In Part 1 of this article, we saw the life that is real is built on the divine certainties that are found in Jesus Christ. The world may accuse the Christian of being proud and dogmatic, but this does not keep him from saying, “I know!” In these closing verses of John’s letter, we find two more Christian certainties on which we can build our lives with confidence.
CHRISTIANS DO NOT PRACTICE SIN (1 John 5:16–19)
“Anyone born of God does not practice sin” (1 Jn. 5:18). Occasional sins are not here in view, but habitual sins, the practice of sin. Since a believer has a new nature (“God’s seed,” 1 Jn. 3:9), he has new desires and appetites, and is not interested in sin.
A Christian faces three enemies, all of which want to lead him into sin: the devil, the world, and the flesh.
Our first enemy is the devil. The world “is under the control of the evil one” (1 Jn. 5:19), Satan—“the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:3–4) and “the prince of this world” (Jn. 14:30). He is the spirit who works in “the children of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). Satan has many devices for leading a believer into sin. He tells lies, as he did to Eve (Gen. 3; 2 Cor. 11:1–3), and when men believe his lies they turn away from and disobey God’s truth. Or, Satan may inflict physical suffering, as he did with Job and Paul (2 Cor. 12:7–9). In David’s case, Satan used pride as his weapon; he urged David to number the people and in this way defy God (1 Chron. 21). Satan is like a serpent who deceives (Rev. 12:9) and a lion who devours (1 Pet. 5:8–9). He is a formidable enemy.
Our second enemy is the world (1 Jn. 2:15, 17). It is easy for us to yield to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life! The atmosphere around us makes it hard for us to keep our minds pure and our hearts true to God.
Our third enemy is the flesh: the old nature we were born with and which is still with us. True, we have a new nature (the divine seed, 1 Jn. 3:9) within us, but we do not always yield to our new nature.
Then how does a believer keep from sinning? 1 John 5:18 gives the answer: Jesus Christ keeps the believer, so the enemy cannot get his hands on him. “He [Christ] who was born of God keeps the believer safe and the evil one cannot harm him.” Of course, it is true a Christian must keep himself in the love of God (Jude 21), but it is not true he must depend on himself to overcome Satan.
Peter’s experience with Satan helps us to understand this truth. “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Lk. 22:31–32). To begin with, Satan cannot touch any believer without God’s permission. Satan wanted to sift all the disciples and Jesus gave him permission. But Jesus prayed especially for Peter and His prayer was answered. Peter’s faith did not ultimately fail, even though his courage failed. Peter was restored and became a mighty and effective soul-winner.
Whenever Satan attacks us, we can be sure God gave him permission. And if God gave him permission, He will also give us power to overcome because God will never permit us to be tested above our strength (1 Cor. 10:13).
One of the characteristics of “spiritual young men” is their ability to overcome the evil one (1 Jn. 2:13–14). Their secret? “The Word of God abides in them.” Part of the armor of God is the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17) and this sword overcomes Satan.
When a believer sins, he can confess his sin and be forgiven (1 Jn. 1:9), but a believer dare not play with sin because sin is “lawlessness” (1 Jn. 3:4). A person who practices sin proves he belongs to Satan (1 Jn. 3:7–10).
God warns that sin can lead to physical death! While “all unrighteousness is sin,” some sin is worse than other sin. All sin is hateful to God and should be hateful to a believer, but some sin is punished with death. John tells us (1 Jn. 5:16–17) about the case of a brother (a believer) whose life was taken because of sin.
The Old Testament also mentions people who died because of their sin. Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron the priest, died because they deliberately disobeyed God (Lev. 10:1–7). Korah and his clan opposed God and died (Num. 16). Achan was stoned because he disobeyed Joshua’s orders from God at Jericho (Josh. 6–7). A man named Uzzah touched the ark and God killed him (2 Sam. 6).
“But those are Old Testament examples!” someone may argue. “John is writing to New Testament believers who live under grace!”
To whom much is given, much is required. A believer today has a far greater responsibility to obey God than did the Old Testament saints. We have a complete Bible, we have the full revelation of God’s grace, and we have the Holy Spirit living within us to help us obey God.
There are also cases in the New Testament of believers who lost their lives because they disobeyed God. Ananias and Sapphira lied to God about their offering and they both died (Acts 5:1–11). Some believers at Corinth died because of the way they had acted at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:30). 1 Corinthians 5:1–5 suggests a certain offender would have died had he not repented and confessed his sin (2 Cor. 2:6–8).
If a believer does not judge, confess, and forsake sin, God must chasten him. This process is described in Hebrews 12:1–13, which suggests a person who does not subject himself to the Father will not live (Heb. 12:9). In other words, first God “spanks” his rebellious children, and if they do not yield to His will, He may remove them from the world lest their disobedience lead others astray and bring further disgrace to His name.
“The sin unto death” is not some one specific sin. Rather, it is a kind of sin—it is the sort of sin that leads to death. With Nadab and Abihu, it was their presumption in taking the priest’s office and entering the holy of holies. In the case of Achan, it was covetousness. Ananias and Sapphira were guilty of hypocrisy and even lying to the Holy Spirit.
If a Christian sees a brother committing sin, he should pray for him (1 Jn. 5:16), asking that he confess his sin and return to fellowship with the Father. But if in his praying, he does not sense he is asking in God’s will (as instructed in 1 Jn. 5:14–15), then he should not pray for the brother. “So do not pray for this people, nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you” (Jer. 7:16).
James 5:14–20 somewhat parallels 1 John 5:16–17. James describes a believer who is sick, possibly because of his sin. He sends for the elders, who come to him and pray for him. The prayer of faith heals him and if he has sinned his sins are forgiven. “The prayer of faith” is prayer in the will of God, as described in 1 John 5:14–15. It is “praying in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20).
Christians do not deliberately practice sin. They have the divine nature within; Jesus Christ guards them, and they do not want God’s discipline.
THE CHRISTIAN LIFE IS THE REAL LIFE (1 John 5:20–21)
Jesus Christ is the true God. We know Him who is true and we are in Him who is true. We have the real thing! “We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know Him who is true. And we are in Him who is true by being in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (1 Jn. 5:20). Reality has been the theme throughout John’s letter and now we are reminded of it again.
John was probably writing to believers in the city of Ephesus, a city given over to the worship of idols. The temple of Diana, one of the wonders of the ancient world, was located in Ephesus, and the making and selling of idols was one of the chief occupations of the people there (Acts 19:21–41). Surrounded by idolatry, Christians there were under tremendous pressure to conform.
“We know there is no such thing as an idol in the world and there is no God but one” (1 Cor. 8:4). In other words, an idol has no real existence. The tragedy of idolatry is that a dead image can do a worshiper no good because it is not genuine. Hebrew writers in the Old Testament called idols “nothings, vain things, vapors, emptiness.” An idol is a lifeless, useless substitute for the real thing.
The Psalms contain caustic indictments of idolatry (Ps. 115:1–8; 135:15–18). To human vision, an idol looks real—eyes, ears, mouth, nose, hands, feet—but these are useless imitations of the real thing. The eyes are blind, the ears are deaf, the mouth is silent, the hands and feet are paralyzed. But the real tragedy is that “those who make them will become like them, and so will all who trust in them” (Ps. 115:8). We become like the god we worship!
This is the secret of the life that is real. Since we have met the true God, through His Son Jesus Christ, we are in contact with reality. Our fellowship is with a God who is genuine. As we have seen the word “real” means “the original as opposed to a copy” and “the authentic as opposed to an imitation.” Jesus Christ is the true Light (Jn. 1:9), true Bread (Jn. 6:32), true Vine (Jn. 15:1), and Truth itself (Jn. 14:6). He is the Original; everything else is a copy. He is authentic; everything else is only an imitation.
Christians live in an atmosphere of reality. Most unsaved people live in an atmosphere of pretense and sham. Christians have been given spiritual discernment to know the true from the false, but the unsaved do not have this understanding. Christians do not simply choose between good and bad; they choose between true and false. An idol represents that which is false and empty; and a person who lives for idols will himself become false and empty.
Few people today bow to idols of wood and metal. Nevertheless, other idols capture their attention and affection. Covetousness, for example, is idolatry (Col. 3:5). A man may worship his bankbook or his stock portfolio just as fervently as a so-called heathen worships his ugly idol. “Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only” (Matt. 4:10). The thing we serve is the thing we worship! Whatever controls our lives and “calls the signals” is our god.
This explains why God warns us against the sin of idolatry. Not only is it a violation of His commandment (Ex. 20:1–6), but it is a subtle way for Satan to take control of us. When “things” take God’s place in our lives, we are guilty of idolatry. This means we are living for the unreal instead of for the real.
To a man of the world the Christian life is unreal and the worldly life is real. This is because a man of the world lives by what he sees and feels (things) and not by what God says in His Word. An idol is a temporal thing, Jesus Christ is eternal God. “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).
Like Moses, a Christian “endures because he saw Him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27). Faith is “the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Noah had never seen a flood, yet by faith he “saw” it coming and did what God told him to do. Abraham “saw” a heavenly city and country by faith, and was willing to forsake his own earthly home to follow God. All of the great heroes of faith named in Hebrews 11 accomplished what they did because they “saw the invisible” by faith. In other words, they were in contact with reality.
The world boasts of its enlightenment, but a Christian walks in the real light because God is light. The world talks about love, but it knows nothing of the real love which a Christian experiences because “God is love.” The world displays its wisdom and learning, but a Christian lives in truth because “the Spirit is truth.” God is light, love, and truth; and these together make a life that is real.
“But it makes no difference what a man believes so long as he is sincere!” This popular excuse hardly needs refutation. Does it make any difference what the pharmacist believes, or the surgeon, or the chemist? It makes all the difference in the world!
A Christian has “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thes. 1:9). Idols are dead, but Christ is the living God. Idols are false, but Christ is the true God. This is the secret of the life that is real!
So John’s admonition, “Keep yourselves from idols,” can be paraphrased, “Watch out for the imitation and the artificial! Be real!”
* This concludes our study of the Apostle John’s first letter. I hope you have enjoyed and benefited from this series.