Our Father Hears Us!

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By John Piper About Prayer
Part of the series Let Us Walk in the Light: 1 John

1 John 5:14-17

And this is the confidence which we have in 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 obtained the requests made of him. If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.

Certainty is a rare thing in our day. You can hop on an airplane in Athens confident you will end up in Rome, and the next thing you know you are in Beirut, or is it Algeria?

Even for Christians there are many things that are uncertain. It is true that we know Who holds our future, but we do not know what the future holds. There are many question marks. Will I marry? Will social security collapse? Will I get laid off? Will I need to move into the nursing home and give up my house? Will our child which is about to be born be healthy? When will I die?

One Great Certainty

In last week's message we learned that with all of life's uncertainties there is one Great Certainty which is ours in Jesus Christ. In 1 John 5:13 we read, "I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life." If you are a true believer in Jesus Christ, you can know for certain that if you died tonight, you would go to be in the presence of the Lord forever. Before I was converted I thought a lot about heaven and hell and where I would end up. My thinking process went like this: "I'm a pretty borderline person—kind of 50/50. But if I'm that close to tipping the scales toward being better than I am bad, I'll probably make it into heaven. Hell is such an awful place, one must need to be really bad before God would send someone there. Hitler—of course, Bonnie and Clyde—maybe, but Joe Average—I doubt it." Since I was Joe Average, I thought I would make it.

A Humble Certainty

This kind of thinking is far from the humble certainty that the apostle John is writing about. He wants the Joe Averages who think that the ticket to heaven is a mediocre life where the good deeds perhaps outnumber the bad deeds—he wants these people to tremble in their boots, to repent of their sins, and to put their trust not in themselves or in the balance of their good works, but in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. But John does want those who are true believers in Jesus, who evidence their faith by practical love, he wants these people to understand with their mind and to know in their heart that they possess eternal life; that when they die, they will be ushered immediately into the presence of the Lord. But he wants them to be certain of much more than that. Eternal life consists not merely in knowing where we we'll go after we die. Listen to how Jesus defines eternal life: "This is eternal life, that they may know thee, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." Eternal life is not just knowing some facts about our future, as precious as those facts may be. Eternal life consists in knowing God. It consists in possessing an intimate personal relationship with the Creator and Redeemer of the world.

Other Certainties Flow Out of the Great Certainty

Eternal life is the great certainty for all who obey Jesus. And it is for the sake of this certainty that John wrote this letter which we have been studying since January and which we will conclude next Sunday. "These things I have written that you might know that you have eternal life." So it is no surprise as John closes his letter that he drives home for us the certainty which we have in Jesus Christ. The phrase "we know" occurs six times in the last nine verses of 1 John. In other words, there are many certainties that flow out of the one great certainty of knowing that we have eternal life.

Being Certain of an Intimate Relationship with God

Today we will focus on the certainty found in vv. 14–17. The certainty of this morning's message is this: "Our father hears us when we pray."

To be certain of eternal life means to be certain of an intimate personal relationship with the Father. And if we have a personal relationship with the Father, then we know that he hears us when we pray according to his will.

Two Parts to Today's Passage

Verses 14–17 divide into two parts. Each part contains a wonderful truth and each part contains a thorny theological problem. The truth in verses 14 and 15 is that God loves to answer our prayers. The theological problem is, how do we know if we are praying according to the will of God? In verses 16 and 17 the truth is that praying for others has eternal significance. The theological problem centers around the phrase "mortal sin."

1. Verses 14 and 15

Let's look at verses 14 and 15.

God Loves to Give Us What We Pray For

God loves to give us what we pray for. "And this is the confidence which we have in 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 obtained the requests made of him." The clear implication of v. 15 is that God loves to answer our prayers. God is a cheerful giver when it comes to answering prayer. John says that if we know that he hears us, then we know we have the answer.

God Is Like Eric Liddell

God is like Eric Liddell, the great Olympic runner of Chariots of Fire, with his feet planted waiting the gun. Our prayers are the gun. When the gun goes off, Eric Liddell explodes from the starting line. When God hears our prayers, he explodes into action. And our happiness in him is his prize at the end of the race.

God Is Like a Kindly Grandfather

Or let me say it another way. God is like a kindly grandfather with wax in his ears. Now this is a very limited analogy. Listen to the scenario. A little girl comes up to her grandfather who is sitting in his chair looking at the birds through the picture window. The little girl is carrying a box of band-aids and her knee is scratched. She says to her grandfather, "Gramps, will you put a band-aid on my knee?" Grandpa keeps watching the birds eating at the birdfeeder and after no response the little girl runs to Grandma in the next room brokenhearted because Grandpa wouldn't help her. Grandma kind of smiled because she knew Gramps had a heart of gold, and loved his little granddaughter, and would even die for her. Grandma knew that the problem was that Gramps has wax in his ears. She knew that all Gramps had to do was hear his little granddaughter's voice and his eyes would twinkle and he would do whatever the little girl asked—provided he was convinced that it was best for her. So she sends the granddaughter back to him, saying, "Make sure he hears you. If he hears you, I know he will fix your knee." So the granddaughter goes back. She makes her request directly into his ear. Grandpa's eyes twinkle, the corners of his mouth turn into a beautiful smile, he takes his little granddaughter into his lap and tenderly bandages her knee.

Well, God is not hard of hearing. He has no wax in his ears. But he is the prototype of the grandfather's kind and benevolent heart. If we know that God hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the request.

God Eagerly Awaits to Answer Prayer

Jesus paints the same picture in Mt. 6:31 where he tells the disciples not to fret about food and drink and clothing. Why? "For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things." If God knows your need; if he hears your prayer, he is of such an eager disposition to do good for you that the need is as good as met and the prayer is as good as answered. God is like a thoroughbred at the Kentucky Derby, champing at the bit, fidgeting, waiting for the gate to open. He has ordained that our prayers be the gate-opener. Or God is like the father with the prodigal son, who when he sees his long-lost son far off in the distance, he just can't wait, so he runs out to meet him and gives him a bear hug. It's as though God were on his tip-toes in anticipation of doing us good. Our heavenly Father is sitting on the edge of his throne of grace eager to hear our prayers and do us good. 2 Chronicles 16:9 shows this same anticipation on God's part. "The eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that he may strongly support those whose heart is completely his." Our prayers are like smoke signals spelling out, "SOS." God loves to answer the cry for help.

The Problem of Unanswered Prayer

But now we need to at least raise the theological problem contained in this passage. Why is it that our experience does not always detect the reality of God's eagerness to answer prayer? We have all asked for specific things which have not been granted. Why?

Well, Scripture doesn't speak a lot to the problem of unanswered prayer, though it does give us a few clues. 1 Peter 3:7 teaches that strained interpersonal relationships, especially between husband and wife, hinder prayer; James 4:3 teaches that prayers aimed at merely enhancing our own private pleasure will go unheard; and several weeks ago we saw that in 1 John 3:22 it is implied that if we disobey God's commandments, our prayers won't be answered. And in our passage this morning in 5:14 there is an all-important qualifier attached to our prayers. "If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us." Well, tonight I am planning to give a brief meditation concerning praying according to the will of God. This can be a troubling qualification, especially when so many things that we need to pray about aren't specifically addressed in Scripture. I hope you can come back tonight.

2. Verses 16 and 17

Let's move on now to the second part of this morning's passage. Verses 16 and 17: "If anyone sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal."

Verses 14 and 15 dealt with prayer in general; verses 16 and 17 deal with a specific kind of prayer: intercession. Intercession is a technical word meaning "prayer for others." But before we zero in on the glorious privilege of intercession, we need to grapple with the glaring theological problem. Of course this problem centers around the term "mortal sin."

Two Questions About Mortal Sin

We need to raise a couple of questions:

  1. What is mortal sin?
  2. Can a Christian commit mortal sin?
1. What Is Mortal Sin?

First of all, what is mortal sin? This is a tough question. But if you would have asked me in first grade when I was six years old, I could have told you the answer with great confidence. Because our religion teacher in first grade taught us the difference between mortal sin and venial sin. Mortal sins were the big ones—sins like murder, adultery (whatever that was), missing church on a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation without being sick, eating meat on Friday, or stealing something big. Every other sin was a venial sin. Like when I borrowed Lori Dressen's plastic pencil sharpener for a couple months without asking, it was just a venial sin. We were taught that one unconfessed mortal sin would wind us up in hell, whereas a million venial sins would not send us to hell, though they may lengthen our stay in Purgatory.

Now, I'm not sure how many bishops of the Catholic Church today would teach this the same way my first grade teacher did. And by saying this I don't mean to make light of my first grade teacher. God used her in a remarkable way to help me take at least some sins very seriously. I'm grateful for that. But the point here is to illustrate one of the common ways the term "mortal sin" is defined, namely, as a specific serious sin.

Not Some Specific Serious Sin

I am convinced that John did not intend his readers to think in terms of specific sins when he used the term mortal sin. I say this for at least a couple reasons. Taken in light of the context of the whole Bible, I cannot find one instance where God refused to forgive a truly repentant person, no matter how serious his sin was. The two classic examples are David, who not only committed adultery with Bathsheba, but murdered her righteous husband to cover up the affair. This was a far more scandalous cover-up than Watergate. And the second example is Peter, who denied Jesus not one, not two times, but three times. Both of these men were totally forgiven by God when they repented.

But the clinching argument for me that John is not referring to a specific unforgivable sin is found earlier in the letter. But before we turn there, let's read verse 17 so we can see the connection. "All wrongdoing is sin," or more literally, "all unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin which is not mortal." Now turn to that familiar verse in 1:9. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." According to this verse, there is no sin, no unrighteousness which God will not forgive if it is confessed with heartfelt repentance.

That is great news if any of you think you may have committed some unforgivable sin. No sin is unforgivable if it is repented of. To be sure, Jesus speaks of the blasphemy of the Spirit as a sin that will never be forgiven—but that is because he knows that any one who scorns and resists the Holy Spirit long enough will put themselves beyond repentance. These people become like Esau in Hebrews 12:17 who "found no place for repentance though he sought for it with tears." The good news is that any sin you repent of will be totally forgiven by God.

Persistent Disregard for God's Command

So if "mortal sin" is not some specific sin, what is it? The NASB gives us a more literal translation of the phrase "mortal sin" when it uses the words "sin unto death." The only other place in 1 John where sin and death are linked up together is in 3:14, "We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brethren. He who does not love remains in death." This doesn't mean that one unloving act consigns you to eternal death. For we know that "if we confess our sins, God will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." What I think John means by mortal sin, at least in part, is the persistent, unconfessed sin of disobeying Jesus' command to love one another. The other part of what John means is found in 2:22. "Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Son and the Father." Again, it's not one denial of Jesus that locks one into eternal death, for God is faithful to cleanse from all unrighteousness anyone who truly confesses. But apparently there is a type of persistent denying of Jesus which causes John to identify such a one as an antichrist.

So my understanding of what John means by mortal sin or the sin unto death is simply persistent unconfessed disobedience to the twofold command of 3:23. This is the summary command of the whole letter—and I would suggest—the whole Bible. "This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another." Mortal sin is the persistent disregard of this command.

2. Can a Christian Commit Mortal Sin?

The next question we must ask is this: Can a Christian commit mortal sin? It depends on what we mean by "Christian." If we mean a true Christian, one who has been born again, the answer has to be no. For verse 18 says, "We know that no one who is born of God sins. For he who was born of God (Jesus) keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him." Now we know that John doesn't mean that Christians never sin because in v. 17 he just got done saying that "there is sin which is not mortal." Instead, doesn't he mean that "No one who is born of God commits mortal sin"? A true Christian will not persist in unloving acts. A true Christian will not persist in unbelief. He or she may lapse temporarily into hard-heartedness. But the mark of a true Christian is that they will repent, confess their sin, and be restored.

What about those who seemed to be Christian, shared their testimony, joined the church, served on the board, but then fell into persistent, unrepentant sin? John tells us in 2:19, "They went out from us; but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us."

Sin is serious business. Failing to trust God and refusing to love one another is serious business. How can we help each other continue in faith and love? How can we help a brother or sister who is stumbling?

The Glorious Privilege of Intercession

The answer to this question leads us to the glorious truth in verse 16 that intercession for the spiritual welfare of a brother or sister has eternal significance. "If anyone sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is not mortal. I do not say that one is to pray for that."

When Not to Pray

First of all, a comment on when not to pray. Apparently there comes a point when the energy we are spending praying for someone who is persisting in sin should be redirected to another person. Just when that point comes, John does not make specific. The only thing I can think to say is that the Spirit will guide us. Right now I am praying for a friend who grew up in a Christian home, professed Christ as his Savior, got involved in ministry, but is now repudiating his faith and is actively pursuing the lust of the eyes and the lust of the flesh and the boastful pride of life. I don't know if this is temporary or not. I am still hopeful that it is temporary and so I am interceding for him. There may come a time, however, when the Spirit will direct me to use that energy in praying for someone else. Until then I will continue to pray for him. And I am spurred on for two reasons. First, he is in deep spiritual danger. If his life does not turn around, he will give evidence that the profession of faith he made when he was younger was a sham. The longer he persists, the greater his spiritual danger.

Second, I am spurred on to pray because of the glorious promise in verse 16 that God will give life to him in answer to my prayers. Intercession is not trivial; it is used by God to turn people around.

An Admonition to Regular and Expectant Prayer

I want to close this morning with an admonition to all of us to become more regular and more expectant in prayer; and to urge all of us to become more sensitive to the spiritual welfare of the brothers and sisters around us. Let us be diligent in interceding for each other's spiritual and emotional and physical well-being. God has much he wants to accomplish through us in answer to prayer. I can't help but feel we are on the verge of a new breakthrough in power and fruitfulness at Bethlehem. And it will come through a new surge in prayer.

And in honor of Father's Day, one final admonition directed to those of us who are fathers, myself included. Let us, together with our wives, labor in prayer for our children. Paul said, concerning his spiritual children in Galatians 4:19, "My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you . . . " There is nothing more important than Christ being formed in our children. Our prayer lives need to reflect this priority. And God doesn't want dutiful, joyless prayers; he wants us to realize the eternal significance of every minute we spend in prayer for our children.

Take Job, for example. Scripture says he was an upright man and Job "would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of his children; for Job said 'Perhaps my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.' Thus Job did continually."

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