Summary: due to the rich thoroughness of exegetical material provided, this is a must-have commentary for anyone who would preach or teach John's epistles, though I strenuously disagree with some of Derickson's interpretations.
Paradoxical? Read on.
Big picture: With this volume, Logos launches a new commentary series titled the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Contributors range from the well-known (Walter Kaiser, Jr,; Ronald Youngblood; Robert Thomas) to the unknown.
Taking this volume as a template, the format is superb. After a detailed introduction to the book, the commentary begins along the lines of the author's outline. First is an Introduction to the passage, followed by the Original text (in Greek, in this case), followed by Textual Notes, and the author's original Translation. Then comes thorough, well-documented verse by verse Commentary, then a Biblical Theology section, finishing with Applicational and Devotional Implications, sometimes Additional Exegetical Comments, and finally a Selected Bibliography section. At the volume's end is a list of foreign and technical words (from Actionsart to Synecdoche, this case), a General Bibliography of Journals and periodicals, General books, and unpublished works (dissertations and a thesis).
This is a terrific approach and, depending on the quality of the author, will raise each volume's value.
All of which carries out the editors' stated intent for this series, which they intend for use by "scholars, pastors, and students of the Bible." Each book is written by authors "committed to both the evangelical faith and a careful exegesis of the biblical text," each of whom "affirms historic, orthodox Christianity and the inspiration and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures" and the whole "reflects the important interpretative principles of the Reformation, while utilizing historical-grammatical and contextual interpretative methods."
Of course, the single trait that distinguishes this series is that it is "the first commentary series produced first in electronic form." This enables the electronic volumes to contain such items as charts, graphs, timelines, and photos. But beyond that, authors will be able periodically to add to their original contribution when new data or insights become available. So your individual volumes may continually be improved from year to year, without having to purchase second or third editions. That's pretty darned cool.
Overview of this volume. Author Gary W. Derickson's acknowledgement includes this: "My greatest desire is that God will be glorified and Christ’s church edified..."
Clearly one way in which Derickson pursues this goal is by unhurried, nearly microscopically-detailed examination of virtually every word and syntactical feature of each verse. Very little escapes Derickson's attention and comment. His diligence shows itself in some of the most thorough documentation I've ever seen: in all, this volume contains one thousand, nine hundred and twenty-one (1921) footnotes. This respectful thoroughness and conversance with the literature alone qualifies the book as indispensable. It is a commentary in its own right, but is also gateway to a wealth of resources.
In addition to clearly having solid academic "chops," Derickson shows a practical eye and God-loving heart in his applications and illustrations.
Introduction. Derickson's first words are refreshingly categorical: "The author of this epistle is John, the beloved apostle." Period. That's different. Then Derickson wades into internal evidence and external attestation.
As to internal evidence, the author notes that "no extant copy of the epistle is without a title attributing it to John." Further affirmation comes from the author's "self-disclosure, writing style, and conceptual connection to the Gospel of John." As to date, "For the Gospel, a date between A.D. 80 and A.D. 90 seems plausible, while the Revelation was likely written around A.D. 95. Thus, the first epistle of John most likely was written around A.D. 90, a few years before the writing of the Revelation." I prefer authors who don't excessively pussyfoot, and Derickson doesn't.
I found scores of typos, which I sent to Logos; but very few factual (as opposed to interpretive) errors. One error was on 2:24, where Derickson wrongly calls ἡ ἐπαγγελία ἣν αὐτὸς ἐπηγγείλατο a "cognate accusative." Or again, on ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ in 2:5, he says it has "three possible meanings" — and then he gives four, and favors the fourth! Similarly, Derickson says there are "four major views" on water and blood in 5:6 — and then details six views. There are other errors, but they are relatively few.
As an example of the Application and Devotional Implications feature, which closes each section, consider Derickson's thoughts on 2:7-11 —
Additionally, as is shown by John later in the epistle, this lack of love most often expresses itself, not in anger or conflict but in indifference. How much do we care about the Christians around us? Do we care enough to get involved in their lives, to help them with personal needs? Or are we deceiving ourselves into thinking we are good people while being unengaged in the body of Christ?Derickson writes as a Christian, and not merely as an academic. In his Biblical Theology Comments on 1 John 2:18-27, he says "the large number of false teachers today is a reminder to our generation that the Antichrist is coming, and also, to our great joy, so is the real Christ!" Then, on the same section of 1 John in his Application and Devotional Implications, Derickson writes:
Our best defense against false teachers is not to study false teachings but to know God’s truth. We can only do that by knowing God’s Word. We can only do that by reading and studying it. Listening to good preaching is edifying. Reading devotionals or books by Christian authors is edifying as well. However, neither comes close to knowing God’s Word. It is through His Scriptures that God has chosen to instruct and protect us. That is why Paul commanded the Colossians to “let the word of Christ richly dwell within” them (Col 3:16). That is why John speaks of the “anointing” dwelling in us. The idea of dwelling is not just that we are to know God’s Word. That is part of it. We are also to be influenced (guided) by God’s Word. That is our defense against false teaching today, even as then. The better we know Jesus (have correct Christology), the closer our fellowship can be with Him and God the Father. Any congregation that is serious about communing with God must devote themselves to teaching each member about GodTo this, we all would give a hearty "amen."
Back to the larger view: Derickson rejects singling out any single theme for the book.
John states four purposes within his epistle, though they may not exhaust all of his reasons or motives for writing. In 1:3 he writes so that he and his readers may have fellowship with one another and with God. This is immediately followed by a second purpose, that he or they, or better, both, may experience joy (1:4). Then, near the end of his first section of instruction, he writes so that his readers “may not sin” (2:1). Finally, near the end of this epistle, he writes so that his readers might have assurance of their salvation on the basis of their belief in Jesus (5:13).It is this that brings me to:
Central problem. For all its many strengths, this volume's value is badly compromised by Derickson's doctrinal grid.
My first worries began when Derickson noted that Kostenberger "appears to interpret the epistle through the rubric of the Calvinist doctrine of perseverance, that true believers (the elect) will persevere in good works till the end and that the non-elect will fall away or their faith will fail before their deaths." That's a "Calvinist" view? To Derickson, it is, as he betrays a baleful allegiance to the Zane Hodges approach to Scripture. While his allegiance is far from slavish (he often cites Hodges, then disagrees), it is overwhelming and very troubling.
Derickson takes the view that the letter has multiple purposes, but largely centers around tests of fellowship, and "does not see the tests being related to salvation."
As you might imagine, this leads to some brain-achingly bizarre interpretations and denials of the obvious. His position is a very troubling expression of what I expose at length as "Gutless Grace" in TWTG (195-204).
For instance, on 1 John 2:1, Derickson says
You cannot have sanctifying faith without justifying faith having preceded it. But sanctifying faith does not necessarily follow.
It gets worse on 1 John 2:4, which says "Whoever says 'I know him' but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him." Derickson says:
John is not saying he is unregenerate (contra Burge, 98; Schnackenburg, 102), an unbeliever, but just a liar. ...“Truth” is not equivalent to “salvation” or “gospel message.” Rather, John uses it often and, in this case, to indicate the body of orthodox teachings that impact one’s lifestyle. It is important that we not read every description of a person soteriologically. We must remember that not all saints are saintly in their behavior. Disobedience reveals the lack of a personal knowledge of Jesus in the same way that the apostles, who accompanied Jesus for three and a half years, lacked that knowledge in the Upper Room. Thus, claiming to know Him while disobeying His word is to live a lie, described here by John as “the truth is not in him.” What he means by this is that truth is not a controlling influence in the believer’s life as was possible for John in 1:6, 8, and 10.Again 2:12-14, Derickson points out that John writes with assurance of his readers' salvation, then triumphally proclaims that John
writes to assure them of their secure status with God. Recognizing this is important if one is to understand the nature of the “tests” in this epistle. Since John is so certain of the spiritual standing of his readers, it conversely stands against reason to think that any test provided in the epistle would be related to the question of whether they are “saved.” The Test of Life view of the epistle cannot be sustained without either ignoring this fact or lessening its significanceIt "cannot"? Derickson can't envision any other approach that would do justice to both John's assurance and the plain sense of his tests and warnings? What if John writes with the positive expectation that his readers will apply the tests of life and find that they are saved — though they still remain genuine tests of life? That's all it takes to avoid the gymnastics Derickson's grid requires.
On 1 John 2:19, Derickson has I. Howard Marshall (no Calvinist!) affirming "the Calvinist doctrine of perseverance." Derickson further says "the idea of perseverance proving election is foreign to John" and "John does not address perseverance." Amazing. Then very oddly, he goes on to say:
The departure of the false teachers from the midst of the apostolic band (“us”) revealed they were not true believers; they were never regenerate (Grayston, 77; Smith, 72). ...By saying that these false teachers were “not of us,” John indicates that they were never identified with the apostolic circle and had never agreed with the teachings of the apostles. If their teachings had agreed with those of the apostles, then they would have remained associated with them.So a person can make a false profession that identifies him as a member of the apostolic group, and when he departs that group we can conclude that he never was a true member — which we know by the departure. If he'd been a true member, he'd've stayed. But that same test can't apply to the visible church? This strikes me as very bizarre.
Then on 1 John 2:29, Derickson says:
Finally, what John has affirmed in the positive, that we can see those born of God from their righteous conduct, need not be true in the reverse. He is not saying by this that those who do not practice righteousness are not born of God.On 1 John 3:6 (emphases added) —
This is much like what he said of those who do not believe in Jesus in John 3:18. They do not believe in Jesus because they have already been judged and stand in a state of judgment. John is affirming here that a sinful character indicates either these people are not eyewitnesses of Jesus (going back to 1:1–4) or they do not really understand God, much like the disciples whom Jesus chided for their ignorance in the Upper Room (Smalley, 164). They are out of fellowship with God (Pentecost, 79). This is parallel in thought with 2:9, where one may claim to be in the light while hating his brother but in actuality is in the darkness. Here someone may claim to know God, but a sinful lifestyle indicates that their knowledge is not personal but cursory; they are spiritually blind and ignorant (Hodges, 146). A child can know who their father is without knowing their father. In the same way, a child of God may know of Him, and may have placed his or her trust in His Son sufficient to save, without knowing Him intimately...
Habitually sinful conduct reveals the lack of fellowship with Christ in the life of a believer. Even so, when someone claims to be a Christian while sin remains the characteristic of his or her lifestyle, their conduct makes it legitimate to question their salvation. However, questioning their salvation is different from declaring that it is impossible for him or her to be a sinful believer. Westcott notes well, “St John speaks of ‘abiding’ in Christ and not simply of ‘being’ in Christ, because his argument rests on the efficacy of continuous human effort” (Westcott, 104). When one recognizes John is discussing issues of sanctification within the household of God, it is natural to see the issue of human responsibility in sanctification arising from the text.Again, on 1 John 3:8 —
...every believer has habitual sins. The need for daily confession of sins indicates that we all habitually sin, though we confess only known individual acts of sin (Matt 6:12). The distinction made by him ignores 1:8–10 and ignores the reality of every believer’s experience. It also ignores John’s use of literary dualism to develop absolute antitheses. John is purposefully making a stark contrast between kinds of people. Whereas the one doing righteousness is described as righteous and is identified with Jesus who is righteous, this person is identified with the devil. John’s use of ἐκ sees Satan, the devil, as the source of the sin-doer’s conduct. Does this necessarily translate into that person being unregenerate? If taken in isolation, this statement might mean such. However, if being used in a purposefully dualistic context, should it not be seen in light of rhetorical license?Then in the footnote:
Even so, the idea that this is describing someone who practices sin and is therefore unsaved is invalidated by the implication of all New Testament commands. Christians are not given positive and negative commands for things that automatically result from their salvation. For example, we are never commanded to be baptized in the Holy Spirit. Why? It is automatic. We do not baptize ourselves. God baptizes us at the instance of our spiritual birth. Without it there is no spiritual birth (Rom 8:9; 1 Cor 12:13). In the same way, when we are commanded not to do something, it must be possible for believers to do it. Otherwise, the command is nonsensical. Also, if a believer can commit a certain sin once, he or she can obviously do it a second time, a third time, and then habitually. Thus even habitual sin proves nothing. In that light, what John is saying here has to be recognized as rhetorical rather than prescriptive.So the fact that God commands us not to sin means that we can, in fact can do so habitually and characteristically, therefore it has nothing to do with salvation. Does this not strike one as incredibly perverse — in a verse that says Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil, for a commenter to say the works of the devil may not even be budged (let alone destroyed) in the life of a believer?
Derickson translates 1 John 3:10 "everyone who has been born from God does not sin, because His seed abides in him, and it is not able to sin, because it has been born from God," and actually argues at length that the seed is the new nature, and it is not able to sin, though the believer is able to sin. In fact, once again, Derickson spends a lot of energy arguing that the believer can continue in sin and be enslaved to sin.
However when Paul commands believers not to let sin reign in their mortal bodies (Rom 6:12), by implication such is not only possible but the experience of most. Further, sin does not “reign” through occasional lapses. Paul’s warning about becoming enslaved to sin (Rom 6:5–6, 12–14) means that such a believer will habitually sin. Thus, though being born from God gives a person a new nature, that nature does not guarantee immunity to habitual sin any more than occasional sin. The old nature is still resident within and still likes to sin. It has neither been eradicated nor incapacitated. It must still be dealt with in the life of the believer. Thus Paul commands us to “reckon” ourselves “dead to sin” (Rom 6:11). Moreover, he warns that failure to do so results in slavery to sin rather than righteousness.On 1 John 3:10, John says "By this the children of God and the children of the Devil are apparent: everyone who does not do righteousness is not of God, and the one who does not love his brother. " Does this mean what it appears to mean? Not to Derickson:
Christians reveal their new natures by choosing righteous living. The devil’s children reveal their unregenerate natures by sinning. So when a Christian sins, he or she fails to express the new nature but reflects the devil’s pattern by expressing the old nature.In that case, should John not have said "everyone who does not do righteousness is either not of God, or he actually is of God, but he just isn't expressing his real down-deep new nature"?
Once again, in 1 John 4:7, a verse that says πᾶς ὁ ἀγαπῶν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ γεγέννηται καὶ γινώσκει τὸν θεόν, Derickson takes the opportunity to say:
Though we often use the phrase “to know God” to mean “to have exercised justifying faith in God” or “to be a Christian,” John teaches that justified believers may not “know” the God in whom they believe (Grayston, 124). This knowledge of God is conditioned on meeting certain criteria, such as obedience and love of other Christians. The disciples were with Jesus more than three years and still did not “know” Him. Modern disciples can be in the family of God for decades and still not really know Him as well.So what's important in a verse that says that love indicates regeneration and knowledge of God — what is important to Derickson — is to say it's okay not to know God; you're still saved.
On 1 John 4:16, his constant refrain:
Failure to love does not prove one is unregenerate. If it were impossible for a believer to fail to love other believers then we would not have the command to do so. By its very nature, any command, whether positive (“do this”) or negative (“don’t do that”) implies that believers can do the opposite of what is commanded. They can disobey. Thus, believers can and do fail to love other believers with God’s love. The consequence is loss of mutual relationship with God (fellowship) as well as with other believers.On 1 John 4:20, he says:
Love of God is demonstrated by loving Christians. In this verse and the one that follows John affirms that an absence of love denies relationship with God. This denial does not mean a person is unregenerate. It just means that the person is not living according to what is true.So, if you don't love other Christians, you have no relationship with God, but you're regenerate. Got it. A regenerate person with no relationship with God. Because he's saved by "gutless grace."
More twisted reasoning, on 1 John 5:10 —
...justifying faith is not always sanctifying faith. What makes justifying faith effective is its object. It is Jesus who saves, not faith. God the Father justifies those whose faith has His Son as its object, not their theology. God justifies them apart from works both at the moment of faith and subsequently (Eph 2:8–9). Furthermore, if justifying faith is workless at salvation, it may remain workless and still justify. However, as Jas 2 teaches, apart from works faith will not sanctify, being ineffectual, being “dead” but not nonexistent."Saved by dead faith." Just like the Bible says...the opposite of. I think this may be the single most perverse mishandling of a fairly plain verse that I've ever seen.
This is really troubling. So it turns out a claim to faith can be tested — but only by doctrinal means. If the claim isn't worked out in doctrinally correct ways, it's invalid.
But just think this through: if I am "workless," if I show no submission to the person of Christ, doesn't that mean I "believe" in a Jesus who has no authority over my life, whose teaching about my life is inconsequential and can be ignored safely and soundly, with whom I am free to disagree about literally everything apart from formal acceptance of a couple of propositions? Does such a "Jesus" exist? Does such a "Jesus" save? Is the testimony that God bore about His Son "Give the nod to a few propositions about Him...then hold His person and everything He actually taught and commanded in contempt and do whatever you want"? I don't recall reading that verse.
On 1 John 5:18, again, Derickson is quick to assure us that all Christians do in fact sin, habitually and all the time, no matter what John's words seem to say. Derickson complains that any other reading "is a deduction necessitated by the doctrine of perseverance and its implications rather than a teaching of Scripture." Derickson further complains that repentance is not stated nor implied in the verse. (And carefree continuance in sin is?) And yet does Derickson not do the same thing he objects to, here?
The implication of Jesus’ instructions to confess our sins whenever we pray necessarily means we have sins to confess every time we pray. If we pray every day, which we should, and there are not sins we commit regularly, then either there is a long list of sins we are unconsciously working our way through, or we are just tipping our hats at God and pretending we are sinners. All Christians have habitual sins of which they remain unaware. They have habitual sins that of which they are aware! For a praying Christian, those repeated sins are repeatedly confessed. God forgives them thousands of times in a lifetime, and cleanses that confessing Christian of the other thousands of sins that he or she remains unaware. John cannot be affirming a believer will not persist in some sin as a lifestyle. That becomes equivalent to saying that only intentional sins count in the formula of sinlessness that results from Christ’s protection against Satan. That being said, John is indeed affirming by this that one born of God is not characterized by sin, but only in the sense that divine birth does not give birth to sin and death, but to life.What a perverse view, when an expositor is driven by a verse saying "everyone who has been begotten by God does not sin" to go on and on about how everyone who has been begotten by God does in fact sin, when the greatest burden he seems to feel is to explain the prevalence of sin (and reassure habitual sinners) rather than talk about its end (and call for repentance and mortification).
Relatively minor problem. The "Gutless Grace" theme is very troubling. The other is more annoying than anything else.
I don't "deduct points" for commenters who stop short of affirming the Biblical doctrine of sovereign grace and effectual atonement. But it is interesting that when he comes to 2:2's οὐ περὶ τῶν ἡμετέρων δὲ μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ περὶ ὅλου τοῦ κόσμου, Derickson drops what he has done about every issue thus far, down to the tiniest minutiae of grammar and textual criticism. He simply asserts "Through these he makes it clear that Jesus’ propitiatory work is not limited just to believers." Boom. No evidence, nor respectful discussion of alternative views necessary — unlike every other issue so far.
Again, "This is one of the clearest statements of Scripture that Jesus’ propitiatory work on the cross is universal and not limited only to the elect." Again, "However, dying for sins does not remove them from the unrepentant soul." And in a footnote, uncharacteristically polemically, Derickson says
Kistemaker (255) notes that “John chooses the adjective ὅλος (whole) instead of πᾶς (every, all) to communicate the idea of universality.” Even so, he does not see Jesus dying for every human being, but limits Jesus’ death to “all the people who believe in him” (253). He defines κόσμος, then, in terms of “the world in its totality, not necessarily in its individuality.” This demonstrates the difficulty those who would hold to limited atonement face. The text is clear, but their theological system forces them to limit its meaning, and so Jesus’ work on the cross, to the elect alone.Well, there you have it, then. "The text is clear." Leaving aside the irony of Derickson sniping at people whose "theological system forces them" to mishandle the text, Derickson doesn't even allude to the undebatably varying senses of kosmos in John, doesn't allude to John Owen, and he simply ignores the massive elephant in the room (the fact that John says Jesus is the propitiation, not that He provides or offers it) by asserting that "dying for sins does not remove them from the unrepentant soul." Where is that in the text? In fact, earlier he had noted that "the verb εἰμί, ...is ...included for emphasis," so that "John is stressing his point. Jesus is the Propitiation!" So He is...and yet He really isn't, to Derickson.
Apparently it really does depend on what the meaning of the word "is" is.
This becomes still more annoying when Derickson gets to 2:15, at which point he suddenly discovers that the apostle uses the word with several divergent nuances! He doesn't examine those nuances on the first occurrence of the word (because the meaning there is "clear"), but examines it on a later occurrence. Further, here he flatly asserts that the world in this use is evil and anti-God and "a child of God should not love it" — but doesn't wrestle with his earlier insistence that Christ made propitiation for it.
And yet again, on μηδὲ τὰ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ in 2:15, Derickson says “'World' may be being used in one of three senses here." Here, yes; but somehow not in 2:2, where it can only mean one thing.
Once more, on 4:9, he says "Interpreters are divided on the sense of κόσμος in this verse," and discusses two options. But interpreters aren't divided on 2:2? In Derickson's world, apparently not.
Derickson's theological comments on the issue are so theologically tone-deaf that one wonders whether he has actually ever read opposing literature with half the care he shows in most other cases.
Final summary. Derickson's fondness for the "Gutless Grace" school of thought lessens the value of some of his interpretations, and his failure to deal seriously with some aspects of atonement language can be annoying. Yet I still do recommend this resource to any pastor and teacher, due to Derickson's painstaking thoroughness in going over virtually every detail of the text, his marvellously exhaustive documentation, and the frequent real-world applications characterize Derickson's work.