Posted by: Moses | June 30, 2010

Deadly Sins and Confident Prayers: Part 2 of 4

Contributions to Meaning from the Context
        Since John addresses his hearers in the plural throughout the book, there is nothing odd about his plural address here. However, significant theological and thematic truths surface in his address of salvation to the collective. He is writing to all of his hearers that if any of them have the characteristics of life that he has described then they can be confident of their eternal life (1 Jn 5:1-5). Their spiritual life will not end as the apostates’ false spiritual lives seemed to. Therefore John establishes their confidence in the promise that a real community of believing people exists, and they truly do receive eternal life.

        Because of this, believers should pray. John’s theology here in v. 14 is firmly rooted in Jesus’ promise in John 14:13 that “whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (cf. Jn 15:7, 16; 16:24 ESV). However, John gives a qualification for what sort of prayers God will always answer: they must be in line with God’s will. Many people think of prayer as a way that man can request things of God and thereby change his will, but this verse paints a strikingly different portrait that has important ramifications for the interpretation of 5:16-17. James Montgomery Boice describes prayer in this verse as “not so much getting God to pay attention to our requests as it is getting our requests in line with His perfect and desirable will for us.” Dodd in similar fashion says that “prayer rightly considered is not a device for employing the resources of omnipotence to fulfill our own desires, but a means by which our desires may be redirected according to the mind of God.” This conception of prayer as a means of directing our requests into line with God’s will may help to explain why John qualifies what to pray about in vv. 16-17.

        Believers only have confidence in their prayers when they know that they are the will of God. Thus if believers do not have prior revealed knowledge concerning a topic then they can not pray as confidently to their Father as they can concerning things He has revealed. Illustratively, if a child’s father has told him that his mother will give him a cookie when he gets home, the child can approach his mother with his father by his side with absolute confidence of his father’s authority to deliver the cookie. However, with no such specific promise, the child may go to his mother and request a cookie, but may not know the outcome that will result. He may receive the cookie, or it may be too close to dinner.

        The broad themes of 1 John as a whole (concerning what leads to life and what leads to death) have particular significance for the interpretation of what kinds of sin could lead to spiritual death. Consider the source of life in v. 16. If the answer to the problem of sin not leading to death is that “God gives life” than the fundamental problem for the sin “leading to death” is that God will not give life in this instance (5:16-17). Clearly within John’s writings, those who abide in Christ by faith receive life, and those who abide in unbelief receive eternal death (1 Jn 3:14-15, 5:1-4, 5:11-12). Thus, if there is a sin that leads to death, fundamentally it must be done by someone from the category of those who abide in unbelief. In the immediate context, John has just polarized humanity into two groups, those who believe God and those who do not (1 Jn 5:10). Those who believe have life, and those who disbelieve have death (1 Jn 5:12). Into this context where faith yields life and unbelief yields death, John writes of the believers’ confidence in prayer.

        Furthermore, John’s comments concerning sin and unrighteousness in 5:17 clarify rather than muddy his intentions if taken in conjunction with the promises of 1 Jn 1:9. According to 1 John 1:9 all unrighteousness is cleansable if it is confessed in faith, knowing that God will forgive it. According to 1 John 5:17, “all unrighteousness is sin.” 1 Jn 1:9 is a conditional syllogism: if one confesses in faith, then God will justify. God is capable of justifying any sin. Therefore, from the text of the book itself, John gives parameters for “sin not unto death.” If a sin is confessed in faith, necessarily it will not end in death according to the promise of God. The only valid way to escape the conclusion of God’s cleansing of a sin would be to deny the initial hypothesis. If sin is not confessed in faith, then God is not obligated by His promise to forgive. Such unconfessed, unbelieving sin could be “unto death” within the bounds of what John teaches in 1 John 1.

        Thus in many ways, viewing the “sin unto death” as a sin stemming from a state of unbelief and subsequent lack of confession solves many of the apparent inconsistencies in the book. In chapter 1 all believers sin and those who claim not to sin are liars. However, in chapter 3 no believers sin! The clear implication in chapter 3 is that in as much as believers sin they are not acting as children of God (3:4). They are still imperfect and in need of grace. We tend to want to minimize the force of this section, but the solution is not in minimizing our sin (writing it off as “not making a practice of sin”) but in magnifying the glory and completeness of grace in blotting out our sin so that from God’s perspective it never happened. Lieu concludes that the distinction and resolution between these two views of sin can be found if “it is only the sin that is death-bound that one born of God cannot sin, while other sins are those that are to be confessed and forgiven.” From the opposite perspective, Griffith sees particular elucidation for chapter 3 from 5:16-17 saying that this “makes good sense of the discussion of two distinct kinds of sin in 5:16-17: ‘unto death’ and ‘not unto death’ . . . both types of sin are defined in relation to ‘death’ . . . The ‘sin not unto death’ is any other sin for which there is atonement and therefore life after such sin, and this refers to the discussion on sin in l:6-2:2.”

        In any case, John’s weight is clearly on encouraging believers to pray for one another. Only incidentally does he mention these categories of sin and confidence. Perhaps this injunction to pray is necessary because of the heavy stress that John has put on the purity of the believer. The stakes are high. Apart from these verses, one might conclude erroneously that “all sin disqualifies, making such intercessory prayer superfluous.” For a believer, sin either finally disqualifies him or leads him to confession and repentance (1 Jn 3:10, 1:9). In either case the need for prayer might be difficult to see. However, this should not lead John’s hearers not to pray, but to confidently pray, knowing that they have their requests for their straying brothers. God will not abandon them even when their hearts condemn them (1 Jn 3:19-22).

        There is no reason to think that this is some special work of prayer in granting expiation for sins. John probably has in view a normal means of grace through confession as a means to forgiveness. Though not explicit, from John’s previous theology this would be the natural and only understanding of how forgiveness is granted to a believer (1 Jn 1:5-10). “Have a brother pray for you” is not given as an option for rightness before God in chapter 1. Additionally, taking into account the rest of Scripture, these exhortation need not eleminate our responsibility to “speak the truth in love” to preserve true unity by confronting an erring brother rather than tolerating sin (Matt 18, Eph 4). Candlish describes a plausible situation that fits John’s context brilliantly since apparently the unbelieving have already left the assembly. He argues that when one cares for his brother he goes to him and gently confronts him “as a brother about his sin; not harshly, with sharp reproach . . . Alas! he turns to you a deaf ear, and you have no power to open it. But another ear is open to you, the ear of your Father in heaven; and he can open your brother’s ear.”

        In context, 1 Jn 5:16-17 provides the minor premise to a rhetorical syllogism concerning prayer as well as the major premise for a more specific conclusion about the extent of a believer’s confidence. John argues against praying confidently for apostates with an enthymeme (a syllogism with an implied line), rhetorically leaving his conclusion as a necessary implication for the hearers. John’s syllogism seems to run like this within the context:
        MP: God answers all prayers that are according to his will (1 Jn 5:13-15).
        mp: The sin unto spiritual death is possibly against his will to grant life (1 Jn 5:16).
        ∴ : Prayer for sin unto death is not ensured an answer. (Implied Conclusion)
Building off of this syllogism:
        MP: Some sin leads to spiritual death (1 Jn 5:16-17).
        mp: Apostasy is a sin that leads to eternal death (Enthymeme supplied by the rest of                 the book, e.g.1 Jn 2:22-23, 3:14).
        ∴ : We cannot pray confidently for apostates. (Implied, Specific Conclusion)
Thus by arguing for a broader foundation that all unbelievers dwell in death, John can conclude that apostates also dwell in death while side-stepping any major difficulties in imagery that might occur from describing them as “falling away” or other biblical metaphors for apostasy that have plagued interpreters for millennia.

        John has already taught that he sees the apostates as essentially different from believers. They “went out from us, but they were not of us” (2:19). John clarifies that their essence (who they really were) was different, and as a result their existence (how they acted) differed over time. They became clearly distinguishable by their unpleasant fruits and departure from the assembly. What we perceive humanly as a “fall” into apostasy is merely a revelation of the truth that a professor is not a genuine believer “that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (2:19). John teaches a distinction between the visible assembly and the genuine body. But though there is a distinction, there is no indication in John’s theology that there is a tertium quid of apostasy (those who have eternal life, those who don’t, and those that sort of did but fell away), at least not in his argumentation. Instead there is merely a revelation of essence that was previously veiled. John makes this plain in his explanation of the apostates. They are not “no longer of us” because they “went out from us.” Rather, they went out because fundamentally they were not of those who believed. This distinction of appearance as opposed to reality, allows for 1 Jn 5:16-17 to flow naturally into these categories.

        Finally, in relation to context, John reassures his hearers that in Hebrews’ words, “yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things” (Heb 6:9 ESV). Verse 18 is a stirring reassurance that those who are born of God do not persist in sin. Those who believe are held firmly in the hand of God. Jesus himself protects them from the evil one. Having just told them that they could know that they were children of God, there should be no fear in his hearers mind that perhaps they have committed the “sin leading to death.” John gives them an assurance grounded in the mighty promise of God that He will guard them from such a result.

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