Assured, re-assured

Pithy Pearls Oct 17 2012
Study on 1 John 5:13-21

So John ends his letter to the Church.
How would you end a letter which carries the importance and significance of being regarded as Divine revelation, and authoritative in the Church for all time?

John ends his in true John style.
He takes us out of this time and space and drops us in eternity, where God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – 3 in 1 – dwell as the I Am.

His gospel starts similarly, showing us what was going on in the beginning, and revealing to us the eternality of God, not only as I AM singular, but as I AM triune. (Incidentally the word in Genesis 1 which we see as ‘God’ is ‘Elohim’ and is a plural word, even though it is understood as referring to a singular One God, so it’s been there… well, since the beginning!)

And to finish off his letter to the Church – his letter to us – he connects us with that eternal reality.
“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.” 1 John 5:13

The tense here is all-important. He does NOT say “you will have eternal life”, he says “you have eternal life”.
John sets us up as believers to believe that we already have it. It’s a done deal. You can’t have eternal life if it isn’t forever, right? That would have been temporary life you had.
John is making a profound promise of assurance to us. More than that, he makes it clear that his purpose in writing to the believers is precisely for that reason; that we may know that we have eternal life.

But then John does another John-classic.
He throws a curve ball at us and starts talking about sins which can be forgiven and sins that lead to death. Or does he?

Why would John set out to make it clear that we have eternal life, fully assured, and then suggest that it’s at risk from “sin that leads to death”? 1 John 5:16-17
If he’s telling us the God-honest Truth, that we have eternal life, then what is he up to by talking about sin that leads to death?

The answer is in the verses that follow:
“We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” 1 John 5:18-19

John is not actually revealing something here for the first time in his letter. He has already told us that those who are born of God do not practise sinning.
“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. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.” 1 John 3:9-10

If we are born of God then Jesus protects us from the power of sin in our lives, and we stop practising sinning and start seeing it, hating it, and moving away from it.
If we stumble in a sin as a child of God, it’s an eternity away from practising sinning as a sinner not born of God.
Believing in Jesus, and knowing Him as God, and hating sin are all assurances that you are one of the ‘known knowns’. You can have assurance because you know that you know Jesus. Perhaps you can’t articulate it brilliantly, or provide concrete evidence, but in your spirit you just know.
If this is you then you have eternal life.

The known unknowns
So John hasn’t included these verses about sin that leads to death for our sake – if we are born of God then we have eternal life, and it will be for eternity.

Who, then, is in view in these verses?
Clearly John is speaking about people for whom these verses would be relevant, and also about people for whom those in the Church would pray for.
Who are these people?

To get a hold of this I think we have to go back to an earlier part of his letter.
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” 
1 John 2:19

As John is writing to the Church he is aware of the feelings of disappointment and confusion about those who were so ‘on fire’ in the church, but have now left.
He’s addressing the rumbling questions like, “He was such a bold Christian, and now he wants nothing to do with the church – can I too lose my salvation?”
Or, “He prays amazing prayers, and has spiritual gifts, but he sleeps around and gets drunk every night – is this the power of Jesus to transform our lives? Am I that vulnerable?”

These are the kinds of questions that still get asked today.
“Can I lose my salvation?” is almost always in the top 3 ‘unanswered’ or badly-answered theological questions that true Christians have. And they ask it because they care about those they see slipping away, and because they want to know if they too are vulnerable.

I think John nails it down for us when he points to the underlying, unseen reality of those who ‘lose their faith’, or walk away from Christ.
He says, “they were not of us.”
More than that he says that their leaving is the confirmation that they are not of us;
“But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

It’s simultaneously true that Jesus protects his own from sin, and that those who practise sinning and walk away are not his own.
And you get BOTH in the Church.

I believe that 1 John 5:16-17 are referring to these people; the ones who walked away.
Within this group there will be some who were, are and will remain spiritually dead and never be born of God.
But there will also likely be those in the group who have simply wandered away like wayward sheep, perhaps because they were influenced in their immature faith by a more ‘mature’ churchman who since left and persuaded him that it’s all bunkum.
I’ve seen the latter. I believe that people very close to me are precisely in that category and so verse 16 speaks to me about how I should pray for them:
“If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.” 1 John 5:16

When we see someone leave the church we might be able to rightly assume that they ‘were not of us’.
But we might do better to see them instead as one of the ‘known unknowns’ – that maybe they’ve just wandered away for a while and the Lord will bring them back.

God does not make it our business to know what the outcome of ‘their’ life will be. John shows us that at the very end of his gospel when Jesus essentially tells Peter to mind his own business when it comes to John.
God makes it our business to know what the outcome of ‘our own’ life will be. And He wants us to know that if we love Him, and we can see that we love others, and stop practising sinning as fruits of that love, then we can know that we have eternal life.

And in that respect verse 16 also applies to us.
We know that we will sin. Indeed John makes it clear that if we say we have no sin then we are a liar!
But he doesn’t want us to think that those sins will lead to us forfeiting our eternal life, because they won’t, and we can be confident of this for two reasons:
1) we will experience conviction of that sin by the Holy Spirit.
2) we will repent of it and ask forgiveness and receive forgiveness.

There is sin that leads to death. Jesus makes it clear that there is one sin that is unforgivable – blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. (Matt 12:31, Mark 3:29, Luke 12:10)
But John also makes it clear that Jesus protects us from sinning, and if we have eternal life, then Jesus is protecting us from that sin.
In fact Paul says that we can’t truly say, “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:3), so it’s not possible for us to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, and at the same time have Him indwelling that we might proclaim ‘Jesus is Lord!’

So John finishes his letter by assuring us, then re-assuring us, that if we are born of God then we have eternal life.
Looking forward to spending it with you!

PS – I deal with 1 John 5:14-15 in this separate blog – “Who’s asking?”, as we spent a lot of time on this too.