We have been spending the last couple months reading through the first letter of John, and we have reached the end in 5:13-21. With everything said so far, especially with the love commandments in chapter four, you would think the letter ends with a “bang,” right? Well, it does… sort of. The ending of John’s first letter is kind of weird.
After affirming and re-affirming his readers, John goes into a small tangent on prayer, and specifically, who it is appropriate to pray for and what is appropriate to pray for those people to close things off.
Let’s start with the first part, a subject that is often a hot topic in and of itself, and that is: to what degree does God “answer” prayer? The lines from Jesus get used in a lot of dangerous ways that suggest if you just keep asking, you’ll get what you want:
“I’ll do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified by the Son.” – John 14:13
“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you.” – John 15:7
John continues this kind of thought in verses 14-15:
“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.” – 1 John 5:14-15
Many times verses like these get misused to suggest that if you pray enough, and do so with “enough” faith, then you’ll receive whatever you ask for be it material possessions, comfort, safety, job offers, relationships, etc. If not, you just didn’t believe enough, and it’s not God’s fault, it’s yours. Used in this way, that may actually be the opposite of what John is teaching in his letter. Jesus is more interested in getting us to want what he wants, rather than spoiling us to receive whatever we want. However, what’s with this next line John delivers?
“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. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death”. – 1 John 5:16-17
Okay, “so pray for people who are committing mortal sins, but don’t pray for people that aren’t, even though I can’t stop you.” Weird right? Not to mention, what counts
as a sin that “leads to death” and a sin that doesn’t? There has been no shortage of opinions on this throughout Christian (and Jewish) history. Jesus referred to the “unforgivable sin” of blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29). Paul encourages one of his churches to excommunicate the unrepentant sinner (1 Corinthians 5:5). Hebrews mentions members of the community who went astray in their beliefs or sinned intentionally and are beyond redemption (Hebrews 6:4-8; 10:26-31). Also, now in John’s letters, we’ve seen that there are “antichrists” that are confusing people and causing division that needs to be shunned (1 John 2:18-28).
There’s no way to know what John meant by a “sin that leads to death” and what he didn’t. However, maybe, a “sin that leads to death” and a sin that doesn’t have more to do with the person than the sin itself. Think back to 1 John 1:9 when John states, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Throughout the letter, John has, as we’ve seen, rallied his audience against the “antichrists,” or those who are causing division by false teaching. Maybe, he’s still talking about them in this kind of talk regarding not praying for people whose sin leads to death. Maybe, for John, those are the people that are beyond the focus. Maybe, he’s saying that sins kept within the community that are confessed, addressed, and forgiven, aren’t the ones that lead to death; instead, breaking unity from unconfessed sin, leads to death.
Here’s the thing: we are to pray for people far from God to come to know God. We are to pray for people struggling with sin to be freed from its chains. We are to pray for the poor, afflicted, and oppressed that they are given justice. Those are prayers rooted in love, and just because somebody sins, doesn’t mean we don’t pray for them. However, to John’s point, “everyone who is born of God doesn’t go on sinning” (1 John 5:18). It is this continuous lifestyle of sin, division, false teaching, and the like that concerns John. Sins can be prayed for, confessed, and forgiven. But a hardened lifestyle of sin that continues, and seeks to divide the community is one that cannot be tolerated.
Followers of Jesus are, mirroring their leader, “born of God” and Jesus keeps them safe as a shepherd does their sheep. In life, it may not always feel as though we are protected; things happen. But we take heart knowing “whatever is born of God conquers the world” (1 John 5:4) and that is where our faith lies. Our faith in the one, true God, who has come in the flesh through Jesus, granted us new life, and beckons us to share that with others in love. That’s the kingdom of God that the Church is called to be a part. If that’s not where we’re heading, we need a new direction.