In 1st John 5:20, who, in your opinion, is the "true God and eternal life" referring back to--Jesus Christ, or the Father? I know they are both the same true God, of course, but cult groups will say it can only be the Father, due to John 17:3. I was wondering if there were any Greek grammatical reasons that the "this is true God" must refer to Jesus, or the Father. Jesus is the nearer antecedent to "this". I suppose it could refer to both. What do other commentators think?
I don't think there is any serious doubt that average person reading
the Greek text of 1st John would be much more likely to think that the
"this one" is Christ rather than God the Father. As you say,
theologically it could refer to either Christ or the Father without any
problems. Grammatically, likewise, one could make an argument for either
One, since houtos, the second person singular demonstrative (in
the nom./masc./sing. here), would look the same for any singular,
masculine antecedent, whether Jesus or the Father.
However, the burden is certainly on those who say it is not referring to Christ, both from a textual point of view, and from a literary point of view (because, as I say, even a secular reader of the Greek text would most likely assume that Christ is meant here):
1) textual: The word "this one" (houtos) occurs in the Greek text immediately after the word Christ (Christo - dative). Moreover, in any early representation of this text on a papyrus (and indeed as it actually occurs in the earliest uncials), there would not even be any spacing between the last letter of "Christ" (omega [no subscript iotas in those days]) and the first letter of "this one" (omicron). The lack of punctuation in ancient Greek texts produces an effect upon how the language is understood and interpreted that is often overlooked by modern readers using punctuated, word-separated editions. This effect is exaggerated in John's writing in particular because of his tendency to use asyndeton everywhere (i.e., omission of connecting particles and conjunctions that are normally de rigueur in Greek prose). What this means is that an ancient reader would hit houtos then the verb "is" immediately after reading "Jesus Christ". A development that, with no deceleration from punctuation, produces an effect that is hard to discount:
"Jesus-Christ-this-is-the-true-God" (Greek word order)
There are certainly parallels that can be found where a context can make
a reader go back and think twice about an obvious conclusion like the
above which soon after is overturned when more is read. But unless the
author is completely unskilled or unaware of the effect of what he/she
has written, there are inevitably hints or explanations in what follows
that make the correct antecedent clear. John doesn't give us anything
like that. Quite the contrary (see point 2).
2) literary: The verse cited by the groups you mention, John 17:3, does identify the Father as "the one true God", and the words are indeed identical to what we find in the first half of the attribution in 1st John 5:20. But it is the second half to which someone who had carefully read the gospel of John (as well as the beginning of this epistle) would be drawn in this regard: "and life eternal". Going back to Jesus' prayer in John 17, we find the same phrase, "life eternal", used twice in verses two and three. Jesus states in verse two that the Father has given the Son power to give "life eternal" to those given to Him. And in verse three, Jesus states that "eternal life" is to know "you, the One true God and Him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ". Thus "eternal life" (a key phrase/concept for John) is clearly linked to the Messiah in that passage. And that is, of course, something we find throughout John and the rest of scripture (Jn.14:6 et passim). Therefore the close association in 1st John 5:20 of "eternal life" with the Messiah to my mind actually proves the opposite point: while John 17:3 does not disprove that Jesus is "true God" (just because the Father is also described as the "One true God" - Jesus and the Father are "One", after all; cf. Jn.1:1-2 where "God" is used in close conjunction for both Father and Son), it does maintain the pattern of associating "eternal life" primarily with the Messiah, for there is no other way to the Father and life eternal (Jn.14:6). As you suggest, it is not that the later is unparalleled or impossible (the Trinity, after all are "one" in essence and so also in purpose; cf. Jn.5:24), but only that, from a purely literary analysis, the phrase "eternal life" used as a title would more naturally be associated with the Messiah, the One through whom eternal life is gained. Therefore a person would have to conclude that the attribution of the last sentence of 1st John 5:20 “eternal life” is to Jesus rather than to the Father, and if that is so, obviously, then the phrase you ask about, “the One true God”, would also have to refer to Christ here.
Indeed, whether one approaches this issue from either a Greek textual or literary point of view, the only reason to think that this sentence does not apply to Christ is if one is working from the preconceived (and misguided) notion that He is not "true God" (which, of course, He most certainly is). As far as other commentators are concerned, it is fair to say that they are split on the issue, with even a good number of Trinitarians taking an opposite view. But I strongly feel that this is a mistake.
Beyond the largely non-theological reasons advanced above, it should also be taken into account that 1st John, like the gospel of John, is about Jesus Christ. According to John in this very letter, Jesus is the eternal life (1Jn.1:2; cf. 1Jn.1:1). Both the gospel and the epistle begin with very poetic and powerful hymns to the Word of life, our Savior Jesus Christ. The gospel ends by glorifying Jesus (the world is not big enough for the books it would take to proclaim all He has done), and so it would be very strange if the end of the epistle, which began by calling Him "the eternal life" should now switch focus away from Him. If it did, the ending would be the "odd man out" among the four sections (i.e., beginning/end; beginning/END?!). And how could John have made this any more clear for the sake of the doubters than by giving us the Greek text as it is? The only way, I suppose, would be if he had omitted the reference to Christ as "true God" altogether - but demonstrating and proclaiming that fact has been part of his purpose from the start.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
What we have seen from the beginning, what we have heard and seen with our eyes, what we have observed and touched with our hands - this is about the Word of Life (i.e. Jesus Christ). And the Life appeared, and we have seen [Him] and bear witness [to Him] and proclaim to you the Eternal Life which was face to face with the Father and has appeared to us.
1st John 1:1-2
Yours in Him who is eternal life itself, our dear Lord and Savior
I have heard some preachers talking about the issue of salvation say that as soon as you confess with your mouth and believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead you are saved, but that if a believer commits sin and dies in the very act of sin without confession that he will be judged on the basis of that act he has committed. Is that true? Is that what Romans 6:23 means?
Scripture is indeed clear: salvation comes through faith in Jesus
Christ alone. Further, all who retain their faith in Him faithfully to
the end are most assuredly saved. That does not mean that we do not sin
any longer while we are in these earthly bodies of corruption -
unfortunately, we do. It is our duty as Christians to pursue
sanctification (Heb.12:14; 1Pet.1:13-16), that is, to become more like
Jesus in the way we walk through this world, putting away sin as we grow
in Him through the truth of the Bible and come to produce the fruit He
has called us to produce. But this is a process, and no one save our
Lord has ever completed it perfectly - a fact which in and of itself
should serve to show that the idea of loss of salvation for someone who
dies in the middle of sin or with an unconfessed sin is a misguided
For scripture itself makes it very clear that all men are sinful because of the indwelling sin nature we all possess and will continue to possess throughout this life (e.g., Rom.14-20; Eph.2:1-3; cf. Ps.51:5; 58:3). This makes the ideal of "sinless perfection" unattainable in this life:
If we say that we do not have sin (i.e., a sin nature which is producing personal sins), we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just so as to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say, that we have not sinned, we make Him out to be a liar and His Word is not in us.
1st John 1:8-10
When they sin against You – for there is no man who does not sin . . .
1st Kings 8:46a (2Chron.6:36a)
What is Man that he could be pure (i.e., innocent), or that one born of woman could be righteous?
If You, O Lord, kept a close watch on [our] iniquities, then who, O Lord, could stand?
Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living can be righteous before You.
For there is no man on earth who is [so] righteous that he [always] does what is good and [never] sins.
What then? Do we [Israelites] have an advantage? Not at all. For we have already brought forth the charge that both Jews and gentiles, all [of us], are under sin's control.
For all sin and fall short of God's glory.
For we know that the Law is spiritual. But I am fleshly, sold [into bondage] under [the power of] sin.
But I perceive a different law [at work] in my bodily members, waging war against the Law in my mind and taking me prisoner – [a prisoner to] this law of sin that dwells in my body.
But scripture has locked everything up under [the power of] sin, so that the promise which is fulfilled through faith in Christ might be given to those who believe.
For we all stumble (i.e., sin) in many ways.
This is not to say that we should sin, but it is clear from the
scriptures above that we do sin. God disciplines us as His sons for all
our sins (Heb.12:4-13), so it is always better to avoid sin (see the
"Corrective Discipline" in Peter #21). Sin also has natural
consequences in addition to divine discipline that always make the
equation very easy to compute: sin is trouble; staying away from sin is
profitable. But because we are flesh, we all "stumble in many ways" as
James says. We receive continued cleansing from our sins through the
blood of Jesus Christ when we confess our sins to the Father (1Jn.1:9).
As to what I believe is the point of your question, there is nothing in scripture to suggest that if we were to die in the middle of a sin or before we had confessed a sin that this would in any way affect our salvation. Given that sin is much more pervasive and extensive than even many believers have any idea (i.e., anything we think, say, or do has the potential of being sinful: cf. thinking: Job 31:1; Ezek.14:3-5; Mt.5:27-28; saying: Ps.12:2-4; Jas.3:2-10; doing: Gen.9:6; 1Thes.4:3-7; 1Pet.4:15-16), it is very likely that many believers have died while sinning - entertaining a hateful or covetous thought, or speaking an unkind or untrue word, for example. Were this an issue in salvation, you can be sure that the Bible would address it directly. The bottom line is this: if you die with your faith in Jesus intact, then you die with your salvation intact, for salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone by the grace of God (Eph.2:8-9). It is true that persistence in sin can lead to the "sin unto death", but the process of apostasy is usually a lengthy one, not a case of a single sin which happens to coincide with physical death (see the link: "The Process of Apostasy" in Coming Tribulation Part 3A).
As our judgment after death and our eternal rewards, we shall all have to give an account to our Lord for "the things done by means of this body" (2Cor.5:10; cf. Rom.14:10-12; 1Cor.3:11-15; Heb.13:17; 1Pet.4:5). But this is an accounting of our "deeds", not of our sins. Our sins have been eternally forgiven because Christ died for them, so that the only issue that now remains for believers is our faithfulness to Jesus. Whatever we do in this life that is worthy will receive reward, while whatever is unworthy will be burnt up before the throne of Christ (1Cor.3:11-15).
And as to your question about Romans 6:23, first, let me give you my translation of that verse:
For the salary paid by sin is death, but the gracious gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Sin does produce death. For the entire human race, the sin of Adam
produced physical death, and it is because we are the seed of Adam that
we die physically, and, absent faith in Jesus Christ, the fact of our
physical death means inevitable judgment and eternal death. So that for
the unbeliever, the life of sin wherein one refuses to repent of sin and
turn to Jesus Christ results in the second death on the other side of
physical death (Rev.20:11-15). Believers, on the other hand, have been
transformed from "death to life" (Jn.5:24; 1Jn.3:14; cf. Acts 5:20). For
believers, therefore, there is no longer the issue of the eternal or
"second" death to worry about, but sin does produce a temporary "death"
or rift in the relationship we have with our Lord ("positional death").
As He says in the parable of the prodigal son, "for this my son was
dead" (Lk.15:24; 15:32), and as Paul says in Ephesians, "Arise, sleeper!
Awake from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!" (Eph.5:14). There is
of course the one caveat for believers that giving oneself over to a
life of sin after having believed has horrendously bad consequences, of
intensifying divine discipline, and, if left unchecked, the death of
faith (see the link:
Peter lesson #26: "The Process of Apostasy"). Romans 6:23 does not
mean that if a believer sins it cancels out his/her salvation, even if
that sin happens at the end of life and before confession. For one
thing, there are so many sins we commit of which we are not even aware
(e.g., under the Mosaic Law, there was an entire category of sacrifice
devoted to "sins of ignorance", the so-called "sin" and "guilt"
offerings: Lev.4:1 - 6:7), that this would place an impossible hurdle in
our way that even the most sanctified and dedicated believers might find
it impossible to jump - and how can that be consistent with God's mercy
and grace? For, far from seeking to condemn for a single mistake those
who have embraced His Son, He does not desire "anyone to perish, but for
everyone to come to repentance" (2Pet.3:9; cf. Ezek.18:23; Matt.18:14;
Jn.12:47; 1Tim.2:4; 2Tim.2:24-26) - and everything we know about Him and
the way He has constructed the world and time indicates that the point
is to give opportunity for salvation (rather than to provide pitfalls
Most of these issues are covered in much greater detail in the following study:
Bible Basics 3B: "Hamartiology: The Biblical Study of Sin"
Here is a series of other links you may find helpful which also deal with the issues your question raises:
Faith and Salvation:
Perseverance of Faith (Peter #21)
Testing of Faith (Peter #22)
Seeing with Faith (Peter #23)
Faith Dynamics (Peter #24)
Sin and Confession:
John's Primer on Sin (in Peter #15)
"Production is Rewarded" (in Peter #18)
Yours in Him who bore our sins in His body on the tree, our dear Lord
and Savior Jesus Christ.