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The Boldness of Faith (1 John 5:13-21)

The Boldness of Faith
1 John 5:13-21

Minister’s Summary:
Surrounded as we are by the darkness of lies and hatred, the incarnational community of God on Earth is challenged to live in confidence. Because we have eternal life, we have the grace-given right to pray boldly for any and all things that are consistent with the life of light and love to which we have been called.

Note: This material may be divided into two lessons if the class so desires. This is the last of the sermon series, but if the class or group wants to make this into two lessons I have provided an option in the “Teaching Particulars” section below.

Exegetical Notes

1 John 5:13-21 is John’s epilogue that corresponds with the prologue of 1 John 1:1-4. The body of the letter was complete with 1 John 5:12. However, an epilogue is not an appendix or a mere addendum. Rather, this epilogue functions to summary the point and intent of John’s letter. It provides a hermeneutical lens through which to read the whole letter again. Indeed, we should reread the letter to see if we caught and understand his purpose when we read it the first time.

Purpose Statement (5:13)

This statement links 5:12 and 5:14. It is a transitional sentence that concludes the body of the letter and begins the epilogue.

John gives us the purpose of his tract or letter. He writes to assure us that we have eternal life. He writes so that we may “know” that we have eternal life. This assurance has come in primarily two ways: (1) faith in Jesus Christ and (2) love for each other. We have seen this previously, as in 1 John 5:1-4a.

Confidence and Prayer (5:14-17)

Prayerful Expectation (5:14-15). The confidence we have is linked to faith in Jesus Christ. It is because Jesus Christ is our advocate that we have confidence in prayer. Our faith yields confidence.

John's assurances about prayer here reflect the Gospel as well (John 15:7) and it is linked to a relationship with God. The confidence of prayer arises out of the relationship we have with God as his children.

The problem here is absolutizing this confidence in such a way that God simply because a cosmic Santa Claus or a Sears Catalog. It is best to read this promise in the context of shared assumptions, for example, walking in the light, the will of God, etc. Nevertheless, we do not want to gut the promise so that it becomes meaningless.

Prayerful Discernment (5:16-17). Marshall correctly observes that John has been leading up to this point throughout the whole epistle. His contrasts between community and secessionists, between light and darkness, between loved and hate, between righteousness and sin have prepared his readers for this statement.

In the light of these contrasts, John offers yet another. It is the contrast between a sin that leads to death and a sin that does not. Since the context is eternal life and spiritual communion with God, I will assume that "death" here means spiritual death or eternal separation from God.

(1) Venial vs. Mortal Sin (sins that kill if left unrepented of)?

(2) Unintentional vs. Intentional Sin?

(3) In Community vs. Outside of Community (Secessionists)?

(4) Momentary Weakness vs. Deliberate Rebellion (Apostasy)?

I am inclined to think with Brown that (3) is the point, but that the text also yields the principle of (4). Thus, in this point we have the two communities clearly divided into two camps: death and life. The secessionists belong to death, but the Johannine community has eternal life. The secessionists reflect a deliberate apostasy—they rebel against the message that God is light and loved as revealed in the flesh of Jesus Christ. The “sin unto death” is probably the sin of deliberate rebellion that rejects the community of God and intends to live outside of it.

Three Certainties and a Final Exhortation (5:18-21).

This section provides the reason for Christian confidence. We are bold, certain and assured because we know three things.

"We know...." (5:18-20).

What We Know
TextPrimary StatementComplimentary Statement
5:18...that those who are born of God do not sinbut the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them.
5:19...that we are God's childrenand that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.
5:20...that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is trueand we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

We know we are not enslaved by the Evil One. The theme of chapter 3 returns in this certainty. Children of God do not habitually commit sin. They are not oriented to sin. They do not belong to the Evil One and the Evil One cannot harm them because of Jesus Christ.

The difficulty in this certainty is the meaning of "the one who was born of God"? Brown (pp. 620-22) offers five alternatives:

(a) The begetting by God guards the Christian (Harnack).

(b) The one begotten by God [Jesus] guards the Christian (Bultmann, Dodd, Bruce, Stott, Westcott, Brooke).

(c) The one begotten by God [the Christian] guards himself (KJV).

(d) The one begotten by God [the Christian] holds on to him [God] (BAG).

(e) The one begotten by God [the Christian], God guards him (Schnackenburg, Brown).

The main objection to (b) is that nowhere does 1 John refer to Jesus as "begotten," but I think this is rather frivolous since 1 John does call Jesus "Son."

We know we belong to God. The dualism is strong here. The distinction between "us" and "the world" is clear. We belong to God, but the world belongs to the Evil One from whom we are protected.

We know we have the true revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The sense of 5:20 is clear. Jesus, the Son of God, has given us an understanding of God so that we might know the true God. The themes of OT literature are important here. The contest between the true and false gods is won here by the clear revelation of the true God through Jesus Christ.

The difficult exegetical question here is the antecedent of ou∞to/ß: "He (this one) is the true God and eternal life." Does this refer to the Father or to the Son? See Murray J. Harris, Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), pp. 239-53 for a thorough discussion.

Some think it refers to the Son (Schnackenburg, Burge, Brown, Marshall, Houlden, Bultmann, Strecker, Thompson). Arguments: "Jesus Christ" is the nearest antecedent; Jesus is "life" in Johannine literature ("life" as a predicate always refers to Jesus); "true" is applied to Jesus in Johannine literature; Christological inclusio [just as the Gospel beginning with 1:1 and ending with 20:28, so also 1 John begins and ends with expressions of the deity of Christ in 1:2 and 5:20; and 5:20 echoes 5:6 with the expression ou∞to/ß e˙stin ("this one is").

Some think it refers to the Father (Harris, Wescott, Law, Brooke, Dodd, Stott, Smalley, Grayston). Arguments: John 17:3; God as life in Johannine literature; the Father is the referent for "true" in 5:20cd and the few references to Jesus as theos (God) in the New Testament.

I think it is fairly ambiguous, and perhaps intentionally so. Perhaps the identity of the Father and Son is so close -- the eternal life they share is so full -- that one cannot make a distinction in terms of "true God". They are both true God. I am inclined to think that John is primarily referring to the Son here because the Son is the manifested eternal life. But I am immediately reminded that John does not separate the Father and Son in terms of that eternal life--it is a shared reality that they, in turn, share with the Johannine community (with us).

Nevertheless, however one might decide the exegetical question, the theological point is clear: Jesus Christ is the revelation of the true God, whether that is found in his own person as well as in the Father or whether it is due to his relationship with the Father.

"Little children, keep Yourselves from idols" (5:21).


1. Literal exhortation against pagan idolatry (Hills; Edwards; Dodd).

2. General exhortation against sin (Schnackenburg, Strecker).

3. Metaphorical exhortation against the "false gods" of the secessionists (Houlden, Brown, Smalley).

The letter concludes with a final warning against the "false gods" the secessionists in contrast with the true God revealed in Jesus Christ. Thus, John undermines pluralism. There is are not two gods, but only one True God, and this one True God is revealed in Jesus Christ. There is a finality and a certainty that stems from God's revelation in Jesus Christ.

The message of the epistle of John, then, is (1) believe in Jesus Christ as the true revelation of God's light and love, (2) love each other in righteousness, and (3) in the context of community the Spirit bears witness that we are the children of God.

Theological Perspectives

Several theological problems emerge in this text. First, does every believing request receive an automatic affirmative answer? Some have construed this text in that way. But this renders prayer almost manipulative, and it ignores the many examples in the story of Scripture where God answers “no” to prayers. We should read this in the context of the fuller embedded picture—shared values, shared goals, walking in the light, loving each other, etc. In other words, prayer requests are subject to evaluation by the will of God (his ethics, values, etc.) and determination by the will of God (his purposes, plans, etc.). We pray in confidence that God will hear, that he will respond in character (his love, light, and purposes), and that however he responds he know that his response is best.

Second, what is the “sin unto death”? We may pray for those who commit sins not unto death, but we may not pray for those who commit sins that lead to death. In other words, some sins do not condemn, but others do. I think we need to read this in the light the whole epistle, particularly in the light of the secessionists who have left the community. They do not love the community; they have rejected the message; they have chosen to live in darkness. In other words, their life is one of deliberate rejection of the revelation of God in Jesus. It is rebellion; a deliberate reorientation toward the world and a rejection of God’s life, values and ethics.

This is very different from sins of weakness in which everyone participates. Even when we are walking in the light we still sin otherwise we would not need the continual cleansing the blood of Christ provides. These, however, are sins that do not condemn as we walk in the light. The sins that do condemn are those that do not participate in the light.

The difference, then, between a sin unto death and a sin that does not lead to death is the difference between sins that committed even though we are oriented to the light (we believe in Jesus, love each other, seek to obey God’s commands) and sins we commit because we are oriented to the darkness (we have rejected the message, hate the brothers, and separated ourselves from the community in a deliberate way). The former are sins of weakness, but the latter are sins of rebellion.

Third, why is John’s final exhortation to flee idolatry when he has never mentioned idolatry in the whole epistle? Because anything other than faith in Jesus is idolatry. Even the secessionists are idolatrous because they substitute their own message for the message of Jesus. 1 John does not sanction pluralism. Rather, it points everyone to the Eternal Life revealed in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.

Teaching Particulars

Faith, Confidence and Prayer (5:13-17)

Function of Text: Faith provides boldness in the presence of God so that we know our prayers are heard as we pray with spiritual discernment.

Theology: Eternal life means we speak freely in the presence of God; eternal life is a quality of relationship whereby God communes with his people by sharing his own life (presence). But since this communion is with the God of light, our prayers must be spiritually discerning.

Application: Because you have eternal life, ask God anything with boldness but ask in accordance with the values of his own eternal life.

Teaching Ouline:

1. Some people find prayer difficult because it is such a bold thing to approach God and speak freely. Indeed, some resist speaking freely and honestly to God. The prayer lives of many are dead because they have no sense of sharing God's eternal life.

2. Yet, the assurance of eternal life has this byproduct: we are privileged to speak freely to our God. This boldness is not only rooted in our assurance and in God's love, but it is also rooted in the assurance that God will hear us. Assurance means confidence. Confidence means boldness to speak freely before God and to know that he hears and will answer.

3. But the blanket appeal to pray does not mean that there are no boundaries to prayer, or that prayer does not need spiritual discernment. There are some for whom we should not pray--we do not pray for those who in rebellion and deliberate sin reject the testimony of God. We do not pray that God will forgive their sin. They are advocates of darkness, the antichrists. We cannot pray for them without sharing in their darkness and thus dimming the light of God in the world. Our prayers must reflect the values of God's own eternal life. God's answers will reflect those values.

4. Yet, we do pray for those who have not deliberately rejected God's light in their rebellion. All believers have the priestly priviledge of intercession. God will forgive their sin through our prayers. We pray for the weak. We pray for those who stumble in their Christian walk. And we know God hears and redeems. God is faithful and just to forgive those for whom his people pray. This is a reflection of the communal life we share together--we pray for each other in the confidence that God hears and forgives.
5. We are assured of eternal life and we are assured that our prayers are heard, and we are committed to the God of light rather than darkness.

Questions for Discussion:

1. How has reading this letter helped you to “know” that you have eternal life? How has the epistle accomplished its purpose in your own life?

2. Is the statement “we know that we have what we have asked of him” absolute? Is it contextualized in any way? What is your confidence in prayer?

3. John seems to indicate that though all wronging is sin, not all sin leads to death? What kinds of sin is John talking about here? What is the nature of the distinction that John introduces here?

4. Why does John discourage praying for people who have committed the “sin that leads to death”? How does that affect your prayer life?

Three Certainties of the Christian Faith (5:18-21)

Function of Text: This section provides the rationale of Christian assurance. We are assured because we know three truths that may be summarized in the statement, "We are the children of the true God."

Theology: The history of redemption is the contest between the Evil One and Jesus Christ, and this conflict is waged in the battle between two communities: the children of God and the world. Jesus Christ came to testify to the true God.

Application: Live confidently in this fallen world. Even though it is pervasively controlled by evil, we know we are the children of the true God and the Evil One cannot harm us.

Teaching Outline:

1. Like righteous Lot, Christians are disturbed by the evil in the world. We are appalled at both the pervasive and radical character of evil. How can a Christian live confidently in a world so full of evil?

2. We live confidently in such a world because we know three truths about our relationship with the world.

3. We know that we do not participate in the sinful lifestyle of the world. We will not share its darkness and the darkness has no power over us because the Son of God protects us from the Evil One.

4. We know that we are God's children. We know where the great divide is between the world and God. We know on whose side we stand. While the world is under the sway of the Evil One, the God of love and light lives inside us to testify that we truly are children of God.

5. We know that the Son of God has revealed to us the true God. We know the difference between true God and false god. True God is Jesus Christ, and everything else is false.

6. Security and truth cannot be found in any other place than Jesus Christ who is the revelation of the true God. This revelation is the answer to ambivalence and uncertainty. It is the light and love of God in the darkness and hatred of the world.

Questions for Discussion:

1. Given that John’s purpose was to assure us that we have eternal life, what three pieces of knowledge does John offer us in this text? We know because we know….? In what is our confidence/assurance rooted?

2. What kind of confidence do you have in living in the world? Do we live with fear of being tainted? Do we live with fear of being rejected by God, by others, by our community?

3. What kinds of idols undermine this confidence/assurance in our contemporary setting? If you were writing this letter and you got specific about the “idols,” what would you identify as dangerous idols in the contemporary world?


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