(PART FIVE OF A SIX-PART SERIES)
We are delighted that Dr. Jones has agreed to expand this current study of 1 John from four parts to six, helping us to dig even deeper into this Epistle for the remainder of 2020.
In his First Epistle, the apostle John drew an identikit portrait of the Christian to enable his “little children” to recognize themselves as possessors of eternal life. He used three interconnecting lines of character to do so—namely, faith in Jesus as the Christ of God, obedience to his precepts, and love to fellow believers. These are divine graces and not human virtues. To some degree they are all present in believers as a consequence of their having been born again by the Spirit of God. Having given attention to the opening verses of John’s letter and surveyed its contents in the light of this declared purpose, we will now consider its conclusion. This will be done in two parts under the titles of “Assurance in Prayer” and “Assurance Is Knowledge.” In this article, we look at the former.
First John 5:13–17
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know you have eternal life. And this is the confidence we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. (vv. 13–15)
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. (vv. 16–17)
To be assured of one’s salvation is indeed an immense blessing. It imparts a “confidence before God,” even with regard “to the day of judgment” (see 3:19–20; 4:17). But it should not result in anyone becoming otherworldly (much less proud), and John makes this clear by connecting it with “asking” in prayer. As no one makes a request for what they already possess, this means that divine help is still needed by assured believers who do not live in a rarefied atmosphere but in an imperfect church and a fallen world. They have duties to perform and burdens to carry.
Being assured is therefore an immense help in living the “ordinary” Christian life. It provides an extra stimulus for faithful obedience to what has been heard, over against the danger of being deceived, and also for caring for one another (see 2:1; 2:24–29; 3:4–18). This “confidence toward” God should be translated into requests for themselves and for others, so that they may receive cleansing from sins (1:9), make spiritual progress (2:12–14), and be granted recovery from sinful waywardness when appropriate (see 5:16–17).
The Greek word that is translated as “confidence” (parresia) is an important term in the New Testament. As the apostle Paul used it to identify the difference between the Sinaitic covenant and the new covenant in writing to the Corinthians (see 2 Cor. 3:4), it is the hallmark of new covenant spirituality. The noun is a compound of pas and rhema, which mean “every” and “word,” respectively. It is “the right of free speech” of a Christian kind, being used in connection with proclamation and testimony to other human beings (Acts 4:13) and also to God in prayer (Eph. 3:12). John uses it in connection with bold approach and explicit address to God (see 3:21; 4:17; 5:14) and appearance before Christ at his return (see 2:28).
The verses from 1 John 5:13–17 focus attention on prayer in connection with supplications being made and favorably answered. This is done from a general perspective and then with reference to a particular circumstance, as set out above. That is how we will consider them.
In General: Verses 14 and 15
The matter of prayer has been mentioned twice before this final declaration. First, it is implied in what John wrote about confession of sins and God’s response with forgiveness and cleansing based on Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice on earth and his consequent ministry in heaven (see 1:7–2:2–3). Second, in a statement that anticipates the verses under consideration he wrote, “We have confidence before God, and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him” (see 3:21–22). The open-endedness of those statements encourages the petitioning believer to make requests in the expectation of receiving favorable replies. They echo the Lord’s words to his disciples in the Upper Room (John 14:13–14) and also more generally in the familiar words, “Ask and it shall be given you” (Matt. 7:7).
As everyone is all too aware, however, there is some limitation to be factored into the positive picture John describes from three different angles. In the Gospel, such prayer must be “in Christ’s name”; in the Epistle, it is associated with obedience on the part of the one who prays, and then lastly with the request being “in accord with God’s will.” Two things need to be asserted about these variants. First, they interrelate harmoniously, because to “ask in Christ’s name” means to request what is in keeping with his character and glory (see John 5:43), and that is inseparable from a life of obedience or “pleasing” him, which cannot but be in accord with the Father’s “will” (1 John 5:14). There is no conflict between them. Second, they do not introduce such a severe condition as to discourage requests being presented and so should not be used (misused really!) to exclude urgent and even daring petitions.
But John adds something that means more than that such praying is never futile. He says, “And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we asked of him.” This is a statement about what those who live to please the Lord may know in the course of their praying. The verb “to know,” which is twice used here, can mean “to perceive” as has been suggested in earlier studies. Since it is unavoidably subjective in its reference, it means that suppliants not only have their requests conditioned by God’s revealed will, but that they are also given an intimation (by the indwelling Spirit) that those requests will be answered. The verb “to have” is in the present tense. This is “the faith that moves mountains” (see 1 Cor. 12:9; 13:2; Matt. 21:20–22; Mark 11:20–24). It is connected with a life of obedient communion that is a million miles from “live as you please” and “name it and claim it.” It is the prayer of faith (James 3:15).
In Particular: Verses 16 and 17
In these words, a circumstance is envisaged in which the kind of praying that John has just described is appropriate. He has already called for an open-handed response to the basic needs of other believers (see 3:17–18); and now, when they sin openly, he calls for something similar but in the spiritual realm. Christians should not therefore be preoccupied with their own joys or sorrows, much less with the assurance of their own salvation. If one “sees” that someone has sinned, the spontaneous reaction should be to “ask” for “life” for that person in the expectation that God will grant the request.
But a reservation is again introduced, because of the two sins designated; one is excluded from such a prayer. It is the “sin that leads to death” about which John says, “I do not say that one should pray for that.” The identity of this sin has been a longstanding question in the church, and some comment will be made on it below. But first it should be noted that what John says about it is by way of confirmation of his main message. His readers are well aware that there is a sin unto death (and what it is, unlike modern day readers). He therefore says that he is not including that sin in his exhortation to intercede, so that they should not let it hinder them in their praying for one another. Taking note of this should prevent undue prominence being given to “the sin that leads to death” in any study of this passage, especially as John mentions it only once whereas he refers to its opposite three times! Loving intercession is therefore the standing order of the gospel day—both prompt and persistent.
This focus on the two sins is reminiscent of a solemn statement Jesus made early in his earthly ministry. When the Scribes and Pharisees attributed his exorcisms to his being in league with Beelzebub, Jesus said to them,
“Truly, truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they were saying he has an unclean Spirit. (See Mark 3:28–30; Matt. 12:31–32; Luke 11:22–46)
Both John and Peter heard that statement, and given the Lord’s promise of the Spirit’s ministry of recall (John 14:26), it is the most helpful statement to bear in mind on what John refers to here and what Peter also mentioned (see 2 Pet. 2:20–22).1 This connection is far more helpful than the classification of venial and mortal sins in Roman Catholic dogma and certainly of any allusion being made to the Seven Deadly Sins.
But “the sin that does not lead to death” is something alarming. Having said that “sin is lawlessness” (3:4) and now that it is “unrighteousness” (KJV), the essence of “the sin not unto death” is rebellion and transgression. The difference between the two sins lies, therefore, in result, not character. Although it is not “the sin unto death,” it resembles it enough in that it stems from a deadening influence with regard to spiritual realities and results in a deadness or dullness to them. Sin always has a toxic effect. In a comment on James 1:15, George G. Findlay wrote that “sin is the daughter of lust and the mother of death.” Hence the need for an intercessor to ask for “life” with the expectation of its being given to the offender in answer to such prayer on the offender’s behalf. John attributes the life needed to the intercessor, although it is of course impossible to exclude God from the giving of the answer—and John has said that twice in his previous statement. James says something similar at the end of his letter.
So how might this work out? Christians are to walk in the light with God and in love with one another. Open sin brings a cloud into the fellowship. It raises the awful possibility that the sinning “brother” is not a true believer after all (see 2:19). This sounds an alarm and fuels the need for reproof (Matt. 18:15; 1 Cor. 5:1ff.) and more. But none of this is to be undertaken without the kind of praying that John urges here (see also Gal. 6:1ff.). Recovery is much to be preferred to even the least measure of church discipline. Intercessors are better than investigators. Secret prayer in love can hide a multitude of sins, and prayer can be answered in a thousand ways. As Findlay wrote,
None of us can tell how much of the life that is his in Christ has come through the channel of his own faith, and how much he owes to the intercession of others. There is a profound solidarity in the co-operation of believing prayer; this communion is of the inmost life and mystery of the Body of Christ.2
And the Day shall declare it.
Hywel R. Jones is professor emeritus of practical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
- Also relevant are Num. 15:22–31 and Heb. 6:4–6; 10:26–29.
- George G. Findlay, Fellowship in the Life Eternal (London: Hodder & Stoughton, n.d.), 405.