RPM, Volume 15, Number 9, February 24 to March 2, 2013

Examination for Assurance

1 John 5:13-21

By J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to 1 John chapter 5. Today we come to the end of our study of 1 John. This is the epilogue of the book, from the 13th verse of this chapter to the end: John's final words, his parting words, an afterword to us in which he sums up some of the great emphases of this book.

Now we've focused much on what John has said about three tests of genuine Christianity: a doctrinal test (what we believe about Jesus), a moral test (how we respond in obedience to God's Word), a social or a relational test (how we love one another as Christians). We've seen John focus on mostly the doctrinal and the relational tests in chapter 5. He's repeated several times the importance of us believing in Jesus Christ as He is offered in the gospel, believing about Christ in accordance with Scripture and the apostles' teaching, and not in accordance with our own imaginations. But he's also emphasized the importance of love to one another as showing the reality of true faith in Jesus Christ.

John makes clear that the Christian—the one who is born of God, the one who is overcoming the world—is one who makes a specific doctrinal confession of the real Jesus and shows the reality of his trust in Jesus in love to God and love to one another. This is something that is especially affirmed in the passage that we studied last week together in 1 John 5:6-12. There, John gives a three-fold testimony to who Jesus is.

Again, he's buttressing our faith in Jesus Christ. He points to Jesus' baptism, he points to Jesus' death, he points to the testimony of the Holy Spirit, and he says, 'Each of these three things corroborate John's teaching about who Jesus is and what He had done,' and hence cause our faith to be stronger in who Jesus is and in what He has done. Well, that brings us to 1 John 5:13. Before we read this passage and proclaim God's word, let's pray for God's Spirit to illumine our hearts and minds. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, if Your truth is that which sets us free then we need to know Your truth. And so as we study this, Your truth, today, set our hearts free—free from bondage to sin, free from misunderstanding, free from bondage to false thinking and teaching. Free us to believe Your truth. By Your Spirit enable us to trust in Christ who is the object of saving faith, and to believe the word spoken of Him under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit given, breathed out by God. Help us, O God, to be both hearers and believers and livers of this truth. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear God's word. 1 John 5:13-21:

" These things I have written 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 which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. 16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death. 18 We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him. 19 We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. 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. This is the true God and eternal life. 21 Little children, guard yourselves from idols."

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

Well, surely the problems that John is addressing to this church, surely these are very old problems and not much in touch with the thinking and problems of today. Surely these people who are teaching these strange teachings about Jesus are way out of step, and so John's exhortations to us throughout this letter are not directly relevant to where we are today.

Well, isn't it interesting, my friends, that in the very time when we are reading this word together, in this very time when you are meditating on 1 John 5, that for a couple of years there has been a novel on the very tops of the bestsellers' lists and for the New York Times booklist which is propagating some of these very false teachings about Jesus Christ? Many of you have read it. It's The DaVinci Code. Dan Brown has suggested to us a whole new mythology…well, it's not new at all. The ideas that he has suggested about Jesus Christ flow right out of the false teachings of the Gnostics some 1800 years ago. Oh, what John has to say is relevant because that book which was meant as fiction, a good read, a good yarn, a detective mystery—has had a profound faith impact on many. Many are actually adopting the theology of that novel as their own personal theology. And John has something to say to a generation which is being impacted by false teaching about Jesus. And even as he closes this letter, I want you to see four things in particular that he wants us to learn. The first thing you'll see in verse 13 has to do with the purpose of John's letter. The second thing you'll see in verses 14-17; it has to do with assurance, assurance of answered prayer. The third thing you'll see in verses 18-20 where John summarizes three things that we know as Christians. And then the last thing you'll see in the exhortation which is found in verse 21. Let's look at these four things together briefly

I. The purpose of John's letter: assurance of salvation for Christians.

First, John's reminder of the purpose of this book…and you'll see it right there in verse 13. "These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life." John is telling us that the purpose of his writing of this book is the promotion of Christians' assurance of salvation, their assurance that they truly know God. Now you've heard a verse like this somewhere before. Where is it? It's in the gospel of John. Turn with me there, John 20:31, for here John explains why he wrote the gospel of John. Listen to it: "These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name." And so John is saying, 'I write you this gospel not simply in the interest of history, not simply in the interest of biography; I write you this gospel with a gospel purpose in view, a converting purpose in view. It is my desire that you having heard these things will believe in Jesus Christ.' John writes so that people will believe. Now listen again then, right next to it, what he says in 1 John 5:13, "These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life." He's not writing 1 John so that you might believe; he's writing 1 John to those who already believe in the Son of God. And he's writing to them, why? That they may know that they have eternal life. John wants Christians to have a robust assurance of their true and saving knowledge of God, a robust assurance of their salvation. John sees assurance as important, and so he writes this letter in order to strengthen our assurance. Why? Because though assurance is important, it is not automatic. It is something that we are to cultivate.

Isn't it interesting that if you put the gospel of John and 1 John together, you will see John in each of these progressively build a four-part case? He desires us first to hear the truth and so he writes the gospel of John, and in some measure the letter of 1 John. Then he wants us to believe the truth, so he argues in the gospel of John and says that these things were written that you would believe. And then, of course, he gives you reasons why you ought to have believed in the letter of 1 John. So he wants you to hear the truth, and then he wants you to believe the truth, and then he wants you to live the truth and that's what 1 John is about. This letter is so much about living out the truth. Not simply saying it, not simply knowing about it, but living out the truth. And then, fourthly, he wants you to be assured of the truth, and so John is telling you here, 'I've written this to people who are already believing in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. I wrote my gospel so that people would believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God. I'm writing this letter to people who already believe that Jesus is the Son of God so that they may be assured of salvation.' I want to tell you this.

I don't know how many Christians I have talked to over the course of the years who have struggled in some measure with their assurance, and it is to me one of the great testimonies of the reality that Scripture is the very word of God that so much of Scripture is taken up with assuring Christians of their salvation. How could it be that uninspired men from 2,000 to 3,500 years ago would have known that I was going to struggle with the assurance of salvation? Well, they couldn't have known that. But God in His infinite wisdom, because He is the ultimate author of this word, knows that He is going to have precious children who struggle with assurance, and so in His word He writes things which were meant for them from before the foundation of the world. And this is one of the great testimonies of the truth of Scripture.

But John wants us to see that assurance is vital to the stability and the energy of Christian life and service, and so he wants to do what he can to encourage us in growing into a robust assurance of salvation. So there's the first thing. That's what John wants to promote here in the writing of this letter.

As you have read 1 John maybe you, like me, have found it a tough book. It really forces some soul-searching, self-examination. But John is saying, 'Though we have to do that hard work of self-examination, my purpose is not to discourage you; my purpose is to encourage you. My purpose is not to raise doubts in your heart; my purpose is to confirm faith and to give you assurance in the Christian life.' That's so important for us to remember. It ought to be a standing concern of us as brothers and sisters in Christ in this fellowship that we be praying for one another to grow in assurance. Because an assured Christian is a bold Christian, an energetic Christian, a Christian who is active in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ. We ought to be praying this for one another. It's John's desire that we would grow in assurance. There's the first thing.

II. The impact of assurance in the area of prayer

Now let's look at the second thing. You'll see it in verses 14-17. Christian assurance of answered prayer is the topic of verses 14-17.John is going to talk about the impact of assurance in the area of prayer. As we pray in accordance with God's will, John says in verses 14-17, and as we pray with the assurance that we know God and that we are His children, it transforms our practice of prayer.

What does prayer do? There are some Christians today who say that prayer changes God's mind. There are other Christians that say, "No, no, no, no, prayer changes things. It changes the way things are." And then there are other Christians that say, "No, prayer changes you." Well, which is it? Does God's mind get changed by prayer? Do things get changed by prayer? Or do we get changed by prayer? Well, in prayer we don't change God's mind. That would be a frightening thought that I could change God's mind and that my individual, finite, sinful will could at any discreet point in this universe change the will of God. If you thought that my prayer could change the mind of God, you should never sleep again. That would be frightening. When in passages like Exodus 32 and 33 the language of God "changing His mind" is used, it is clear from that passage that Moses, in fact, is being brought into line with God's will; and God in His mercy is withdrawing a previously announced punishment, but that punishment itself was contingent upon Israel either being stubbornly unrepentant or being malleably repentant. And so it does not reflect a change of God's mind but a change of Israel's posture towards God. It's the same in other passages where that kind of language is used.

Clearly we don't change God's mind. But does prayer change things? Well, not technically. God changes things. He may use prayer in His purposes of God changing things. Well, does prayer simply then change us? No. Some people would say, "All prayer does is bend us to God's will." That is true: We do learn God's will in prayer. Our hearts are conformed to say "yes" to the Lord in prayer. But that is not all that prayer does. In prayer we don't change God's mind, and we don't change things by ourselves, nor do we merely come in line with God's will. But in prayer we do become God's instruments to affect His will, and thus in His grace God ordains to work out His plan with the use of our prayers. That's what happened to Daniel in Daniel 9. You remember that Daniel's prayer for the return of Israel from captivity was the very prayer that God chose to use to bring Jesus into this world in Daniel 9? It's a glorious story. That's how God uses prayer. He uses our prayer as instruments to affect His will.

John is saying that one important place where assurance impacts us is in the practice of prayer. Our boldness in prayer will be very much tied to our assurance of salvation. John wants us to have confidence in prayer. But he doesn't want us to be presumptuous, and so he says this. Listen: "This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us." And listen to how he puts it in verse 15, "And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him." John speaks as if it's almost past tense. If we've asked Him, we have it. But notice he makes it clear that we are not to be presumptuous in prayer. We're always to pray, "Thy will be done." "Whatever we ask according to His will," John says. John is wanting us to be bold in prayer. He's wanting us to be assured in prayer. But he's also wanting us always to pray in accordance with God's will.

He's talking to us here about the Christian assurance that God will answer our prayers. And he says something quite amazing in verses 14 and 15. He says, "This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us." John wants us to be bold and confident that God will hear our prayers. And notice how he goes on to put it in verse 15, "And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him." John wants us to be totally confident that God will hear our prayers, and so he even speaks of them as being answered as we ask them: "We have what we ask." Now that sounds like something that some of our Christian friends might take and use as license, "Well, Lord, we're going to speak it into being by faith." But notice what John says here, "As we ask according to His will." Now that is not just a statement that John makes in order to hedge our bets: "Well, if God answers our prayers positively like we prayed them, then He heard our prayers. If He doesn't, well, we've hedged our bets because we've said, 'Just in case, I pray in accordance with Your will.'" Well, that's not the attitude in which John says this at all. John wants us to have confidence in prayer, but he doesn't want us to be presumptuous. So he wants us to pray boldly but always—how? "According to His will," he says in verse 14. We are always to pray, "Thy will be done." Why? Well, first of all, Jesus tells His disciples in The Lord's Prayer…how are we to pray? "Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done." So Jesus says, 'When you pray you always pray for God's will to be done.' Tacking that on at the end is not sort of hedging our bets; it's doing what Jesus told us to do in prayer. But not only did Jesus tell us to do it, that's how Jesus prayed. When he was in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating as with drops of blood, He prayed, "Not My will but Thy will be done." Jesus by His own example shows us that we are always to pray in accordance with God's will. And John had heard Jesus teach this, and perhaps he had heard Him frequently pray this way. And so John says to these Christians, 'Pray boldly. Be assured of God's answers to prayers which are in accordance with His will. But always pray boldly in accord with His will, in accord with the will of God.'

Do you remember what Jesus says for the disciples to pray in The Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6? "Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done." And do you remember what He prayed with sweat as drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane? "Not My will but Thy will be done." When you say, "Thy will be done," you're praying like Jesus. You're not denying the power of prayer; you're praying like Jesus. And John's just reiterating that here. John heard his Lord teach to pray, "Thy will be done," and so he says, 'Pray boldly but always pray in accordance with God's will.' "Thy will be done."

Brister Ware has the opportunity to make literally hundreds and hundreds of pastoral visits a year, and who knows how many thousands of pastoral visits Brister Ware has made over the course of his ministry to us. And every once in awhile he meets someone who asks for prayer, maybe for healing for himself or herself or for a dear friend or for a child or for a parent, and that person just every once in awhile will say, "Now, Brister, don't pray, 'Thy will be done.' You pray that my son, my father, my mother, my friend will be healed. Don't you pray, 'Thy will be done.'" And, my friends, that's unbiblical. Jesus says, 'Pray, "Thy will be done."' Jesus prays, "Thy will be done." John in inspired Scripture says that's how we pray. That's not just sort of a Presbyterian hedging of bets in prayer. That's not because we lack the faith of our Charismatic friends. It's because God's word says, "Pray in accordance with God's will." And so John is driving that point home in verses 14 and 15.

III. Three things that we know as Christians

Then John says something very hard, doesn't he, in verses 16 and 17? Now don't get confused by what he says. What John is doing in verses 16 and 17 is giving us an example of how you are to pray for God's will in a specific situation of intercession. You're interceding for somebody else—in this case, the case of somebody who's fallen into sin. John knows that we ought to be interceding for one another. "Oh, that brother has fallen into sin. We ought to be interceding before the Lord. 'Lord turn him back from that sin.'" That's how we ought to be praying for one another. And John says in verses 16 and 17 that if we will pray in accordance with God's will that that brother will turn from sin, God will hear that prayer.

But then he adds this statement: "I do not say that we are to pray for the one who has sinned the sin unto death." Now commentators for hundreds of years have wrestled with this. "What in the world is John talking about when he says, 'a sin which is unto death'"? Is he talking about the distinction between mortal and venial sins? No. Is he talking about some specific sin which is beyond forgiveness? Is he talking about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Or, is he talking about apostasy? And so good commentators have wrestled with what John is saying.

Some times pastors come out of this passage and say, "I just don't know what John is saying by this. It's just scary what he is saying." It reminds me of a number of years ago. I was at a Sunday evening service in Edinburgh, Scotland and the great James Philip was preaching from a passage towards the end of Romans chapter 9. And you know how mysterious that chapter is, and it was a soul-searching sermon. It was one of those mystical Sunday evenings where you felt the presence of the Lord in the place. But as we walked out a friend of mine said to me, "Well, what do you think he intended us to get out of that passage? What was his application?" And I turned quickly and I said, "His application was to scare us to death." And you know, you may get that sort of feeling from reading 1 John 5:16 and 17, that John's application is to scare us to death.

But I want to suggest, No, it's much more practical than that. It's simply this: John is writing in a context where people have renounced the faith. They've turned their backs on the Jesus of the apostles' teaching and they've left the church. And John is saying, 'If you see a brother falling into sin, pray for him; intercede for him. God in His mercy will turn him from his sin. But don't pray, "Lord, even though that person renounces Jesus, save him anyway," because that's never in accordance with God's will. God doesn't save those who renounce Jesus.

Now immediately your question goes into mind, "Well, does that mean that you can't pray for anybody who is in active rebellion against Jesus Christ?" Well, that's another question for another time. That's not what John's talking about. John is telling us here that we are not to say, "Lord, save somebody who You say in Your word You will not save." John is saying, "Don't pray to God to do that. Don't say, 'Lord, save that person apart from Jesus Christ. Even though that person doesn't trust in Jesus Christ, save them anyway.'"

Now you say, "Nobody would pray like that." Oh, yes, we do, all the time. I remember talking to a very godly Christian woman in St. Louis whose son had rejected Christ. She refused to believe that he was not a Christian because once upon a time, when he was a child, he had prayed a prayer. Now, my friends, you cannot expect those who reject Christ to be received by Christ as if they had not rejected Him. And John is simply saying, "When we intercede for one another, don't intercede and ask God to do what He doesn't say He will do in His word. Pray in accordance with His will."

John is applying this general principle to a hard and a practical circumstance. Few of us, surely, don't have friends and family members who we love with all our hearts, and who do not know the Lord Jesus Christ. And John is saying that even in those circumstances we are always to pray in accordance with God's will. That if God is going to save, He's going to save the way that He says He will in the word, by drawing them to faith in Christ and not in some other way which He doesn't say in His word.

It's so tempting for us, isn't it, because the pain, the very thought of the loss of a loved one or a friend, it's so tempting for us to pray, "Lord, why don't You just save everybody?" That's not the way God says He's going to do it in His word. Or to say, "Lord, why don't You just save apart from Jesus Christ? There are so many people that don't sit under good gospel preaching Sunday after Sunday, why don't You just save people apart from Jesus Christ?"

And that's not the way God says, in His word, that He does it. No, we pray that God would save just as He says that He will in His word. And that's what John is talking about. The Lord's going to hear those prayers which are in accord to His will. He's going to turn back sinners through the use of your intercessory prayers, but don't expect Him to save those out of accord with His word.

IV. John's exhortation: Guard yourselves from idols.

Finally, let me point to just the final verse. "Little children, guard yourselves from idols." John says, 'We must ever be on guard to believe in God, to believe in Christ in accordance with Scripture.' You see, the challenge that John's people were facing and the challenge that we are facing is not the challenge of bowing down to statues of wood and stone. That's what we often think of when we think of idolatry: worshipping some inanimate object. No, the challenge here is following after a God of our own imagination, and specifically in 1 John 5, following after a Christ of our own imagination. The pop group, Depeche Mode, popularized this thought a few years ago with its song, "Your Own Personal Jesus." Well, there are a lot of Americans with their own personal Jesus. They've made Him up; He is made in their image. And that, my friends, is an idol. There is a Christ that we want, and there is a Christ who is, and the two are not the same. And John is saying, 'Be sure that the Christ whom you trust and love and worship is the Christ of the Bible, the real Christ, the real historical Jesus.'

A sixteen-year-old girl recently said to a woman who was sharing the gospel to her…after this young girl had read the novel by Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code, which says that Jesus was married and had children and was not divine and was declared to divine for the first time in history by the Emperor Constantine; and this is has all been held under wraps for 1600 years, and Leonardo da Vinci knew the secret and showed it in his painting. This young girl had read this book, and she said this: "The DaVinci Code shows me that the Bible is a fake, and I'm very comfortable with the spirituality that I've discovered there. It fits me fine." Well, she found a Jesus that fit her fine. Unfortunately, it's not the real Jesus. It's not the Jesus who saves.

And when John closes this book and says, "Little children, guard yourselves from idols," I want to tell you that that exhortation is just as relevant, if not more, for us today than it was for that little congregation huddled together somewhere in a house in Ephesus who first heard this letter read. There are many idols of Jesus out there today. Be sure that the Jesus you are trusting in for salvation is the Jesus of this book, the word of God, Jesus' word to you and me. Let's pray.

Our Lord and our God, as we sing of Your praise as Creator and Redeemer in just a few seconds, we pray that we would sing to Your praise and trust in You as You have revealed Yourself in Your word, and that You would guard our hearts from idols. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.

The grace of our Lord, Jesus the Messiah, and the love of God, our Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you and abide with you both now and forevermore. Amen.

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