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The First Epistle Of John by Augustus Neander

1 John v. 16

From all for which as christians we may pray, John now selects a single object of prayer. This must, therefore, appear to him to be specially connected with the peculiar nature of the christian life. |If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.|

True prayer as grounded in fellowship with Christ, must proceed from the christian life as a connected whole. That which is the animating principle of the whole christian life, must also be the animating principle of christian prayer. The prayer of love, is that which binds all christians together as brethren. Hence the Apostle singles out that sympathy of fraternal love, which expresses itself in prayer. As this sympathy must first respect the spiritual necessities, which to each are his own highest concern, and as the need arising from sin must seem to each his brother's greatest need; so will his sympathy expressed in prayer, his ardent desire to help, have special reference to this need, which he feels himself constrained to bear with his brother. It may indeed happen, that those who are strict toward themselves practise the same strictness toward others also, despising and repulsing them, when they see in them any sin. But this is not that zeal in sanctification, which is in harmony with the christian life. Conscious as he is himself, that he owes all to redeeming grace, that the divine life in himself is still mingled with much that is impure; the christian cannot but be lenient in his judgment when he sees others fall, while he thus feels his own weakness, his own continual need of redemption. And here, especially, is shown the power of that love, which feels as its own the brother's need. Accordingly, John calls upon christians first of all, to help with their prayers the brother who has fallen into sin. He assures them, that to the fallen brother, -- in whom the divine life has been impaired through sin, who by yielding to temptation has fallen from the unity of this divine life, -- that to such an one God will restore this divine life in its original vigor. They may thus, through the intercession prompted by love, become instruments in restoring to life a fallen brother. Could they render him a higher service of love!

But how are we to understand John's limitation of this requirement, in the exception, emphatically repeated, of sins which are unto death? Should not then the claim for help be greater, the greater the brother's spiritual need? Should limits be set to that gushing love, which pours itself out in intercession? Should not prayer for the brother be so much the more required? To make this clear, it is only necessary to understand what kind of prayer John has in view; what he presupposes as the condition on which prayer is heard, and how he distinguishes from other sins the sin which is unto death.

True, the divine life, in its essential nature, excludes all sin, -- as John has already shown. Sin and death, according to the Holy Scriptures, are closely connected ideas. But the divine life in believers, as we have already seen, develops itself in continual conflict with the after-workings of the earlier life of sin. Numerous disturbances of the divine life may thereby ensue, interruptions of the christian development, which yet do not undermine this life itself as the controlling principle, but only repress it at particular times and in certain manifestations. The ruling tendency of the will is still directed towards holiness. Sin is hated and abhorred; and though its after-workings are still felt, it is only as something foreign cleaving to the true self, whose animating and controlling principle is love. In such a case it is only necessary, when one falls under single temptations, to call again into action the controlling element of the divine life existing in him, in order to overcome the principle of sin. It is of such cases the Apostle speaks, where there is true repentance and longing after continued sanctification; and hence, where the conditions and the susceptibility are not wanting, for that which is to be obtained through a brother's intercession. It is of such persons he speaks, who are in a state of grace, and have not apostatized from their christian calling; who still deserve the name of christian brethren, and hence have a claim upon all the aids of christian love, which one brother can render to another. An intercession is meant, which in the nature of the case can respect only such persons; and it is presupposed that all, who are connected by the bond of christian brotherhood, will mutually intercede for one another.

It may be, however, that an individual has fallen into such a state, as absolutely excludes the presence of the divine life in him; an evidence that he who seemed to have passed from death unto life, has again fallen under the power of death. Such an one may never in reality have attained to the true life. The essence of living faith, as delineated by John, may have been ever wanting in him. He may have only seemed to be a christian, without being truly so; having received only the baptism of water, not the baptism of the Holy Ghost. Christ may never have been actually formed in him; and at most, he may have experienced only transient emotions of the higher life. Or it may be that such an one, after having truly received through living faith a divine life and become a new man, has fallen from this state, has estranged himself from it, and sunk back again into his former position. This could not indeed happen at once; but yet, -- through want of watchfulness over himself, through negligence and sluggishness in the conflict with after-working sin, through a false security, a presumptuous reliance upon grace or a false self-reliance, -- it might be brought about gradually, and through many downward stages. Now where such a state existed, it showed itself in acts; in such sins as no one, who remained true to the christian relation and faithfully applied the imparted means of grace, could possibly have committed. Such persons were excluded from the fellowship of the church, in accordance with the principles of church relationship in that age; as is assumed to be necessary by the Apostle Paul, in a case like this occurring in the Corinthian church. John could not mean, that it was forbidden to pray for such as had thus fallen. For in regard to the first case, -- there is no ground apparent, why those who had not yet been truly converted, and at most had felt only occasional impulses towards Christianity, might not become susceptible to the farther operations of grace and be brought under their influence. Or if we take the second case, -- of such as had culpably lost the life imparted by grace; we can find no reason, why they might not have regained it through true repentance. It is true indeed, that this was rendered far more difficult by their misuse of the means of grace, and by the increased moral blindness induced through their own fault, -- which is referred to in the sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. When John calls Christ the Reconciliation and the Intercessor for the sins of the whole world, he certainly meant not to exclude one belonging to either of these two classes, provided only that repentance could be reawakened.

In this connection, however, he is speaking of intercession for christians, for such as have not trifled away the forgiveness of sins through Christ. Hence, in this connection, those must be excepted who have fallen into what John calls |sin unto death,| in the sense explained; for in their case such intercession would be inappropriate, since in them the conditions and the susceptibility for it were wanting. Had he not made this distinction, he would have given the false impression, that one who commits such sins may still abide in Christianity; as if christians and those who are not christians could be known, the one from the other, by no distinctive signs in their life-walk. He would thus have required the church to regard such persons as still christian brethren, since they were to be embraced in the common supplication for all christians. He would have made those persons themselves more secure in their sins, and led them to a false reliance on the intercession of others. With christian love, the unsparing condemnation of sin must go hand in hand. A love, which overlooked all distinction among sins, would have been no true love.

How unlike John it would have been, to withhold from one ever so debased the consolation of forgiveness through Christ, and to withdraw from him the sympathy of his love, is seen in the beautiful tradition, (which there is no reason to discredit) of that fallen christian youth, who had become chief of a robber-band, and who by John's love was rescued and brought back to the Lord.

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