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1 John 5:20
And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.

The words “this is the true God” could either be applied to “him who is true” or “his Son Jesus Christ.” The Greek is ambiguous on this. Thus, in order to determine which interpretation is the best, we need to look at the theology, in particular, of John and 1-3 John. In this case, there is a very similar statement in John 17.3.

John 17:3
This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.

In this text, Jesus is in prayer to his Father (cf. Jn 17.1) and says that eternal life is to know that You (the Father) are the only true God and to know Jesus Christ whom he sent. Thus, out of the two mentioned in John 17.3, which is the “true God?” The answer can only be: the Father of Jesus Christ. Thus, if in John 17.3 there is a clear declaration that the Father is the only true God and then in 1 John 5.20 (which was written afterwards) there is a statement about “the true God and eternal life,” it is only logical to say that the same being is in view here. This is one of the basic principles of interpreting Scripture (or any literature). We assume the author is not contradicting himself and try to understand statements that can mean multiple things by absolute statements that are clear. So, if John writes that the Father is the only true God and eternal life depends on knowing him in one place and then later refers to “the true God and eternal life,” we are on excellent grounding to say the second statement refers to the first. Now, having said this, there are cases where this rule has exceptions. For example, if the context of a statement is obviously definitive in changing the statement to mean something else (such as in sarcasm and other figures of speech).

Even so, some say that this verse is not ambiguous, but that “the true God” clearly refers to the last clause of the sentence. But, this is not a grammatical necessity as can be demonstrated by looking at 1 John 2.22.

1 John 2:22
Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.

If we say that the statement “this is the antichrist…” must refer to the last person mentioned in the prior sentence then we must conclude that Jesus Christ is the antichrist. But, of course, this is absurd, and no one maintains that this is the case. Obviously the phrase, “this is the antichrist…” is referring to “the liar” of the prior sentence. So it is with the case of 1 John 5.20. The statement, “this is the true God…” refers not to “his son Jesus Christ,” but to “him who is true,” or the Father of the son. In my efforts to study this verse I came across these commentaries on the subject which you may also find helpful:

Joh. Ed. Huthe, Meyer’s Commentary on the New Testament, 1884, pp. 622-623.

“As is well known, views have differed from old times about the meaning of outos. While the Arians understand outos of God, the orthodox refer it to the immediately preceding en to uio ‘I. Chr., and use this passage as a proof of the divinity of the Son. This interpretation remained the prevailing one in the church…and against this the Socinians, and then Grotius, Wetstein, the English Anti-Trinitarians, and the German Rationalists followed the opposite view…The dispute cannot be settled on grammatical lines, for outos can be referred both to ton alethinon and also to to uio…The former reference…is supported by the expression: ho alethinos theos; for, in the first place, it is more natural to understand here the same subject as is previously designated by ho alethinos, than any other; and, in the second place, the Father and the Son, God and Jesus Christ, are always so definitely distinguished throughout the whole Epistle, that it would be strange if, at the close of it, and, moreover, just after both subjects have been similarly distinguished immediately before, Christ—without further explanation, too—should be described as ho alethinos theos, especially as this designation is never ascribed to the Son in the writings of John, definitely though the divinity of the Son is taught in them.” (my apologies for transliterating from Greek to English, I couldn’t get the Greek font to work)

Glen W. Barker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank E. Gaebelein, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), p. 357.

“He” in 20b is literally “this one” (houtos)…Grammatically the pronoun most naturally refers to Jesus Christ. Westcott, (p. 187) however, argues that in terms of subject emphasis it more naturally refers backwards to God, who earlier in the text was designated as the one who is true (20a): “This Being—this One who is true, who is revealed through and in His Son, with whom we are united by His Son—is the true God and life eternal.” Stott supports Westcott, noting that all “three references to ‘the true’ are to the same Person, the Father, and the additional points made in the apparent final repetition are that it is this One, namely the God made known by Jesus Christ, who is the true God, and that, besides this, He is eternal life. As He is both light and love (i.5, iv.8), so He is also life” (Stott, p. 196; cf. Brooke, pp. 152-53; Dodd, Johanine Epistles, p.140).

John W. Stott, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: The Letters of John (Revised Edition), (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 197-198.

“The final sentence of verse 20 runs: He is the true God and eternal life. To whom does he refer? Grammatically speaking, it would normally refer to the nearest preceding subject, namely his Son Jesus Christ. If so, this would be the most unequivocal statement of the deity of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, which the champions of orthodoxy were quick to exploit against the heresy of Arius. Luther and Calvin adopted this view. Certainly it is by no means an impossible interpretation. Nevertheless, ‘the most natural reference’ (Westcott) is to him who is true. In this way the three references to ‘the true’ are to the same person, the Father, and the additional points made in the apparent final repetition are that it is this one, namely the God made known by Jesus Christ, who is both the true God and eternal life. As he is both light and love (1.5; 4.8), so he is also life, himself the only source of life (Jn. 5.26) and the giver of life in Jesus Christ (11). The whole verse is strongly reminiscent of John 17.3, for there as here eternal life is defined in terms of knowing God, both Father and Son.”

Quoting these scholars doesn’t make something right or wrong, but it does help to show that this is not some unitarian invention on how to interpret this verse. In conclusion, I will quote our verse (1 John 5.20) along with the verse that precedes it as well as the one that follows it, and I encourage you to read it with an open heart:

1 John 5.19-21
19 We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. 20 And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life. 21 Little children, guard yourselves from idols.

  

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