Understanding 2 John 9: Do I Have to Have Perfect Doctrine to Go to Heaven?

TeacherI’ve been chatting with a number of well-known authors about “tests of fellowship,” that is, doctrines that you have to get right to go to heaven. I’ve been repeatedly astonished to learn that some of our preachers actually insist that any doctrinal error will damn. To argue this, they rely most commonly on 2 John 9, which condemns anyone who does not abide in the “teaching of Christ.”

The ninth verse of 2 John is very likely the most abused verse in Church of Christ debate today. What does it really mean?

(2 John 9) Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.

The verse has become a catch all to demonstrate that any doctrinal error damns — or at least that the doctrinal error under discussion damns. For example,

The doctrine of Christ is what Jesus taught and what his apostles taught (John 14:25-26). 2 John 9 says that those who “progress” away from the teaching of Christ do not have God.[1]

Let it be clearly stated that in matters of obligation (which most certainly describes what Christ teaches about worship [John 4:24]), there is to be no forbearance extended to those who deviate from the inspired pattern (I John 1:6-7; 2 John 9).[2]

Plainly, these very typical quotations from the Firm Foundation state that 2 John 9 teaches that any doctrinal error damns. Authors rarely seek to demonstrate why the doctrinal error under discussion (usually instrumental music) damns and other doctrinal error does not. I’ve actually corresponded with many our authors to ask this very question, and I’m usually either told that all error damns or that error as to “commands of obligation” damns (what commands aren’t “of obligation”?)

There are two problems with this interpretation. The first is obvious. If all doctrinal error damns, then precious few of us will make into heaven. I’ve often asked classes that I’ve taught to take an anonymous survey on “the issues” of the day. If I ask 20 or more questions, I’ve yet to get two members of the same Sunday School class to agree on every question. I’ve never gotten more than two questions to be agreed on by the entire class.

In fact, the average split on controversial issues is 33% to 67%. In other words, on controversial doctrinal questions, in a class of 30 adults, most of whom are life-long members of the Church, 10 will take one position and 20 will take the other.

Now, if you have to have no error at all to go to heaven, then, at most, only one student in each class was saved!

The second problem with this interpretation is that it’s just bad theology and bad exegesis. Consider this verse’s context —

(2 John 1:1-11) The elder, To the chosen lady and her children, whom I love in the truth –– and not I only, but also all who know the truth – 2 because of the truth, which lives in us and will be with us forever: 3 Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, will be with us in truth and love. 4 It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us.

5 And now, dear lady, I am not writing you a new command but one we have had from the beginning. I ask that we love one another. 6 And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.

7 Many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist. 8 Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully. 9 Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. 11 Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.

Consider the meaning of “runs ahead” in verse 8. Actually, the NIV mistranslates. The KJV is more accurate in saying “transgresseth.” Thus, the phrase “transgresseth and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ” condemns much more than false teaching. It condemns failing to “abide” or live in the doctrine of Christ. Hence, John’s condemnation addresses living the doctrine of Christ, not just teaching it.

Literally read, out of context, this seems to mean that any transgression damns — not just doctrinal error. This, of course, contradicts grace, which just can’t be. Of course, grace and the blood of Christ forgives our sins — both our sinful conduct and our doctrinal error, provided we remain in grace through faith in Jesus and continued penitence.

There are several possible other interpretations. One is that if I incorrectly understand anything Jesus taught, I’m wicked and should be disfellowshipped. But if this is so, we are held to an awfully high, even impossible, standard. Who can claim to perfectly understand everything that Jesus taught?

Some go a step further and assume that John condemns all who teach any error on any point at all. Hence, if I get the hats-in-the-building issue wrong (1 Corinthians 11), I’m damned, along with all foolish enough to have followed my false teaching. And yet, who would presume to get every single doctrine exactly right? Do we seriously think that being in error on whether to celebrate Easter or on whether Sunday is the Christian Sabbath damns? If not, show me where in 2 John he makes a distinction between error that damns and error covered by grace.

A better view is one that uses the text to interpret what John says in context. Up to this point, John has discussed three doctrines: truth, love, and faith. Faith (verse 7) is faith in Jesus, not faith in every doctrine. He’s quite plain on that point. The meaning of “love” in verses 5 and 6 is obvious enough, as well.

What is “truth” in verses 1 through 4? It’s not clear at first glance. Is it every true thing in the Bible? This can’t be, or John would deny grace. When John asserts that his readers “know the truth,” is he referring to all doctrine? or to the gospel of Jesus? Obviously, he can’t assume his readers know everything there is to know. Only an inspired writer could even come close to such a claim. But if “truth” means the gospel, he can make the assertion with confidence, because he’s writing to Christians. The one thing we can save for sure about all Christians is that they know the gospel!

To test this theory, turn to John’s Gospel. John is verbally remarkably similar to 1, 2, and 3 John. What is “truth” in John?

(John 1:17) For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Truth is in contrast to law and is closely tied to grace (also v. 14).

(John 5:33) “You have sent to John and he has testified to the truth.”

In context, Jesus is talking about the fact that he was sent by God.

(John 8:32-36) Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?”

Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. 35 Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

The “truth” that sets free is clearly forgiveness of sins by the grace received through the work of Jesus.

(John 15:26) “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.”

The Spirit is the “Spirit of truth” because he testifies about Jesus.

(John 7:18 ) “He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.”

Working to honor Jesus makes you a “man of truth.”

(John 14:6) Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Jesus himself is the truth!

“Truth” is the truth of the gospel, the truth about Jesus, the truth about grace, the truth that frees from law — the truth that is Jesus.

In 2 John, John explains that that walking in this truth is about faith and love (in parallel to the major themes of 1 John) as well as righteousness (also parallel). Hence, the teaching (or doctrine) of Jesus is simply the truth previously referred to, especially the fact that Jesus came in the flesh.

This interpretation present no contradiction to grace, gives a clear demarcation between the doctrines that damn and those that don’t, and suits the context admirably. It’s consistent with the theology and vocabulary of John, 1 John, and 3 John.

Paul sometimes uses “truth” in the same sense-

(Gal. 2:5) We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.

(Gal. 2:14) When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

(Eph. 1:13) And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,

(Eph. 4:21) Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.

(Col. 1:5-6) the faith and love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel 6 that has come to you. All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.

(2 Thes. 2:9-13) The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, 10 and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie 12 and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. 13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.

And these are just the most obvious examples. There are many others.

The author of Hebrews uses “truth” the same way-

(Heb 10:26-27) If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.

Plainly, we received “the knowledge of truth” as part of becoming saved, not when we went to Bible class and mastered Christian theology.

9 Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son.

Therefore, as the “truth” is the gospel, the “teaching of Christ” is also the gospel about Jesus, the word of truth, the truth of the gospel, the truth that leads to grace. It’s what we hear, believe, and confess. In the immediate context, it’s the fact that Jesus came in the flesh and the spiritual implications of his coming. It’s the content of faith. It’s the reason we love and are righteous. It’s the good news of Jesus.

This interpretation moots the debate among Greek scholars as to how to translate “of Christ” —

The battle has raged mostly over whether or not the genitive of 2 John 9 is “objective” or “subjective.” If it is construed as objective, the phrase means “the teaching about Christ.” If it is viewed as subjective, the sense is “Christ’s teaching,” i.e., that which comes from him.[3]

Plainly, the lesson is the same either way. Ultimately, what Jesus taught was about himself, especially in John’s writings. The many ethical teachings of Jesus are all premised on what Jesus was about to do for humanity. The wicked servant was to forgive because he’d been forgiven. We aren’t to judge because we won’t be judged. We are to love because we’ve been loved. We sow seeds of the gospel because we’ve benefited from the gospel ourselves.

You see, the teachings of Jesus aren’t just arbitrary rules; they are the outworking of the work of Jesus. They are the consequence of committing to live as Jesus lived. They are understanding what it means to be a Christian.

And so, 2 John 9-11 makes perfect sense. Here’s an alternative, somewhat paraphrased translation-

9 Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the [gospel] does not have God; whoever continues in the [gospel] has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring [the gospel], do not take him into your house or welcome him. 11 Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.

Now, this is not a perfect translation. Figurative language (metonymy in this case) doesn’t translate perfectly into a single word, although this is pretty close, I think (or why use a figure of speech?) Rather, a more precise statement of John’s use of “truth” would be something more like: “the gospel, especially the fact that Jesus came in the flesh (which is an error being taught by certain teachers that 2 John was written to combat), as well as the gospel’s spiritual implications, such as our obligation to love as Jesus loved, to remain in the faith, and to live righteously.”

The very point of the gospel is that Jesus died to save sinners because we’ll never attain perfection on our own. We’ll never be morally perfect and we’ll never be intellectually perfect.

Thank God! While we were still sinners, God sent his Son to hang on a cross to save us from our sins. Therefore, anyone who teaches that doctrinal perfection is required to be saved has completely, sadly, tragically missed the point.


[1] Paul Clements, “What’s Happening in the Church,” Firm Foundation (Sept. 1995). http://www.bible-infonet.org/ff/articles/church/110_09_01.htm.

 

[2] Dub McClish, “The New Hermeneutics,” Firm Foundation (Spring 1991). http://www.bible-infonet.org/Challenge/topics/hermeneutics/01_02_03.htm.

[3] Wayne Jackson, The Christian Courier (May 11, 2005) (emphasis in original). http://www.christiancourier.com/articles/read/2_john_9_an_abused_passage .

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