Purpose, Prayer, and Assurance, Lesson 15

Originally posted at Women of Purpose.

13 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. 14 And this is the confidence that we have toward 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 that we have asked of him.

16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.

18 We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.

19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.

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. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:13-21)


 

We now come to our final lesson with John’s closing thoughts for his beloved children in the faith. Closing thoughts in a letter are often used to highlight the most important message the author wants his readers to take away from the reading, and perhaps a reminder of the point of why the letter was written in the first place. John closed this epistle with exactly these: his purpose for writing, and the important messages which he wanted his children to hold in their hearts and minds. John knew the people to whom he wrote, and that they were very dear to him is evident throughout. Our Father knows each of his beloved children even better than John knew his, and his love for us is also evident throughout John’s epistle. So read these final words of John as the Holy Spirit intended: written to you, dear one, to remind you of important truths which you are to hold in your heart and mind.

Purpose

John wrote his epistle to we who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that we might know that we have eternal life (13). His audience is the Church, his purpose was assurance of faith. After 14 weeks of studying his encouragements and exhortations to believers, his clear-cut delineations between the beloved children of God and those who are of the world, and his three tests of faith: belief in Christ, love for God and one another, and obedience to God’s commandments, I think we can say that John certainly accomplished his purpose.

John goes straight from reminding us of our assurance that we have eternal life, to speaking of the confidence that we have in the Son of God (14). Assurance is vital to confidence-building, for, if we aren’t sure that we have eternal life, how in the world could we have any confidence in the Savior who is supposed to have given it to us? John wrote earlier that as we know and believe the love that God has for us, and that as we abide in love and in God, our love is perfected, any fear we may have is cast out, and we gain confidence to face the day of judgement—without which the prospect of that day is terrifying. But there is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear (4:16-18). Fear that we will be punished on that day is put to rest because knowing that we are loved by God means knowing that he sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins, and therefore our punishment landed on him instead of us (4:10).

The author of Hebrews also gave us assurance in our Savior when he reminded us that Jesus, our heavenly high priest, is able to sympathize with our weaknesses, because he lives in our human flesh, and was tempted as we are, yet without ever sinning. Knowing that he knows us so thoroughly and can relate to our situation—and yet still loves us so completely that he died to save us—gives us confidence to hold fast to the confession of our faith (Heb. 4:14-16). John wrote his epistle not to give us assurance for assurance’s sake, but that it would lead us to have confidence in Christ, for the sake of his glory.

 Prayer

This confidence leads to prayer (14-15), but not without conditions. God hears our prayers under one condition:

… if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. (1 John 5:14)

Jesus taught us to approach our Father in prayer under the condition that we are seeking his will and not our own:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Matt. 6:9-10)

Indeed, Jesus himself put the Father’s will above his own when he prayed:

And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt. 26:39)

Also notice that in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Father’s will—the cross—was terribly difficult for Jesus Christ to bear. Though he was born for this purpose, though it had been the purpose of the Triune God from eternity, it was still a bitter cup for our Savior to swallow. And yet he did swallow it, he humbled himself to obey his Father, even to the point of death on the cross (Phil. 2:6-8), for that was the Father’s will for him and for the redemption of all who would believe.

Verse 15 seems, at first blush, to say that we get whatever we ask for. The Apostle Paul certainly believed, obeyed, and prayed with right motives, and yet, God didn’t answer every one of his prayers the way Paul wished. According to Galatians 4:13-15, it seems that Paul had some sort of bodily ailment, which was a source of trial to him and to the Galatians, and may have involved his eyes. This may have been the same issue Paul describes as a “thorn in his flesh,” in 2 Corinthians 12:7-8, which he pleaded with the Lord three times to remove. God’s answer to him was that his grace was sufficient for Paul, because his power is made perfect in weakness. To which Paul responded that he would therefore boast all the more of his weaknesses so that the power of God would rest upon him. God’s purpose for afflicting Paul was to keep him humble (7) and to teach him to be content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities, and to realize that when he is weak, only then is he truly strong (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

When Jesus’ friend Lazarus fell ill, his sisters sent word, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill,” knowing that he could heal him. After all, he had healed many people and performed loads of miracles. Surely for this family, who were his dear friends, this wasn’t too much to ask? But John writes in his Gospel that Jesus’ love was going to take his beloved friends down a very different path.

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. (John 11:5-6)

That tiny word, “So,” speaks volumes. If you write in your Bible, circle that word. Sisters, because Jesus loved his friends, his response to their plea was, “Not yet.”

But why? Why not go heal his friend? John writes that Jesus had a higher plan. When Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill, he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4).  After waiting a couple of days, Jesus rallied his disciples to go to Lazarus, telling them that he had died, and that it was for their sakes that he was glad he wasn’t there when it happened, so that they may believe in him (14-15). What was about to happen would strengthen their faith, so it was also for their sake that he waited. When they arrived, Martha met Jesus.

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (21-27)

Can you hear her grief mingling with her rising hope? She knows God will answer his prayers, she believes that he is the Christ, the Son of God, the Promised One. Her faith is rightly placed. But, if anything, her faith in her Lord makes it harder for her to understand why Jesus hadn’t come, why her brother had to die. Why, O, why was her beloved brother rotting in his tomb?!

Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him. (John 11:40-45)

Jesus’ purpose for waiting was far higher and more glorious than anything they could have imagined! Lazarus had died and was buried for four days, but when the Lord of Life called his name the dead man had to obey. Lazarus came to life and walked out of his tomb. Death didn’t have the final say, but must bow before the Sovereign Lord of Creation. Tears of grief turned to tears of joy, many who witnessed believed, and the glory of God was on full display! God’s ways are far higher and far, far better than our ways.

Sisters, when we pray, we are coming to the God who loved us and sent his one and only Son to be the propitiation for our sins (4:9-10); the God who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all [and therefore], how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom. 8:32). John wants us to know that when we pray according to God’s will he hears us, but we must also remember that we are bringing our requests and laying them before a holy, loving, and all-wise God who knows far better than we what is best for us. “This is the God who… always answers our prayers with either ‘Yes,’ or ‘Let me give you something better.’”[1]

Before we step away from John 11, notice also that the grief of Mary and Martha and the death of Lazarus, though meant for a glorious and joyful purpose, did not leave our Lord unmoved.

Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. (John 11:32-35, emphasis mine)

The Lord has plans and purposes for our lives which were decreed before the foundation of the earth, and will be worked out in time, for our good and his glory. These plans will ultimately result in inexpressible joy when we enter heaven, but while we still live here on earth they may involve inexpressible pain. But he does not execute his perfect plans with cold calculation. Dear ones, please know that our Lord feels our pain. He who is the Compassionate One sees to the depths of our hearts, and when our hearts are breaking he knows. He knows that we can’t understand the heights of his wisdom in setting forth his plans, nor can we see through our blinding tears the next moment—from one ragged intake of breath we cannot see the next exhalation: hollow, or wailing. When we weep in our grief, because he loves us deeply, Jesus weeps with us. When we fall at his feet, crying, “Lord, if only…!” he is deeply moved in his spirit and troubled. When you pray in your grief, go ahead and ask “why?” and “how long, O Lord?” And as you ask, lean into him who loved you so much that he went to the cross to deliver you from death, darkness, sin, grief, and pain.

Knowing God’s Will

If we are to pray according to God’s will, we ought to know what it is. Scripture tells us plainly what God’s will is for Christians.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:28-29)

For this is the will of God, your sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3a)

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14-16)

God’s will for his children is that we be conformed to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ. This is the definition of “good,” in Romans 8:28, not the “good” we want to be worked out of whatever situation we find ourselves in. Conformity to the sinless Son of God, for sinful people, requires sanctification. Sanctification is the process which, with the help of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we learn to be obedient children and grow out of the passions of our former ignorance, learning to be holy in all our conduct. This is what we were predestined for: holiness, because he is holy. And sisters, sanctification is hard. Sanctification involves pruning of dead branches, burning off of dross, shaping and molding and re-making of cracked clay vessels. It’s hard work for us, but we are in the loving hands of the patient Vinedresser, the ever-watchful Silversmith, and the creative Potter, who is conforming us into holy vessels for his use, according to his eternal purpose.

Praying God’s Will

There are prayers throughout the Bible which, because they are inspired by the Holy Spirit, we can be certain that they accord with God’s will. The entire book of Psalms, the prayers of the saints of old, Jesus’s prayers recorded in the Gospels, and the prayers of Paul in his epistles are beautiful examples of prayers which the Lord delights to hear and to answer. But God’s will sings forth from every page of Scripture, and therefore all of Scripture may be useful for informing and shaping our prayers.

In our lesson, I suggested that we read back through 1 John, or choose one of the following passages of Scripture, and write a prayer for ourselves or for someone else, according to the will of God revealed in his Holy Word. The passages I chose for this exercise were not prayers in scripture, nor were they lists of virtues, but they required a little more meditation in order to fold them into a prayer. The passages I chose are these: 1 Corinthians 13:1-7; Ephesians 4:1-16; Philippians 2:1-16; Philippians 4:4-13; and 1 Peter 3:1-6. For myself, I chose the passage from 1 Corinthians, which is commonly known as “the love chapter.” But if you read more meditatively, the lack of love which Paul was seeking to correct becomes painfully obvious, and it resembles my own heart more often than I like to admit.

Father,

I confess that I am often given to speaking without love, using lofty words or plain, with intent to wound rather than to heal, to divide rather than unite, to tear down rather than to build up. O Lord, I am often a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal.

Forgive me.

I desire to know the mysteries of your word, but often for my own building up—for knowledge, not service or devotion. I desire a deeper faith, but only for my own benefit. I want to be seen by others for my deeds of faith, my seemingly-selfless acts of service, my humble martyrdom in the face of those to whom I have hardened my heart.

Please, Father, forgive me.

Help me to love as you love, with true patience and kindness, with no trace of envy or boasting. Remove from my heart all arrogance and from my tongue all rudeness. Cause me to lay down my preferences, my “expertise,” my control, and bend my heart to your will and your way. Replace my irritable and resentful nature with grace and delight. Cause me to grieve with you at wrongdoing and rejoice with you in the truth. Give me strength to bear all things, faith to believe all things, assurance to hope all things, and stamina to endure all things in love.

This I pray, in the name of Jesus Christ my Lord, who, because of his great love for me, laid down his life, enduring the cross and despising the shame, that I might have eternal life. To him be the glory forevermore. Amen.

Interceding For One Another

In verses 16-17 John moves from personal petitions in prayer to intercession, and we come to a set of perplexing questions: what are sins that do and do not lead to death, and who are we not praying for? John cannot be categorizing sins as minor/deadly, as in Roman Catholicism, for scripture is clear that all sin deserves the death penalty (Rom. 6:23; James 1:15).

John has already written to us that when believers sin, we are to confess our sins, and God will be faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1:9). We are forgiven and cleansed when we confess because Jesus is not only our advocate, he is the propitiation for our sins. Our sins have been satisfactorily paid for by the death of our Savior and we no longer need to pay, by means of a sacrifice, but only need to repent and confess—not to pay, but to restore the relationship between us and our Father (2:1-2). Therefore, when a believer sins, it does not lead to spiritual death and ultimate separation from God (3:14; 5:13). [This is not to say that a believer, because of sinful choices and actions, is immune from the consequence of physical death. A believer who sins by, for instance, driving while intoxicated, may indeed be involved in a fatal car accident, in which case she will be ushered directly into the presence of God in heaven, though leaving in her wake much sadness and destruction here on earth.]

If this is true of every believer, how then are we to treat our brothers and sisters in the faith when they sin? We are to pray for our brothers and sisters when they sin (16), seeking to restore them to repentance and fellowship in a spirit of gentleness, helping them to bear their burdens—the pain and consequences of their sin, coming alongside them lovingly, not enabling the sin, but enabling their repentance (Gal. 6:1-2)—praying with them for their forgiveness (James 5:15).

Throughout his epistle, John has exhorted us to love one another. What could be more loving than praying for one another? When we bring our brothers and sisters before the throne of grace for any reason, it is an act of love. When we see them sinning it is our duty and privilege to intercede for them, asking our gracious Father to restore them to fellowship with him and with us, and to restore the joy of their salvation (Psalm 51:12) which, when believers sin, is broken. When another believer’s sin has spilled over and hurt us, our first response may be to turn our backs and abandon them in their sin. But God exhorts us to love one another earnestly, because such love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Sisters, let us pray for one another, even especially when we have been hurt, for, “if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another… if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (4:11-12).

John begins verse 16 writing of a “brother committing a sin” for whom we ought to pray. His next sentence, about one for whom we ought not to pray, does not grammatically imply “a brother.” According to the context of the entire epistle, John must be speaking of the antichrist false teachers who have, with hearts hardened to the gospel, been actively seeking to undermine the faith of the true believers and thus overthrow the church (2:18-19, 22; 5:10b). These are the determined enemies of Jesus Christ, about whom he has been warning his beloved children throughout his letter, and against whose false teachings he has been seeking to assure the Christians of the true faith. Unrighteous, unloving, and unbelieving in the Christ, the Son of God come in the flesh, the antichrists have refused the light of the gospel and prefer the darkness of their sin.

Therefore, the “sin that leads to death” of which John writes is unbelief, the determined unbelief which Jesus labeled “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Mark 3:29). Those who refuse, upon seeing the light of Christ as revealed in the gospel, to leave the darkness, are committing the sin that leads to death (John 3:18-20; 8:24).

Now, sisters, we are not omniscient. We cannot see the hearts of others as Christ can. We are able to see the fruit of one’s life and profession of faith, and we are responsible to be discerning and wise in how we evaluate such fruit. There are those who are obviously wolves among the flock of God. But there are others who, though they are believers, have wandered into grievous patterns of sin, even long years of separation from the church. If you are praying for a loved one who is wandering far from the fold, one who has broken her vows of fidelity to Christ and, in so doing, is breaking your heart—keep praying. Keep praying. Remember God’s high and incomprehensible ways, and keep praying. Set your mind and heart on Christ, and do not make the return of this wandering sheep the condition of your faith. But anchor your faith in Christ, praying that he will bring the lost lamb home, and yet, even if not, that he will hold you tightly in the grip of his grace until you behold him face to face, and he tenderly wipes away every tear from your eyes.

Final Assurances

John follows this warning about the seriousness of sin and hardness of heart with three assurances of comfort for believers, and not fluffy comfort, but rock-solid-assurance-style comfort. In verses 18-20, he writes that we know that everyone born of God does not continue in patterns of sin, but “he who was born of God” protects them, and the evil one doesn’t touch them. We know that we are from God, and, in contrast, the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come, he has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true, that we are in him who is true—his Son Jesus Christ—who is the true God and eternal life.

“He who was born of God’ who protects “everyone who has been born of God” is Jesus Christ, God’s only Son sent into the world, who is the firstborn of God, not only eternally, but was literally born of the virgin Mary (4:9, 14-15; John 1:14; Luke 2:4-11). Other translations of the Bible that capitalize the pronouns for God and Jesus make this phrase clearer, but the ESV and others do not capitalize them, so it reads a bit confusing at first. And the protection of which John writes, is not, as we have already learned, from pain, disease, danger, or tragedy in this life, but the eternal protection which guarantees the eternal life into which he will deliver us because out of his hand no one may snatch us (John 10:28). After all, we know that he is the true God and Eternal life (20)! Jesus protects us from the evil one (18-19; 3:8; John 17:15), and though our path may take us awfully close to him at times, he will not ultimately prevail, but Jesus will get us safely home.

John writes in verse 20 that we are given understanding so that we may know God, him who is true, and that we are in him and in his Son Jesus Christ, who is the true God and eternal life. This is the very thing John records Jesus praying in his high priestly prayer, that: “since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:2-3). Beloved, if we are in Christ, we are made new, the old life we lived in the darkness of sin has passed away and the new life in the light of Christ has come (2 Cor. 5:17), and John says that we can know and understand this now.

Jesus has given us this understanding by giving us the Holy Spirit, who, to those who thirst for wisdom, is as rivers of living water, flowing out of our hearts (John 7:37-39). The Spirit guides us into all truth, not speaking on his own authority, but what he hears from the Father and the Son he speaks, inspiring the writers of the Scriptures, and illuminating God’s word to us now, glorifying Jesus by taking what is his and declaring it to us (John 16:13-15). It is by the Holy Spirit that we confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh from God (1 John 4:2), and by the Spirit know that we abide in God and God abides in us (1 John 3:24).

John finishes his epistle in the same manner with which he opened it: no formalities. His final appeal to his dear children is that we keep ourselves from idols (21). Having just told us in verse 18 that Jesus keeps us from the evil one, John doesn’t want us to forget our own responsibility to strive for holiness in our sanctification, because it is a process in which we, enabled by and together with God, are make constant effort (Phil. 2:12-13). And in light of what he has just written in verse 20, that Jesus is indeed the true God and eternal life, we owe him our grateful allegiance.

In the book of Exodus, when God led the Israelites out of bondage and then gave them his commandments, he was giving the law to newly liberated, free people. His first commandment, that he was the LORD their God—who brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and they should therefore have no other gods before him—was reminding the Israelites  of their commitment to a relationship of exclusive devotion to him. In the very next commandment he tells them not to make or worship idols. He was saying, “You are liberated, but you are not free to do things in regard to this relationship however you want to do them.”[2]

Sisters, John has reminded us in this epistle that we have been freed from bondage. But even more than that, we have been made children of God! This freedom and relationship are given to us as a gift of grace because of the love of God for us and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross to atone for our relationship-shattering sins. We have been drawn into fellowship with one another and with the Triune God, no longer walking in darkness, but walking in light, cleansed by the blood of Christ. We therefore are committed to a relationship of exclusive devotion to him! The false teachers were committed to their idols, loving neither Christ nor other believers, but living however they wanted. John calls us to remember our liberation and be exclusively devoted to our liberator, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who laid down his life for us so that we might have eternal life. Little children, abide in Christ; keep yourselves from idols.

I pray that as we have mined the treasures of God’s word in the first epistle of John, the Holy Spirit has accomplished his purposes in your hearts and minds. That the proclamation of the gospel has drawn you closer into the fellowship of the church, with the Father, and his Son Jesus Christ, making your joy complete (1:3-4). That you may endeavor not to sin, but when you do you will flee to our advocate, Jesus Christ the righteous, knowing that he is the propitiation for your sins (2:1-2). And that you believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life (5:13).

Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Megan Hill, Praying Together (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 52.

[2] The thoughts in this entire paragraph, including the direct quote, were preached by Dr. Irwin Ince, in his sermon, Image is Everything, at New City Fellowship, Chattanooga, TN, February 10, 2019, http://www.newcityfellowship.com/sermons

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