Revised Version-Catholic Edition: “I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”
King James: “These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.”
NIV: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
As you can see, there are almost no differences between the versions, so you can see that Catholics are not playing semantics when it comes to how to translate this verse.
The points that I used to make as a Baptist were:
- This life is “ETERNAL” meaning no end, with some interpreting it as also having no beginning (part of the Calvinist tradition of predestination)
- St. John says that you HAVE (currently possess, not a future event) eternal life
- You could KNOW that you have eternal life
What is eternal life, and what does it mean to “have” it?
Often the Protestant will talk about eternal life as if it is an object that God creates and then hands to you. By accepting Jesus as your personal Savior (a concept found only found in Protestant tradition, not in Scripture) you receive eternal life from God and wrap it around you as if it was a coat.
In this act you receive eternal life. And because by its nature, eternal life cannot end, it must mean that once you are saved, you are always saved. Note that these words do not exist in the text. It is an extrapolation imposed by the reader in a process called eisegesis (the interpretation of a text by reading into it one's own ideas), rather than exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation of a text).
The source of eternal life is God. The life is eternal because God is eternal. Eternal life flows from him and this is why water is used so abundantly in the Scriptures as a symbol of life, or in the case of baptism, actually granting eternal life. Many times in scripture, the imagery of a river flowing with living water is used. In Revelation, this river flows from the throne of God. Jesus said to the Samaritan woman that he who drinks of this water will never thirst again.
As this imagery is so prevalent, it is prudent to try to stay within its framework. If eternal life is so often symbolized in Scripture as water and not just a mere covering, it is more like the following illustration:
One of my favorite summertime activities is going to Grand Haven, Michigan which is on the western coast of Lake Michigan. If I go to the lake and sit by the water, I may get splashed, but the water on my skin will dry up. If I go into the water, I am wet all over. I am immersed in the water and I will stay wet for as long as I stay in. If I leave the water and sit on the beach in the sun for a while, again the water on my skin and suit will dry. When I leave the water, Lake Michigan is still there waiting for me to jump back in when the sun gets too hot. And when I have left the water, Lake Michigan is still Lake Michigan, and it remains unchanged regardless of whether or not I was ever in it.
Think of the lake as eternal life. Rather than putting it on (getting splashed) it is something that I become-- immersed (baptized) into. As long as I stay in the water (stay in God's river of eternal life), I have this life from God. If I turn away from God and leave that life behind, it is the same as leaving the waters of Lake Michigan. I have “lost” my eternal life, but that eternal life still exists. It is still eternal—right there in the lake, just waiting for me to enter it again.
So, the Protestant will ask, how then can you KNOW that you have eternal life if it is something that you can lose? This is where we have to look at all of Scripture and not only this verse all by itself.
Look at all of chapter 3, not just verse 13. The first five verses say:
- Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God
- Everyone who loves the father loves his child (in this case he is talking of each believer being a child of God) as well
- To prove your love for God you must keep his commands.
- Obedience and faith are equated, just as they are in the book of James.
These concepts are reiterated later in the chapter, with slightly different wording. “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” But again we have the word “believe” (faith). Again the biblical definition of faith is closely integrated with obedience. If you do not obey, you do not have faith, you do not have the Son of God, and you do not have eternal life.