Here is the text:
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”
Now, this text has been used on both sides of the FV debate. Critics use this as a proof-text for the standard understanding of the visible/invisible church distinction. Wilkins has a rather extensive exposition of this passage on page 17 of his exam. He will be my dialog (sparring?) partner.
The first question that must be asked is this: who is the “us” in the verse? Two options have presented themselves. The first is that John and his readers make up the “us.” The second option is that the “us” is the apostles. Obviously, if the second option is correct, then the verse cannot be used as a proof-text for the visible/invisible church distinction, since the ones who left are not then described as being in the church; they would only be described as being sent by the apostles.
However, the “apostles” understanding of the “us” is not tenable for contextual reasons. The “us” must be referring to the same group as the “we” in the last part of the previous verse. That verse goes like this: “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.” Surely, the “we” in the last sentence cannot be limited to the apostles, since, by telling his readers that it is the last hour, everyone knows, not just the apostles! It is a literary “we,” identifying the writer with the readers. This understanding of the “we” is by no means shaken by the fact that “you” refers to the readers in the first part of the verse. Obviously, the “you” refers to the readers. But it refers to the readers minus the writer. It would be unnatural in the extreme, therefore, for John to posit a contrast between the readers and the apostles in that verse. Such a contrast would make no sense. Therefore, the “we” in verse 18 is referring to readers plus John. In short, it is the church. That makes a sudden departure from this usage to that of “apostles” impossible in verse 19. The “us” of verse 19 is the same as the “we” of verse 18.
The next question that must be examined is the timing of the false teachers. Did they cease to be part of us, or were they never part of us? Wilkins says that the former is an exegetical and grammatical option. However, he does not argue his case. He merely asserts it. I, on the other hand, will argue my position, which is that the false teachers were never part of the church.
First of all, we must note the tense of the verb “to be.” It is imperfect. Imperfect does not have the sense of completion, but of incompletion. In other words, there is not a change of status in the present. The imperfect conveys rather a continuous action in the past. They were continually not of us.
Furthermore, the sentence starting in the second part of the verse expresses a contrary-to-fact condition (BDF 360). It is contrary to fact that they were of us. Therefore, the logical corollary is that they never were of us. Wilkins’s case has not only not been made, but now has been shown to be impossible. The verse describes the traditional view that these false teachers came out from the church (“us”), but were never part of the church (“not of us”).
Of course, Wilkins is correct in saying “there is no compelling reason to say that John is claiming these eventual apostates never experienced ANY (emphasis his) blessing whatsoever while they remained in the covenant community.” I think any critic of Wilkins could agree with this. But, what are the nature of those blessings? Saving? No. None of them.