Do you ever worry that you’re not a proper Christian? Do you fear you might not be a child of God after all?
Do you ever struggle to pray?
Do you worry about friends who are caught in certain sins?
Do you wonder what to do about those who once said they were Christians and now they’re speaking against Christ?
Do you ever find your heart wandering from Christ, and falling for other things?
John is going to address all these questions as he concludes his letter. And his answer to all these questions is to bring us back to Jesus. If Jesus is at the heart of our thinking then we’ll be able to handle these question.
In particular, Jesus defines our standing with God. Jesus defines our living before God. And Jesus defines God.
Let’s think about that first one: Jesus defines our standing with God. And for this let’s begin a couple of verses before our reading to get the run-in. Let’s read from v11:
And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 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.
When you think of “eternal life” where does your mind go? Usually we think of a time or a place. Somewhere away in the future, somewhere off in the distance. But John doesn’t think so much of a time or a place, he thinks of a Person. JESUS is eternal life.
Before there was a universe there was life – life flowing between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And this letter from John is about how the Son became flesh – He participated in OUR life, that we might participate in HIS life. The Son of God became man so that men and women might become sons and daughter of God. Therefore to have Jesus is to be brought into the life of God.
Eternal life is not a time or a place, it’s a person. If you have the Son you have life.
Which means the Christian, v13, may KNOW that they have eternal life. What a weight off our minds! We can know that eternity is sorted for us. Doesn’t that lift a weight off our shoulders? We can go out and just live – nothing to prove, nothing to hide, nothing to lose. Eternity is secure. Judgement Day is sorted. God’s not on your back. He’s on your side. Because He’s your Father. And He’s your Father, because you belong to His Son. You’re one of the family, now and forever. And you can know that.
Why? Because JESUS defines my standing with God. I’m accepted by God this evening because of Jesus. And I’ll be accepted tomorrow morning because of Jesus. And in 50 years I’ll be accepted because of Jesus. And in 50 000 years I’ll be accepted because of Jesus. JESUS defines my standing with God.
But that’s not usually the way we think. We usually think “I’m in with God when I’m a good boy and I’m out when I’m naughty.” We play “He loves me, He loves me not with God.” He loves me when I read my bible and pray and serve in the Sunday school. He loves me not when I stop reading my bible and get drunk and gossip. We imagine that we yo-yo in and out of God’s favour. But the word of God says “If you have the Son you have life.” And “You may know that you HAVE eternal life.”
This is the assurance that believers may have. Now when a Christian says “I know I’ve got eternal life!” – how does that sound to the world? It sounds arrogant doesn’t it? But that’s only because the world thinks we earn eternal life through moral goodness. So when I say “I know I’ve got eternal life!” it sounds like I’m saying I know I’m good enough to earn heaven. But I’m not saying that. I’m not saying I’M good enough for heaven, I’m saying Jesus is good enough for heaven. And JESUS is my standing with God.
Doesn’t that change the way you live your life? Nothing to prove, nothing to hide, nothing to lose – confident faith – assured of eternal life because we HAVE Jesus.
This assurance of faith is a heresy in Roman Catholicism. Official Catholic teaching calls it the sin of presumption. You’re not supposed to claim to KNOW you have eternal life. But what does verse 13 say: Believers may know. We may know we have eternal life. Because heaven is not for those who jump through religious hoops. Heaven is for Jesus, and for all those who HAVE Jesus. Do you have Jesus? Then you may KNOW that you have eternal life.
But if the Roman Catholics get verse 13 wrong in one direction, there has been a certain brand of Puritan Christianity that gets it wrong in the other. There’s a certain kind of Christianity that makes assurance of faith into a private duty for all believers. These serious-minded folk would have us checking our spiritual temperatures every half an hour to figure out if there’s signs of heavenly life in our souls. John doesn’t want us doing that. His whole letter is about looking up to Jesus and looking out to other believers. He never tells us to look IN to the state of our hearts. We won’t find any assurance of faith there. No we simply need to look up to Jesus and then the Spirit will assure our hearts – He’s not just THE Lord, He’s MY Lord, He’s not just Saviour, He’s MY Saviour. And if we want a secondary source of assurance, then if we find ourselves loving others with the love of Jesus, then we can conclude that this love has first been in us. But John never asks us to look within to find out whether we have eternal life. Don’t take your spiritual temperature all the time. Assurance of faith is not a burdensome duty John enjoins on you. It’s a blessing that comes as part and parcel of saving faith. Do you believe in Jesus? Then He’s yours. And if He’s yours then so is eternal life. Because Jesus IS your standing with God.
That’s good news isn’t it? But what should this good news do to us? Make us feel smug? Make us look down on others? Make us superior? No – here’s what this truth should do to us: Verse 14, it should make us pray! Here’s where this confidence leads – read with me:
14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us--whatever we ask--we know that we have what we asked of him.
If we HAVE Jesus, the Son, what does that make us? It makes us children. And how does our Father in heaven promise to relate to His children. He hears us.
Isn’t that great!? When we pray, there’s someone on the other end of the line. And they are listening. What a relief!
You walk down the streets of Eastbourne and you’ll find any number of people who look like they’re talking to themselves. And you think “How mad!” But you get closer and you notice the hands-free kit. And what at first seemed mad, then makes sense: Ah, they’re talking to someone. There’s someone on the other end of the line.
Here’s what stops talking into the air being a futile madness – there’s someone listening.
Now why don’t I pray? So often I don’t pray, because I’ve forgotten there’s someone on the other end of the line. I don’t think He hears me. I need to go back to verse 14: He HEARS me. My Father HEARS me and delights to hear me, because I am His child.
But not only does He hear, He responds, He gives.
As Jesus says in Matthew chapter 7, who ever heard of a child saying “Daddy, can I have some bread?” And the father says “Certainly my child, and then gift wraps them a massive boulder.” Are there fathers who are that cruel? Is that what our heavenly Father is like?? Or if a child says “Daddy, can I have a piece of fish?” Is there a father so cruel that instead he’ll give his child a live snake? Just release it into the child’s bed at night, saying “You asked!”
Is that what our heavenly Father is like? No, He may not give us EXACTLY the bread we ask for. But He won’t give us a stone. He may not give EXACTLY the fish we ask for. But He won’t give us a snake.
How do we know? Well because He gave us HIS SON! He gave Jesus to us so utterly, even to bloody death. Jesus was poured out for us on that cross and givenb to us by His Spirit – do we really think He’ll be grudging with any of His other blessings. No, as Romans 8:32 says “He who did NOT spare His only son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Jesus, graciously give us ALL THINGS.”
We have the Son and when we ask we have everything we could ever want or need in Him.
Because JESUS is our standing before God, we have confidence before God. And this confidence is to be exercized in prayer.
In verses 16-18, John applies this teaching about prayer to the topic of praying for those around us. Let’s read:
16 If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him 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 he should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death. 18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him.
John says – when you look around for people to pray for, you’ll see all sorts of people going wrong. But those people who are going wrong are in two very different categories. The first half of verse 16 gives one kind of person. There’s your run of the mill, bog standard, Christian sinner. And we need to be proactively and graciously looking out for this kind of person and saying “Hey, I see you’re struggling here, let’s pray about it.” But there’s also another kind of person who’s going wrong. That’s the second half of verse 16. This person is committing a sin that leads to death.
Now some people want to say that John is suddenly switching meaning and now when he talks about “life and death”, he’s not talking about spiritual life or eternal death, he’s just talking about biological life. So this is just about a sin that leads to physical death. But I think it’d be odd for John to switch his meaning so suddenly and without warning. I think we can safely say John is talking about a sin that leads to eternal death – to hell.
Yikes! What could that be?
Well let’s remember what John has already said. Life IS Jesus. Jesus is eternal life. So what do you think is the sin that leads to death?
If Christ is life. The sin that leads to death must be Christlessness – rejection of Christ.
Jesus defines sin. Sin is being anti-Jesus.
And in this letter John writes about some who looked to the church like they were believers, but it turned out they were never true believers. Have a look at chapter 2, verse 18:
18 Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.
This congregation has had the experience of people who claimed to be Christians but who were never actually born again. They eventually get fed up with church and instead of being PRO-Christ, they are turned ANTI-Christ. They proclaim loudly to the world that Jesus is not God, or that when He came He didn’t really come in the flesh, He just floated around like a ghost or some other wives’ tale. They end up denying Jesus. There’s a word for this: It’s called Apostasy. It’s the One sin that leads to death.
Look at the start of chapter 2:
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
Here it’s the image of Jesus speaking up in our defence. In the old translations it speaks of Jesus as our Advocate. Think of a law court, all the charges are read out, you’re guilty as charged, but Jesus steps forward and says “I think you’ll find I’ve paid for ALL of those. In fact, I’ve paid for the sins of the whole world.”
So then how could anyone end up in spiritual death? How could anyone end up in hell? Only if they reject their Advocate. Only if they reject Jesus.
So, back in 1 John 5:16 – what is the sin that leads to death? It’s denying Christ. And John says, there are some who have left your number, they are cursing Christ, don’t spend all your time trying to track them down to bring them back.
Imagine you’re a librarian. You’ve got a list of members, all the members have a library card. If one of your members doesn’t return a book, you’ve got their address, you send them a notice, you chase them up. You make sure your members are abiding by the rules. But if someone comes in from outside, they’ve never been a part of the system and they just steal a book, you can’t relate to them the same way. They’re not in the system. You can’t revoke their library card, they never had one. You’ll just have to let it go.
And John says, there comes a time with those who deny Christ and go off on their own that you stop chasing them. Perhaps the Lord will bring them to their senses at a later time, but there does come a time for believers to stop trying to drag Christ-deniers back into the prayer meeting.
But perhaps all this talk of apostasy would have made the recipients of this letter anxious. John doesn’t want his readers to be anxious. He doesn’t want them to think that our sins which we commit every day are going to take us to hell, so he reassures them, v17:
All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
In fact, we’ll need to reassure ourselves of this. Turn back to 1 John 1:8
8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
John’s picture of a church is a place where people drop the masks and stop pretending to be sinless. We sin and we confess our sins. And we know that we HAVE forgiveness because JESUS is our standing before God.
That’s John’s understanding of the Christian life.
But then, flick back to 1 John 5:18
18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him.
And at that point, maybe you’re thinking: “Which is it John? You’ve just said “If we claim we’ve not sinned, we make God a liar.” Now you’re saying “anyone born of God does not continue to sin.” Which is it? Do we continue to sin or don’t we?
Well think of that phrase “born of God” and answer the question: how many births has the Christian had?
The Christian is the product of two births. Our first birth is from Adam – and it’s given rise to what the bible calls “the flesh.” Our second birth happened when we trusted Christ. When we trusted the Son of God, we were born from God – and by this second birth we are given “the Spirit.”
The Christian is the product of two births. Which means the Christian has two powers at work within them – the flesh and the Spirit. And a brilliant place to see these two powers at work is Galatians chapter 5...
Those who are born of God have a new power within them. Something really is birthed in us when we are born again. Something really does come to life. God places the Spirit of His Son into us, and Christ lives His life through us. And out comes fruit.
In our flesh we sin. We don’t want to but we do it. But if you’ve been born again, what’s most important about you, is that the Spirit has birthed a new life in you. You’re not just a sin machine. Your flesh might be, but you’ve been born again. You’re much more than your flesh now. You’re a tree of righteousness.
And as Jesus says in Matthew 7, a good tree produces good fruit. They just DO.
Anyone born of God does not continue to sin. Jesus Christ – the One who is born of God keeps you safe and the devil can’t touch you. Oh your flesh will throw up all sorts of garbage, but your new nature – your Christ-nature – that which is born of God does not sin.
Jesus doesn’t just define sin, He also defines righteousness. It’s His life in us that is the true source of righteousness.
Which means that there is something refreshingly natural about righteous living for the Christian. It’s not about pushing a boulder up a hill, trying very hard to be good. It’s about keeping in step with Christ’s Spirit who IS producing good fruit in your life.
Jesus defines sin and righteousness.
We’re just got time to briefly look at the final part. Jesus defines God – v19-21
19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 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--even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
Here is John’s closing picture. The world is dominated by Satan. And Christians are IN the world. But we’re not of the world. Christ came INTO the world, revealed Himself and then ascended back to the Father. Now we live above the world when we trust Him.
And who is this Jesus? He is the true God and eternal life. How brilliant! He IS the true God. Whatever other definitions of God are out there, He is the TRUE God.
Some might want to define God as the First Cause of the universe… Yeah, maybe. Some might want to say that what defines God is, God is the moral lawmaker… yeah, maybe. Here’s what really defines the TRUE God: Jesus.
I was talking to a friend last week and for the first time they revealed that their grandfather was a famous Unitarian minister. (Unitarian means they believe that God is just one person, therefore Jesus is not God).
We got talking about the trinity and I said, one of the things that makes me Trinitarian is that Jesus can’t just be another bloke. As Lord Byron once said “If God is not just like Jesus, He ought to be.” And that’s my philosophy. If God’s not exactly like Jesus, I don’t want to know. But when I look out on the world and all the claimants to the term “God” I’m not impressed by any of them, except one. I vote Jesus.
And she was very taken by that. She didn’t have any time for God naturally. But when we share about the TRUE God, Jesus, then she was interested.
John ends his letter with v21:
21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
A strange verse to finish on? Or a fitting summary?
What is an idol? An idol is a false god. And John says, keep yourselves away from false gods. Our hearts are always chasing after things that aren’t the true God.
Here’s Luther on the first commandment “Thou shalt have no other gods but me.”
“What does it mean to have a god? or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress, so that to have a God is nothing else than to trust and believe Him from the whole heart… That now, I say, upon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god.
...God says: “See to it that you let Me alone be your God, and never seek another,” i.e.: Whatever you lack of good things, expect it of Me, and look to Me for it, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, creep and cling to Me. I, yes, I, will give you enough and help you out of every need; only let not your heart cleave to or rest in any other.”
How should we keep ourselves from false gods? Look to the true God. Who is the true God? Verse 20: Jesus Christ is the true God and eternal life.
He defines our standing with God, He defines sin and righteousness, He defines God.
Struggle to pray?
Unsure how to help fellow strugglers?
We know what to do. Look to Christ again: He is the true God and eternal life.