In the middle of his final rebuttal of Gnosticism John inserts a teaching on the conditions for answered prayer.
14 Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, 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 the petitions that we have asked of Him.
This section, as a whole, verses 9-21, is John’s final rebuttal of this Gnostic heresy. However there is a need to spend some time dealing with what John has to teach about answered prayer in verses 14-15. I remember, about the late 1980’s, reading some comments on prayer by A. W. Tozer. I was reading a lot of Tozer at the time and was greatly affected by his writing. One comment he made was in regard to a common teaching on prayer, ‘God always answers prayer, either yes, no, or wait a while.’ In referring to this teaching Tozer said it was harder to find a neater way to explain away unanswered prayer, and Tozer strongly disagreed with the teaching, as do I. If it is true then we can simply pray with no need to exercise faith and trust the formula. This in fact is fatalism, not faith. So if the formula is wrong, what is right? How should we approach prayer?
John teaches that if we ask according to God’s will then He hears and our prayers are answered. Let me break this down in a bit more detail. To help with that I will look at some other scriptures as we need to view things in the broader context of all of scripture. Look below at what Peter wrote, particularly the section I have placed in bold.
9 The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9 (NKJV)
If we pair what Peter wrote with what John wrote, both inspired by the Holy Spirit, then we pray for someone to be saved and they are saved, after all it is God’s will. Yet we all know it is not that simple, so how do we reconcile these scriptures? I believe there are two factors, God’s general will and His specific will in a life, along with the matter of human will. Look at how John quotes Jesus about this matter.
18 “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.” John 3:18-21 (NKJV)
Jesus said that people don’t come to the light, salvation, because they prefer darkness. How then do we pray for the salvation of others? Paul has some answers for us.
3 But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, 4 whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them. 5 For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your bondservants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 (NKJV)
So, we can pray the eyes of the lost will be opened so they can see. They may still reject the light but we can pray in confidence that the Holy Spirit will bring them light and that the Holy Spirit will bring into their lives those who will speak truth. Thus I believe we can pray and know He hears and we receive what we have asked.
John now turns to the matter of sin. It has become popular in our church culture to say that ‘sin is sin and one is no worse than the other.’ In fact even a casual reading by any student of the scriptures refutes that position. A clear example is what John taught.
16 If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death.
So as we look at these two verses a couple of things are clear. There are in fact different degrees of sin and all unrighteous acts are in fact sin. Though John expected his first century readers to know, we do not know what he meant by the distinction between sins leading to death and those not leading to death. We do know from the use of his term ‘brother’ that he was referring to fellow believers. Wisdom would dictate in our day that we need to do two things, seek the leading of the Holy Spirit when interceding for repentance and forgiveness for the sins of fellow believers. The other is that we need to be ‘our brother’s keeper’ and embrace our responsibility to speak out when our fellow believers are walking in sin. Nowhere in scripture are we enjoined to passively stand by and tolerate sin in the lives of fellow Christians, quite the opposite, we are to care enough about them to speak to them and to intercede for them. A key to dealing with this issue is trusting that if we pursue intimacy with our Father then He will not allow us to intercede where we ought not and will quicken our spirits to intercede where we should. That is walking in love.
In a seemingly strange manner right after talking about the sin of other believers John tells us that if we are truly believers we will not sin.
18 We know that whoever is born of God does not sin; but he who has been born of God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him. 19 We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one. 20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us an understanding, that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.
18 We know [absolutely] that anyone born of God does not [deliberately and knowingly] practice committing sin, but the One Who was begotten of God carefully watches over and protects him [Christ’s divine presence within him preserves him against the evil], and the wicked one does not lay hold (get a grip) on him or touch [him]. 1 John 5:18 (AMP)
The solution to the seeming problem of believers sinning is brought out in the Amplified above. What John has introduced that is new is the idea of the world being under the influence of Satan. This is like the old analogy of D-Day and V-Day in WWII. The war was in effect over on D-Day, yet the fighting continued until V-Day. In the spiritual realm Jesus has secured the victory yet we are still in enemy territory and He has left us here to enforce His victory (see Matt. 28:18-20) yet the final victory will only be fully manifest when He returns. We live in the world but are not of it, our new nature is contrary to the nature of the world. In spite of Satan’s influence we know we belong to God and not the world.
John then closes his letter with a statement of encouragement.
21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen. 1 John 5:14-21 (NKJV)
We will do well if we head this admonition and keep ourselves from idols – not the idols of wood and stone but the idols of our culture; fame, prestige, money, etc.
In wrapping up my commentary on 1 John I have some closing comments in terms of John’s teaching on ‘knowing.’
When John uses the word “know” in verses 13 right through to the first part of verse 20 he is referring not to intellectual knowing, something we can reason out, rather he is referring to heart and spirit knowing, the inward witness of the Holy Spirit that we have Jesus, and thus eternal life, abiding within us (Rom. 8:16). We know we have eternal life abiding in us because there is something within drawing us to truth. When John says in verse 19 that he has written so we will “know” he is not referring to reasoning out our salvation. He is nurturing the reality that when we live a life of love based on an internal witness, we know Him. Similarly we know He hears our prayers and answers them because we have an internal witness and relationship with Him. In verse 18 the truth is brought out that we intuitively know that someone who is born again is not someone who wants to sin. There is a witness within that this is wrong.
In verse 20 the second use of the word know is ginosko in Greek (see below) and refers to perceiving or being aware of someone or something. This is a relational word that refers to intimacy. It is the word Paul uses in Philippians 3:10 to speak of his pursuit of further intimacy with Jesus and is the word used to refer to sexual intimacy between a man and his wife (Matt. 1:25).
γινώσκω ginōskō verb Know, become aware, perceive, understand, be conscious of. Complete Biblical Library Greek-English Dictionary, The
What John is teaching is that by following the inward witness of the Holy Spirit we can have our understanding enlightened to come into intimacy with Jesus. (See also Eph. 1:17-23).
Ultimately it all comes down to the posture of our hearts. If we are pursuing Him and desiring to walk in love He is faithful to lead us, sustain us, comfort us, and deliver us. As the song says, “Our God is an awesome God.”