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1 John 5:13-21: Praying as Believers Print E-mail
1, 2, 3 John
Sunday, 10 January 2010

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It is helpful when an author explicitly identifies his purpose for writing.  I remember being in classes in college and seminary where the professor would hand out a syllabus to begin the class that included a section that stated something like this: ‘The purpose of this course is…’ and what followed clearly identified the purpose of the course (at least in the professor’s mind).  For the most part, I always found this to be helpful.  After all, its good to know why you are spending your time coming to class, taking notes, reading books, studying for tests, writing papers, etc.  Knowing the purpose and keeping it clearly in my mind encouraged me in these labors.

John tells us explicitly the purpose of the letter of 1 John in 5:13.  Look at that verse with me.  He has written so that you may know that you have eternal life.  The original readers were struggling against false teachers, many of whom had once been a part of their own community.  The opponents were trying to lead more astray.  Yet, into this difficult situation, John has written them so that they can know the truth about eternal life.  He wants them to have assurance and confidence that what they believe about Christ is true.  Thus, he has been reminding them of what they have believed from the beginning and demonstrating the errors of those who have left the Church.  Just as John identified his purpose in writing his Gospel (see John 20:31), he has done the same with this letter.

Yet, he does not end the letter with this verse.  He wants to address a few more issues before closing.  In one sense, what he writes is simply a review of things he has already said in the letter.  He has talked about prayer in 3:19-22 and the believer’s relationship to sin in 1:5-2:6 and 3:4-10, both subjects that he returns to here.  Yet, we need to hear what else he has to say on these matters and how they relate to each other.  Again, he is writing that we might know that we have eternal life.  He goes on to speak about how those who do believe in Christ, those who do have eternal life through Him, should pray.  What then does he say about praying as believers?

The confidence of our prayers (v. 14-15)

John tells us that those who believe in Christ should have confidence that God hears and answers their prayers.  Look at what he says in verses 14-15.  We can have confidence because we know that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us and if he hears us we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.  I fear we have a tendency to go to extremes that miss what John is saying here.  Some think that John is giving believers a blank check.  We can pray and ask for anything and if we really believe God will be obligated to give what we ask.  Others, wanting to avoid that error go so far in the other direction that they end up concluding that John is really not saying all that much. 

I believe that neither of these interpretations does justice to what John has written.  He wants us to have confidence when we pray.  He wants us to be bold in our requests and bold in our expectation of what God will do.  Yet, he does give us the qualifier: we must pray according to his will.  We must recognize that God is not a wishing well or a magic genie.  He is almighty God and we must submit our wills to His, not because He is tyrannical but because He is all-loving and all-knowing and all-wise.  We seek to understand His will by what He has revealed to us through the Word and the Word who became flesh.  Then, we pray according to that will.  There are a number of passages that are similar to this one (like the one we read to open our service from John 16).  We must not explain them away, but we must not fail to see the qualifiers either.  John Stott comments: “Prayer is not a convenient device for imposing our will upon God, or for bending his will to ours, but the prescribed way of subordinating our will to his…Every true prayer is a variation on the theme ‘your will be done.’”1  Yes, we make our will known (just as Jesus did in the garden), but we submit our wills to the Father’s.  We pray with confidence as we pray according to his will.

The content of our prayers (v. 16-17)

One way to pray according to God’s will is to pray for the things that the biblical writers tell us to pray for and to model our prayers after the ones we find in Scripture.  John goes on in our text this morning to mention one thing that we should be praying for.  Look at verses 16-17.  John tells us that if we see a brother in sin, then we should pray for them.  Before we look further at the importance of praying for one another, we need to try and understand what John means by sin that leads to death.  Let me be upfront and just note that John does not tell us exactly what he means by this phrase and therefore any interpretation we offer will be somewhat speculative.  Yet, in light of the rest of the letter (and the rest of the Bible), what can we say?  Some see this as a reference to the blasphemy of the Spirit that Jesus warned against.  This is possible, since Jesus talks about this sin as being unforgivable (see Matthew 12:22-32).  Yet, there is no clue in the present context that John has this in mind.  Because of this and due to the rest of the letter that deals so frequently with the opponents, I would see the phrase as a reference to the obstinate unbelief of those that have left the Church.  They have denied that Jesus came in the flesh and that He died as the Christ.  Such unbelief seems to fit the description of being sin that leads to death.  Likewise, such an interpretation at least points us in the direction of blasphemy against the Spirit.  Some note that John does not expressly forbid praying for those sinning in this way.  Yet, his language is seemingly clear and hard to get around.

After all of this, what can we say about these verses?  Let me just mention two thoughts.  First, we need to feel the weight of sin.  I plead with you: do not play around with your sin.  Do not treat it like it is no big deal.  Granted we do not need to have an unhealthy fear of sin that leads to death (which would lead to doubt and despair), but we do need to see sin for what it is and avoid it altogether.  Second, we need to pray for our brothers/sisters who are sin.  We need to be broken for that brother/sister and go boldly to the Lord on his/her behalf.  How sad that sin in the life of a believer often leads to gossip and slander when it should lead us to our knees.  Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another.

The reasons we pray for one another with confidence (v. 18-20)

What confidence do we have in praying for a brother/sister who is in sin?  John gives us three reasons to have confidence in verses 18-20.  These reasons also serve as a good summary of what he has been teaching us in the letter.  John puts them in the form of three things that we know to be true as believers.  So what does he say?

First, we know that true believers will not keep on sinning.  Look at verse 18.  John made similar statements in 3:6, 8.  He has taught us over and over again in this letter that those who are truly born of God will not continually practice sin.  No, they will have victory over it.  How do we know this?  In 3:8 John tells us that believers do not practice sin because God’s seed abides in him.  We argued that John uses the term ‘seed’ to refer to the Spirit.  He gives a similar reason why believers will not sin in 5:18.  We do not sin because he who is born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.  John seems to be referring to Christ with this statement.  Jesus protects us from practicing sin and from the Devil.  He keeps us and guards us.  Thus, believers will not continue in sin because of the work of the Spirit and the Son.  Since this is true, we can battle the sin in our own lives with great confidence and we can pray for our brothers/sisters in sin with confidence as well. 

Second, we know that true believers are from God.  Look at verse 19.  John gives us one final line in the sand for this letter.  If we believe in Christ, then we have been born of God and belong to Him.  If we do not believe in Christ, then we lie in the power of the evil one.  There are only two categories of people in all of the world: believers and unbelievers, those who trust in Christ as Savior and those who do not, those who have life and those who do not, those who have been born of God and those who belong to the Devil.  We need to live our lives in light of this truth.  We need to soberly examine ourselves and be certain that we have indeed turned from our sins and placed our faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Through faith in Him, we can have victory over sin and be delivered from the power of the Devil.  Likewise, we can pray for other believers in sin knowing that they have been born of God.

Third, we know that true believers are in Christ.  Look at verse 20.  How do we know that we have been born of God?  Who has taught us what it means to be reconciled to the Father?  Who has secured our secured our pardon and purchased our redemption?  None other than Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  We are reconciled, pardoned, and redeemed in and through Him.  He has taken on flesh to give us understanding and to reveal the Father.  We know that He is God.  We know that the Father is God.  We know that the Spirit is God.  We know that there is no other God besides the One who exists in these three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit.  We know this because He has chosen to reveal what is true and we are now in Him who is true.  Through Him we know the true God and we have been given eternal life.  And again, through this gift we have great confidence to come to Him with our prayers for others.

John has given us every reason to have confidence and assurance that we have eternal life.  He has taught us how to examine ourselves and what it means to be in Christ.  He has implored us to remain in Him and obey Him and love and pray for each other with great confidence.  So then, how does he close the letter?  Look at verse 21.  It seems odd does it not?  Why does he close with commanding us to keep yourselves from idols?  I believe that this is just another way for him to say to his readers and to us: ‘Do not believe the lies about Jesus and what it means to be his followers.  No, continue to believe that He came in the flesh as the Christ and died on the cross as the same.  Let that belief drive out sin and disobedience.  Let it cause to you to lay your lives down for one another and to pray passionately for the sanctification of your brothers/sisters in Christ.  Believe in the true God and keep yourselves from idols.’  May we hear this charge this morning and be faithful to obey it by the grace given from the only true God.  Amen.

1 John Stott, The Letters of John TNTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), p. 188.

~ William Marshall ~

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