I have only visited Philadelphia. Once. I loved the city: seeing Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and the Liberty Bell, the brownstone houses around Rittenhouse Square, but to be honest, one thing made an impression on me beyond all others. It was watching hordes of tourists one after the other run up the 72 steps in front of the Museum of Art before standing arms raised in victory to gaze over the city. If you’ve never seen the movie Rocky, you really do need to watch the sequence on YouTube, where this washed up boxer runs through the docks and the downbeat neighbourhoods of the city, uses sides of meat in a butcher’s cold room as a punchbag, before running up those 72 steps and lifting his arms in triumph as an anticipation of his rehabilitation, redemption and ultimate victory. And strange as it may seem, reading this final passage in John’s first letter, 1 John 5:13-21, is like running up those steps and standing the top looking over the full sweep of what God has done for us in Christ with exhilaration. And if we get why he has written and what he has written, then by the end of our time, you’ll want to jump up from your chair, run up hundreds of steps. punch the air and shouting ‘yes’ in a way that would not only make Sylvester Stallone proud, but would warm the heart of the apostle John and bring pleasure to God himself.
This final section of the letter John restates his reason for writing in the clearest possible terms, not once, but twice:
5:13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life… . 5:20 And we know 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, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. We are standing with the apostle at the top of the steps, gazing over the vast panorama of all that God has done, which is summed up in this powerful little phrase ‘eternal life’ – life with God which starts now and goes on forever.
John’s been going on about it all the way through this letter: 1: 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.. 2: 25 And this is what he promised us-eternal life… . 3:15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him… 5:11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. And finally, in 5:13-21, John walks us up one final staircase to bring us to the point where we say with him ‘YES – we believe in the name of the Son of God. Yes – we know that we are his and he is ours, and we are utterly confident that we have eternal life.’. Let’s climb these six Johannine steps to enjoy the view! How can we know we have this eternal life?
Step 1: We know our God hears our prayers (5:14-15)
John writes this: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. It is a bit surprising that, without having mentioned prayer at all in the letter, John brings it up here. But this is not a bit of general teaching that he forgot to include earlier. For John, this is hard evidence – the first step to an unshakeable confidence that we know the God of eternity, the God of life, who shares himself with us.
John chooses his language very carefully – the ‘confidence’ we have before God carries the idea of free and open access, and even intimacy. And ‘we’ are the ones who have this access. The privilege of asking God for things ‘according to his will’, that is as we are guided by his word, belongs only to those people who have already been adopted into his family. It is only those who already know God who know how to pray – because it is only when we become Christians, brought to new life in the Spirit, that we realise in the words of John Stott, that ‘every true prayer is a variation on the theme ‘your will be done’. It is only those who already know God who get the fact that when we ask him to do what he has already promised to do, he just loves to do it! And we know all this, and experience all this, because we are already his.
All this is based on the astonishing words of Jesus in John 14:12: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. In the context of Christ’s ongoing mission, in which we are involved, the Lord Jesus says we will do greater things than he did – which is a mind-blowing statement in itself. This involves being able to proclaim Christ, and the gospel of Christ in its completeness, in a way which even Jesus couldn’t do ahead of time. And to enable us to do this, to glorify the Father in the Son, God will answer every prayer focused on this great mission. And we know how this works. We know that God answers our prayers for the gospel to be proclaimed. For the church to be built. For people like us to grow in grace, despite our foolishness and stubbornness. For others to find life in Christ through the gospel. We know all that – and John says ‘Don’t you get the implications of all this? Don’t you get it that God hears and answers your prayers because you are his? Because you have been caught up in, adopted into his family, brought to new life in Christ – and that means that even your prayers announce that you have eternal life. This is step one, and it begs a very obvious question: are we taking advantage of this just now? Asking God for everything that he has already committed to giving us? Bugging him endlessly with requests that he never tires of giving us? Because this is our birthright as children of God, and the first sure sign that we have eternal life in Christ. This is why we should pray. Not out of guilt, but because God is poised to answer.
Step 2: We know our God forgives sin (5:16-17)
It’s easy to miss the second step to this sure and certain hope in verses 16 and 17, because they sound a bit controversial:
1 John 5:16 If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them 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 you should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death. John’s MAIN point is simple: God forgives sin. That’s a constant, real time reminder that he has committed himself unequivocally to ensuring that nothing stops us from enjoying life with him forever. His forgiveness guarantees our eternal life.
Verse 16 is beautifully straightforward: If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life. When we see a brother or sister sinning, we aren’t supposed to condemn, or gossip, or feel smug, we should pray for them. Is that honestly our reaction? I know I need to be much slower to criticise, silently judge, and feel smug when I see someone else mess up and much quicker to ask God to restore the person – because after all, isn’t that what Jesus is about?
Jesus has said that he is not going to lose anyone that the Father gives him. If we are his, then we are secure. And that means that no matter how stupid, no matter how stubborn, no matter how wrong-headed we are, Jesus will deal with it and God’s forgiveness will be worked out in real time – and our part in that process is to pray gospel-shaped prayers for one another. Our experience as the people of God of watching out for each other, showing real concern for each other, lovingly challenging each other, praying for each other and seeing God work in one another, as he forgives even our ongoing sin, is the second step to realising that the life we have here and now together in Christ is the real thing – we have eternal life. That much is clear. But what about the sin that leads to death bit?
As an aside, John flags up a particular issue in the churches to which he’s writing : There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. Or better, for those who commit that sin (NLT). So what is this sin? John is talking about a fundamental denial of what God announces to us in the gospel which is so serious that it reveals that the person concerned is not actually a Christian at all. It comes in many guises, all of which deny the truth about the Lord Jesus. This is the sin that leads to death. Remember this isn’t a theoretical discussion for John – the all too real situation in the churches to which he’s writing is that some people – and it sounds like a sizeable number – have walked away from the church and the gospel. They have denied key truths about Jesus, rebelled against the apostolic legacy. John makes it clear that in doing so, they have shown themselves to be unconverted. Of the world rather than in Christ. And for them, this has been a clear and considered choice. And now John says that we should not pray for these people. This prohibition is against praying for these people in the same way that you would pray for a Christian friend who has started to get a bit big-headed, or is feeling sorry for themselves.
For brothers and sisters, we simply want to pray that God would bring them back to the gospel, and what he has done for them in Christ, and help them to get going and growing again – and as we’ve seen, God will answer those prayers, which is amazing. But there is no point in praying like that for these people. The assurances John has just given to over-anxious Christians don’t apply to them. They are really pagans – and if we are to pray for people like that, the only thing we can really pray for is that they would be born again in the power of the Spirit. John says do not pray for them as you would a brother. Because that’s not what they are.
So what can we take away from this tricky little section? Dealing with sin in church is a shared responsibility. We are in this together, and we need each other. We need to pray for each other pastorally, in the great confidence that our God forgives sin. But where people have walked away from the gospel, we mustn’t do that – then we need to pray evangelistically. I hope you’re still with me, because that takes us to step 3 to a solid confidence that we are new covenant people who will never be separated from God..
Step 3: We know our God sets us free from sin (5:18a)
Lest we think that all God does for us is to abandon us to an endless cycle of stuffing up, repeatedly forgiving us, John draws our attention to one of the most encouraging truths in the Bible:
5:18 We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning… Not only does God keep us from the sin which leads to death, God breaks the power of sin in our lives, and, bit by bit, eradicates both its stain and its influence.
John is rehearsing what he said back in 3:9 – 9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. Progress in the fight against sin, growth in godliness is what God has saved us for, what he is doing in us right now, and what he will continue to do while we have breath.
Now I know very well that sometimes – perhaps often – it feels like we are getting worse instead of better. But John writes to impress on us that even on our worst days we can rest on the fact that God has set us free from sin and is determined to purge its influence. John Newton encapsulates what the apostle writes here in this famous statement:
‘I am not what I ought to be -ah, how imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be -I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be – soon, soon shall I put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection. Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was; a slave to sin and Satan; and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, “By the grace of God I am what I am.”‘
This morning are you standing tall in the knowledge that you have been set free from sin, and you do not need to keep on sinning? Because we really don’t. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about pride, or lust, or avoidance, or unlove, or greed or unbelief – Christ died to free us from all this and more on the cross. This is what God is doing in us – and this is what he has been doing in us.
Take a moment to think back to where you were, let’s say five years ago. If you haven’t been a Christian for 5 years back, just go back to the time you first met Christ. But in 2015, as far as you can remember, what were you struggling with? What were your main sin issues? Have you made any progress? Have I? Are there any signs of growth and hope? Do we know God better in Christ? Are we more confident in the truth? Are we less prone to sin in the same old ways? Have we been freed up to serve Christ in ways we never dreamt possible? Please look because you will find the marks of God’s sin-eradicating work in our lives. If we look carefully and humbly, we will see the tell-tale signs of God gradually prising open the horrible grip of sin on our lives. This is further evidence that we have been brought to new life in Christ. This is just what he does! Our God has set us free from sin – and as if that assurance weren’t enough, the second half of the verse adds step 4:
Step 4: We know our God protects us from the Evil One (5:18)
1 John 5:18 We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them.
I think John may be drawing on Psalm 105, which describes God’s protection of Israel like this: Ps 105:12-15 When they were few in number, of little account, and sojourners in it, wandering from nation to nation, from one kingdom to another people, he allowed no one to oppress them; he rebuked kings on their account, saying, “Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm!” I suspect we don’t think enough about the fact that our God is, even as I speak, protecting us from harm, and in particular, from the malevolent wiles of the evil one. Far too many of us are practical materialists when it comes to thinking about spiritual warfare. But we really do need to!
If there is one thing that this COVID-19 pandemic should have taught us, surely it’s the multi-faceted reality that we are not in control; that we are not masters of the universe; that there are all kinds of forces (both macro- and micro-) which can threaten us, and potentially overwhelm us. This life is too big, too dangerous, too uncertain for us to face on our own. We are up against the world, the flesh and the Devil. Both sin, which spreads it corrosive tentacles right down to the molecular level, and Satan, whose dark forces are real and damaging, are waging war against the Lord and his Christ. And only when we get that will we be in a position to bask in the security which is ours, as we recover both the sense of vulnerability and the confidence of many who have gone before us. I recently came across an old hymn by Augustus Montague Toplady, who wrote both Rock of Ages and A Debtor of Mercy Alone. I’ve never sung it, but listen to these words:
A sov’reign Protector I have, unseen, yet forever at hand, unchangeably faithful to save, almighty to rule and command.
He smiles, and my comforts abound; His grace as the dew shall descend; and walls of salvation surround the soul He delights to defend.
Inspirer and hearer of pray’r, Thou Shepherd and Guardian of Thine, my all to Thy covenant care I sleeping and waking resign.
If Thou art my Shield and my Sun, the night is no darkness to me; and fast as my moments roll on, they bring me but nearer to Thee… .
I muse on the years that are past, wherein my defense Thou hast proved; nor wilt Thou relinquish at last a sinner so signally loved!
Toplady got the fact that our God protects us from the Evil One, and seeing that protection played out in his own life over the years gave him great encouragement, and bolstered his confidence that he already possesses and will continue to enjoy eternal life. So this morning, do you feel protected? I hope you can glimpse that, because we are in Christ, because we know Christ, the evil one can bark and snap, but he cannot touch us. Almost at the top of the steps now… .
Step 5: We know that we are ‘of God’ (5:19)
Yes, we John has told us repeatedly, Satan holds sway over the ‘world’, but,
5:19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. From the very beginning of the Old Testament, God has been in the business of recreating and restoring and relocating the identity of his people. At the very heart of his covenant is the statement ‘I will be your God and you will be my people’ – and that is who we are. Under the new covenant, in Christ, we are rooted and established in Christ, born of God, adopted into his family, reconciled to God in Christ – at the most basic, fundamental level, we are God’s. The world may be in Satan’s grip according to verse 18, but we are held tightly in the very palm of God’s hand. We couldn’t be more central to his affections, more integrated to his purposes, more bound up in his life – eternal life.
The bedrock of the confidence which John wants us to have is the question of who we are in Christ. We are ‘of God’.
We do tend to define ourselves in relation to other people. There are no teams to play on, no audiences to perform to, no groups to lead, nowhere to go home to. There is no one to make laugh, no-one to comfort, no-one to teach, no one to impress, no one to ignore beyond the small circles of our house mates or immediate families. So what are we to do? Where are we to find our value? Our sense of self. In this simple statement – we are of God.
Who are we? Really – at the deepest level. I’m happy to say I’m Irish – but then I grew up in Northern Ireland, so I’m really British as well, and I’ve been a Australian Citizen for a few years too… And then nationality doesn’t really capture who I am anyway, nor does my job. Who I’m related to goes further but even then, there is a deeper level of identity which can only be captured by saying together with every follower of Jesus across the centuries, I am of God. This is the great leveller and the great uplifter. This is the great strengthener and corrector. This is comfort, and delight, and awe, and correction, and security and significance beyond measure – four words that change everything, guarantee everything, light up everything – we are of God. And four words which bring us to the top step of this powerful passage…
Step 6: We know that the Son of God has come and given us himself (5:20)
1 John 5:20 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 by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. A 7th Century monk called Andreas, who loved nothing better than collecting great quotations from the church fathers, included this in one of his collections: ‘Even at the end of this epistle, John never stops insisting on the need for right doctrine.’ He really doesn’t. As we have seen from the very beginning of this letter, John just loves packing in as much theological richness to every sentence as he possibly can, and he keeps it up right to the end!
When he says that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, he is almost certainly alluding to Jeremiah 31:31-34, as God through his Son has written his truth on our minds as new covenant believers, with the result that we now know the one who is ‘true’. In all John’s writings, the word ‘true’ carries the savour of eternity – Jesus Christ is the one who is definitively true (Rev 3:7) – he is the true light, the true bread, the true vine, who speaks true words of the true Father whose ways and judgements are true. And we now know, in the fullest sense, God the Father through the Son, who, in the most powerful statement of his divinity in the entire New Testament is the true God and eternal life. As Calvin says, ‘The sum of it is that, when we have Christ, we enjoy the true and eternal God, for he is to be sought nowhere else.’
We are now right at the top of the steps, looking over the entire sweep of the immeasurably rich, deeply trinitarian, profoundly covenantal, immensely pastoral theology of this letter. As we gaze back over the steps we have climbed in 5:13-20, and before that through the letter, John’s great desire, and God’s powerful purpose is that we say ‘Yes – I know I am he, and he is mine – I know that in Christ I have eternal life, life with him and the Father and the Spirit which starts now and goes on forever.’
In preparing this talk, I stumbled across a passage in Martyn Lloyd Jones’ classic book Spiritual Depression which sums up all that John has been saying beautifully: ‘The Christian position is a clear position. We are not meant to be left in a state of doubt and misgiving, of uncertainty and unhappiness. Do you believe that the Son of God came from heaven and lived and did all that he did on earth, that he died on a cross and was buried and rose again, the he ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit in order to leave us in a state of confusion? It is impossible. He came that we might see clearly, that we might see God. He came to give eternal life, and this is eternal life, that we may know the only true God… . He is pledged to do it, and he will do it, and you will no longer be an uncertain Christian, seeing and not seeing. You will be able to say: ‘I see, I see in him all I need and more, and I know that I belong to him.’ (Martyn Lloyd Jones, Spiritual Depression, 48).
And that would be a perfect place to stop, had not John added one more thing… 21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols. The fact that John hasn’t mentioned idols or idolatry at all in his letter has tended to cause some consternation amongst commentators, who aren’t quite sure what to do with this reference. But for John, this is first and foremost a simple call to live the beautiful life of the new covenant – it’s a call to ‘new covenant blamelessness’. In the Old Testament, the mark of faithfulness was sticking with Yahweh, and rejecting idols. Now, under the New Covenant, God has given us so much in Christ – we have everything, love, life, truth, the ability to obey, so now, John leaves us with a simple appeal not to settle for anything less. His point is not really about physical idols or even idols of the heart. It’s about anything and everything that would keep us from Christ. It’s a call to live in the way which he has described – to hear, believe, obey, live and know! It’s a call to choose new covenant life. So brothers and sisters, what are we to do? Believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life – and keep yourselves from idols. Amen.