, there really is no separation between "initial faith" and "continuing in faith". Yet, 1 Jn 5.1 seems to highlight continuing in faith as evidence of the Spirit at work... So, while this passage does not deny regeneration preceding faith, it by no means necessitates one must come to that conclusion. Therein lay the balance.

Have you read "Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God" by Gordon Fee? He does a great job at explaining the relationship of the Spirit to faith in the Pauline corpus on pp. 85-86. It is concise, yet, at the same time, it is thorough. (Personally, I believe this man reeks of brilliance!)

Hope to hear from you!


Godismyjudge said...

Hey Sean,

I haven’t read that specifically, but I do enjoy Fee so I am sure it would be a great read. I will have to look it up next time I have a chance.

God be with you,