Commentary on 1 John 5:13-21

Notes (NET Translation)

13 I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

The phrase “these things” may refer to what was just written in ch. 5 (Derickson, Strecker) or to the entire epistle (Akin, Brown). Here we have a purpose of the letter (not the sole purpose, see 1:4; 2:1). Compare it with the purpose of the Gospel of John: “But these are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31). The assurance of the readers may have been shaken by the separatists. The author reminds them that they have eternal life even now.

Putting together the purposes of Gospel and letter, John’s purpose is in four stages, namely that his readers may hear, hearing may believe, believing may live, and living may know. His emphasis is important because it is common today to dismiss any claim to assurance of salvation as presumptuous, and to affirm that no certainty is possible on this side of death. But certainty and humility do not exclude one another. If God’s revealed purpose is not only that we should hear, believe and live, but also that we should know, presumptuousness lies in doubting his word, not in trusting it.1

14 And this is the confidence that we have before him: that whenever we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.

Believers can have confidence or assurance in approaching God in prayer. In 3:22 answered prayer is conditioned on keeping God’s commandments, here it is conditioned on asking in accordance with God’s will. Being according to Christ’s will is also what is meant by praying “in the name” of the Son (Jn 14:13-14; 15:7, 16; 16:23-26).

Prayer is not a convenient device for imposing our will upon God, or for bending his will to ours, but the prescribed way of subordinating our will to his. It is by prayer that we seek God’s will, embrace it and align ourselves with it. Every true prayer is a variation on the theme ‘your will be done’. Our Master taught us to say this in the pattern prayer he gave us, and added the supreme example of it in Gethsemane.2

Believers are free to pray whatever they wish as servants of Christ, but the requests that they can be confident God will comply with are those that lay hold of his intentions and plans. It is God’s will (τὸ θέλημα αὐτοῦ, to thelēma autou), not the believer’s whim, that is the cardinal criterion of prayer that God honors. No Christian “can pray against God’s will” (Schlatter 1950: 107). This is hardly a restriction on prayer, for there is an infinity of needs and opportunities to pray and work for under God’s direction. It is admittedly a challenge to views of human freedom that vest in human will an ultimate autonomy from God and vest in God an ultimate dependence on humans.3

Given the next verse, the assurance that God “hears us” should be taken to mean he answers our prayers.

15 And if we know that he hears us in regard to whatever we ask, then we know that we have the requests that we have asked from him.

As v. 14 states, not just any prayer will automatically be answered by God.

The present tense “we have” (echomen), and not the future (“we will have”), indicates that God grants our requests immediately, even though his answer may not be immediately revealed. As Plummer notes, “Our petitions are granted at once: the results of the granting are perceived in the future.”4

Robert Yarbrough makes a long, but interesting, argument for the meaning of v. 15.

This [all prayers will be answered by God] is unlikely given several examples from salvation history in which prayer, even from the most godly, is hardly represented as a surefire means of securing God’s favorable intervention. Moses prayed for rebellious people’s sins to be forgiven, but God refused (Exod. 32:31-35). He turned down Moses’s request to cross the Jordan (Deut. 3:23-27). Prayers offered under certain auspices are detestable (Prov. 28:9; cf. 15:8, 29) and obviously not granted. God ignores presumptuous prayers when they are lifted up with unclean hands (Isa. 1:15). There are times when God’s people cry out and he refuses to answer (Mic. 3:4; Jer. 11:11). Divine wisdom even laughs at their calamity when they cry out to him (Prov. 1:26, 28). However adamantly they may affirm the knowledge that God answers prayers, prophets also remind God’s people of the possibility that “your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” them (Isa. 59:2 NIV).

And it is not only transgressions that hinder answers to prayer: sometimes God has higher aims in mind than the petitioner may wish to accept. Jeremiah was told not even to bother praying; there was no use in wasting his breath (Jer. 7:16; 11:14; 14:11). Other passages in Amos and Ezekiel attest to what Tiemeyer (2006: 191) calls “divine restriction on intercession.” Paul’s thorn in the flesh could not be removed (2 Cor. 12:7-9), nor could Jesus’s cross (Matt. 26:39 and parallels; cf. Heb. 5:7-8), despite repeated prayers by each. In incarnate form the Son of God made it clear that neither he nor the Father was at the beck and call of whimsical or selfish supplicants and their requests (Mark 10:35-40; Luke 9:54-55; John 21:21-22). Paul prayed ardently for the salvation of his fellow Jews (Rom. 10:1), but the return seems to have been meager (cf. 1 Thess. 2:14-16; Col. 4:7).

Despite the attraction of verses that, taken out of context, may be thought to set very few bounds to “believing prayer” (e.g., Matt. 21:22 and parallels), the weight of biblical testimony is that prayer is not a means of wresting concessions from God that he previously had no thought of granting (supporters of open theism would of course see the matter differently). Jesus’s promise that “if you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13) needs to be unpacked frankly in the light of important contextual qualifications: (1) he speaks to the Eleven in the upper room, a group to whom he made other assurances that night that we would hardly apply undiluted to ourselves and whose specific mission as apostles none of us shares (14:26, 29; 15:16, 27; 16:2, 4); (2) he makes a parallel statement in 15:7 that qualifies 14:13, with the result that those who do not abide in Christ and in whom Christ’s words do not abide cannot expect their petitions to be granted; (3) he says in 14:13, “if you ask me anything in my name” (emphasis added), a reminder of both the identity and the authority, or commission, that the Son bears, both of which serve to define what apostolic petitioners would be free to expect him to grant.

These considerations suggest a second interpretation of John’s statement in 1 John 5:15. John may understand prayer not primarily as communicating in order to acquire petitions or to somehow force God’s hand but as communing with God. “God’s simple hearing of our requests . . . is tantamount to receiving a favorable answer” (Sloyan 1995: 56-57). The loftiest attainment of errant mortals petitioning before the heavenly throne is not to gain God’s compliance but to be fully assured of his listening ear — whatever external results our prayers do or do not precipitate from God’s side. “If we know that he hears us, whatever we request,” it is enough. The highest divine response to the petitioner is not to put human prayer in the driver’s seat of destiny but to assure the one who prays that all requests are duly considered and acted on so as to maximize the coming of God’s kingdom and the fulfillment of his will — the attitudinal common denominator that Jesus taught should characterize all his disciples’ prayer.

Therefore, when John writes that “we know that we have the requests that we requested from him,” he is affirming that to know that God hears, to trust that he always acts in a wise and timely fashion, and to commune prayerfully with him in that settled assurance is in itself the deepest gratification of those who have eternal life in his Son (cf. 5:11). Proof of Moses’s high esteem in God’s sight lay in his “face-to-face” interchange with God, not his ability to direct God’s ways with his prayers (Exod. 33:11; cf. Num. 12:8; Deut. 34:10). Jesus’s Gethsemane request for the cup to be removed was not granted, but far from diminishing his sense of the Father’s closeness, it intensified it (as implied, e.g., by John 17). Paul’s eschatological vision of believers coram deo is not God’s unlimited “yes” to human petitions but seeing God “face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). John has already placed a high value on precisely this level of intimacy at the parousia (1 John 3:2), in which believers (including, presumably, their wills) are transformed in a godly direction, not God in the direction of humans. John does not present prayer as essentially convincing God what, in our estimation, he had best do.5

16 If anyone sees his fellow Christian committing a sin not resulting in death, he should ask, and God will grant life to the person who commits a sin not resulting in death. There is a sin resulting in death. I do not say that he should ask about that.

Some scholars say the author is not commanding Christians to pray for sinful brothers and sisters, he is speaking as if it is inevitable that Christians will pray for sinful brothers and sisters (Akin, Stott). Other scholars see the author prescribing what Christians should do (Derickson, Strecker, Yarbrough).

The meaning of vv. 16-17 is hotly debated. Is the “brother” a fellow Christian or a non-Christian? What kind of death, physical or spiritual, is in mind? What sin is being spoken of? Why is the author hesitant in praying about the sin resulting in death?

Normally in 1 John a “brother” is a fellow Christian (hence the NET translation), but John Stott argues that in this verse the “brother” cannot be a Christian. He says, since the prayer will grant life to the person who commits sin not resulting in death, this person is dead before the prayer is offered. But Christians already have eternal life (1:5-6; 2:1-2; 3:14; 5:12) and so would have no need to be granted life again. Stott concludes that both the person whose sin results in death and the person whose sin does not result in death are not Christians. He points to 2:9-11 where the term “brother” is not used strictly to refer to (true) Christians. As best I can tell, Stott understands the sin resulting in death to refer to blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. If I’m correct on this point, he interprets the author as saying it is advisable Christians pray for non-Christian sinners who do not blasphemy the Holy Spirit. The author does not advise praying for those who blasphemy the Holy Spirit (although he does not forbid it). Stott appears to leave unanswered how the prayer will result in life for the sinning non-Christian. Is it implied that the sinner will turn to God? Surely, the sinner is not saved merely by the prayer without having to put his faith in Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, the other commentators I’m following do not address Stott directly on this point. The closest is Raymond Brown: “Yet non-Christians, whether pagans or Jews, are not the subject of I John; and so there is no reason to posit that the author is introducing such an extraneous topic in his conclusion.”6 They all seem convinced that the “brother” is a fellow Christian, or at least a person presenting himself as a Christian.

Related to this issue, it may be important that the “brother” is said to commit sin not resulting in death but is not said to commit sin resulting in death. Nothing is said about who commits sin resulting in death, whether it is a Christian or a non-Christian. If this is intentional by the author, it may imply Christians cannot or do not commit sin resulting in death. This might support the view that sin resulting in death is something like denial of the gospel, apostasy, or blasphemy of the Holy Spirit because one cannot be, or remain, a Christian and commit such sins.

Most commentators appear to understand the passage to be speaking of spiritual/eternal death. This position argues that the context speaks of eternal life and so it is most natural to understand the death to be spiritual/eternal as well. Gary Derickson understands the author to be referring to physical death. Like Stott, he believes the author speaks of Christians passing permanently from spiritual death to eternal life. He notes physical death as a consequence of sin is taught in Scripture (Lev 20:1-27; 24:15-16; Num 18:22; 19:22; Deut 22:25-26; Isa 22:14; Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor 5:3-5; 11:27-30; 1 Tim 1:20?; Jas 5:15?; Rev 2:23; see also Jub 21:22; 26:34; 33:12-18; T. Gad 6:6; T. Iss. 7:1; 1QS 8). In other words, Christians can still commit sins that lead to physical death. What is granted to the brother thanks to the prayer is physical life (Derickson) or restoration of fellowship with God (others).

Verse 16 agrees with earlier verses in acknowledging that Christians sin (1:8, 10; 2:1) and can be forgiven (1:9; 2:1). This means that sin not resulting in death is sin for which forgiveness is possible because the sinner seeks forgiveness and God grants the request. “That John does not use the definite article and seems to stress the act of sinning rather than precisely to delineate some particular misdeed weakens the case for seeing here one specific heinous sin.”7

Daniel Akin understands the sin resulting in death to the be rejection of the gospel. The separatists were never really true believers (2:19). As long as a fellow Christian does not reject the gospel he can be prayed for and preserve eternal life.

Raymond Brown thinks the best approach to the question is to see that sin not resulting in death is ascribed to the brother. The sin resulting in death is refusal to believe in Jesus Christ (Jn 8:9-11; 15:22; 16:9). It is a mistake to attribute sin resulting in death to Christians.

Looking back at 3:4, 6, 9-10, Robert Yarbrough suggests the sin resulting in death is the violation of the fundamental terms of relationship with God that Jesus Christ mediates. Throughout his commentary, Yarbrough notes the stress on correct doctrine, obedience to the commands of God, and the call to love fellow Christians. Continual and serious lapses in these areas are sins resulting in death. He writes, “To ‘sin unto death’ is to have a heart unchanged by God’s love in Christ and so to persist in convictions and acts and commitments like those John and his readers know to exist among ostensibly Christian people of their acquaintance, some of whom have now left those whom John addresses.”8

The author goes on to say, “I do not say that he should ask/pray about that“, where the last “that” refers to sin resulting in death (Yarbrough). But he is not forbidding prayer for sin resulting in death either. Perhaps he just doubts its efficacy. It may be worth noting John 17:9 where Jesus does not pray for the world of unbelievers. At the same time, we should be cautious in assuming sin resulting in death cannot be repented of.

17 All unrighteousness is sin, but there is sin not resulting in death.

“Unrighteousness” (adikia) is the same word used in 1:9, where we are told God is faithful in cleansing us from unrighteousness. In this verse John wants to make clear he is not treating unrighteousness lightly. It is sin, it just isn’t always sin resulting in death.

18 We know that everyone fathered by God does not sin, but God protects the one he has fathered, and the evil one cannot touch him.

Once again the Christian is said to be fathered by God (2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1, 4). Earlier verses mention that Christians may sin (1:8-10; 2:1-2; 3:4-10; 5:16-17), but the sin of the Christian does not result in death (5:16-17). Derickson interprets the verse to mean “that divine birth does not give birth to sin and death, but to life.”9 The second clause of the verse in the NET (“but God protects the one he has fathered”) literally reads “the one who was born of God keeps him safe.” Some scholars think “the one” refers to Jesus Christ as the protector of the believer (Jn 17:12; 1 Pet 1:15; Jude 24; Rev 3:10). Regardless, Christians are protected from the evil one (Jn 10:7-18, 28-29; 17:11, 15).

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

Other passages mentioning the evil one’s power over the world include Jn 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; Gal 1:4; Eph 2:2; 5:16; 6:12.

20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us insight to know him who is true, and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This one is the true God and eternal life.

To whom does “he” (or “this one”) refer to in the final sentence of v. 20? The Father or the Son? Both the Father (e.g., Rev 6:10) and the Son (e.g., Rev 3:7, 14; 19:11) can be described as “true”.

The arguments that it refers to the Father include:

  1. The word houtos does not necessarily refer to the nearest antecedent (e.g., 1 Jn 2:22; 2 Jn 1:7) and so could refer back to the Father. “The first predicate identifying houtos is ‘the true [alethinos] God,’ which is clearly a title of the Father in John 17:3. Moreover, alethinos has just been used of the Father in 5:20c, and within two verses it would be surprising to find the author switching the title to Jesus without some explicit indication.”10
  2. It is consistent with John’s style to repeat what has already been said and add to it.
  3. The Father can more properly be described as the source of life (Jn 5:26).

Stott says the more natural reading is that it is a reference to the Father.

The arguments that it refers to the Son include:

  1. The nearest antecedent is the Son Jesus Christ.
  2. It would be repetitive to state the Father is “true” after just saying it earlier in the verse.
  3. Jesus Christ is designated as the source of eternal life in 1 Jn 1:2, 5:11-12; Jn 11:25; 14:6. Whenever John uses “life” as a predicate it refers to Jesus Christ.
  4. The same phrase (houtos estin) begins 5:6 where it clearly refers to Jesus Christ.
  5. Jesus Christ is referred to as “God” in Jn 1:1, 18; 20:28.

Yarbrough, quoting from Sloyan and Schnackenburg, understands the sentence to be an unequivocal statement of the deity of Jesus Christ. Akin, Brown, Derickson, and Strecker also favor this view, but not in such strong language.

21 Little children, guard yourselves from idols.

“Little children” adds a personal touch in closing the letter. A definite article precedes “idols” so the Greek literally reads, “guard yourselves from the idols” (Stott). This may (or may not) suggest John had particular dangers in mind known to his readers. It is worth mentioning that Acts 19:18-19 speaks of believers clinging to occult paraphernalia even after entering the church (cf. 1 Cor 10:7, 14; 12:2; 2 Cor 6:16; 1 Thess 1:9). Literal idolatry could still have been a problem. Another option is that he has in mind the false images of Jesus taught by the separatists. This connects v. 21 with what has preceded it quite well.

It may appear that John’s final address is somewhat anticlimactic, but in reality it confirms a very important truth he has been establishing in this last section of the epistle and in the entire epistle itself: Reject the false and embrace the real.11

Bibliography

Akin, Daniel L. 1, 2, 3 John. The New American Commentary 38. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001.

Brown, Raymond E. The Epistles of John. New York: Doubleday, 1982.

Derickson, Gary W. First, Second, and Third John. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012.

Metzger, Bruce M., ed. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. Second Edition. Hendrickson Pub, 2005.

Stott, John. The Letters of John. Reprint Edition. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries 19. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2014.

Strecker, Georg. The Johannine Letters: A Commentary on 1, 2, and 3 John. Translated by Linda M Maloney. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.

Yarbrough, Robert W. 1-3 John. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008.


  1. Stott 2014, 184 
  2. Stott 2014, 185 
  3. Yarbrough 2008, Kindle Locations 7537-7543 
  4. Akin 2001, 206–207 
  5. Yarbrough 2008, Kindle Locations 7563-7603 
  6. Brown 1982, 618 
  7. Yarbrough 2008, Kindle Locations 7711-7713 
  8. Yarbrough 2008, Kindle Locations 7795-7797 
  9. Derickson 2012, 550 
  10. Brown 1982, 626 
  11. Akin 2001, 215 
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