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Few questions vex faithful believers as much as that of petitionary prayer, especially in view of the extravagant promises in the New Testament that those who ask, receive--whatever they may ask. These promises are always understood to be qualified--one must ask with faith, or one must ask with the qualifier "nevertheless, thy will be done," as Jesus did in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. As C. S. Lewis comments, "[This reservation] makes an enormous difference. But the difference which it precisely does not make is that of removing the prayer's petitionary character" (1963:36). And yet the qualifier "not what I want, but what you want" (Mk 14:36 NRSV) is crucial, for it shows us that authentic prayer is the submission of the person to God. As one commentator perceptively notes, "Prayer is not a battle, but a response; its power consists in lifting our wills to God, not in trying to bring his will down to us" (Smalley 1984:295).
The passage before us promises believers that if we ask anything according to [God's] will, he hears us. It also seems, however, to promise that whatever we ask we are granted. The boldness spoken of here is not brashness to challenge the will of God, but the confidence that God's will is done, and that in part it is effected through the prayers of faithful Christians. We turn, then, to this passage both to discern what that will of God is of which John speaks, as well as to inquire what it is that we can pray for with such hope and confidence.
In these closing sentences, the Elder is ready to summarize the heart of his concern and his letter, and he does so by assuring his readers that they have eternal life. His primary purpose in writing has been to offer pastoral encouragement, to instill confidence and hope by reminding his readers of the fellowship with God and with each other that they now enjoy. He has comforted them with the thought that, despite the defection of some members of the community, his readers can be assured of inheriting eternal life. Therefore, he urges them to stand fast and to remain loyal in their commitment to God.
The commitment that the Elder entreats them to hold is to believe in the name of the Son of God. In trusting themselves to the Son of God, they are granted eternal life as well as the confidence of having that life. To have eternal life is to have fellowship with God (1 Jn 1:2-3; Jn 17:3). "Eternal" means more than "everlasting." As Barclay points out, a life that lasted forever could be an intolerable curse, depending on the quality of that life (1976:113). But eternal life is a blessing and a joy because it is the life of God. Indeed, that is what the adjective "eternal" connotes. Only God enjoys eternal life, but in fellowship with God we share in the life of God. That is what God has given to us in the Son.
Because our fellowship with God is personal and intimate, like the relationship between a loving parent and child, those who have eternal life also have assurance in approaching God (or confidence . . . in approaching God; compare 2:28; 3:19-23; 4:17). Here the confidence in view is the confidence to come to God in prayer (3:21-23). But we are not merely told that we may approach God with confidence, but that we have confidence because we know that God hears us. To say that God "hears" prayer means more than that God acknowledges that we have prayed. "Hearing" implies that there is a response, and that the response is favorable. "Hearing" refers to the communication of those who are on intimate and familiar terms with each other (see Jn 5:30; 8:26, 40; 9:31; 11:22; 15:15). Thus in the Gospel of John, Jesus is confident that God always hears him (11:41-42). The promise that God hears us is the assurance that God listens to us favorably and grants us our requests, whatever we ask.
There are, however, some qualifications. It is assumed that our prayers will be made according to [God's] will. As noted above, this was the qualification of the prayer of Jesus, whose will was always one with that of the Father (Jn 4:34; 5:30), who himself did the will of God in com pleting the work that brings eternal life (6:38-40) and whose unity with God was manifested in God's "listening" to him (compare 9:30-33; 11:41-42; 12:27-30). That God heard the prayers of Jesus is taken as evidence that Jesus was intimately related to God and that his purpose and mission were at one with the will of God.
There are not many instances in which Jesus is actually shown at prayer in the Gospel of John. Two of them, however, show how Jesus provides the paradigm of prayer for the Christian community. He prays at the tomb of Lazarus for the dead man to return to life, confident that God always hears him (11:41). He prays for his "own," for faithful be lievers, that they may be protected "from the evil one" (17:15). And in 1 John 2:1, Jesus is referred to as our paraclete, the "one who speaks to the Father in our defense" (see the discussion on 2:1), which refers to his intercessory role on behalf of Christians who sin and confess that sin. Jesus prays for life for his followers--a restoration of life to Lazarus, perseverance for the faithful (Jn 17:15) and forgiveness of sin (1 Jn 2:1), so that they may continue to have life.
By analogy, just as God heard Jesus' prayers because of his obedience and unity with God, so God hears the prayers of the faithful, for they belong to God. But in the context of our passage, one specific kind of request is heard, and that is the petition on behalf of a member of the community who has sinned. The threat to the possession of eternal life is sin (compare v. 16, sin that leads to death, and v. 17). Even as Jesus prayed for the perseverance of his followers and continues to intercede for forgiveness, so too is the community charged with the role of in terceding for those who confess their sin. God will answer these prayers, and the sinner will be forgiven and kept safe in eternal life (v. 18). Thus the general statements about prayer in verses 14-15 provide the rationale and basis for the particular requests in verses 16-17. The prayer for life for another believer who is committing a sin that does not lead to death (v. 16) is not simply one example of the kind of petition God hears; it is precisely the prayer that God hears, even as God answered Jesus' prayers that his followers be given life. For it is the heart of God's will to grant life to those who believe.
As a parenthetical aside, John adds the note, There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. This statement implies that there are situations in which one is prohibited from praying, a prohibition that seems difficult to comprehend. But it actually fits well with John's under standing of judgment and with the specific kind of prayer to which he is referring, as we shall see.
First, John draws a distinction in this passage between "sin unto death" and "sin not unto death." This seems, at first glance, to suggest that some sins are more serious than others, that in fact they are so severe that they cannot be forgiven but rather lead one into eternal death. According to 5:16, one may see a fellow Christian commit a sin that does not lead to death. But the passage does not explicitly say that it is a fellow believer committing the sin that does lead to death. Indeed, by definition this seems impossible in the Johannine epistles and particularly in the present context. Sin unto death is sin that carries a person into death's clutches, into the grip of the evil one (v. 19). And a child of God does not sin in that way, because one who is truly born of God will rather manifest that in confession of sin and dependence for forgiveness upon the atoning work of Christ. But "sin unto death" is already evidence that one lives in the realm of death, in the world, under the control of the evil one, and not in the sphere of life and righteousness granted by God to those who trust in Christ's work on their behalf.
The distinction between kinds of sin is not, therefore, a ranking of the seriousness of sins that believers commit. Instead, we have here an implicit distinction between kinds of sinners and sinning. "Sinning not unto death" is, paradoxically, sin in the realm of life, committed by one who has eternal life. Some of the epistle's statements (3:4-10; 5:18) could be taken to mean that sinning is evidence that one does not have life. Yet when sins are dealt with in accordance with God's plan to forgive sins--through the prayer for forgiveness and the "atoning sacrifice" of Jesus Christ (1:9; 2:2)--God hears the prayer of one believer for another and so forgives the repentant sinner. The sinner remains in the realm of life. Yet in no way is John sanctioning cheap grace or a licentious lifestyle, for all wrongdoing is sin. Indeed, this is why the sins of all-- even those who believe in the name of the Son of God and have eternal life--must be confessed and forgiven. But where there is no confession, there is "sinning unto death," sin committed in the realm of death, sin that comes from and leads to death for the one who is guilty of it.
But how does one "see" (5:16) another Christian committing a sin? Does this mean that it is a public or visible sin? Is the Elder referring only to kinds of sins that one can witness, such as actions, rather than thoughts? As is typical of the Johannine literature, "seeing" probably means "perceiving" or "understanding." If one has perceived--and John does not explain how one "perceives" this--that a fellow Christian is sinning, the proper response is to pray for that person. Presumably, that person has also repented and asked for forgiveness, for if the person who is sinning and is to be prayed for is indeed a brother or sister, a fellow Christian, then on John's view they would also be characterized by con fession of sin and petition for pardon. Those who do not acknowledge their sins to God are not children of God.
And this gives us a clue why John prohibits prayers for those "whose sin is unto death" (5:16). This prohibition initially seems both hard-hearted and wrong-headed: surely these are precisely the people who most need prayer! The crucial question here is, For what is one forbid den to ask? Verse 16 implies that one asks for life for the brother or sister who sins, just as Jesus asks for the life of Lazarus (Jn 11:41-43) and for forgiveness for the repentant sinner (1 Jn 2:1). Here, one asks for the confessing sinner to be held steadfast in eternal life (compare 5:18; Jn 17:11-15). Such a prayer can be made because this person (a) continues to be a faithful member of the community ("brother" or "sister"), which implies (b) that this person holds the Johannine confession of Christ and (c) acknowledges the sin to God (1:8--2:2). They have life, and prayer is made that they continue to receive life.
What one may not ask for with respect to those whose "sin is unto death" is that they be given life apart from their repentance, confession and returning to following Christ. Prohibition of prayer in the Old Tes tament and Jewish literature roughly contemporaneous with 1 John is a sign of God's judgment on unrepentant sinners (compare Jer 7:16-17; 11:14-15). One can pray that unbelievers may repent and come to fel lowship with God. But if God were to forgive them as they persist in their sin, that would not be forgiveness: it would be denial of human sinful ness which, in the Elder's view, is an abhorrent lie.
This passage then reflects the other side of John's belief that eternal life is received now: if there is life for believers even now, there is also judgment for unbelievers (Jn 3:16-17). And if the community serves as a vehicle for administering God's life to its members, then it also func tions to pronounce judgment. That the Johannine community under stood itself to function in just this way is suggested by the words with which the risen Jesus commissioned his disciples: "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. . . . If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven" (Jn 20:21, 23). In any case, the primary will of God is to bring people to life (Jn 3:16), and this is the will of God that Jesus lives out. So too, our wills and purposes are to be one with God in this commission, to be agents of bringing God's forgiveness and eternal life to others. Needless to say, this commission can only be carried out with great humility, with the full recognition that the God who extends forgiveness through the church is a God who is "faithful and just and will forgive us our sins" (1 Jn 1:9), and with caution and pastoral discernment in situations that might be covered by the admonitions here.