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An Exposition Of the Epistles Of Saint Paul And Of The Catholic Epistles Volumes 1&2


The Apostle commences this Epistle, omitting the usual saluation and inscription, as he also commences his Gospel, by entering at once on the most sublime of all subjects, the Divinity, and eternal generation of the Son of God; who, though existing from eternity, was still, in time, manifested to the world: of the reality of his assumed nature, the united testimony of all the senses gave his Apostles the most complete knowledge and the firmest certainty. It is with the announcement of the great mystery of God’s love, in manifesting himself to the world, the Apostle commences this Epistle; his object in doing so is to bring men to a union and fellowship with God (verses 1, 2, 3).

In the next place, he declares, that in addressing them, and expounding the great mysteries of the Divinity and Humanity of Jesus Christ, and wishing them a fellowship with God, he only wishes to secure to them the fulness of spiritual joy (4).

He then enters on the great subject of all the Catholic Epistles, which is to inculcate the necessity of good works. This he does, first, by representing God, as the pure, unalloyed light, having no communication with the works of darkness (5); whence he infers, that those who live in the habitual commission of sin, are guilty of a lie, when they assert they have any fellowship with God (6); while, on the other hand, those who perform good works enjoy the union and fellowship with him. The Apostle, however, takes care to refer this blessing to its meritorious cause, viz., the blood of Christ, which merited for us the remission of our sins (7). He next points out the necessity of availing ourselves of the merits of Christ, since we all have sins to be remitted (8); and he shows the mode in which their actual remission is to be obtained, viz., by confessing them in the way in which the law of God prescribes confession to be made (9).

He shows, in conclusion, that by adopting the opposite course of confessing our sins, and denying that we have any sins to confess, we not only deceive ourselves (9), but that we also make God a liar (10).


1. We declare unto you (verse 3) the Word of life, which existed from eternity, which, in His assumed nature, we, Apostles, have heard speak, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have closely and minutely examined, which our hands have touched and handled.

2. For this essential life, who is also the source of all life both natural and supernatural in creatures, was manifested in his incarnation, and we have seen him, and testify regarding him even by our sufferings, and we declare him to you to be the essential life (the cause also of eternal life in us), that existed from eternity in the bosom of the Father, and in time has been manifested to us, in his assumed nature.

3. The Eternal Word, I say, which we have both seen and heard, we declare unto you, and our object in doing so is, that you may have a fellowship with us Apostles, in the profession of the same faith, and in the bonds of charity springing there from and that this fellowship may be the foundation of a more perfect fellowship, and more exalted union, between us and God the Father, together with his Son Jesus Christ.

4. And the things which we have spoken regarding the eternal and incarnate Word, announced to you by us, in order that you may enjoy a union with us and God, we write to you for this end, that you may rejoice with true and spiritual joy, on account of the prospects of future blessings, which this union will bring you, and that this your joy may be perfected in the sure possession of future glory.

5. And the announcement or declaration, which we have heard from him, while with us here on earth, and which we, in turn, make to you, is this: that God is the essential light of grace and glory, the source of all light and unalloyed sanctity in creatures, and that in him there is no fellowship or communication with the foul and darksome works of ignorance and sin, or with the workers of iniquity.

6. If, then, we say, that we have fellowship with God, while we habitually perform, and live subject to, the dominion of the works of sin and darkness, we announce what is false; and our actions are not made to square with our words; so that we lie both in word and act.

7. But, if, on the other hand, we live in the performance of good works, or the works of light, imitating his infinite and unchangeable sanctity, and becoming assimilated to him, as far as sinful creatures can approach a Creator of infinite perfection, we have fellowship with one another, that is, with God’s Church, and consequently, with God himself; and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son, by being applied to us, in the performance of good works, in the sacraments, and other channels of grace, marked out by him, cleanses us from all sin.

8. If we say, that we commit no sin whatever, even indeliberate venial sins in the course of our lives, or, that we have not incurred the liability of punishment due to sin, we deceive ourselves, by stating what is false, and the truth is not in us.

9. If we confess our sins, with the proper dispositions of penance, God is faithful in the fulfilment of his promises, and just in his engagements, so as to forgive us our sins, and, by his sanctifying and justifying grace, to cleanse us from all iniquity.

10. If we say, that we have not sinned, and that we avoid all sins during our lives, we not only deceive ourselves by being liars ourselves (verse 8), but we also make a liar of God, who, in many places of sacred Scripture, tells us, that all have gone astray, and have sinned, and commands all to pray for the remission of their sins; and his doctrine does not reside in us by faith.


1, 2, 3. From the absence of the usual salutation, some expositors call this a treatise, rather than, an Epistle. The same, however, might be said of the Epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews, which has no preface either; it may also be said, that the announcement contained (verse 3), “and our fellowship may be with God the Father,” &c., holds the place of the usual form of salutation; for, in substance, it is a most desirable one. The construction of the words in these three verses, is rather intricate and complicated. The common interpretation, followed in the Paraphrase, includes the second verse within a parenthesis, and makes the words, “we declare” (verse 3), the first words in the arrangement of the sentence. The meaning of the passage, to verse 3, is kept suspended. “We declare unto you” (verse 3), “that,” viz., “the word of life … which was from the beginning,” &c. (verse 1). “For the life was manifested,” &c. (verse 2). In this construction the “terms of the word of life” (“de verbo vitæ,”) are put for the accusative case, “the word of life” (“verbum vitæ.”) With the Hebrews, it was not unusual, to employ the ablative with a preposition for the accusative or nominative (v.g.) “effundam de spiritu meo, i.e., spiritum meum,” (Acts, 2), “dabitur ei de auro Arabiæ, i.e. aurum Arabiæ,” “adorabunt de ipso i.e., ipsum,” (Psalm 61).

This construction, however, is totally opposed to the Greek reading, wherein, ὅ “that which,” is of a different gender from, λογος “the word.” On which account, others arrange the words thus, “we declare unto you (3) of,” or concerning “the word of life, that which was from the beginning,” viz., his Divinity, “which we have heard, which we have seen,” &c., viz., his Humanity, assumed at his Incarnation; in other words, we announce to you concerning the eternal Son of God that he possesses two natures—one, the Divine, which he had from eternity; the other, the Human, which he had assumed at his Incarnation. Both constructions amount to the same, in sense.

“That which was from the beginning.” From these words, as well as from the first words of St. John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the word,” is inferred the eternity of the Son of God. By the word “beginning,” some understand, the beginning of time, or, of creation; and even from the words understood in this sense, they infer his eternity; for, at the beginning of all time, before any object was created, the Word “WAS,” and to what other moment can it refer, but the permanent, indivisible moment of eternity. This interpretation derives probability from the clear parallelism that exists between the description given by Moses of the Genesis of creation, and that given by St. John, both here, and in his gospel, of the eternal Genesis of the Son of God. In the one, it is said, “in principio creavit Deus cœlum et terram;” in the other, “in principio a principio erat verbum;” the difference being, that at the beginning of time, the world received existence, but at the same beginning the Word already WAS; hence, existing before all time, before anything was created, which would be untrue, it he himself were a creature. Therefore, he was uncreated and from eternity. By “the beginning,” then, according to these, is meant, the beginning of any time, whether actual or imaginary, and even then the Word “WAS;” hence, eternal. In scriptural language, “to be from the beginning,” expresses eternity, thus, in Isaias (43:13), God says of himself, “and from the beginning I am the same.”

Others understand the word “beginning,” as well here, as in the commencement of the gospel, to refer directly to eternity, which is a beginning without a beginning; termed, “beginning,” to suit the weak conceptions of our obscure and limited understandings.

“Which we have heard, have seen with our eyes,” &c. This refers to the human nature of the Son of God, of the reality of which, the united testimony of all the senses, viz., the hearing, sight, touch, &c., had conspired to assure the Apostles, “heard, seen, handled,” &c.; “which we have looked upon,” i.e., leisurely examined, and closely viewed, and not in a mere passing way, which is expressed by the words, “have seen him;” “which our hands have handled,” may be allusive to the practice usual with our divine Redeemer, of kissing his disciples when returning to him after any considerable absence; hence, it was with a kiss, when saluting him as usual, that Judas betrayed him; or, to the words addressed to them after his resurrection, palpate et videte, quia spiritus carnem et ossa non habet, &c.

From this verse, is proved the unity of person in Christ with two distinct natures; for, the Apostle declares, that it was the same word which existed from eternity, he and the Apostles saw, heard, &c., of course, in his human nature.

“Of the word of life,” i.e., the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Adorable Trinity. The Son of God is called in Scripture, “the Word,” i.e., the thought or conception of God. For, as our thought, or, the internal word of our mind, is generated and remains in the mind, even after it is externally expressed by the voice; so, in like manner (as far as human and divine things admit of comparison), is the Son of God begotten of Him, by an eternal generation, the substantial expression of His divine mind, consubstantial with Him, yet still existing in Him, as a distinct divine person. This, and other such comparisons, by which it is attempted to illustrate the eternal generation of the Son of God, his identity of nature and distinction of person with the Father, are, however, so imperfect and obscure, that it is better for us to contemplate, and firmly believe, rather than curiously pry into what faith proposes regarding him, both with respect to his divine nature, or his eternal generation, as God, begotten of the Father; and his human nature, assumed by him, as man, in time, being born of a virgin.

2. For the life was manifested, &c. This verse is, according to the commonly received construction, included in a parenthesis; “the life,” i.e., essential life in himself, and the author of all life, but particularly of spiritual and supernatural life in us, “was manifested,” in his assumed nature. This is added by the Apostle to show how it is that he, and the other Apostles, could have heard, seen him, &c. (verse 1); “and we have seen.” The heavenly love with which the heart of the Apostle glowed, makes him fond of repetition in everything connected with the great mystery of the Incarnation; hence, in these three verses, he repeatedly asserts, that he saw him, in his assumed nature; “and do bear witness,” we are become true martyrs by our sufferings; “and declare unto you the life eternal,” that is, we declare him unto you to be the life eternal. These words evidently refer to a person, who is the essential life in himself, and the cause of life eternal, of which the life of grace here is the seed, in others.

“Which was with the Father,” shows him to be a distinct person from the Father: “and hath appeared to us.” “Manifested” and “appeared,” have the same corresponding word in the Greek, εφανερωθη. Here, too, the fondness for repetition, the effect of divine love, in the heart of the Apostle, is observable.

3. “That which we have seen and heard, we declare unto you.” These latter words, “we declare unto,” are the first in the construction of these three verses.—(Vide Paraphrase).

“That you also may have fellowship with us.” He says, his object in announcing to them this eternal Word, which existed from eternity, and was manifested in time, was, that they should have a fellowship with the Apostles, both in the profession of the same faith, of which he had announced the two leading articles in the preceding verses, viz., the Trinity and Incarnation, involved in the Divinity of the Word, and in the bonds of charity springing from faith; “and our fellowship may be with the Father, &c.,” and this union may be with the Father and Son; for, this society between the faithful and the Apostles must not rest there; it must be the foundation of a further union with God. Hence, in order to enjoy the union of sanctifying grace or charity with God, it is necessary beforehand to be united with the true Church, and no one, who is outside the true Church by a voluntary act, can enjoy such a union with God—“non potest habere Deum patrem, qui Ecclesiam noluerit habere matrem,” (St. Cyprian de Un. Eccl.) In some copies, for “may be with the Father,” we have, is with the Father, as if the Apostle meant to show the value of a union with the Church, which is no less than a union with God himself. The Greek admits either. Commentators notice the exact parallelism which exists between the opening of this Epistle and that of the Gospel of St. John. “In principio erat verbum,” (Gospel); “quod erat ab initio de verbo vitæ,” (in this place); “in ipso vita erat—et verbum caro factum est,” (Gospel); “et vita manifestata est,” (here); “erat lux vera quæ illuminat omnem hominem,” (Gospel); “Deus lux est,” (here,) perfectly correspond.

4. In the Greek, the words, “that you may rejoice,” are wanting.

5. “The declaration,” means the subject matter of the declaration; “no darkness,” may either refer to the works of sin, or, the workers of sin, “et tenebræ eum non comprehenderunt.”—(Gospel of St. John, chap. 1) Both meanings are given in the Paraphrase. As “light” is the symbol of sanctity, grace, and glory; so, “darkness,” symbolizes ignorance and sin. By calling God, “light,” the Apostle clearly intimates, what the nature of the “life” of which God is the essence and the cause in creatures, is. He clearly refers to the spiritual life, of which the light of faith is the chief and primary ingredient.

6. These words are an inference drawn from the general proposition, announced in the foregoing verse. If God be light, having no communication with darkness, i.e., either with the works or doers of ignorance and sin, whosoever, therefore, says, that he has society or fellowship with God, at the same time “walking in,” that is, habitually-performing the works, and living subject to the passions, of “darkness,” such a person “tells a lie,” he announces what is false; “and does not the truth,” that is, speaks not the truth; or, does not that in practice, which his words announce; so that his actions do not verify his words. In this verse, the Apostle enters on the great object of all the Catholic Epistles, which is, to inculcate the necessity of works of sanctity, and to correct the error regarding the sufficiency of faith alone without good works; he introduces the subject, by saying that evil works performed, under what pretext soever, whether by persons professing the faith of Christ, or otherwise, will destroy the fellowship which should subsist between the faithful and God.

7. He shows the effect of the opposite conduct. “If we walk in the light,” that is, live in the performance of the works of light and sanctity, “as he also is in the light,” by becoming assimilated to him in his uncreated, infinite, unchangeable sanctity, as far as, in a limited way, our condition, as sinful creatures, will admit. “We have fellowship one with another,” may mean—we have fellowship with God and ourselves; or rather, we have fellowship with God’s Church, and as a consequence, with God himself; “and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin;” that is, the merits of Christ purchased by his blood, after being applied in the performance of good works, through the sacraments, and other channels of grace marked out by him, cleanse us from all sin, original and actual, whether they be mortal sins, or deliberate venial sins. From falling into either mortal sins, or the venial sins referred to, the grace of Christ preserves us, and remits these indeliberate venial faults, into which all persons must fall without an extraordinary grace from God.—(Council of Trent, SS. vi. Can. 23). Of course, in saying “that the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin,” the Apostle can, by no means, be understood to exclude our own co-operation by good works; for, so, he would be contradicting his own exhortation in the preceding verse, regarding the performance of good works. He only attributes to the grace of God, purchased by the blood of Christ, which is the principal means of our justification, the entire effect, although the will of man has its subordinate share too, a thing quite usual in SS. Scripture, (v.g.) “Unctio Dei vos omnia docebit.” “Non vos estis qui loquimini, sed spiritus, qui loquitor in vobis.”

8. “If we say,” either say in word, or think in our minds, “that we have no sin,” that during our lives we commit no sin whatever, not even venial sin; or, the words may mean, that we have not incurred the liability of punishment due to sin; and hence, have no need of the redeeming blood of Christ to cleanse us from sin (verse 7), “we deceive ourselves,” by asserting, or, thinking not only what is inconsistent with Christian humility, but, what is untrue, “and the truth is not in us,” when we entertain such a thought, or make such an assertion. It is a point of Catholic faith, defined in the Council of Trent (SS. 6, Canon 23), “that no person can, during the whole of his life, avoid all, even venial sins, unless by a special privilege of God, as the Church holds regarding the Blessed Virgin.” Hence, by the ordinary aids of grace, no one can be free from all indeliberate venial sins; and the saints can say, with truth, “forgive us our trespasses.” There is one, however, the most perfect pure creature whom God ever created, who, by a special privilege of grace, was preserved from all sin, both original and actual. This is the glorious Queen of Heaven, in whom no spot could be found—“tota pulchra es, et macula non est in te,” the solemn proclamation of whose glorious preservation, by the grace of Her Son, from the state of original sin—now a point of faith—has filled the earth with universal joy and jubilee. St. Augustine (libro de Nat. et Grat., c. 68), says, that when there is question of sin, there should be no mention whatever made of Her. Blessed be the God of all grace, who has provided so powerful a Protectress for His Church, through whose hands He deigns to transmit all the graces conferred on the human race—“omnia voluit nos habere per Mariam.”—St. Bernard.

9. The Apostle now points out the mode of receiving the remission of those sins into which we all fall; it is, by confessing them, in whatever way this confession may be appointed by God; from other passages of Scripture, we know the ordinary way to be, confession to a priest, in the tribunal of penance. But, although St. John must refer here to auricular confession, made to a priest—since we know from other passages of SS. Scripture, that this is, under ordinary circumstances, a necessary means of obtaining forgiveness for our sins—still, it does not appear, that the passage, of itself, furnishes a proof of the necessity of such confession. He puts confession for the entire process of penance, of which confession is but a part, and it is in external confession, interior sorrow manifests itself. The Apostle refers to the confession prescribed in the sacred Scriptures, whether made to a priest or to God, according to circumstances. “He is faithful and just,” regards that justice, which consists in fulfilling promises, and God promised to remit sin for the truly penitent; or, it may regard the congruity on the part of God to remit sin in the case of real penance; for, of strict justice there can be no question, only inasmuch as it may refer to the remission of sin, in consideration of the just claims, not of the sinner, but of Christ, who merited it for us.

“And cleanse us from all iniquity,” proves inherent, and refutes the doctrine of imputative, justice. The words of the Apostle requiring of us to confess our sins, show, that the blood of Christ does not “cleanse us” immediately of itself (verse 7), without being applied through our own good works and co-operation, and through the channels of grace, instituted by God for that purpose.

10. In this verse, he, probably, repeats the same thing expressed by him (verses 6 and 8), in order to confound human pride; or it may bear a different signification from the foregoing, and mean, if we say, not only, that we have no sin at present, but that we never sinned in our past lives, “we make him (God) a liar;” who, in many places, charges all mankind with being under sin; “and his word is not in us,” that is, we have not true faith in his revealed word, which condemns and convicts the whole world of sin.

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