One of my favorite family movies is Steven Spielberg’s Hook. It is a live action sequel of sorts to the Peter Pan story in which Peter leaves Neverland and grows up, marrying, raising children, and completely forgetting his former, adventurous identity. His green, leafy suit is replaced by a business suit; his pirate skirmishes become courtroom battles as an attorney; and is free-spirited flying turns into an ironic fear of heights. As Captain Hook, who kidnaps Peter’s children proclaims, he is no longer even a shadow of Peter Pan. If you have seen the movie, then you know what follows is a haphazard Lost Boy-led training regimen of activities to help jog Peter’s memory. These activities range from food fights to imagination games, from pranks against pirates to ill-fated flight attempts. Peter has only limited success at restoring his identity until he finally finds his happy thought – the memory of his son’s birth. That moment transforms him, and all the abilities ascribed to “the Pan” follow. Even so, in the final showdown against his nemesis, Peter Pan is subjected to an attack of doubt about his identity. Captain Hook, pinning him against a grinding stone, tells him, “You know you’re not really Peter Pan, don’t you? This is only a dream. When you wake up, you’ll just be Peter Banning – a cold, selfish man who drinks too much, is obsessed with success, and runs and hides from his wife and children!” That doubt weakens Peter all over again, and it takes allies all around him to affirm their faith in him to build his confidence again.
We have an identity in Christ that is accompanied by action but can also be subjected to doubt. The apostle John has traced through his letter what children of God are known for. The actions are not what makes a person a Christian but rather flow from that chief “happy thought,” so to speak, that our identity now comes from the fact that we’ve experienced new birth in Christ. Like Peter, we still have moments of doubt, when the enemy attacks, and we need to be reminded of the truth. Today we finish up the book – or letter – of 1 John. Turn there in your Bibles to chapter 5, verses 13-21. John warned against false teachers, who claimed that these believers needed to do more to be Christians and seek out special knowledge, as though the revelation God has given us isn’t good enough. Perhaps they felt like they were being pushed up against a grinding wheel and told that they had a different identity; perhaps you have felt the same. John’s goal was to dispel doubt, which leads to faithless passivity, and to provide the believers with confidence about their faith. He wanted them to assure them, because faith assurance leads to faithful action. Let’s read 1 John 5:13-21:
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us–whatever we ask–we know that we have what we asked of him. If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death. We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them. We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. We know also 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 by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols. (1Jo 5:13-21 NIV)
And this is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
One thing we know about Scripture is that it is all written for a particular purpose. As we study books of the Bible, we see that some authors chose to make their purpose very plain, while others chose not to spell it out, making us work a little more as we meditate on God’s Word. John, however, falls into the first category. Verse 13 spells out why he wrote his letter. In one fell swoop, it states his purpose, concludes the previous section, and kicks off the next. John likes to state his purpose for writing, just like he did in his Gospel. John 20:31 says, “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” He wrote that book so people would learn Christ’s identity and put their faith in him. Now, decades later in his letter, he writes so people would remember their own identity and future: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Pastor Bobby spoke last week about the characteristics of Christians, those “born of God,” as John puts it. They believe that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of God, they keep God’s commandments, they overcome the world, they have God’s testimony about the Son within them and so have eternal life from God. John wants them to know that they have eternal life.
Do you grasp the powerful preciousness of that simple assertion? Those who believe in the name of the Son of God have eternal life. Everything hangs on that – eternal life. It is not within our grasp, it is within us – Christians. We have it now, and we have the promise of it in greater fullness later. That eternal life is the resolve that enables us by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit to live not timidly but confidently. Whether that for you is lived out by quiet conviction or outspoken boldness does not matter. When we follow God’s commands – often at our own expense or in the struggle against sinful desires – we give evidence of the eternal life that already wells up inside us. When we hold fast to our faith in Christ, we show that we are not in the grip of the cultural forces around us but that we have overcome them. Life – eternal life. It is the promise that God has given us everything we need. And we have it now. I sincerely hope that truth hits you in alternating waves of gratitude, confidence, joy, awe and even conviction like it has for me. We don’t deserve this, but God has poured it out in full measure on us!
Children of God Pray with Confidence
John meant for his original hearers to have a similar response that would lead to an openness to the implications of it all. He tells them that children of God pray with confidence. Verses 14-15 say,
“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us–whatever we ask–we know that we have what we asked of him.”
Today we often refer to ourselves as Christians or Christ followers or believers, but John continually uses the term “born of God.” Different terms capture different aspects of what our salvation means, and “born of God” helps us see that we belong to God’s family. This is the act of adoption, the spiritual rescue that took place. We used to be God’s enemies, outsiders, children of the devil. God did not simply forgive us. He made us his children! When we get involved in orphan care on this planet and rescue children by adopting them as our own, we point to the ultimate Rescuer who made us his own when we couldn’t have been any less desirable. Those born of God have a Father who listens to them.
When we gather in prayer and approach God, we do so in confidence. John tells us that God hears us and gives us what we ask – we know that we have our request, whatever it is. We might want to focus on that “whatever,” which has a nice, open-ended feel to it. The emphasis, however, is on the asking and the access that we have with God to confidently do so. That is where we want the attention to be, too. The “whatever” might fill our minds and crowd out our view of God. John wanted to focus on the God who hears us and the confidence we have in this, and that leads me to think the “whatever” is used in a dismissive sense. The important thing is that God hears and answers us, whatever our request may be.
And you might have perceptively noted another caveat that I skipped. The verses tell us this confidence comes only when we ask “according to [God’s] will.” This important phrase tempers the imagination and reminds the believer that this is not a simple blank check prayer opportunity. At first this might seem disheartening, but that feeling should not last for long. Being born of God is not for our happiness but rather for our holiness. This is not health and wealth manipulation. However, asking according to God’s will is what brings the ultimate happiness over against perceived or temporary happiness, which only creates further emptiness and cravings.
You might wonder how to know if a request is according to God’s will. Here are a few quick guidelines. The first is that the request will harmonize with God’s revealed will in Scripture. The better the familiarity with Scripture, the greater the confidence in the answered request. The second is that obedience to and time with God will enable the believer to better know God’s will. Familiarity with a person’s wishes comes from familiarity with the person. To the extent that a believer knows God, he can be confident that he prays according to God’s will. So if you want to know your Father’s will, get to know your Father.
I love to say yes to my kids when they ask me things. Sometimes I will say yes just to do it, but usually I say yes because what they are asking fits with what I think is right for them. It goes along with my will for them. That said, I say “no” quite a bit, and it generally does not bother me a bit. I even have a “No” song where I theatrically use my fingers to conduct myself and repeatedly sing no. That is usually reserved for requests where my kids should know better, and that is usually from repeated requests when I want my answer to sink in a little better. So I break out the “No” song for requests like, “Dad, may I kick my sister?” or the repeated, “Dad, will you give me a cell phone?” or the third, “Dad, may I have ice cream?” before dinner. On a few occasions, though, something really neat has happened. When friends come into the home, they might ask me a question, and before I can answer, one of my kids will jump in and say something like, “Oh, don’t bother asking for that. He’ll say no.” In learning what I do not generally go for, my kids have learned what I do go for. They can be confident that when they ask certain things, I can’t wait to give them a resounding “yes,” once they clean their rooms, of course. The same is true for believers who get to know their heavenly Father. We can be confident in the affirmative answers when we ask according to His will, and that fills us with confidence.
I need to pause before we move on to address verses 16-17:
“If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.”
John makes a distinction between sins that we do not tend to make. What in the world is a “sin that leads to death?” Why would we not pray for someone in a sin that serious? By the way, I am thankful for sermon series that go through books of the Bible like this, because it allows us to cover everything the Bible says. When we come to these difficult passages, we can roll up our sleeves and dig in, knowing that God’s word is consistent, and keeping in mind that the clearer passages of Scripture often help us understand the less clear. Most commentators recognize the phrase, “sin that leads to death” to be a particular phrase that was used in the first century. We can have an idea of what it meant, but we no longer have an exact picture or what it included.
Some think that the phrase describes physical death, noting that there are physical consequences that come from our sinful decisions, like the diseases that stem from sexual promiscuity. Others suggest this sin is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit or apostasy, which is denying your faith. We do know that true followers of Christ will never fall away from following him, or to put it another way, those adopted by God are not going to be unadopted. We have reason to be confident that this is not a passage about losing your salvation, which, based on the Bible, we do not believe. John’s purpose is about confidence that we belong to God, so this would be an odd place to say people can sin in a way that causes them to lose their salvation and experience eternal death. We should also note that the doctrine that we sometimes call eternal security often is more secure in our minds than it is in the pages of Scripture. Some reduce this concept to a simple prayer of salvation with little else attached. The Bible makes it clear that our works do not save while noting that our faith must be accompanied by works or else it is dead. Salvation is total transformation that results in an inside out change. When we ask what the essentials of salvation are, we begin to describe it in terms that the Bible never describes. That puts us in dangerous territory near the false teachers warned about in this letter.
Speaking of which, they and their followers might be the ones John refers to here. There are members of the physical church – people we see in our congregations – who are not part of the spiritual church made up of those truly born of God. Whether it is because they prayed the sinner’s prayer without truly placing their faith in Christ or because they accept other sources of what they think is truth over what has been revealed in the gospel, they depart or follow into some other kind of teaching that they consider to be the true gospel. If that is the case, then John’s point is that, while we can pray with confidence about God’s will for other believers in sin, we cannot pray with that sort of confidence for those who do not have the indwelling Spirit of God. We may still approach God and ask him, but this section about confidence in prayer – when praying for people in sin – concerns those who already belong to God. Have you ever prayed for a fellow believer in sin, perhaps after a confrontation, and experienced that believer coming to you later with a repentant heart? I believe that this is the sort of thing John is getting at in this section on prayer. We can have confidence that God will hear our prayers on their behalf and restore life to them. We should also note that it is easy to focus on the sin leading to death, but John makes it clear that he is not addressing that but rather praying for believers in sin not leading to death. If we fixate on the sin leading to death, we are in danger of missing his point.
Children of God are Empowered with Knowledge
The false teachers must have been fairly effective at raising doubts about salvation. Some emphasized special knowledge that must be sought out, causing the believers to wonder if there was more to know and do to truly be God’s children. John concludes his book telling the believers what had already been made known to them, reminding them and us that the children of God are empowered with knowledge. The purity of the gospel message depends on trusting it and it alone. Truth will corroborate with it, and lies will not, but it is the standard for truth. To think that other knowledge is necessary is false. The believers are reminded of three assurances.
They are assured that children of God do not continue in sin. Verse 18 reads, “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them.” While sin occurs, it is not continual. I like how John Stott describes this. “Sin and the child of God are incompatible. They may occasionally meet; they cannot live together in harmony.”[i] Our Scripture tells us that the One who was born of God – Jesus – keeps us safe, which means the devil cannot harm us.
They are assured that they are children of God. The Father has already laid claim to his children. Verse 19: “We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” Think about that. If you are a believer, the Father has reached down and put his seal on you and said, “This one – this one is mine.” He has not said you have potential or that you might belong to him one day. You belong to him now. There is nothing else to search for, because everything else is not from God. The whole world is under the control of the evil one. It is not even struggling but is secure in his grip, and the picture is like the sleep of death under the bondage of Satan’s control. We stand in stark contrast to that, because we have life, being born of God.
They are assured that Jesus has given us all the understanding we need. Again, there is no other knowledge or assurance to be sought, because we already have it. With it we know the Father, who is true and trustworthy. We belong to him, having life in him through Jesus, who is the true God and eternal life. There is that term again. Eternal life, which is we have in Jesus.
These assurances are like building blocks, laying the foundation. Our excellent All About Kids Production camp ended a little over a week ago, and its theme was about the two houses – the one built on the rock and the one built on the sand. It is a tale of two foundations. John tells us here what is in the strong, rock foundation. Isn’t this one the only one worth building on?
You might be aware that we just passed the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Emmett J. Scott, personal secretary to Booker T. Washington, authored Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War. He discusses on group of Black soldiers who fought, confined to their own, segregated regiment. These brave men fought for an America that did not yet appreciate them and subjected them to many oppressive, racist policies back home. This regiment was on the field during the morning of September 12, 1918, when they heard the sound of approaching German shells. They positioned themselves in their trenches, and donned their gas masks. These shells were different from the others, though. They actually contained leaflets written in English and addressing the. In the leaflets was a lengthy appeal to these particular soldiers to actually join the German side. The appeal assured them that Germany is not ruled by racist policies and tolerates people of all stripes. It pointed out the hypocrisy of American democracy, since all citizens of the United States did not enjoy the same rights as Whites. It addressed the segregation found in movie theaters, restaurants, and railroad cars, and it brought up the awful practice of lynching. All this was done questioning why these Black soldiers would fight for a country like that against one that was not guilty of such atrocities. It asked, “Why, then, fight the Germans only for the benefit of the Wall [S]treet robbers and to protect the millions they have loaned to the British, French, and Italians?” So how did these men respond? Scott published these remarks:
“Be it said to the honor and credit of the many thousands of Negro officers and soldiers to whom this propaganda was addressed, the invitation had no effect other than to present an intimate view of German methods and to confirm in our men a loftier conception of duty.”
They saw right through the tactics to promote doubt, and it inspired them to even greater devotion to their country. We have an even higher call than they, and an enemy even more relentless in his propaganda against us. Heed John’s message and remain committed to the cause. Pay attention to that final warning to keep yourself from idols, from anything that might draw you away. Our heavenly Father has granted us eternal life. That faith confidence should lead us to faithful action.
[i] (Stott 1988, 192)