As we near the end of this first epistle from the Apostle John, God’s Word focuses us in on the power and privilege of prayer. And, if you give full weight to the meaning of these words, and take God’s Word to heart – it is, indeed, an amazing teaching about prayer.
In the verses that we come to now, there are two different kinds of prayers that are taken up – prayers of petition (prayers in which we ask for something and make requests of God), and prayers of intercession (prayers in which we intercede on behalf of another person). We’ll consider each kind of prayer in turn.
(1) Prayers of Petition (1 John 5:14-15)
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.
The first thing that we learn about prayers of petition is that we are to approach the Lord with confidence because we, as His children, have been granted the privilege of free access to God. The word that is translated as “confidence” in verse 14 means boldness or assurance, but it also carries the connotation of free-speech – openness and frankness. It speaks of the privilege of free access to the Creator of the universe through Jesus Christ. As Jesus put it, “No one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).
In these verses, however, John takes the understanding of this confidence before God a bit further. He explains that this confidence before God in prayer – which is based on the free access provided by Jesus Christ and His righteousness – is also dependent on understanding two things about the nature of prayer.
The first thing that about the nature of prayer that we must understand is that we are to pray according to God’s will – “if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14). When seeking to discern God’s will in our lives so that we might pray accordingly, we tend to ask all sorts of different questions. Is it God’s will for me to go to this college, or that one? Is it God’s will that I marry this person or that one? Is it God’s will that I take this job or that one? But, to think of God’s will in these terms misses the point. When we ask these questions, we run into this conundrum, but it’s a conundrum of our own making, not God’s.
This where it is essential to remember the three emphases of John’s letter as the context for this discussion on prayer. As we’ve seen throughout our study of 1 John, there is an emphasis in this letter on three essential parts of the Christian life: right doctrine (what you believe), right relationships (how you love), and right morality (how you live according to God’s commandments). You see, instead of wondering about what college to go to, whom to marry, what job to take, and so on…what we really ought to be doing is striving after are these three things: knowing and understanding Christ better in His Word, loving our brothers and sisters as Christ has loved us, and seeking to fulfill the requirements of our duties before our holy God.
When these three things (right doctrine, right relationships, and right morality) are at work in our lives, then finding God’s specific will actually become a moot point. As Martin Luther famously said, then you will be able to “love God, and do as you please.” For then, as you are loving God with the whole of your life, what you are pleased to do is that which is pleasing to Him.
Think of it this way. If you were going to a job interview, don’t you think that it would be a good idea to investigate the business to which you are applying in order to better understand their vision, goals, and philosophy? Wouldn’t you want to know what the boss was like? What are some things that he likes? What does he dislike? Most people I know who apply and interview for jobs, if their smart, do at least some of that.
Just so, as we read God’s Word, grow in our love for Him and His people, and seek to walk in His ways, we will come to know better God’s will. As we learn more of His will, we will discover come to better understand God’s vision, His goals, and His philosophy, what He likes and dislikes.
And yet, we make very little, if any, preparations for approaching our God! We take more time to prepare and ascertain the likes and dislikes of potential bosses, then we do trying to understand what God likes and dislikes before we go before Him in prayer. But, it ought not to be this way.
What I’m trying to make a case for here, is something that has been called “studied prayer.” As far as I have been able to ascertain, that phrase was coined by one of the members of the Westminster Assembly by the name of Philip Nye. As they discussed and debated whether written prayers or extemporary prayers were more proper in worship, Philip Nye said, “I plead for neither, but for studied prayers.”
In his book “Leading in Prayer,” Hughes Oliphant Old says:
“For many generations American Protestants have prized spontaneity in public prayer. I hope it will always be so. One has to admit, however, that the spontaneous prayer one often hears in public worship is an embarrassment to the tradition. It all too often lacks content. It may be sincere, but sometimes it is not profound. One notices sometimes that the approach that these prayers reveal is immature, if not simply misleading. Spontaneity needs to be balanced by careful preparation and forethought.”
So, first of all, in order to have confidence before the Lord in prayers of petition, we are to ask according to His will through studied prayer and He promises to hear us. Second, in order to have confidence before the Lord in prayers of petition, we must also have faith. But not a blind faith. No, we must have faith in God’s promise that a prayer request made according to God’s will is heard…and it is granted!
That’s what verse 15 actually says: “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” (1 John 5:15). As we study God’s will in His Word, we will also learn of His character. And part of His character is to grant the requests of His people – requests that are according to His will. We serve a God Who does not hide His will from His people. We serve a God Who cannot lie. We serve a God Who keeps His promises. This, then, should give us boundless confidence when we make our requests known to Him.
Let’s briefly summarize what we have learned thus far with regard to prayers of petition. In order to have confidence and boldness before God, (first) we must pray according to God’s will – and I have suggested the model of “studied prayer” for this. And (second), we must pray according to faith – not double minded (see also James 1:6-8), but with faith in God’s character that when He hears our requests, He grants our requests.
So, having learned about how to have confidence in our prayers of petition, let’s turn our attention now to prayers of intercession, or interceding on behalf of another person.
(2) Prayers of Intercession (1 John 5:16-17)
16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this.
17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.
Verse 16 is probably one of the most difficult verses to understand in the whole of this epistle. There are a host of interpretations about what is “a sin not leading to death” and “a sin leading to death.” Personally, I find that it helps to first understand verse 17 before attempting to understand verse 16.
Verse 17 gives a simple absolute that is easy to understand: all unrighteousness is sin. If righteousness is the standard and is equivalent to holiness then the opposite is true, as well: all unrighteousness is sin. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines sin in a similar way when it says – “Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” If the law of God is the standard of righteousness, then sin is both the lack of conformity to the law of God, and the transgression of the law of God.
Simple enough. John wants to make sure that we understand the seriousness of sin, which is by definition, not righteousness but falling short of, and not attaining to, God’s standard in His Law. At the same time, however, he wants us to know that there is hope. That’s the second half of verse 17: “and there is a sin not leading to death.”
That’s a difficult statement, and is at the heart of the difficulty of understanding verse 16. But, again, it’s helpful to start here in verse 17 because in verse 17, we learn what John is not saying. John is not saying that there are some sins that are mortal, and others that are not. Like, say, you may have heard of “the seven deadly sins.” Well, because of the absolute statement – “all unrighteousness is sin” – we know that John is not trying to draw a distinction between mortal sins and venial sins.
In understanding what John means by “there is a sin not leading to death” – it is helpful to know that in the Greek, it literally reads, “there is a sin not unto death.” Most translations add “leading” or “lead” to make the sentence more readable.
Here’s why that’s important. When John says, “there is a sin not unto death,” it seems that he is referring to a person who is spiritually dead, but physically alive – a person who is continuing in their sin, but has not physically died (one who has not repented of their sins and trusted in Christ). There’s still hope for them. You see, if your sins are forgiven by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, then when you die, you will not die in your sins, you will die in God’s grace and forgiveness. However, if you never experience God’s forgiveness and grace, then when you die, you will die in your sins.
Here, it seems that John is drawing on the words of Jesus when He was speaking to the Pharisees who did not believe in Him (John 8:24), “You will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He [that is, the Son of God], you will die in your sins.”
“The sin not unto death” refers to a person who is an unbeliever, one who has not yet physically died; therefore, there is still hope for them. “The sin unto death” then, refers to a person who has physically died, having never experienced the forgiveness and grace of God; therefore, there is no more hope for them. One is a living “brother” who has not yet been born again (“the sin not unto death”) and the other is a deceased “sinner” who was never born again (“the sin unto death”).
Now, we are better able to understand verse 16. In the first half of this verse, John encourages us to pray for our “brother committing a sin not leading to death.” But, we are not to pray for those marked by “a sin leading to death.”
You see, if we take these definitions and apply them to verse 16, then when John refers to “a brother committing a sin not unto death,” he is talking about a person who is still physically alive, but is spiritually dead in his trespasses and sins. The fact that he calls this person “brother” seems to imply that he professes to be a believer, but by his continuing in his sins, he is revealing himself to not be a true believer. He is still in bondage to his sin and has not yet been set free.
Here’s the amazing part – and this applies whether our definition of “the sin unto death” is accurate or not. God’s Word says that if you see a brother committing a sin of this nature, and you intercede on his behalf, God will give him life!
This, by the way, is another reason why it would seem that this “brother” is a brother in name only, and does not have true, saving faith. If he were a believer, he may need forgiveness, but he would already have life. But, the Scripture says, “Ask, and God will for him give life.” God will give him the gift of the glorious new birth!
In the second half of verse 16, then, it is simply an admonition against interceding and praying for the dead – for those who have died in their sins. John says, “There is a sin unto death” – there are those who have died in their sins – “I do not say that he should make request for this.” That is, it’s too late for them.
Well, if you’re confused by all this “sin not leading unto death” and “sin leading unto death” – I understand. It’s a very difficult passage and concept, and I may not be doing the best job of trying to make sense of it. But, regardless, don’t miss the amazing point about the power and privilege of intercessory prayer that lies smack-dab in the middle of verse 16.
John is saying that your prayers – your very words – are the means by which God actually gives life! It is God who saves. Eternal life is His gift to give as He pleases. But, if you grasp this truth, you will know the power and privilege – the boldness and confidence – of prayers on behalf others! Intercessory prayers on behalf of those who are still dead in their trespasses and sins are the effectual means by which God actually gives life!
Most believers have friends or relatives who confess to know God and profess to be believers, but by the way they live their lives, it’s obvious that they are not born again. So, you have prayed for them. You have prayed for years that God would remove the scales from their eyes and the hardness of their hearts. You’ve prayed that God would give them life!
Trusting in the authority of God’s Word and His promise, don’t give up! Don’t stop praying! When you bring your petitions before God, you can come before Him in confidence and boldness. You can have confidence and boldness that when you pray according to His will, God will hear. And when God hears the prayers of His saints – offered up in accordance with His will – He grants the request.
And, when you intercede on behalf of another – one who says that he knows God, but is still walking according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, and the lusts of the their flesh – When you intercede on their behalf, you can have boldness and confidence, knowing that your prayers are that which God uses to give the gift of life, and make them born again.