1 John 5:16-21 – 2023 Sep 21

As John winds down his letter, he is seen offering a kind of exhortation to remain faithful to Christ, or Him who is “begotten of God,” our Lord Jesus Christ.  So far John has stated in repeated fashion the gospel and various tests for self-examination to see if we remain in the faith, all so that we may know in an absolute sense that we belong to God through His atoning sacrifice on our behalf and have the eternal life God promised He would give all those who would turn from their sins and to Christ in faith.

It is true that this touches on our regeneration (new birth if you like) and justification before God through His work on the cross.  However, in these last few verses, John also very clearly touches on our being made holy and remaining in that state, also called our sanctification.  I know that’s a big theological term, but all it really means is that God is making us holy.  The Greek word itself is “hagaismos,” to be made holy, and that is also a work of God, but in cooperation with us as we learn to obey Him in the situations He brings us through.  What do I mean?  Well, our justification is “monergistic,” or single-source if you will.  That source is God Himself.  Sanctification is said to be synergistic, more of a cooperation between ourselves and the Holy Spirit as we walk with Him. 

In fact, because of the way we have been splitting up the chapters so that we could make these all manageable chunks of text to study and sit through for several reasons, not the least of which is my health, we have to hearken back to the instruction John made on prayer in the last little bit last time for a moment. 

I broke the text down like this:

KV18:  The Synergy of Sanctification

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.

16-17:  The sin that leads to death

18:  Kept by Christ from the evil one

19-21:  Keep yourselves from idols

Backtracking is something that contextual analysis sometimes requires, and this is one of those cases.  Let’s get into the text.

KV18:  The Synergy of Sanctification

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.

As I mentioned a moment ago, unlike our justification before God which comes to us by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, as told in the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone.  This is a gift that is called in theological circles “monergistic,” that is from a single source, that is God Himself.  Learning holiness and obeying the Lord is a whole other matter.  While it is true that we cannot do it ourselves because we are still tainted with sin, Christ has set us free from the penalty of sin at our justification.  Sanctification is the process where we learn to overcome the power of sin in our lives, and although we will never be perfect in this life, we learn to cooperate and obey as we walk with Him and follow His will found in His word.  Someday, He will set us free from the presence of sin when He glorifies all of His chosen people.  That glorification will be monergistic as well, we certainly cannot do that, but the bit in the middle, that’s mostly from God, but we also get to participate, making this a synergism, something from more than one source.  Some commentators have called this the salvation of the soul, and that is how I first learned the idea, so I may lapse into that terminology.  For the record, I still think of man as a sort of tri-unity, that of spirit, soul, and body, all of which are mentioned in Scripture.  I know that some have thought that the soul and the spirit are the same thing, but I think they are different enough to be two closely related but separate ingredients to a person.

With all of that said as a precursor, let’s get into the text itself.

16-17:  The sin that leads to death

To understand this section, we need to go back a bit and recall the immediately preceding two verses, 14 and 15.  This was about the prayer to God that comes from the assurance we have that we belong to Him, and if we pray according to His will, we know that He will grant the requests we ask.  This is accomplished by the Holy Spirit, as Paul told us in Romans 8:26-27, because He knows the will of the Father, and those groanings that may in fact be too deep or complex for words, by the time they reach heaven from when we utter them (an instantaneous process), He intercedes for us with God.  That’s the context for the next two verses, although there is a paragraph break in most Bibles.  With that in mind, let’s look at the verses.

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.

  • This is a well-known and somewhat controversial verse.  There have been a lot of different commentators giving a lot of different meanings to it, including this being about suicide.  I don’t think that’s the only thing this could be about, and by the time we’re finished looking at this section, you should see it also.  I know it looks kind of like a break in topic and change of direction, but in the original, it would have had no sentence breaks, and sometimes no spaces between words, never mind paragraph markers.
  • Bearing in mind that the last two verses are about prayer, how can this NOT be related?  The first sentence in this verse talks about how we should be praying for our brothers and sisters in Christ more or less.  When we see a brother or sister (regardless of whether we think their faith is real or not) falling into sin, we should pray for them except for one notable exception found in the second half of the verse–if the Lord allows it to end their lives.  Suicide certainly fits that description, but it isn’t the only thing that does.  God allowing a person’s life to end is a final kind of judgement on the sin of the individual.  Romans 6:23a becomes a reality in circumstances like this.  “The wages of sin is death.”  When that death comes to pass, it is too late for all prayers because God has decided that “case” is finished and has called that soul to judgment.  For this, there is no longer a point in praying.
  • Dr. John MacArthur says in his commentary series that John’s audience may have known of a specific sin that led to death because no real detail was given, but that this was hard to determine.  He went on to suggest two possibilities:  a non-Christian sins in a way that leads to their own death or a Christian sins so egregiously that God allows that life to end in that sin.  In the first case, God is passing final judgment on that individual, and no more prayer is possible.  In the second case, God is putting a stop to sin in the life of a believer because they have gone far enough.  Ananias and Saphira are the examples usually given here, and MacArthur cites this as well.  The Holy Spirit brought their lives to an end because they gave a part of something they pretended was the whole.  That lie was serious enough for God to render immediate judgment.  It doesn’t mean they were not saved.  It means that judgement begins with the house of God, and if you don’t believe that, then why are you here?  I thought you were here to obey Christ and follow Him. 

17:  All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.

  • John is reminding us all that sin is a serious thing.  Even though God does not judge every sin immediately and fatally, we should pay attention to ourselves.  The Puritan John Owen said it best, “Be killing sin, or rest assured, sin will be killing you.”  (The Mortification of Sin, Puritan Press)
  • We need to be faithful so that if we should die, it will be in Christ’s service as his faithful servant, not as a sinner requiring judgment immediately.

This is important motivation to follow Christ and imitate those who imitated Christ before us.  That following of Christ in obedience no matter the circumstances is what we call sanctification, or the act of God helping make us holy by choosing to do His will instead of our own.  As we follow Him, He is actively setting us apart as He works in our lives by His Holy Spirit.  You should recall that being set apart is the original definition of holiness.  Dr. R.C. Sproul emphasizes this in his somewhat autobiographical book, The Holiness of God.  I recommend that book for reading.  We went through it in our Friday Book Club online.  Find us at the official BereanNation.com Page on Rumble and join us at 7:15 every Friday at 7 PM Eastern.  Moving on.

18:  Kept by Christ from the evil one

Sanctification is a moot point if we have no chance of continuing our walk with Christ because of sin.  We have already spoken many times and in many places about the need to turn from our sins, the idea of repentance, and to believe in a way that makes a real change in our lives so that we and everyone else know Christ made a difference in our lives.  Here, John tells us that Christ preserves us as we do so, and that is critical or it just won’t happen.  Thankfully, it does.

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.

  • What is John saying in this verse?  First, he is saying that “no one born of God sins.”  That is to say, no one continues to live in habitual sin once they have believed the gospel of Jesus Christ.  This is another area that bears constant repeating.  If “believing in Jesus” in your life has made no difference in your life, then you aren’t really “born of God, or born from above.”  If the difference makes no difference, it isn’t really a difference, and you can’t just claim Jesus is your saviour if He isn’t also your Lord.  These two things go together or they don’t go at all.  But what if you are really making Him your Lord?  Look at the next phrase.
  • “He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch Him.”  That is a direct reference in words from John that Jesus knows who are His and that He personally protects them from the evil one, who is going to come up again in this text.  This is one of the doctrines of grace that is known as the perseverance (or preservation) of the saints.  Both words are accurate, and in my view, this verse emphasizes the preservation of the saints, because it is Christ doing it.
  • Looking at the verse in totality, the first part references the changing power of the gospel of Christ.  The emphasis that I see here is that we choose to remain pure as much as we can because no one is perfect on this side of heaven except Christ.  In the second half of the verse, if we will try to guard the trust” as Paul puts it, if we will try to remain in holiness, then Christ will preserve us from the evil one Himself as a promise of the very gospel He instituted, no matter what happens to us.
  • In that is a reminder that whatever happens to us is less important than what He has ordained come to pass, and He doesn’t tell us what that is, or assure us that it will be without pain or tragedy.  Think of all the believers that Rome fed to wild animals.  Think of all the believers used as human torches to light Nero’s garden.  I could go on.  He will see us safely to our heavenly home no matter what happens here.  So said Paul, Peter, James, all the other apostles, and so says John here.  He will preserve us because we belong to Him.  Next paragraph.

19-21:  Keep yourselves from idols

With all of the above in mind, You would think we were all stamped with approval to go straight to glory, right?  Sadly, no, God did not take us home when he regenerated us, did he.  That isn’t a question, we’re still here, like it or not.  With all that said, let me ask you all a question.  What is an idol?

[possible discussion]

Essentially, an idol is anything to which you give higher priority than God.  I remember an old Gary Larson cartoon strip called “The Far Side” that put this in perspective for me.  The picture in the single frame was that of an African plains native hiding in the bushes with a television set while puzzled people searched a house behind him.  The caption read, “Umbungu had stolen their idol.  Its power was now his…along with its curse.”  A Television!  Can you imagine?  And yet it was one of mine for many years and still can be if I am not careful.  Anything you give higher priority than God.  Examples of that in our society are varied and many.  Wealth and comfort come to mind, success, safety, and many other things are all put in front of God.  We’ve seen that especially over the last 3.5 years specifically with a certain kind of medical situation that will remain nameless.  That made many people put a higher priority on their own safety than corporate worship, certainly.  There were those who tried to come up with ways around that, and some of those were okay, but that isn’t really the topic here.  The question to ask yourself is, “What have I myself made into an idol that I have put at a higher priority in my own life than following Jesus?”  That’s the thing you should be putting off with the old nature, Beloved.  On with the text.

19:  We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.

  • In this verse, we see the juxtaposition of the saints of God, that’s us, against the rest of the world.  We are of God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.  This means, among other things, that we are NOT under his power or influence.  The rest of the world is.  To show you how desperate a situation this is, Clarke’s Notes on the Bible attributes this imagery to John Wesley:  The whole world lies in the arms of the wicked one.  The picture given is that of a newborn baby asleep in the arms of its wet nurse.  I shudder at the imagery.  Can you think of a worse spot for a newborn babe to be found?  Doesn’t it give you a burden to see those little ones that God loves and Jesus died for rescued from that fate?  Talk about incentives for evangelism.  We are of God!  We know the way of escape!  How much do we have to hate people to not tell them to turn from their sins and believe that Jesus died for THEM on the cross also?

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.

  • John is telling us what else we know:  That the Son of God has come and rescued us, and He has also given us understanding to know Him [God], and that we are IN Him who is true.  As if there was ever any doubt, John even names Him–His Son Jesus Christ.  Then what does John say?  THIS (God the Son, Jesus Christ) is the TRUE GOD and eternal life.
  • Many have come into the world, John tells us earlier in this letter denying that Jesus is God, come in the flesh to live a perfect life for us and at the right time to lay down that perfect life as the perfect atoning sacrifice for our sins to redeem us to God and cause us to escape His terrible coming wrath.  John is telling us here that this Jesus is that Anointed One that is both very man and very God, the hypostatic union of God and man into one being, the second person of the triune God, the Messiah, the Christ.  If you are His, you understand that, and that anyone who says otherwise or will not worship Jesus Himself is not of God.  In THIS ONE ONLY is found that eternal life, that is zoe aionios, the life of the ages, life as God has life, not just mere existence.  That life can be lived now, even before He comes to set up His kingdom on earth.  It is a reminder that we live in a strange arrangement of already but not yet, what George Eldon Ladd termed inaugurated eschatology in his work, Theology of the New Testament.  I know, you think I’m throwing around big words, but I’m really not.  I’m defining those terms for you so that when some of these armchair theologians, who like to show you how much smarter than you they are by using those terms, try to stymie you and put you in your (lower than them) place, you can throw it back at them because you know what it means.  Like Job, you are not inferior to me, or to anyone save God Himself, and for a little while, the angels.  Moving on.

21:  Little children, guard yourselves from idols.

  • With those powerful reminders of how we are of God, the rest of the world lies helpless as a baby in the arms of their sworn enemy who wants nothing better than to destroy them, and the reminder that we belong to Christ and that He has given us understanding that He is God and has given us His own eternal life and all that means, John gives this as a close to his letter:  Little children, guard yourselves from idols.

An idol [Heb., pesel, a vanity or a thing representing nothing] is first found in Scripture in Exodus 20:4.  It is assigned there the meaning of placing some other being, idea, or thing above the one true and living God.  Most of us here at least this evening, I would hope are believers seeking to follow Jesus as Lord and Master.  None of us worship statues of Zeus, Apollo, or more modern false gods like Mary.  But it is still possible to make a figurative idol like a set of ideals and place them in your life at a higher level of importance than God.  I used to be just like that.

In fact, to tell the short version of the story, I very clearly heard God calling me to pastoral ministry in 1987.  At the time, I was on summer vacation after my first year of a biology degree at Carleton, and I had joined a kind of brethren assembly, the closest description I could give you as to what we were, though these were not affiliated with the Plymouth Brethren.  These believers did not believe in professional ministry (yes, I am aware now that this causes issues with Scripture, but back then I really didn’t know that), so I didn’t know what to do.  I prayed, of course, and I even spoke with a pastor in Kenora where I was on summer break.  In hindsight, he may not have been the right guy to talk to, but I did try.  Not getting any real advice, I came back to Ottawa for second year, and did what any normal person would do–I ignored the call of God because some people I listened to “didn’t believe in it.”  The idea that the only kind of pastor that was acceptable was an unpaid one became an ideological idol of sorts to me.  Finally, I was put through our Lay Pastor Training Program, and certified by CBOQ to preach in their congregations by invitation.  Yes, ignoring that call the first time has had long-term consequences too.  I needed to repent of this brain-damaged theology and believe God has a real plan for this.  In the meantime, I am here, and He has called me to serve in this way, which I am happy to fulfil.  That’s an example of how I can apply this kind of text to my real life.

How about you?  Are you in situations where you have placed some sacred cow idea above the most high God?  Are you an alcoholic who is still actively drinking?  What is your poison?  Is it drugs?  Sex?  Computers?  Card games?  Role-playing games?  Television?  News and politics?  Whatever it is, my Lord Jesus can help.  Let me say it like this:  He can change you.  He can take that pile of skubalon you call a life and exchange it for His glorious eternal life of holiness and righteousness before God if you will simply ask Him to do so.  It seems better than the alternative–to crawl away into a dark hole and die there in whatever way seems best to you.  Those are frankly your options.  Why would you do that when He invites you to come?  The Spirit and the Bride say Come!  Come and drink of the water of live freely and without cost (Rev. 22:17).  Come and find that life of the ages for yourself.  O taste and see that the Lord is good.  Don’t waste another second on the nonsense of the world.  Come.  He calls, and supper is ready.

That’s what I saw in the chapter.

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