May 16, 2021
Through my years of ministry, I have been asked more than a few times, what is the unforgiveable sin? But there is usually a question behind that question. Typically, it goes something like this – have I committed the unforgiveable sin, or, has my loved one – son, daughter, father, mother, brother, sister – committed that particular sin? And I suppose there’s even a question behind that one – am I truly a Christian or, can I or they possibly be saved now?
Once you get to that question behind the question – it’s quite personal, raw and heartfelt. So, how do you know if you’re truly saved? And how do know if you’re not? Further, how do you know if you or someone you love is beyond the reach of God’s grace? The Apostle John says it like this – there is a sin that leads to death, and such sin is beyond the hope of prayer. That’s challenging. What does he mean?
We have been in a study of I John for a while now – we are in the homestretch – two more sermons – this week and next – and we’ll finish. Today, we arrive at the verse I’ve referenced many times – the verse in which he clearly states the purpose of his letter. It’s important, in light of that question you’ve perhaps had – if not for you, for someone else. Again, have you ever been troubled – wondered if you were truly a Christian? Beyond the reach of God’s grace? How can you know for sure?
Some suggest such confidence is presumptuous – that we’ll never really know until we get there, or not. But if we truly believe in life after death, and the reality and possibility of heaven or hell – such ignorance and insecurity would prove unlivable. Untenable. For example, since the Catholic Church taught that you could not know for sure, it led Augustinian Monk Martin Luther to go to his priest – his confessor – daily, and spend hours confessing every possible sin, known and unknown – leave the confessional, only to return immediately – I forgot something.
So, does the Bible give assurance of salvation – can we know? Interestingly, in these last 9 verses of the letter, John uses the word know several times:
13 – These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.
14 – This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.
15 – And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.
18 – We know that no one who is born of God sins….
19 – We know that we are of God…
20 – And we know 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, in His Son Jesus Christ.
Apparently, John believes there are some things we can know – he even uses the word confidence – as a result of a proper grasp of his letter – of knowing and believing the gospel of Jesus Christ. We can know:
- We have eternal life.
- We can know He hears and answers our prayers.
- We can know those born again do not sin – not as a practice of life.
- We can know we are of God.
- We can know the Son of God has come, and that we know Him.
That is an incredible list. I want to remind us, I John is a letter of assurance. It is not written to cause us to question our salvation, but to give us assurance of salvation. You see, there were false teachers who had left the church – we’ve called them successionists. And they were denying that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh to die for the sins of His people. They were denying the necessity of then seeking to obey the commands of Christ. And they were denying love for one another.
So John writes to give us three tests – maybe all along that has not been the right word – three ways we can know that we have eternal life. You’re distraught over those who have left. You’re concerned about the many voices you hear today. So he simply asks, do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God? Do you believe He took on flesh to die in that flesh to become the atonement for our sins? Do you now seek to be like Him – to follow Him and joyfully do what He says? And do you love other Christians – brothers and sisters in Christ? Then regardless of what these false teachers are saying – you are Christians. Know that. Rest in that. Rejoice in that. Again, John doesn’t write to make you concerned, but to make you confident.
So read today’s text with me – we’ll only look at verses 13-17 of chapter 5 today.
We will follow this outline of things we can know:
- We Know We Have Eternal Life (13)
- We Know He Hears and Answers Prayers (14-15) John goes on to illustrate the kinds of prayers God hears and answers, and those He does not.
- A Prayer He Hears and Answers (16a)
- A Prayer He Does Not Hear and Answer (16b)
- The Nature of Sin (17)
So, let’s look at verse 13. Again, we’ve referenced this a number of times through our study – but it is most important. These things I have written to you, so that we may know. First, we should ask what things? Well, all that he has said to this point – namely, true believers, in contrast to these who walked away – true believers believe that Jesus is the Christ. True believers seek to obey Christ. True believers love other followers of Christ. He has made this abundantly clear through the book over and over. These things have I written to you – the ones believing in the name of the Son of God – all that He is and all that He has done – so that you may know that you have eternal life.
Now, that is not presumptuous – why? Because, our faith is not based on us – either the act of our faith or the strength of our faith. It is based on the act of Christ. It is based on the strength of Christ, the One believed. So it is not an act of presumption, but an act of trust that God is trustworthy and faithful to His promises – namely, that He will, on the basis of His Son and His work on the cross – will forgive those who believe in Him. And since He will, we can know that we have eternal life. This letter is not written to cause you to doubt, but to give a rock-solid assurance, that having believed on the name of the Son of God, you have eternal life.
Now, the next verse begins with the conjunction and. Unfortunately, my translation leaves it out. But there is a vital connection between verses 13 and 14 – point one and point two. Having believed, we become children of God. Remember John 1 – to those who receive Jesus, that is, those who believe on His name – same wording as in verse 13 – to those God gives the right to become children of God.
And having become children of God and receiving eternal life, this is the confidence we have before Him, that, if we ask anything, He hears us. He is our heavenly Father – and Hebrews tells us to come with confidence, boldness to the throne of grace to find mercy and grace to help in time of need. The veil of temple was torn in two from top to bottom – not bottom to top – top to bottom signifying that God in heaven tore in two, from top to bottom – the veil that separated us from His presence. He opened the way for us.
And so, if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. Wow – that is an unbelievable promise. But, don’t do as many have done, and I just did, and make this say what it does not say. This is not a blank check. This is not a promise of prosperity – health and wealth. This does not make God a celestial vending machine – put in prayer, get whatever you want. Notice what John actually said in verse 14, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And having heard us, He answers our prayers. Verse 15 – we know that we have the requests we have asked from Him.
The all-important qualification is asking according to His will. That is submitting ourselves, in our asking, to His good and glorious purposes. Jesus taught us this in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6, Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.
Jesus modeled this when, in the Garden of Gethsemane, as He fell to His face and sweat great drops of blood. And He prayed, Father, if it is possible, let this cup – of drinking the cup of Your wrath – let it pass from Me. But not My will, but Yours be done. And He stood up and went to the cross. The author of Hebrews (5) says of that event:
7 In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. [God heard His Son. Did God deliver Him from death? No.]
8 Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.
9 And having been made perfect, He became to all those who obey Him the source of eternal salvation,
It’s not that Jesus in His deity needed to learn obedience, nor that He was ever disobedient – but in His humanity, faced with the cross, He learned obedience, and went to the cross for us. Who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising its shame – and is now seated at the right hand of the Father.
So, the critically important qualification – as taught and modeled by Jesus – is answered prayer is according to the will of God. John also said in chapter 2, “whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do the things that are pleasing in His sight.” This is not a quid quo pro – you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours – you obey me, I’ll give you what you want. No – this is all taken together to be understood that we want what God wants – we obey Him and submit to His will, and trust that His answers – both yes and no – are always right.
Some of the elders will remember this, but we once had a guy who asked us to pray for him – but as we gathered around him, he said, please don’t ask for God’s will to be done – I believe it’s always His will to heal – and when you pray for His will to be done, it’s an act of unbelief on your part. And James 5 says to pray believing – so don’t ask for healing, according to God’s will. Ask for healing and believe with me that He will answer. I didn’t have the nerve to tell the guy, when we say at the end of the prayer, in Jesus’ name – that’s exactly what we are doing – praying for God’ will through Jesus – for Jesus’ sake – to be done.
The point again is, praying is not a blank check. We submit to the will of God – we pray for His sovereign and always good will to be done. And we trust Him, that He always gives us what is best.
John then gives a couple of examples in verse 16 – an example of the kind of prayer to pray – that God will hear and answer – and the kind of prayer that God will not hear and answer. Look at it with me. First part of verse 16, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he [that is, the one seeing the sinning brother] he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death.” What in the world does that mean?
There has been lots of discussion and interpretation about this whole passage through the centuries. Notice first – if you see a brother sinning – the idea is, one Christian sees another Christian sinning. Now, some say it has to do with unintentional versus intentional sins from the OT. The only problem is, John never mentions that idea anywhere in the letter. Others want to divide sins between venal and mortal sins – normal sins, and really bad sins. We’ll talk about that more in a minute.
I think the idea is simply this – there are sins – most sins – which are not sins leading to death. What kind of death? Spiritual? Physical? Again, lots of guesses, but I and most believe John is talking about spiritual death – eternal death. Yes, that means the sin leading to death is spiritual eternal death – I’ll get to that in a moment. The point is, while sin is not the characteristic practice of believers, believers still sin. Even though it is not the desire, passion or character of our lives, we sin.
Remember back in chapter 1 – perhaps the most well-known verse of I John says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We noted that is not permission to sin – but it is simply an acknowledgement that we do sin. So when we do, we confess, and God is faithful and righteous to forgive us and cleanse us. He is faithful and righteous because Jesus died and has been raised again for our justification – and on that work alone – He faithfully and justly forgives. This is so important – how can a just God forgive unjust people? Because of Jesus.
But here, John adds to the idea. Yes, if we sin, we confess. Here, he says, if we see a brother or sister sinning, we should pray for them. Stop right there. Yes, there are other passages which talk about confronting them:
In Matthew 18, Jesus said, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” Jesus then elaborates on a process of confrontation called church discipline. If he doesn’t listen, bring two or three witnesses with you; if he still doesn’t listen, tell it to the church; if he still doesn’t listen to the church; let him be to you as a Gentile or tax collector. That simply means, if he refuses to repent, treat him like an unbeliever – that’s how he’s acting. All your associations with him should be evangelistic and restorative.
Paul said the same thing in I Corinthians 5. If a brother is living in sin, don’t even eat with that one. What does that mean? It simply means, we don’t go out for tacos like everything is okay. It’s not – we confront, and all our associations are to be evangelistic and restorative.
Paul also said in Galatians 6, “Brothers, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” Tempted to what? To sin, is the idea, in critical judgmentalism.
Please note that while the world says, Christians aren’t supposed to judge – that’s not exactly true. These verses taken together teach, of course we judge – anytime we see someone in sin – we are passing judgment that their action is sinful. It’s how we respond to the action that is important – we should gently confront and seek to restore.
But again, John adds to this idea. He suggests first, we pray. We pray that God will forgive and give life – eternal life, yes – because this presupposes that the sinner, the erring brother, will repent. So we pray for repentance and subsequent forgiveness. This is a good word to us. How often, myself included, when we see a brother or sister in sin, do we sit back in smug, condescending, self-righteous judgment? (Tana) It ought to break our hearts. How much better to pray. Pray that God by His Holy Spirit will bring conviction, and grant repentance leading to life?
John goes on with a tough text. The end of verse 16 says, “There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he [that is, the one seeing the one committing this leading-to-death sin] should make request for this.” So, while most sins are forgivable, through repentance, John acknowledges there is a sin leading to death. Spiritual, eternal death. What is that? Again, lots of guesses through the centuries. Some suggest, especially in the early years of the church, that John was talking about so-called mortal sins – suicide, murder, adultery, idolatry, apostacy. Of course, if that’s true, we won’t see David or perhaps Paul in heaven.
Some suggest it is the unforgivable or unpardonable sin. We find that in Matthew 12. Jesus had just healed a demon-possessed man. The people were amazed, but the Pharisees said, “This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.” Jesus then gave His any kingdom divided against itself cannot stand speech. If I’m driving out demons by the prince of demons, then the house is divided – that doesn’t even make sense. Then He said these famous words:
30 “He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters.
31 “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven.
32 “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.
So the unforgivable sin is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, defined from this text as, attributing to Satan the works of the Holy Spirit. Jesus looked at these Pharisees and said, you’ve just gone too far – to a point from which you cannot return. There is no hope for you. Now, just as a side note, John MacArther suggests that such a sin could only be committed while Jesus was physically walking the earth doing miracles – that it cannot be committed anymore. I’m not sure, but it’s an intriguing thought.
But is this what John is talking about? There’s nothing in the letter that indicates so. While the unforgivable sin of Matthew 12 may be a sin unto death, John likely has something else in mind. Namely this: he has decried the false teachers. They were ones who used to be part of the church, but had denied the faith and departed. They denied the deity of Jesus, disobeyed His commands, and did not love Christians – in fact, they were likely critical of Christians. John here says, to do that is to commit a sin leading to death – that is, eternal spiritual death.
Further, for them, there is no need to pray – John says, “I do not say that he should make request for this” – that is, that God will forgive such blatant rebellion against the work of His Son. Which is interesting – to deny that the works done by Jesus were done in the power of the Holy Spirit is to commit the unforgivable sin. To deny that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, is to commit a sin leading to eternal, spiritual death. People should tread very lightly when it comes to the person and work of Jesus. In sum, John is saying there is no need to pray for these false teachers who had departed.
Now, I know what some of you may be thinking. What about those people we prayed for last week – those who used to be part of us, but went out from us, walking away from the faith? To that I would say a couple things: First, there is a difference between knowing and denying the Gospel so as to walk away…and…denying the Gospel and seeking to take others with you into your rebellion and false teaching.
I’ve said this before – deconversions are all the rage. Those, some even evangelical leaders, who used to confess Christ, and have walked away from the faith. They have deconverted. That is one thing; but, why is it that so many want to be public with their deconversion, other than to take others with them in their willful rebellious downfall. For such people, I am gravely concerned, based on the teaching of this text, that there is no hope for them. I say that with deep sorrow.
Second, I would remind us, only God knows the heart. He knows whether they have committed this sin leading to death. When John says, I do not say we should make request – that is, pray for them, he is again talking about false teachers who have denied the deity of Christ and the gospel – and are seeking to cause the downfall of others. Those who have walked away, pursuing their own sin, do not necessarily fall into that category. So we pray for conviction by the Holy Spirit, and repentance. We pray that God would open their hearts to their sinful rebellion. Is it possible they have gone too far – to a point of no return? I don’t know – that’s God’s job.
Finally, very interestingly, in verse 17, John reminds us, lest we become too judgmental, perhaps even self-righteous, that all unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death. Which sins are which are not clearly defined, and so perhaps we should leave such judgment where it rightly belongs – with God. We can hold one another accountable, we can confront, we can even perform church discipline – but in the end, God knows those who are His. And so, we should pray that God will save those who are lost.
I want to close with this. I John was not written to cause you to doubt your salvation – quite the opposite. These things were written so that you may know that you have eternal life. Have you ever wondered, doubted your faith? Many have. Do you believe in Jesus and His Gospel? Do you seek to please Him? Do you love other Christians? Then praise the Lord – you are a follower of Christ.