“These things I wrote [or, write] to you that ye may know that ye that believe on the name of the Son of God have life eternal. And this is the boldness which we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he heareth us. And if we know that he heareth us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions which we have asked of him. If anyone see his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask, and he will give him life for those that sin not unto death. There is sin unto death: I do not say that he should request for it. Every unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not unto death.
“We know that everyone that is begotten of God sinneth not, but the begotten of God keepeth himself, and the wicked one toucheth him not. We know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in the wicked one. And we know that the Son of God came, and hath given to us understanding that we should know the true one; and we are in the true one, in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and life eternal. Dear children, keep yourselves from idols “
It is noticeable how the Spirit of God repeatedly presses on believers not only that they have eternal life, but that they know they have it. It would be possible, as it was the fact before Christ, to have eternal life without knowing it, and assuredly even now there are plain workings and effects of that life where its possession is unknown to not a few who have it. Nevertheless the lack of discerning a deleterious influence always exposes him who is ignorant of so great a privilege, not only to a great loss of happiness in his soul before God, but to the practical result of lowering his standard of walk. How can such a one without the peaceful certainty of having life eternal avoid anxiety when the conscience summons as it were the heart to search and see whether he is after all a Christian after so much failure in his ways, and having to do with the tempter continually seeking to draw him into dishonour of the Lord, and then to produce distrust of God’s grace?
Another reason why the Spirit of God so urgently and so repeatedly presses, not only the knowledge (
γιν.) but the conscious knowledge, as here (
εἰδ.), Of having life eternal, is that in and since the apostle’s day there have ever been adversaries of the truth who disputed the possibility of the knowledge of eternal life, so as to make it a very uncertain thing indeed. Such is the common road taken by unbelief in all ages, clouding certainty, often on the specious plea of our ignorance, unworthiness and liability to err, which is undeniably true enough. This however is not the question, but whether Christ has not fully and clearly revealed His gift of life eternal now to the believer. It is wholly false that this privilege is merely for certain favoured and highly spiritual members of God’s family. The New Testament reveals it as meant for all who believe on the Son of God to know it as theirs.
Now nothing can be more certain than that God’s love is toward every child of His family. Therefore is the word of God most ex licit that this privilege was meant to be inwardly known, enjoyed and exercised in personal communion, worship, and walk of every Christian, however immature; just as the other life, the flesh, always utterly hateful to God, is now more than ever, through Christ and the given Spirit of God, made hateful to the saint. Hence the Christian has to disown and set aside the fallen life, and to walk by faith according to the only perfect model of Christ in his new nature, called here and in the corresponding Gospel “eternal life.” It is the life of Christ, and now by grace “our life.”
The apostle John had as his allotted task to unfold, not so much the Saviour’s work of redemption — though he does speak of it, for heavenly glory, and God’s great future purpose for the universe, or His counsels — as the personal dignity and grace of Him whose glory gave its value to the life He imparts as well as to His work. God could righteously and according to all that is in Him have delight in those counsels that are yet to be accomplished. Consequently all ground for dwelling on either worthiness or unworthiness on our part is taken away. It is no longer a question of the first man, but entirely of the Second, Christ the Lord. Our ground is what Christ is and has wrought as given us of God. What do His person and work claim from God, who above all appreciates Him aright; and for whom? Not for Himself certainly, for He needed nothing, as being the Son one with the Father, the object of God’s love from all eternity. He came and gave up Himself to vindicate the glory and give effect to the perfect love of God as the answer to Satan’s lie, who having rebelled against God himself sought to bring man under God’s displeasure, and succeeded to all appearance. But His counsels could not fail, and God will surely accomplish them on the ground of redemption. For redemption was no after-thought, nor were God’s counsels formed because of failure in anything He had instituted. They are indeed made known to us who believe after man’s total failure here below. But as God’s love, so His counsels were before even creation, as the apostle Paul shows in Eph. 1:3-14, Col. 1:26, 2 Tim. 1:9, Titus 1:2.
John in particular was given to enter deeply into the nature of God, and consequently dwells much on the Lord’s eternal person as well as His incarnate condition, so as to stay the heart and raise the believer above the sad fact of the church externally departing to utter confusion, ruin, and the approaching judgment of God, who begins with His house. The still growing defection of Christendom is no reason why our confidence in Christ should be shaken or wane one iota. How then does the Spirit of God ever strengthen the heart? By pointing us to the eternal life with the Father before a creature existed and God came down, true Man in the person of the Lord Jesus, that eternal life might be our known portion not less really than in the day of glory. Of course it is now ours in Him by faith. But it is a strange doctrine that a “present” thing is not ours now by faith as truly as the “future” thing for which we wait (1 Cor. 3:22). Only the case is still stronger for life in Christ.
Words could not be clearer than the Lord’s in John 5:24, or the apostle’s in ver. 12 before us. We might acquire the knowledge (
γιν.) of what we expect to receive, but could not be inwardly conscious of what we do not actually possess. No Pelagian ever went so far as to deny that any Christian could have eternal life now, though he might explain away that eternal life. But to explode it altogether was reserved for a modern resuscitation of some Gnostic heterodoxy to which this Epistle gives no quarter. No orthodox sect ever adopted the deadly error.
But deadly error is now more rampant than ever; and infidelity knows no shame in our day. It would be difficult to mention a society of professing Christians having the reputation of being an ecclesiastical denomination, that has not scepticism as to the Scriptures at work more or less actively in it at the present moment. Even I can recollect when so fatal an evil was unknown save outside them. Nor had infidelity then covered their opposition to God’s authority in Scripture with the veil of “the science of literary and historical investigation.” They openly rejected His word, refused to sign articles of faith which asserted it, and renounced office and emoluments as the penalty. The present race relinquish common honesty and retain earthly honour and profit. Where will it all end? In the apostasy and the man of sin, as the ritualists in Satan’s mystery, great Babylon, the mother of the harlots and the abominations of the earth.
Let us now consider the concluding remarks of the apostle. “These things I wrote [or, I write, as the epistolary aorist] to you, that ye may know that ye who believe on the name of the Son of God have life eternal.” Grace found in us only sin and death: grace gives us the best God could bestow, and this by faith on the Lord Jesus His Son. And what so fitting or needed as life eternal, a divine nature that loves God and His Son and all that is good and holy; that hates sin and loves righteousness according to the perfect law of liberty, obeying God, not as a Jew under restraint but as our Lord did filially. And how ominous the school, who abandon their old convictions for novel and wild ideas, and say not only that you cannot know that you have life eternal, but that it cannot be for any now! Life eternal is the good ground indispensable. for what another apostle calls “good works which God fore-prepared that we should walk in them.” Far from leaving any excuse for the doubters or disbelievers, the apostle here, as from the first, says all that should establish in Christ against any misleaders. He had shown. the supreme excellence and fulness of that life in Christ as the object of faith and love for souls at the beginning; now, in the last chapter, he insists on the believer’s possession of it, and here in conscious knowledge. Is not this just as it should be? It is due to the Son; it is the delight of the Father; and it enhances the boon all the more to the believer. If it be the first gift of grace to souls heretofore, if it be that on which fellowship with the Father and with His Son depends, if it be that on and in which the Holy Spirit the Paraclete acts in power at every conscious moment of our Christian life, how immense the loss, how incalculable the mistake of all who imbibed the poison, and of all who for any pretext made light of it if they did not dissemble and try to excuse!
The reader has a close rendering of the best text ascertainable of what the apostle here wrote. As ver. 12 stands in the Text. Rec. and the A. V., it is deplorably confused and even misleading. Here it is as simple as it is important, so much so that there is no need to criticise what any Christian reader can do for himself by the bare comparison of the two. The Revisers give what is substantially correct.
Then comes another point of moment, confidence or boldness for the heart in our intercourse with God as His children. Without the consciousness of having life eternal, and the relationship of children, it would be impossible. No wonder that those who do not believe in either, as existing privileges now enjoyed, decry any such boldness as highly improper. How can they seriously read these words, and many more to the same effect, and fail to learn that God expects it from His children, and had such words as these written to encourage them in it, and to judge themselves for allowing any obstacle in its way? It is the main animating principle of Christian prayer. It ought to imbue our every petition. Not that where confident boldness is lacking anyone should suspend prayer. For we must not forget the Lord’s parable (Luke 18:1- 8) spoken to the disciples that they (not “men” in general as in the A.V.), should always pray and not faint. But a different entreaty is not the proper spirit for a Christian’s prayer. He ought earnestly to seek that such a dead weight be removed, and that holy boldness be given him. The very fact of having life divine and redemption, as well as the nearest possible relationship to God in the midst of a world of unbelief (which has no real part in any of these privileges, yet deceived into thinking their religious position assured corporately if not individually) creates a constant crowd of dangers, difficulties and wants for ourselves and our brethren. The resource is prayer, which God encourages, even if it be not always the prayer of faith, but too often of sheer perplexity. We should, if the eye were single, pray more freely in the Holy Spirit; but we may ever encourage ourselves in crying to Him as our Father, who loved us when there was nothing to love, and loves us now as His children arrayed with the best robe, even as Christians are here in this world. If we had been left to choose the strongest proofs of His love to us, could we have asked anything to compare with what His pledged word declares He has given us in Christ?
Let us then, abiding in love, abide in God, and God in us. This through His grace expels hindrances great or petty, and gives us to have boldness through the love that is unchanging in the midst of all change. God is pleased with this boldness in counting on His care for us in the midst of our trials, our weakness, our need, in the sorrow that sickness brings, in painful circumstances, in all the ways in which we are put to the proof from day to day. What then should be our feeling? Have we boldness of faith in our present intercourse with God and reckoning on Him through the grace that delivered us from death and sins, that give us life and the Holy Spirit? and are we trembling and doubtful in the little troubles of this life? Is not this unworthy, and a strange inconsistency? Let us, by faith bold about the best blessings, have no less boldness about these least things day by day. Doubt not that He who loves us enters into all allowed or sent to prove us. Here are the words: “And this is the boldness which we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He heareth us.” Surely we should be ashamed to ask anything against His will. His word lets us know what is His will, and what is not. But there is more: “And if we know that He heareth us, we know that we have the petitions which we asked of Him” (vers. 14, 19). Oh let us not doubt Him in these comparatively small trials, after having proved His infinite love in the deepest wants that can be! What a proof is 1 John 4 that in Christ is nothing too great for man, and in these verses of 1 John 5 that nothing is too small for God’s love. How easily we forget to act at the moment when it might be for His answer, and then calls come in when it cannot be! Prayer is due to our God, and a rich blessing to us and for others. But it is not as it should be without the boldness which honours God’s love to us.
Knowing that we are His children, and having life and redemption, let us judge every obstruction. In spite of sin and Satan we have even now these incomparable privileges, the harbingers of everlasting glory, and, better than all, we have the Son and the Father and the Holy Spirit. We are blessed with the Blesser. Those believers who defer this blessedness to the day of glory may be right as to that day, but are utterly wrong in excluding their proper joys till then. Now is the time when we need those blessings: they are wanted most in the evil day for God’s glory, and for His children too. When the day of glory comes there will be no need of exhortation to boldness in prayer, for all will be praise. There is urgent call for such prayer now in this world with its difficulties and perils; withal it is the day of the richest blessing for the Christian when we know that Christ is in the Father, we in Him, and He in us. It is therefore just the time for this practical boldness in asking God for anything and all things according to His will: aught else we dare not wish. And we know that He hears us. How wrong to doubt it! Has not God proved His perfect and constant love to us? He may see good to prove us by a hard trial. He may let a Christian (perhaps caring for money as he ought not) lose every half-penny in a world where every half-penny is useful. He may not know whence his breakfast is to come. But is he to doubt God after all he knows of His goodness and wisdom, as well as of his own folly? He is to ask Him to do as He will, assured that He hears him, and that we have the petitions which we have asked of Him.
I remember, perhaps a half-century ago, a godly ex-clergyman asked in the open street by a friend how he lived, and his family. His answer was that he could not well say how, yet they did live by God’s grace. Up came the postman with no words but a banknote, which he showed to the inquirer with the remark, “This may, perhaps, tell you how I live.” Our God is a living God, and answers faith as He sees fit, whatever the circumstances. Heavy trial is an honour to a Christian now as to Abraham of old. There may be those whom the Lord tries little, because they are weaklings in faith and cannot bear more. But he who is strong in the Lord is sure to be put to the proof, and for blessing. “He withdraweth not His eyes from the righteous.” But we are surrounded with need and misery and sorrow. We are not to be self-occupied with a lively sense of our own trials, and dull about others. We know others brought into the same relationship of grace suffering severely in one way or another. Am I not to ask of God as heartily as for myself, and to act as becomes a brother in Christ?
But bold confidence in God practically according to His love is for each and all. Accordingly we learn to distrust our own will, and ask only what we know is according to His. And with what result? “He heareth us.” Privileged, yea pressed, with confidence to ask of Him who loves and knows all, we are taught to count on His answer of grace. And if we know [it is knowledge, not objective but inward and conscious] that He hears us, whatever we ask we know [it is here the same inward knowledge] that we have the petitions which we have asked of Him. What could so much embolden the believer? It may not be our thought, but His answer in a wiser, deeper and more intimate way.
All is founded on the love of God, who gave Christ for us as sinners and to us as saints, with the Holy Spirit to make it good in our hearts and our ways. But if God encourages us to ask with boldness, we are constantly exposed to miss asking according to His will unless we grow in the knowledge of His word. Here lies the practical value of cultivating a deeper spiritual understanding of the Scriptures. The word of God He magnifies above all His name; so did the Lord and the apostles; and so should we. What a wretched return for His love, and the abundance of truth in Scripture, and the gift to us of the Spirit who inspired its writers, to look for little else than personal salvation, and consign ourselves to spiritual starvation, blind to revealed riches of grace without end!
In vers. 16, 17 the apostle touches on the delicate case where we may or may not do well to ask of God. “If anyone see his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask. and He will give him life for those that sin not unto death: there is sin unto death; not for that do I say that he should request. Every unrighteousness is sin; and there is sin not unto death.”
This passage often raises difficulties, because of preconceptions imported into it by such as forget the moral government that ever holds good for believers. It is the question discussed in the book of Job, where his three friends failed so conspicuously. The New Testament sets it out plainly: see, among others, John 15:1-10, 1 Cor. 11:27-32, Heb. 12:5-11, and 1 Peter 1:17. It is so here. It is no question of the second death, but of a saint cut off in this world for a sin of such a character, or in such circumstances, that God chastises it by death. It might be, as we see of old, the removal of saints previously in high honour, as Moses and Aaron who greatly displeased Jehovah in Kadesh (Num. 20), or its immediate execution, as on Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). But the principle is explained by the apostle to the Corinthian saints, many of whom not only were old and infirm, but a good many had fallen asleep. “But if we discerned ourselves, we should not be judged [as all these were judged in varying degrees]. But when judged, we are chastened by the Lord that we should not be condemned with the world.” This then was sinning unto death, the Lord’s chastening of erring saints, expressly that they should not be condemned to the second death as the world is.
Hence it would have been quite a mistake of the Lord’s mind to pray that a brother should have his life prolonged, when he had so sinned that the Lord meant him to die as a chastisement. The world, which does nothing but sin and refuse the Saviour, is reserved for that awful second death, the everlasting judgment. To bring this into these verses is nothing but confusion to the spiritual understanding. But in another way they mark the gracious way in which God deigns to keep our boldness unbroken and free, only guarding us from a mistake to which otherwise we were liable.
A lie is a great sin, particularly in a Christian. But it has too often been since early days without entailing death. The Spirit first given, and the great grace in all, and the marked power which prevailed gave a lie in that day its special evil in God’s sight. The hypocrisy and deliberate agreement of the pair too, each denying Peter’s solemn charge to each, so aggravated the case as to make it a marked sin unto death. For it was a lie made the more intolerable by the wondrous blessing which God was just giving in honour of His Son. How odious then in particular to pretend to a degree of devotedness that was utterly false! And so it was at Corinth: they were profaning the Lord’s Supper besides by their misconduct.
This recalls a striking case that occurred years ago within my own knowledge. A brother who appeared to be in strong bodily health was suddenly laid aside; and I went to see him. As a medical man, he was a better judge probably than others. But he calmly told me, not without gravity and feeling, that he was about to die. There was no appearance of disease, nor could he say what it was; but he was quite sure his last on earth was come, and he added: “I have sinned a sin unto death,” thereon disclosing to me what it was. He had no wish to live, neither praying nor asking me to pray for it. He bowed to the Lord’s chastening, only grieved that his sin called for it, and quite happy at departing to be with Him. And he did fall asleep. He owned the Lord’s righteous hand, and died without a cloud as to his acceptance.
This is a solemn way of the Lord, no doubt; but there is no reason for confining it to any particular age.
What then is the great difference? Not the enormity of the sin, but that the sin is committed under such circumstances as to make it egregious in the eye of God; and it just becomes a question for spiritual intelligence either in the man (the subject) himself who does not wish himself prayed for, with no desire to live whatever. In the case I mentioned he knew it was wrong to pray for him. I do not recollect any prayer made for him: indeed he died quickly. In ordinary cases it is the very thing we are called to do. Our affections go out towards a person who is ill. We love to think of them being here with us a little longer. We delight to know their Christian character, to hear of their faith tried in one way or another, and their patience under it; so that we need correction.
“There is sin unto death”: rather than “a sin.” “Every unrighteousness is sin.” Every act of inconsistency with our new relationship is sinful. We are now left here to do the will of God. But it is only when aggravated by special circumstances of affront to God in private or public that such an evil act becomes sin unto death. Ordinarily it is not so.
Vers. 18-21 form a conclusion worthy of the Epistle. In those early times, when some who at first seemed to run well proved their lack of faith and life by abandoning Christ for knowledge (
γνῶσις) falsely so-called, and ended in hostility to the Father and the Son, the apostle takes his place with the believers whom grace enables to say, “we know” (
οἴδαμεν). Theirs was inward knowledge, though first learnt from without. With those not, born of God it never became the inwrought consciousness of their spirit. But so it is with every child of God. They had neither value nor desire for that external knowledge which beguiles and enchants the natural man. They were simply Gnostics; and what is really a shame was their glory, fable and philosophy, which characterised not only the antichrists but early Fathers, such as Clemens of Alexandria and the like. But not so true disciples, who find in Christ, viewed either on the earth (or in the heavens where “the mystery” appears as in the Pauline Epistles) all the treasures once hidden of divine wisdom and knowledge. And in this pursuit they have the Holy Spirit guiding them into all the truth, the old but ever new, and always fresh as no earthly knowledge can be; for he only receives of Christ’s things and announces to us, as it is now in the written word.
“We know that every one that is begotten of God sinneth not, but the begotten of God keepeth himself, and the wicked one toucheth him not.” Here it is the divinely wrought conscious knowledge for every individual which is of immediate and deep concern for the Christian’s heart, that it be kept up bright in his soul. In form it is a general and abstract statement, and no more, however faith may enter in and apply it. There is a shade of difference in the expression of “begotten” in the first clause and the second, though they equally belong to the same person, the Christian. The first is the continued effect of being thus begotten, the second the simple fact without question of continuance. If sin was a slight matter to Gnostic eyes, ignored by them or accepted as an unpleasant necessity (for these men differed not a little among themselves), it was a grave thing to God’s children as it is to God. And it was alike a comfort and an admonition to be solemnly told that being begotten of God he does not sin, and the wicked one does not touch him. For God’s word is living and energetic, unlike every other word; and the Holy Spirit abides in each Christian to give it power. Communion and walk, service and worship, fill up the life here below.
“We know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in the wicked one (or, wickedness).” There is nothing indefinite here, no toning down of the absolute contrast firmly and unhesitatingly drawn between ourselves, as the family of God on the one hand, and the whole world on the other in its awful subjection to the wicked one. With the same inward consciousness the Christians knew that their new being had its source in God Himself, and that the whole world lay in the power of the wicked one. What more distinct on both sides? God the source of all on the one; subjection to Satan as complete on the other. It is not the church, opposed to and by Jews and Gentiles; but “we are of God” in our own consciousness, and the whole world unconsciously under the wicked one’s thraldom, as we too well know. This belongs to the new life to realise, appropriating by faith the known blessings to ourselves as is God’s will.
“And we know that the Son of God came and hath given us understanding that we should know the true one, and we are in the true one, in His Son Jesus Christ. This [or, He] is the true God, and life eternal.” The consciously known object of faith, as already come, is as momentous as the new nature, and its divine source; and here it is declared to be ours fully. We have here the same inward knowledge as before; “we know that the Son of God came,” in clear contrast with the Jews who look for another to come wholly inferior in every respect; and with the Gentiles, who not knowing God and worshipping demons are still more ignorant, if this may be said. But He, the Son of God, who gave being to all things, did in infinite love become man, to give not only life eternal to us but Himself in atoning death for our sins, as is testified elsewhere.
“‘Twas great to speak a world from nought,
‘Twas greater to redeem.”
But here it is said that He came to give us understanding to know the true One, the true God. For He alone was capable of being the perfect image of the invisible God in a world of darkness and shame and shadows, with invisible powers of evil behind them to give colour to falsehood and blind men against the truth. His is no idea so dear to deceivers, but a real divine person, life eternal as a living fact, on which is based the deep and high and holy truth which is known in Christ, of whom the church is the corporate and responsible witness-falling even then, and how much more since. But there is a resource for faith in the darkest day, and this Epistle has a large part in pointing it out more clearly and fully than ever, with divine authority in Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today and unto the ages, to the individual believer as in Himself.
Here this unchanging privilege is briefly but powerfully expressed: “And we are in the true One, in His Son Jesus Christ.” Thus it is explained that the manner for us to be in the unfailing security of the true God is by being in His Son; and this we know from His own words in John 14:20: “In that day ye shall know that I am in my Father and ye in me and I in you” — not only to be in Him, but to know this and all else here stated. “That day” is now this day. Now could more be done than to give us divine nature in Christ, and give us to abide in God by His Spirit abiding in us? and it is all the more striking, because those who go on, content or not content with worldly Christendom, never seem to have even the notion that these wondrous privileges are meant for every child of God to realise and live. How full of meaning and blessedness are the closing words of this paragraph! “This [Jesus Christ His Son] is the true God and life eternal.” He, of whom we are and in whom we are, is the true One, as against all false gods, or the falsehood of not having God; but as a fact He is unknown save in His Son Jesus Christ, for through Him only will He be known, who gave up all to accomplish it and fit us, through His nature given, to be in Him. He is the true God; and He is also eternal life, without which, given to us, we could know neither the Father nor Him whom He sent. In Christ risen we have the full character of that life for our souls now; in our resurrection or change at His coming we shall have it for our bodies.
Along with the truth and the grace thus impressively presented is a short and solemn warning: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” Every object outside Christ, that man’s heart sets up and cleaves to, Satan makes into an idol. They may not be for the present gold or silver, or stone or wood, but of a subtler nature. Yet the day hastens when the mass of the Jews, little as they deem it possible, will return to their old sin; and so will Christendom, even where they have boasted of their Protestantism, and of their invincible hatred of Romish idolatry. They will even amalgamate in the coming apostasy, and as both will adore the Man of Sin, the Antichrist when he sits down in the temple of God showing himself as God, so be hurled to perdition with his great political ally the Roman Beast of that day. The Lord is at hand.