Keep Yourselves from Idols (1 John 5:14-21)
by Shane Scott
John wrote his first letter to give his readers confidence. “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” (5:13). This confidence does not spring out of any sort of human merit or achievement, but rather, it is grounded in the objective reality of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. The closing unit of First John is punctuated by repeated references to this confidence, to what “we know.” Let’s take a look at the assured truths John shared with his readers.
We know that God hears our prayers (5:14-17). “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (5:14-15). Jesus taught His disciples to begin their prayers, “Your will be done,” and He modeled that humble submission to the will of God during His agonizing prayer in the Garden (Matthew 6:10; 26:39). God heard the prayer of Jesus “because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7), and John assures his readers that if they pray with the same submissive spirit that God will hear them (cf. John 16:23).
After giving this general statement about prayer in verses 14-15, John then discusses a specific sort of prayer in verse 16, prayer for a sinful brother. “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.” Just what does John mean by the expressions “sin not leading to death” and “sin that leads to death”?
One observation we can make from the text is that you can “see” the difference between the two. “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death….” A further observation is that it is a brother who commits the sin not leading to death. So what sort of sin could a brother commit that we can see and determine is not unto death?
The phrase “not leading to death” is found one other place in John’s writings – John 11:4, where Jesus informs the disciples that Lazarus’ illness “does not lead to death.” Of course, from a short-term point of view, it did lead to death, but that was not the end of the story. Ultimately the sickness led to the glory of God as Jesus raised Lazarus from death to life. Likewise, whatever the “sin not unto death” is, it will not ultimately lead to spiritual death.
This is in contrast to the “sin that leads to death,” for which John says his readers should not pray. And that brings to mind a set of passages in Jeremiah in which the Lord prohibits the prophet from praying for sinful Israel.
As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you. Do you not see what they are doing in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven. And they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger. (7:16-18)
For your gods have become as many as your cities, O Judah, and as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame, altars to make offerings to Baal. Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble. (11:13-14)
Notice that in Jeremiah the sin that Israel is guilty of is apostasy from the Lord into idolatry. In view of such a radical betrayal of faith in God, there was no further recourse. Only God can save and forgive – if Israel has turned from Him, there is no one else who can remove Israel’s sin, and therefore no reason for the prophet to pray.
This suggests that when John makes a similar statement – “I do not say that one should pray for that” – that he has a similar situation in mind, namely, apostasy. Throughout the book John warns about those who have broken away from the fellowship built on apostolic teaching and who have denied the truth about Jesus (such as 4:1-3). If someone rejects this truth, there is no other sacrifice that will remove sins (1 John 1:7-2:2; 4:2; 5:10-12; cf. Hebrews 10:26-29), and thus no point in praying for them to be forgiven. Further, if the sin “unto death” is apostasy, this explains how it is possible that we can see when a brother is/is not committing such a sin.
Of course, no one should assume that so long as they aren’t full-fledged apostates that they can sin as they please. “All wrongdoing is sin” (5:17a). That would be to completely miss the point of this section, which has to do with our confidence in prayer made according to the will of God. Instead, what we should take away from this passage is a profound sense of gratitude that God answers our prayers, especially for brothers who stumble in sin. And God’s intent is to transform us, which is John’s next point.
2. We know that everyone born of God does not keep on sinning (5:18a). The new birth ushers in a new way of life. John is not suggesting some sort of sinless perfection here (otherwise, 1 John 1:7-2:2 would make no sense). But he is saying that there is a general course of conduct that should distinguish those who are born of God from those who are not.
This is not a “self-help” process. John is quick to explain that the one who is born of God doesn’t continue in sin because “he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him” (5:18b, ESV). Just as Jesus prayed for God to protect His disciples who remained in the world from the evil one (John 17:15), John assures his readers that Christ protects them from the power of the devil (see 1 John 4:4). And as John goes on to exhort his readers, we can know that we are His children.
3. We know that we are from God (5:19). In his gospel and in his first letter, John draws a bright red line between the children of God and “the world” (see 1 John 2:15-17; 3:1, 13; 4:1,5; John 1:10; 3:19; 7:7; 8:23; 14:17; 15:19). The “world” in these passages does not refer to the planet or to its people, but instead it refers to the evil realm of hostility toward God. Those people, powers, and structures are under the sway of the evil one (see John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). Those who belong to Christ have been saved from this dark age because of what Christ has shown them about God.
4. We know the Son of God has given us understanding (5:20). Jesus told Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:19). That is what Jesus came to do, to reveal God to us. And who better to do this than one who is God. “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). That’s why John concludes First John 5:20 with this declaration about the nature of the Son – “He is the true God and eternal life.”
And since Jesus is God, and since idolatry is a false view of God, those false teachers who denied the truth about Jesus are guilty of nothing less than idolatry. So, as John closes this letter which so frequently warns against false teaching about Jesus, what better way for John to exhort his readers than to say, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
In this era of pluralism, diversity, and tolerance, God’s people need to take John’s admonition in this letter to heart. The clarity of the gospel message about Jesus cannot be blurred by compromise with our age. Instead, as the world plunges deeper into the chaos of rebellion against God, we must hold on tightly to the Word of Life. And by doing so, we can know we have eternal life.