Lesson Focus: Because our right belief has led us to live rightly we have an assurance that we are children of God. This assurance leads us to have boldness in prayer for our brothers and sisters in Christ so that they might resist sin.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson students should:
Know that our eternal life begins now.
Gain a boldness in our prayer for others regarding sin.
Be encouraged to take concrete steps toward prayer and accountability with others.
Catch up on the story: John has just finished up a rather lengthy segment in which he affirms the importance of the divinity and the humanity of Jesus. Right belief and right practice belong inseparably together. In fact, one cannot act properly Christian apart from a right belief about who Jesus is. The proper practice of faith is the way in which we testify to our right belief. Through the course of the letter, John has defended the faith against those who would either deny Jesus’ humanity or his divinity. Those who do either are not children of God. Those who are children of God are those who believe correctly and allow that belief to shape and give energy to their love for God and for a neighbor. If you have Jesus, then you have life.
The Text: John begins the final section of his letter with a brief one-line explanation of why he has written. Verse 13 is the only explicit explanation we get regarding the reason for John’s writing. The reason is simple, and one that we have surmised throughout the work. John wants those to whom he is writing to have the assurance that they have eternal life.
As we have said at the outset of our study of First John, John has been writing to those who already believe, not as one who has been trying to convert those who do not believe. Here he explicitly notes that he is writing to those “who believe in the name of the Son of God.” We have also said that, in the context in which these addressees live, there has arisen a group of individuals and teachers that have brought the faith of the church into doubt. The primary issue has revolved around the nature of Jesus. John’s desire is that those who read this letter, after hearing his argument defining what marks a child of God and what doesn’t, would find rest and peace in the fact that they are, indeed, children of God. Because they have latched onto and confessed their belief in the incarnate Son of God and because their belief has found expression in love and care for their neighbor, they are currently in possession of eternal life.
It should be noted here that John’s audience is currently in the experience of eternal life. The language of the text is present and active in nature. It is not in the future tense. They have eternal life. So often we talk about eternal life as something that begins in the future. This belief is a bit of a misnomer. As much as the phrase eternal life is quantitative, in that it goes on forever, it is also just as much qualitative. Eternal life, to a large degree, is about the nature and quality of life here and now. So, when John says in the previous verse, to have the Son of God is to have life, he means that they have life now, a full, rich, and abundant life of love and grace and peace. If we identify ourselves with John’s audience, and I hope that we do, then you and I have eternal life here and now as well.
John moves on. This assurance that we have that we are children of God now gives us boldness in prayer. Those who are children of God can have confidence that when we ask according to God’s will, in prayer, it will be heard favorably. God will answer our prayers. Some use this kind of language to their advantage, thinking that if they are true believers, if they have enough faith, that God will answer their every prayer. At times, this kind of verse gets taken out of context by those who peddle a prosperity gospel. This is not what John is saying. Our prayers must be offered in Jesus’ name and according to his will.
Our experience has taught us that our prayers, at least seemingly so, often go unanswered. Jesus himself offers a prayer, the night before his death, that he might not have to experience the suffering that was coming his way. What we see from Jesus, though, should be a model for us as he prays, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36) We do not always know what God’s will is, yet we can know with confidence that God always hears and is always working things according to his will.
We might ask then if we should only pray according to God’s will then why pray at all? If God’s will is going to be done if we pray or not, why do it? One commentator offers this explanation,
To speak in such terms is to assume that God’s will must be understood in a static kind of way as if God has made a detailed plan beforehand of all that is going to happen –including the fact that we are going to pray in a particular way and at a particular time. But while the Bible does speak of God’s plan and purpose for the world, to speak in such deterministic terms is inconsistent with the freedom which the Bible itself assigns to God’s children, and it wreaks havoc upon the biblical idea of the personal relationship which exists between God and his children. The point is rather that the believer must seek to submit his will to Gods by saying, “Your will be done” (Mt. 6:10). It is as we freely yielded ourselves to God that he is able to accomplish his will through us and our prayers…Through prayer, we make ourselves instruments of God’s will, and at the same time, in a manner that lies beyond human comprehension, he is able to act powerfully to answer our prayers.
This confidence in prayer, for John, concerns one area specifically, and that is prayer for a brother or sister in Christ who has fallen into sin. Here, John advises, that if you see a brother or sister sin, you should pray for that one that God would give life to the offender. Our prayers, it seems, should be specifically concerned with helping another refrain from sin and recover from sin.
Verse 16 gets a little tricky, however, as John makes mention of “mortal sins” (the NIV renders it, “sin that leads to death”), and those that are not mortal. What does he mean by this? Does not all sin ultimately lead to death? Indeed it does, but John is probably referring to the kinds of sin which are committed by those who are not children of God and those that are.
Let’s clarify for a moment. When John refers to “what is not a mortal sin” he is referring to sins that are committed by individuals who are considered children of God. They have confessed rightly about the nature of Jesus Christ. They have born out their confession about Jesus through their constant love and concern for their brothers and sisters in the faith as well as their neighbors. They have a desire to be obedient but yet have fallen into some kind of sin, either deliberate or not. As we have noted in an earlier lesson, this kind of sin happens when we do not, as Wesley said, “keep ourselves” in God –breathing in God’s love and grace and constantly exhaling it as well. John is concerned that we pray for this type of person so that they may confess their sin, repent, and so that they can continue to walk in newness of life. This sin, which is not a mortal sin, according to John, can lead to death, but it does not have to. The praying community of faith can help in this regard.
What then is the mortal sin? If the non-mortal sin is committed by those who have a desire to be and remain children of God, then the mortal sin is committed by those who consciously and deliberately choose to deny God and walk in the way that leads to death. For John, this way that leads to death is rooted in a denial of Jesus Christ and a consistent failure to love one’s brothers and sisters. If Jesus is the only one in whom real life can be found, there can be no life for those who deny him. We may guess, that those whom John is warning his hearers against in this letter are those who are guilty of committing this mortal sin. Notice that we have not identified one individual sin that ultimately leads to death. To try and do so would be unfruitful.
We may be troubled by John’s statement that we should not pray about those mortal sins. I do not believe that John wishes that we should not pray for those people. How can our refusal to pray for those who are consciously against God and his Son be an expression of our love for our neighbor? Quite simply, it cannot be. Keeping in mind John’s primary audience and concern, those who are already children of God, it makes sense that he would emphasize prayer for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Also keeping in mind the tone of the rest of the letter, love requires us concrete action for others. Prayer, while seemingly not concrete action, is a good and proper response for those who are far from God, especially for those who might seem to be too far gone.
In verse 18 John begins to wrap up the letter by reiterating that those who have been born of God do not sin. God protects them from the evil one. At the same time, however, that the children of God are under the power of God, the rest of the world seems to be under the power of the evil one. It is precisely because the world is so pervasively under the influence of the evil one that we should approach God in confident prayer. We know the nature of the world and the battle that rages in it, because God has revealed himself to us, giving us understanding about who Jesus is and who we are in the light of that understanding.
Verse 20 acts as a confession and summary of what has gone before in the letter. We know that the Son of God has come. We have heard, and seen and felt him. He was from the beginning. He has given us understanding, he has revealed himself to us so that we might know him and enjoy fellowship with him. He is truth and light, in him is no darkness, no sin. Jesus is God’s Son, the true God and it is through him that we are now enjoying eternal life.
So What…? As much as John is concerned with our right belief about who Jesus is, he is just as concerned about our constant care for our brothers and sisters in the faith. As we have said before, John believes, and so do we, that right belief shapes our daily life and practice of faith. The letter closes with a concern for prayer. Notice, however, that the concern for prayer is not individually or selfishly focused, even though one might be able to read it that way. John’s concern regarding prayer is that it be used to accomplish the will of God and that will is that those who believe might not fall prey to sin.
You and I are children of God! We have an assurance that we have, at this very moment and in this very place, eternal life. Because we have this assurance that our faith and action gives us we now can approach God in prayer with boldness interceding for our brothers and sisters that they might grow in Christlikeness avoiding sin. When they do fall into sin, we pray with boldness that the one who is in us who is greater than the one who is in the world will rescue them from that sin, restoring them to wholeness.
We are in this thing together. It is our job, as a community of faith that confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, to help each other grow in our understanding of right belief. If we do not struggle together in our attempts to rightfully articulate and live our beliefs then we will not be able to struggle with one another, in prayer and in accountability through the power of the Spirit, to avoid sin. We confess our orthodox faith in the fully human and fully divine Jesus Christ through our constant love and care for our neighbor and brother and sister in Christ. This faith leads us to pray with boldness for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Practically speaking, entering into a relationship with a few select individuals to pray for one another is one of the best ways to live out the faith that John is describing. Discuss our Spiritual Formation groups with your group. You can find a list of questions that will guide you in prayer for one another at wgcn.org/discipleship.
Critical Discussion Questions:
What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
God, in his wisdom, knew that it would be impossible for us to live out our faith merely as individuals. So, God has given us the gift of his Church so that we might help each other recover from and remain free from sin. In doing so, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the sin that could lead to our death does not have to lead to our death!
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
Our holiness, our continual growth in Christlikeness, is tied up with our care for and actions toward our brothers and sisters in the faith. We cannot claim to be children of God if our love does not find concrete expressions of care for those around us. One of these expressions is our constant prayer for those who struggle with sin. We pray with boldness because we know that it is God’s will that none of us remain a slave to sin.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
This passage should clarify some of our reasons for prayer. Yes, prayer is part of the way in which we draw close to God. We pray for physical healing. But our constant concern should be for our brothers and sisters in Christ so that they might remain free from sin. This prayer, while it can be general in nature, should compel us to dive deep into each other’s lives, so that we can pray specifically for the sins that each of us struggle with. Praying, “Lord, help so and so remain free from sin” is good. Asking that person, “What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?” is better.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
John begins his epilogue stating that he writes all of these things so that they might “know that you have eternal life.” Why might John’s hearers doubt the fact that they have eternal life?
The language of the phrase “know that you have eternal life” is present and active, not future. What does it mean that we currently have eternal life? How might this be different than you’ve previously understood it?
Because we are children of God we have assurance that we have eternal life. John says this gives us boldness in prayer. How do our prayers have to be offered in order for them to be favorably heard?
John’s main concern regarding prayer is our prayers for our brothers and sisters so that they might resist and recover from sin. What are the two types of sin John mentions? How do they differ? John does not offer a list of sins that are mortal and those that are not. Why doesn’t he give us a list?
Why is John so concerned with our prayer for others to resist sin? What kind of role do we have in helping each other resist and recover from sin? What specific things might we do?
Often our prayers center on physical needs. How often do you prayer for others’ spiritual needs?
 I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 244-245.