Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
Prayer is a very important part of the Christian life. Someone has said that a prayerless Christian is a person who has forgotten that theology must always be combined with knee-ology. Someone else said that a prayerless Christian is like a man trying to push a bus out of a ditch by himself when Superman is standing beside him. Well, there is instruction about prayer in this passage that is wonderfully encouraging and useful for believers.
But there are also words in vv16-17 about the sin that leads to death. And these words have fascinated and frightened believers for centuries. With some believers, you mention 1 John and they straight way want to know how you understand these two verses: What is the sin that leads to death? Do you understand the six interpretations of these verses? Which one do you think is right? Why? And what does John mean by the last part of v16? For them these verses are an opportunity for a kind of juicy theological discussion. But for others these are confusing or even frightening words: Could I have committed this sin? Could my husband or wife or child, who used to profess faith in Christ, be one of those described here? And if so, does this mean I or they are beyond hope?
So we have two interesting and important topics here – prayer and the sin that leads to death. Indeed, you might be wondering why I have not divided this passage into two so we have one sermon on prayer and another on the sin that leads to death? Well, that is because John is not dealing here with two separate topics. Indeed, it would have been quite appropriate to preach on vv14-21 as a sermon text. A grand conclusion or a major theme of this entire letter was stated in v13, where John said, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” And following on from this key assurance, there are four “we know” statements in vv14-21. So alongside our being able to know for certain that we have eternal life, John provides four certainties that have to do with the Christian life – we know something about prayer, we know something about sin, we know something about the world, and we know something about Jesus Christ.
But rather than take all four together, which would have limited the time we could spend on what are some important matters and questions that arise out of vv14-17, we look at the first of these four “we know” statements today. The “we know” statement itself is found in v15. And you will see that it is a double “we know”: “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.” Now everything else in v14-17 supports or explains this statement. vv14-15 are not isolated instruction about prayer; they have to do with what is discussed in vv16-17. Let me explain: Many times in this sermon series we have mentioned ch. 2:19, where we read that former members of the congregation that John wrote this letter to had left the congregation. And the most likely explanation for this is that they had embraced Gnostic theology, which was heresy. So think about that for a moment. Those people would have been the spouses of, or the children of, or the uncles or aunts or cousins or friends of those who had remained behind. And even if they were not family or close friends, they were those who had worshiped and served together with those who remained behind as brothers and sisters in Christ. This was a very painful situation. And what John has said about those the Gnostics was strong and serious – he has called them liars and without truth and without God’s word and antichrists and those who do not have eternal life. So while the believers John wrote to would come to v13 and find wonderful reassurance about their own salvation, many of them would still be deeply troubled about the eternal destiny of loved ones who were among the Gnostics.
And that is what vv14-17 is all about. In these verses, JOHN PROVIDES INSTRUCTION ABOUT PRAYING FOR BROTHERS AND SISTERS WHO SIN. And this has important application for us here today. For we too have had people we worshiped and served with as brothers or sisters in Christ, some of whom are family members we love very much, who commit serious sin, or who do not profess faith in Christ at all, or who have embraced false theology. It is important then that we understand rightly what is said here. So let’s work through these verses together.
I. Vv14-15, as we have said, are about PRAYER. They are an echo of what Jesus taught in the Gospels. Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given you.” He said, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” He said, “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, He will give it to you.” So John says, “And this is the confidence that we have toward Him (meaning Jesus), 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. So let’s think carefully about what John says here so that we can see how it relates to what he says in vv16-17:
A. Notice, first of all, WHICH PERSON OF THE TRINITY IS IN VIEW HERE; it is, as I have already mentioned, the Lord Jesus. v13 was about the name of the Son of God and v14 is continuing to talk about “Him.” So the same person is in view here – the Lord Jesus. Now, the eagle eyed among us might have looked down to v16 and noted that it mentions asking there also and God. But if your Bible has notes, you will see that the literal Greek is “he,” not the name of God; the ESV translators have interpreted the he as God. Strictly speaking then, the He that is in view in these verses is the Lord Jesus. And this is one of the proofs of the divinity or God-ness of Jesus. I quoted a moment ago from John 14:14, which is where Jesus says, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” Because Jesus is fully God, we may pray directly to Him. We can pray, Thank you, Lord Jesus… or We praise you, Lord Jesus… or Help me, Lord Jesus… We can talk to our Saviour in prayer. Isn’t that wonderful!
B. And notice, secondly, that the emphasis of v14 is HEARING. The Lord Jesus hears our prayers. We may have confidence that the Lord Jesus hears our prayers.
1. Perhaps one of the most frustrating things that happens today is when we send someone an email and we wait and wait for a reply, only to find out later on that the person we sent the email to says that they never got the email or that they never saw it. We thought our email was heard, but it wasn’t. And I am sure you boys and girls can remember a time when you asked your sibling to pass you the peanut butter, and they don’t. So you say to them (usually with a whinny and angry voice), Bob or Jane, I asked you to pass me the peanut butter! But their response is that they did not hear you.
2. Well, “This is the confidence that we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us.” He hears us; the Lord Jesus hears our prayers. And this is so with the Father or the Holy Spirit also; God hears our prayers. And this too is a wonderful encouragement for pray.
C. But the confidence we have toward Him in prayer is NOT ONLY THAT HE HEARS US, BUT ALSO IN TERMS OF HIS ANSWER, as we see in v15, “We know that we have the requests that we have asked of Him.” And to understand these words correctly we have to take into account four very important words in vv14-15. Do you know what they are? “According to His will.”
1. And of course, the supreme example of this is the Lord Jesus Himself. Remember how He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane? “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” In His prayers, Jesus’ ultimate concern was with the will of God.
2. And so it should be with you and me. The quotes about prayer that I read out at the beginning of this section and these verses here in 1 John are not an invitation for us to pray for a Ferrari and be sure that we will get one. Prayer is not about getting God’s will to match ours but about getting our will to match God’s.
3. And so, for example, may we be 100% confident that if we ask God to help us to grow in love and joy and gentleness and self-control, that He will help us to grow in L/J/G/SC? Absolutely. And why may we be 100% confident about this? Because the Bible tells us that it is God’s will that we grow in L/J/G/SC.
4. But may we be 100% confident that if we ask God to heal a loved one that He will heal that person? No we may not. Why? Because the Bible does not tell us whether God will heal that person or not. We do not know God’s will regarding our loved one’s health. We do know, from the Bible, that God can and does heal people. So it is legitimate to pray for healing. And we may be 100% confident that God hears our prayers about our sick loved one. And if we pray for healing, but may your will be done, then, whether the answer of God is Yes or Not yet or No, then we do “have the requests that we have asked of Him.” If we pray for things that we may legitimately ask of God, with the understanding or the words that our ultimate desire is that God’s will be done, then whether the answer of God is Yes or Not yet or No, then we always “have the requests that we have asked of Him.”
II. So with all that in view, now we are ready to move from what these words teach about prayer in general to the specific situation that John is speaking to here, which is the eternal destiny of brothers and sisters who sin. Once again, we can well imagine the pain and turmoil in the hearts of the people John originally wrote to; those who they used to worship and serve with, who might have even been a spouse or child or relative or close friend, had left to be with the Gnostics. So while those who remained behind had the wonderful assurance of v13 for themselves, what about their brothers and sisters who had left?
A. Now, John uses an idea in these verses – sin that leads to death or not to death – that he does not explain here because he knew his readers would readily understand what he meant. So just as we did last week, in reference to John’s mention of ‘water and blood’ in v6, we look for the plainest meaning of this idea, as the one that best suits the context and that accords with other places in Scripture that speak about the same topic. Verse 12 talked about some having life and some not having life. And this was a clear reference to eternal life, as is made explicit in v13. So the plainest and most appropriate to the context meaning of death and life in vv16-17 is eternal destiny. There is sin that does not lead to eternal damnation and there is sin that does lead to eternal damnation. And this understanding accords also with what Jesus said about blasphemy of the Holy Spirit in Matthew 12, for example, as the sin that “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” There is sin that leads to eternal damnation and there is sin that does not lead to eternal damnation.
B. And it is necessary for John to make this distinction because, as he says in v17, “All wrongdoing is sin.” John has been very clear throughout his letter that all sin is wicked. However, as John continues, “There is sin that does not lead to death.” As we saw way back in ch. 1, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” Believers, children of God, will not be entirely free of sin until they are with the Lord Jesus. So not all sin automatically leads to eternal damnation. Even what we typically think of as very serious sins do not automatically lead to eternal damnation.
1. And I want to pause here to speak to that person here today who has committed what are typically viewed as very serious sin or sins, and who is now concerned that he or she might have committed the sin that leads to death. My friend, read the Bible and you will come across these people who are God’s beloved children – Jacob the liar, Moses the murderer, Rahab the prostitute, David the adulterer and murderer, Paul the persecutor of Christians, and Peter the Christ-denier. All these confessed their sins and repented of them and believed that Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of their sins, and they are now with the Lord Jesus in heaven. In Jesus Christ, there is forgiveness for sins, including sins like these.
C. So WHAT THEN IS THE SIN THAT LEADS TO DEATH? Well, in the light of Jesus’ words in Matthew 12 about blasphemy of the Holy Spirit and all that we have read here in 1 John, the sin that leads to death is to know that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, and then to reject that truth and proclaim to others that Jesus is not the eternal Son of God, and to live a life of lawlessness, which is to willfully and continually ignore God’s commandments. What are the three PoF tests we have continually encountered in 1 John? The moral test – we strive to keep God’s commandments, the social test – we love our brothers and sisters, and the theological test – we continue to love the truth about Jesus Christ. So when you willfully break God’s commandments, and you do not love your brothers and sisters, and you now reject the truth about Jesus Christ, despite the fact that you might claim to be a Christian, the truth is that you are on the pathway to eternal damnation.
D. So, with that in mind, we can see how vv16&17 connect with vv14&15. In any group you have leaders and followers, you have long time adherents and newbies, you have experts and novices, you have those who are teachers and those who are students, you have those up the front and those in the background, you have those who are fully committed and those who are turning up but not yet fully convinced. And so it would have been among the Gnostics. There would have been leaders and long time adherents and experts and the fully committed teachers, and those who were followers and newbies and students who were turning up but not yet fully committed. If we put Christianity and Gnosticism on a sliding scale, with Christianity over here and Gnosticism over there, there would have been some or many who were 100% Gnostics but somewhere in the middle.
1. And so, John is encouraging the believers in this congregation to pray for the brothers and sisters who are among the Gnostics. The hardcore, committed teachers among the Gnostics, who were publicly and consistently teaching lies about Jesus Christ and who had given themselves over to lawlessness, they are the ones about whom Paul says at the end of v17, “There is a sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray about that.” But notice here that John does not forbid prayer; he does not say, You must not pray for that, but rather that you must not feel that you should or ought to or are required to pray for that. But congregation, John would not have wanted his readers to focus here on the exception and to get bogged down in debates about who might have committed the sin that leads to death. His desire was to encourage these believers to confident prayer, even concerning those among the Gnostics, because “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.”
2. And these believers and we today know what God’s will is for all those He has chosen to eternal life in Jesus Christ. We read it in John 6 where Jesus said, “And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given me, but raise it up on the last day.” Because the Lord Jesus will not let one of those whom God has chosen to eternal life slip through His fingers and perish, these believers were to pray to God, with confidence. And they were to pray that the Lord Jesus would rescue their brothers and sisters from the error of Gnosticism, by bringing those who were backsliding children of God to repentance and those who were as yet in unbelief to a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
3. And people of God, this should be our prayer too for those we know and love who are not walking in fellowship with Christ today. We must pray that the Lord Jesus would bring them to faith and repentance, whether they be backsliding children of God or those who as yet are in unbelief. And we can pray with the same confidence as the believers John wrote to because when we pray that the Lord would bring our loved one to faith and repentance, because Jesus promised that He will lose nothing of that [the Father] has give [Him], we are praying according to God’s will, even though we do not know God’s will for the specific person we are praying about. So we pray, of course, hoping that the Lord Jesus would bring our loved one to repentance, knowing that He hears us, and that we have the requests that we have asked of Him, whether His answer is Yes, Not yet, or even No.
These words, people of God, are A CALL TO PRAYER for brothers and sisters in sin. And where the Lord would have us focus our attention is on the promise of Christ that He will give life to our brothers and sisters who are committing sin that does not lead to death. These words should fill us with thankfulness for the grace that God has shown to us and hope concerning our loved ones who do not walk with Christ. Praise God for His grace to undeserving sinners through Jesus Christ. Amen.