1 John 5:13-21

1 John 5:13-21

What Do You Know for Sure?  

Introduction: What do you know for sure?  I ask that question a lot as a variation on “How’s it goin’?” or “How you doin’?”  The answer I get most often is, “Nothin’ much.” I suspect if I had asked Ben Franklin, “What do you know for sure?” he would have responded, “Death and taxes!”  At least that’s all he was sure of in 1789.  But the Apostle John, as he closes this brief but profound epistle that has been our spiritual refuge this Fall, is concerned that we understand that there are a few other things about which we can be certain—things of more significance and longer lasting than either death or taxes.  Let’s read 1 John 5:13-21:

         “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. {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. 

{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. {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.”

The verb “know” occurs 39 times in this little book of I John, including six times in just these last nine verses.  The term “know” is not very popular in the intellectual climate of our day.  Modern man has opinions, theories, even convictions, but any claim to absolute knowledge is anathema, unless of course it is a claim that is antagonistic to religious faith. For example, somehow the intellectuals seem to “know” with absolutely certain that creationism is foolish and the theory of evolution is fact, but when we speak of “knowing God” or “knowing we have eternal life,” we are pitied as deluded, if not seriously deranged.  

Unfortunately, even many religious conservatives shy away from the use of the term “know” as it relates to assurance of salvation.  They fear that if one experiences too much security, it will lead to moral carelessness, so they preach that you can never be certain that you have eternal life.  But John doesn’t see it that way.  He knows some things, and he knows that he knows them, and he wants us to know them.  Among them are four fantastic truths that ought to really set the stage for celebrating the Advent of the Savior.  How can we not celebrate when we realize that we can have assurance of eternal life, assurance of answered prayer, assurance of protection from sin, and assurance of being in touch with reality. 

We can have assurance of eternal 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.”  Here John very clearly states the purpose of his letter, just as he once stated very clearly the purpose of his Gospel, the Gospel of John.  Keeping your finger here for a moment, turn back to John 20:31 and notice the difference between the purposes of these two treatises by the same Apostle.  In John 20:30,31 we read:  “Jesus did many other miraculous sings in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”  

The purpose of the Gospel of John is clearly evangelistic—John wants his readers to believe in Jesus so they might have eternal life.  In contrast, his purpose in 1 John is that those who already believe might know that they have eternal life.  Praise God for every man, woman, and child who possesses eternal life.  But would that each one also had assurance of his salvation!

I shared a couple months ago that assurance and security are two different issues.  There are those who have assurance of salvation but aren’t secure because they aren’t even saved.  Like the Pharisees, they think they are children of God because of all their religiosity, but they are actually children of the Devil.  On the other hand, there are those who are secure but don’t have assurance (I’m sure many Nazarenes and Pentecostals fit in that category).  They may really believe in Jesus Christ, but they have been taught wrongly that assurance is dangerous.  John wants us to have both security and assurance!

As I stand before you this morning, I know that I have eternal life, just as surely as I know anything in the intellectual, emotional, or moral arenas.  As surely as I know my parents and wife and children love me, I know I have eternal life.  As surely as I know it’s wrong to hurt other people and right to help them, I know I have eternal life.  As surely as I know this world and this life are not all that there is, I know I have eternal life.  

That confidence is based upon God’s Word; it’s based upon the witness of the Holy Spirit; it’s based upon the finished work of Christ; and it’s based upon the changes God has produced in my life.  You can have that same assurance, and God wants you to have it.  This book of 1 John was written that you might have it.  But as we saw last week, not everyone can have it, but only those who have received Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” 

That’s the first assurance—eternal life.  Second, …

We can have assurance of answered prayer.  (14-17)

Look at verse 14 and 15:  “This is the confidence we have in approaching God:  that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.”

A promise is given here, namely that God hears and answers prayer.  That seems to be a given in Christianity, but there are some of you here today who don’t believe it.  Oh, you’d like to believe it, but you don’t, or you aren’t sure you do.  I know, because some of you have told me how you have prayed again and again about some situation troubling you and Heaven has been silent.  Well, there is nothing wrong with the promise, but we must pay attention to the qualification that is attached it.  The Christian is not to suppose that God will grant just anything he might happen to pray for, just because he prays for it. 

The qualification is, “if we ask anything according to His will.”  Let me suggest to you that the view of prayer that is common in evangelicalism has some serious deficiencies.  Here are some of the symptoms:  First, requests are more prominent in our prayers than is praise and worship.  Second, petitions for ourselves are more prominent than is intercession for others.  Third, physical needs are more prominent than spiritual needs. 

Now don’t misunderstand me, it is appropriate to lay our requests before God, it is alright to petition God for our personal needs, and God is interested in physical needs.  But I fear we have lost sight of the fact that the fundamental purpose of prayer is not to ask God for what we want, but to ask God for what He wants.  Or, as Robert Law put it, “Prayer is a mighty instrument, not for getting man’s will done in heaven, but for getting God’s will done on earth.”[i]  William Barclay says the same thing in different words when he reminds us that Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done,” not “Thy will be changed.”[ii]  It is by prayer that we seek God’s will, accept it, and align ourselves with it.  “If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” 

Now I wouldn’t tell you that it is always easy to determine the will of God in a matter, but we don’t need to always.  Most of the time we can determine it from the Bible, but when we can’t, the Holy Spirit is there to help us.  Some of you have heard me speak on this verse before, but it is good to be reminded.  Turn to Romans 8:26-28 for a moment.

         “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. {27} And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will. {28} And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

When we don’t know how to pray in the will of God, the Holy Spirit is there to help us determine it.  In fact, it seems from this passage that He actually intercepts our prayers and re-prays them to the Father in line with the Father’s will.  

An illustration of where the focus of our prayer life should be and how God answers is given in verse 16.  “If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray, and God will give him life.”  Notice that the prayer here is for spiritual help, not physical.  It involves intercession rather than petition.  It focuses upon what God wants—spiritual restoration—not necessarily what we want–judgment.  And God answers by granting the request.  There should be more prayers like this in the church today.  We often see our brother sin, but we are more likely to gossip about him or criticize him or just look down on him than pray for him.

An exception, however, is immediately offered.  “There is a sin that leads to death.  I am not saying that he should pray about that.”  While it is important for the believer to pray for his brother who is sinning, there are some whose sin is of such a nature that John doesn’t ask us to pray for them.  He doesn’t expressly forbid it, but the implication is that it will do no good.  What is he talking about?  Not surprisingly, there are many different interpretations of this verse.  Rather than go through them all, I think I will simply tell you what I believe John is teaching.

First, I believe he is talking about believers here, not unbelievers.  That is indicated by the use of the term “brother” in verse 16, which John only uses of Christians.  Secondly, if it is a believer who is in view here, then the life and death spoken of must be physical life and physical death, rather than spiritual life or spiritual death, for John has already made clear that a believer “has eternal life.”  The sin unto death (i.e., the sin that results in death), then, is a sin that leads God to institute the ultimate discipline upon His child—the taking of the person’s physical life.  The sin that is not unto death is a sin that is dealt with by less severe discipline. 

So, what kind of sin is a “sin unto death”?  Well, let’s consider some biblical examples.  In the OT we read of Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron the priest, who died because they deliberately disobeyed God.  Korah, Achan and Uzzah are other examples.  In the NT Annanias and Sapphira committed a sin unto death when they lied to the Holy Spirit by pretending to be more generous than they really were.  There were also some believers at Corinth who sinned a sin unto death when they participated in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner.  The church didn’t pray for these people that they might repent.  Instead, God took their lives as an example to the rest of how seriously He views sin that strikes at the heart of our relationship with Him, with the Holy Spirit, and with Jesus Christ.  I have known a few Christians whom I believe were guilty of sin unto death; God removed them because they were only a liability to the cause of Christ.

The danger for us in this whole discussion is that we will put our attention on the sin unto death, whereas it ought to be put upon the need to pray for one another.  The sin unto death is an exception, and probably a rare one at that.  The general principle is that we should pray for our brothers who have sinned that they might be restored.  Few of us need any encouragement not to pray.

Please note that in verse 17 John seems concerned that we not draw the conclusion from the distinction between sin unto death and sin not unto death that some sin is not serious.  On the contrary, he states as forcefully as he can, “All wrongdoing is sin,” and then, almost as an aside, “and there is sin that does not lead to death.”  God may not take one’s life for it, but it is nevertheless incompatible with one’s calling as a believer.  And that takes us right into the third area of the believer’s assurance: 

We can have assurance of protection from sin.  (18-19)

The believer’s status is given in verse 18:  “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin.”  This is certainly not a new thought to those of us who have been studying 1 John.  As we have seen previously, it definitely does not mean that the Christian cannot ever slip into acts of sin, for John specifically repudiated such a notion in chapter 1:8-10.  What he means is that the true believer cannot persist in sin or habitually live in sin.  He never reaches the point where his conscience doesn’t bother him when he sins; he never loses his desire to be holy as He is holy.   Sin and the child of God are incompatible.  They may occasionally meet; they cannot live together in harmony. 

The believer’s safety is John’s next point.  “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.”  There is a textual problem here in verse 18.  The KJV reads, “He that is begotten of God keepeth himself,” meaning the believer.  But most modern versions read “him” rather than “himself” and take the second “begotten of God” as a reference to Jesus Christ.  The Greek makes it very difficult to decide, but most scholars lean toward the latter.  There can be no doubt that it is principally through Jesus Christ that we are kept safe in the spiritual battle, though of course we have responsibilities, too.  And why do we need protection?  Because of …

The believer’s principal enemies.  Two of them are mentioned explicitly here, with the third a constant theme of the Apostle Paul.  Verse 18b and 19 read, “The evil one cannot harm him.  We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.”  The first enemy mentioned is …

1.  The Devil.  He is the evil one.  He is maliciously active, constantly trying to get the believer to sin.  He is like a serpent who deceives (Rev. 12:9) and a lion who devours (I Peter 5:8-9), a formidable enemy.  However, we are not defenseless.  In and of ourselves we are, for we are sheep, and a sheep is one of the few animals without weapons. But our Savior is our defense.  In Luke 22:31-32 Jesus said to Peter, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat.  But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.  And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  That’s a very interesting passage.  It tells us that though Satan is our enemy, Jesus is praying for us.  Secondly, it assumes that there will be failures along the way but commands us to learn from our failures and then help our brothers.  Satan is our enemy, but greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.

2.  The world is our second enemy.  Verse 19 says, “The whole world is under the control of the evil one.”  John is not viewing the “world” physically; he is not speaking of mountains and rivers and open prairies.  The physical world as God’s creation is only indirectly under the control of Satan. John is speaking of the world-system—the priorities, the motivations, the morality, the pleasures, the philosophies that permeate the world of the unsaved.  They are under the control of the evil one, and that is why we were exhorted back in chapter 2, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world; if any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.”

I’ll tell you one thing—the world has done a number on some of us.  This week I was struck by a full-page ad in a magazine.  It read, “You can never be too thin or too rich.”  Think about that for a moment.  It doesn’t say, “You can never be too kind or too responsible or too godly or too intelligent.”  No, instead it’s, “You can never be too thin or too rich.”  Well, friends, that’s just one more of the world’s lies.  There are lots of people who are too thin and lots of others who are too rich for their own good.  But the world is trying to pour us into its mold and many Christians have succumbed.  I think it’s ridiculous how often weight comes up in the ordinary conversations of Christian people.  And it’s also a shame how much we talk about riches—our latest acquisitions, our investments, our job promotions. 

Let me share another way in which the world has demonstrated that it is under the control of the evil one.  On the evening news this week was a major segment on fur coats and how the animal rights advocates are trying to shut down the fur coat industry.  I don’t care much one way or the other about fur coats, but some of these characters are loonies.  They are demanding that we quit using animals not only for fur, but for leather, for down, and even for food.  They’re talking no beef, man.  Them’s fighting words!  But the most amazing thing is that many of these same animal rights advocates are in the forefront of the abortion rights lobby!  Now you tell me what kind of sense that makes.  “Save the cows and mink and geese, but it’s open season on human babies!”  Only a world under the domination of the Evil One could be so screwed up.  “Truth,” as the prophet said, “is trampled in the streets.”

3.  The flesh is a third grave enemy of the believer, and one to which we do not pay enough attention.  Paul uses the term to speak of the depravity of the human heart, the natural tendency we have toward sin, even apart from the lure of Satan and the lure of the world.  There is no question that we are involved in spiritual warfare, i.e., warfare with Satan and his demons, but I am convinced that some people give more credit to Satan than he deserves.  They attribute everything evil to the direct work of Satan and see demons behind every temptation.  That can be as dangerous and as counterproductive as refusing to believe in demons at all.  Sometimes instead of saying, “I am afflicted by the demon of lust,” we ought to say, “I lusted, and I did so because I am a sinful person, and I need to repent for allowing the flesh to control me.”  Why blame Satan for something we’re responsible for ourselves?  

Oh, I certainly believe that lust can become a demonic, Satanic addiction, but when a Christian guy watches a movie he shouldn’t and catches himself lusting, he ought to take responsibility for his action and deal with it rather than attribute the problem to Satan.  All three of these enemies—the world, the flesh, and the Devil—are formidable enemies, but praise God for the safety that is ours in the Lord Jesus Christ.

We come now to the fourth area we can know for sure:

We can have assurance that we are in touch with reality.  (20-21)

This may seem like a strange point to you, but I think it is a very important one, so important that John chooses to end his epistle with it.  There are many worldly intellectuals who would grant that the believer may feel he has assurance of eternal life, assurance of answered prayer, and assurance of protection from sin, but then chalk all those assurances off as psychological crutches and fantasies.  No, says, John, that won’t do, because we can also have assurance that we are in touch with reality.  He first mentions that …

The believer knows the real God.  Verse 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.”  If we wish to meet someone whom we do not know and who moves in a completely different circle from our own, we can generally achieve that meeting only by finding someone who knows him and is willing to introduce us to him.  That is what Jesus did for us when He came to be one of us.  He gave us the capacity of seeing beyond the temporal to the eternal, beyond the illusions to the ultimate reality.  He gave us the understanding needed to know “Him who is true,” or better, “Him who is real,” namely God the Father.    Second, …

The believer has a personal relationship with the real Son of God.  “And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ.  He is the true God and eternal life.”  Twice more the word “true” or “real” is used here.  There have been, of course, countless Messiahs who have offered themselves as saviors.  There are many alive even today.  But the real Son of God, the one and only Son of God, is Jesus Christ.  Third, …

The believer has real life.  “He is the true God and eternal life.”  The Greek grammar indicates that the word “true” or “real” modifies both “God” and “eternal life.”  There are those today who think that real life is found in materialism or success or pleasure or financial security.  It is not.  Real life, abundant life, is that which God gives to those who put their faith in His Son.  Fourth, …

The believer should reject all gods that are unreal.  Verse 21:  “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”  An idol is a false god, a god that is not real.  Listen to Psalm 135:15-18:  “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by the hands of men.  They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, nor is there breath in their mouths.  Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.”  A strong argument can be made that our twentieth century idols are no less crude than those of the first century.  Though the names have been changed, the idols are exactly the same.  

There is the worship of Narcissus, the god who fell in love with himself.  That may be the supreme god of our age.  Then we have the worship of Bacchus, the god of pleasure.  Even many professing Christians complain that they can’t be happy and fulfilled under their present circumstances, so they need a new house, a new job, perhaps even a new spouse.  Then we have the worship of Venus, the goddess of love; of Apollo, the god of physical beauty; of Minerva, the goddess of science.  They are all present today.

“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”  Do not give your attention, time or energy to anything that squeezes God out of that central position in your life.  Don’t settle for the mirages of this life when you can have the reality that is found in God, His Son Jesus Christ, and the eternal life that belongs to the believer.

Conclusion:  When the believer comes to full recognition that he is “born of God,” “knows God,” is“in God,” is “in His Son Jesus Christ,” and “has eternal life,” (all realities clearly affirmed right here in our text today), then he will surely live a life which is consistent with, and worthy of, his Christian position.  May it be so with us.

DATE: December 17, 1989



Answered prayer

Sin unto death





[i] Robert Law, cited by Warren Wiersbe, Be Real, 179.

[ii] William Barclay, The Letters of John and Jude, 115.