Wednesday, May 16, 2012

To Pray or Not to Pray: That is the Question

A Tough Text in 1 John

At Liberty, a group of us gathered this past semester, every Thursday night, to study through John’s epistle verse by verse. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get all the way through the book; so, I thought I would write about one of the difficult passages in this letter we didn’t have time to address.

1 John 5:16-17
English Standard Version (ESV)
16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.

One element that makes this text difficult is John’s ambiguity. As soon as we read these verses that are wedged in the midst of John’s closing to the epistle, we are forced to stop and ask: What kind of sin is “not leading to death?” What is the kind of sin “that leads to death?” And perhaps the most pressing question that came to my mind: Why are we not commanded to pray for the sin that leads to death?

All Sin Brings Death Without Jesus

Death is a common symbol tied with sin in Scripture. John recognizes this result of sin earlier in the epistle when he talks about those who do not love as “abiding in death” (3:14). John is not the only New Testament author who uses the symbolism of death to describe the result of sin, either. For example, Paul says in Romans 6:23, For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” So, we can infer from this universal statement that all sin is in fact sin that leads to eternal death. All sin brings death without Jesus.

I add the clause ‘without Jesus,’ because the essence of the gospel is that death is no longer the fate of those who sin once Jesus intercedes. Paul teaches this after describing his great battle with sin in Romans 7. The whole chapter explodes into 8:1 when he promises believers that because of the cross, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” In other words, they may sin, but it will not lead to death for them.

The Death-Reversing Power of God-Given Repentance

The Bible goes to greater detail still about what sin that doesn’t lead to death looks like. In Romans 8:13 Paul writes, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Building from his idea in 6:23, Paul is establishing a difference when it comes to sin in the life of a believer. He begins by affirming that uninhibited, unrepentant sin leads to death. Paul defines sinfulness in this instance as living “according to the flesh.” However, even though the believer still lacks perfection, he battles his sins “by the Spirit.” The believer’s life is defined by Martin Luther’s words when he wrote, “All of life is repentance.” Repentance reverses the sentence of death we should endure for our sin by turning us toward Jesus instead, the one who endured it for us.

Romans 8:13 is not the only place that Paul teaches the death-reversing power of God-given repentance. Paul uses the death and life symbolism once again in his letter to the church at Corinth. He says in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” In other words, if you have the kind of grief over your sin that causes you to repent, then your sin will not ultimately lead you to death. But, if you only experience the kind of grief that effects no change in your heart, no stirring toward repentance, no love for Christ, then your sin will lead you to death.

It’s no surprise that this idea is not just isolated in Pauline epistles but is scattered throughout the whole New Testament. Note the way the church responds to Peter’s news in Acts 11:18: “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Repentance doesn’t mean an absence of sin. But it does mean a life that is constantly turning away from sin as dissatisfying and toward Jesus as all-satisfying. In this way, the sin that resides with a believer until he arrives in glory is sin that does not lead to death.
In short, sin that leads to death is the sin of those who are unrepentant and thus prove themselves to be unbelievers. The sin that does not lead to death is the sin of the believer who is repentant and whose sin was atoned for at the cross.

So how are we to respond to each of these kinds of sins?

Our first response is to the sin that does not lead to death. John tells us that we will respond in prayer toward the believer who is wrestling with his sin in a state of repentance. Notice that he calls this person a “brother.” This fortifies the conclusion that the man who has sin that does not lead to death is in this gracious position because he is a believer. Also notice that John tells us “we shall ask,” not “we should ask.” In the Greek, John is not writing in the imperative tense, but is simply forecasting what the believer will do for his fellow brother in the faith.  Apparently, he is confident that the believer’s natural response will be to lift up his struggling brother before the throne. John is also confident of the result: the struggling saint will receive life. Perhaps the prayers of fellow saints are one of the tools the Spirit uses to help us “put to death” the deeds of the body, like Paul says in Romans 8:13.

The second response we need to address involves the sin that leads to death. Given the context, it’s possible that as John wrote this closing to his letter, he had in mind the men he spoke of 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. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” John could have intended that his readers think of these false teachers and converts when they thought of sin that leads to death. Whatever the case, he tells us that we do not have to pray for such a sin.

Why does he not command us to pray?

Apparently, within Scripture there are some extreme cases where a people or a person can reach a point that is beyond forgiveness and therefore beyond intercession. The “unforgivable sin,” or blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, comes to mind as one example (Mark 3:29, Matthew 12:32). Another example of such an extreme instance is found within Jeremiah 7. God tells the prophet, “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you” (7:16). In this chapter we find a lengthy explanation of the people’s extreme, unrepentant wickedness. It had reached such a degree that God would no longer hear prayers on this people’s behalf. Perhaps John had such a situation in mind.

Be careful to note that John does not forbid we pray for such a thing. He only mentions that he does not command it. John knew that God, in his justice and sovereignty, has foreordained certain extreme situations in which he does not respond to intercession for unrepentant wickedness.

Do not be confused by this reality. Know that the Word encourages us to pray for unbelievers. In Romans 10:1 Paul says of his kinsman, “my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.” I don’t think John ever intended that we should walk away from his letter like one commentator and conclude:

The prayer of one human being can never cancel another's free-will. If God's will does not override man's will, neither can a fellow-man's prayer. When a human will has been firmly and persistently set in opposition to the Divine will, our intercession will be of no avail.”

Thankfully, God’s will does override a man’s will, once God finally redeems him. The Father draws him to Jesus (John 6:44). God takes out his heart of stone and gives him a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19). God causes him to be born again (1 Peter 1:3). God opens his eyes so that he can believe the gospel (Acts 16:17). And God grants him repentance (2 Timothy 2:25-26). So pray for these things, and pray boldly. Don’t be timid about asking the sovereign God of the universe to save. Don’t ask that he make a cute, enticing path toward the cross that they might hopefully in the power of their own free-will decide to choose to walk down one day. But pray that he would save them, just like Paul did. Heed the words of the great reformer, John Calvin, who said:

“To make intercession for men is the most powerful and practical way in which we can express our love for them.”

Might there be a situation beyond intercession? Yes. But be weary of making that call. Think of the worst of sinners God has drawn, including you. And pray boldly and without giving up. Maybe he will grant them repentance. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011


"And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."

This is the gospel. This is what has saved us. This is what will keep us. This is what we look back to for our foundation and what we look forward to for our hope. This gospel secures us and it frees us. This gospel gives our eyes a direction and it gives our feet a path. It gives our hearts a worthy object for affection and our minds a worthy object for attention. There is no greater treasure on earth that we could ever possess--- because the gospel gives us God.

For all of us who have seen His glory and the salvation he has brought to us, Ephesians tells us just a chapter earlier in verse 6 that He has purposed this saving gospel so that we might praise "His glorious grace." The reason that we have been saved from our sin and death is so that we might exalt the Lord Jesus' name--- because that God is great. That God is worthy. He's worthy of our lives and He's worthy of our worship.

When God frees us from the bondage of our sin, this gospel is not merely something we acknowledge. No! This gospel is something we stake our lives upon. This gospel shapes our speech. This gospel determines our decisions. This gospel pushes us to live holy and entices us to look like our Father in heaven. This gospel defines us. When we see what God has done for us, and the extent to which we did not deserve his mercy, our only response is to offer ourselves as a complete sacrifice to this unbelievably kind and righteous God.

The early Christian martyr named Ignatius was condemned to death in AD 110 for being a follower of Jesus. Upon receiving his sentence, he declared: 

“It is not that I want merely to be called a Christian. But actually to be one. Yes, if I prove to be one [by being faithful to the end], then I can have the name... Come fire, cross, battling with beasts, wrenching of bones, mangling of limbs, crushing of my whole body, cruel tortures of the devil- only let me get to Jesus Christ!” 

What on earth would possess someone to say something like that--- to act like that? There is only one explanation: this man has been born again. This is a man who was consumed with the truth we find in Ephesians 2:1-9. This is a man who held the truth of the gospel as his highest treasure. Nothing trumped this man's love of the gospel... not his life, not his security, not his comfort, not his temporal happiness. That is what it looks like to be defined by the gospel. That is what it looks like to be a Christian.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Pervasive Nature of Holiness and Sin

 "1Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. 2And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God...4Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving...6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7Therefore do not become partners with them; 8for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light 9(for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them"

Ephesians 5:1-2, 4, 6-10

Holiness and sin share little in common. In fact, it would be acceptable to define the two as absolute opposites. However, one quality is consistent in the nature of both: they are utterly pervasive. We know the pervasive nature of sin all too well. Sin permeates every facet of our being. It defines our nature. It enslaves our will. It prohibits the beating of our hearts and envelops the words of our mouth. It sits on the throne of our souls and becomes the object of our affection. That pervasive sin is the product of fallen man untouched by the Gospel of the glory of Christ. One who has not experienced the new birth Jesus speaks of in John 3 cannot be "kind of" sinful just as a woman cannot be "kind of" pregnant; it is a state of being.

I am afraid for our generation of Christians, this of course including myself. Not that we are blind to the pervasive reality of sin, but that we reject the pervasive reality of holiness. My fear is that far too many of us model the belief that we can be "kind of" holy. The problem with this idea of holiness is simply that it is not true. The Biblical texts never describe holiness in this manner. The reborn and adopted child of God can be "kind of" holy no more than Saddam Hussein can be "kind of" dead. There is no part of the corpse which death does not touch. Its chilling effects are relentless and--- pervasive. If we are properly living in and savoring the victorious truths of the Gospel, holiness should seep through our pores like soap in an overflowing sponge.

I feel at this point that a clarification of terms is in order. In speaking of holiness, pervasiveness is not meant to imply perfection or completion. The writer of Hebrews helps clarify this issue for us by penning these words: "For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified." So there is a real sense in which we are perfected before the Father. Our justification is absolute and completed. But the story does not end there. We who stand before God completely holy in His sight because of Jesus, are being made holy on this side of glory until we leave our earthly bodies and our flesh forever. Until that moment, our flesh is a law, as Paul describes in Romans 7. So my intention is not to chastise our generation of Christians or myself for a lack of perfection; rather, I mean to expose our fatal tendency to compartmentalize our personal holiness seeking that it would never reach the areas of our lives we deem culturally relevant, cool, or comfortable. Our holiness may not be perfected on this earth, but it should be pervasive. There should be no area of our lives that holiness is not seeping into, attacking our flesh, and purifying our souls. The very fact that we blatantly ignore certain mandates of holiness is evidence that we value our culturally molded opinions above the precious Word of God.

Ephesians 5 addresses, in my recent observation, a mandate of holiness that many of us have absolutely disregarded. We have decided to ignore the call of Ephesians 5 for holiness in our jokes, speech, and meditations, justifying our sinful inconsistency with humor or empty explanations that seek to minimize this sin in hopes that it may be acceptable for us. Foul language has become a regular occurrence in the young Christian's speech. Explicit jokes turn no heads. Constant approval of media filth and acceptance toward these things flows freely because somehow it does not seem harmful. If anyone protests such behavior, they are clearly a full-time home school student who has never stepped foot out their front door for fear that they might be defiled by the unbelieving world. Clearly, they wear button downs snapped to their throats and their idea of fun is playing Bible Monopoly with their great aunt Judie. But is this not just a shoddy red-herring to avoid the ferocious issue raging in our hearts? My concern is not that we stop cussing. My concern is not that we avoid inappropriate jokes. My concern is for the heart that stares right at the Word of God and says, "No." My fear is for the Christian who justifies his sin with pathetic reasoning that will only lead to further moral compromise. Oh that we might see that obedience to Ephesians 5 has nothing to do with legalism! It has everything to do with letting the freedom of the Gospel permeate every facet of our being. We see this filth as interesting and exciting because we refuse to understand that we were once enslaved to it, and Christ has set us free.

We do not obey Ephesians 5 to gain favor with God. That is legalism. We have favor with God already because of His overwhelming grace in sending Jesus to wage war for our souls. We obey Ephesians 5 because we see that contrary to the inclinations of our flesh, nothing is more trite than sin, and nothing is more satisfying than God's all surpassing glory, shining in the face of Christ. That is the Gospel. Is your holiness as pervasive as your sin once was? When we get on board with this illuminating truth, we receive great joy, and our King receives great glory.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

For the Fellow Face-Planters

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said to them,
It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Mark 2:15-17

I spend the majority of my life on my face. Unfortunately, I am not here referring to the sacred act of prayer. I am speaking of the kind of "on your face living" that involves a swift fall greeted by an unforgiving surface. If I were a runner, I would be more familiar with the smell of the track than the feeling of the finish line. In my life I have come to see that I fall, and then I fall again. I do not record these things to encourage self-deprecation or even to promote myself through some form of feigned humility. I just desperately want to be honest with myself. The "believe in yourself" messages have never held much weight with me because, well, I have never seen much to believe
in. And what I intend to write on tonight is not the mundane moral tale of how even the most successful of men have failed plenty of times. I do not intend on finding you statistics on how many baskets Michael Jordan missed or how many times Edison got the light bulb wrong. In fact, I want to avoid such things because I think this type of rhetoric is fundamentally missing the point.

I have learned to find great contentment in my overwhelming failure. As I read Mark 2, I cannot avoid basking in the great grace Jesus offers face-planters like me. Rather than attempt to conjure up some kind of "pull myself up from my bootstraps" mentality, or shut my eyes tight and start naming and claiming things, I would rather be honest with my sickness. If my time on the cold hard track of life's difficulties has taught me anything, it is this: I am hopelessly and desperately sick. I am thankful for the grace God has granted me that I might own up to this sickness. Because news that transcends any earthly success is waiting for me with open arms--- There is a Great Physician and He is good at what He does. Oh how thankful I am that Jesus did not come to call the religious! For I am not very religious. Oh how thankful I am that Jesus did not come to call the healthy! For I am terminally ill. But my life is not defined by my success or even my failure. My life is defined by the Great Physician who uses every bit of my short-coming to shine through His glory all the clearer. Every time that I fall is an opportunity for Him to pick me back up, force down the stones, and tell my tired heart: "Go now and sin no more." He never tires of doing this for His son. In fact, He delights in it! And every time I rise, I run a few feet farther than the last.

Here is what I know. I will never be self-reliant. I will never live a life of jaw-dropping success in the eyes of this world. No naming or claiming of any sort on my end will ever keep me on my feet. Though, even if I could, I am not sure I would want to be there. For it was on my face where I saw my sickness. It was on my face where I
could do nothing but call out for The Physician. It is on my face where I can join with Paul and "boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me." It is on my face where I find the joy in a life defined by this poem:
He came to my desk with a quivering lip, the lesson was done. “Have you a new sheet for me, dear teacher? I’ve spoiled this one.” I took his sheet, all soiled and blotted, And gave him a new one all unspotted. And into his tired heart I cried, “Do better now, my child.”
I went to the throne with a trembling heart, the day was done. “Have you a new day for me, dear Master? I’ve spoiled this one.” He took my day, all soiled and blotted, and gave me a new one all unspotted. And into my tired heart he cried, “Do better now, my child.”

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Lord, to whom shall we go?

60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”  61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?...
 66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
   67 “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.
 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” - John 6:60-61, 66-69

I have had a brutal meeting the last few weeks with the messy reality of incomplete sanctification. If I'm being honest, I felt something like an obese hot-dog enthusiast attempting a triathlon for the first time. This feeling is certainly not anything new, and it's times like these that make approaching the many difficult teachings of Jesus disheartening at best. Though many current popular teachers would rather itch ears than be honest, the teachings of Jesus can be flat out hard. Anyone who has taken a serious look at what Jesus demands in terms of holiness is no stranger to this truth.

In light of this, I spent some time meditating on just how far I fall short as a son, a student, a man, a leader, and a child of the King. On one particular evening, walking back to my dorm across campus in the chilly and quiet night, I found myself praying out loud, "Lord, where else am I going to go?" Confronted with the harsh reality of my lingering depravity, the temptation for me is to flee. I want to run away and find some way to fix everything and please my Father. But as I took a long hard look around, I realized that I don't have anywhere to run to. It's important to note that my so called "meditation sessions" usually involve excess amounts of condemnation. In fact, my heart is an expert condemner. I found myself like Paul in Romans chapter seven proclaiming, "who will free me from this body of death?"

I'm thankful that the Word does not stop short of real answers to these complex problems. My heart may be an expert condemner but John reminds me in his epistle that, "God is greater than our hearts." I may inhabit a body of death but with Paul I rejoice and thank God who "delivers me through Jesus Christ," my Lord. It didn't take me long to remember that the answer was not to run but to fall. My place is ever only at the feet of King Jesus in humble submission. Like Peter, I realized, "To whom shall [I] go?" I was reminded that He was the anecdote, His mercy: the cure. He has "the words of eternal life." The only thing this broken sinner, thirsty for holiness, really needed was, "the Holy one of God." Like Peter, I realized I have nowhere else to run. Like Peter, I realized what I was looking for all along was ever only in the person of Christ.

What hard teaching has left you disheartened? What failure is causing you to take off? When you find yourself tempted to flee, just ask: "Where else am I going to go?" The answer will always lead you to His feet.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

When Strivings Cease

I wasn't sure when would be the best time to begin using this blog, until it became rather clear that tonight would be appropriate. I spent some time in the Word at the prayer chapel here at Liberty. It was in this quiet and undisturbed environment that I stumbled upon, perhaps, the most authoritative, life-altering, powerful and incomprehensible words of the Bible:

"It is finished."

I wonder brothers and sisters,  if we have taken the time to rejoice at these words in recent times. Perhaps we have never taken the time to celebrate the glorious truth that we find here in John 19:30. That's what I hope to do tonight in this post.

Here is what I am learning about myself. As the precious hymn describes it, my heart is, "prone to wander, Lord I feel it; prone to leave the God I love." In the face of such a disheartening law, my reaction is swift. I seek to strive. In an attempt to avoid this terrible reality, I find myself time and time again seeking to stay in fellowship with the Father by my own effort. Somewhere along the way, I have redefined repentance to an act of cleaning myself up so that I might be pure enough for my Master. While I have little trouble accepting the reality that I have been justified apart from my works, I find myself abandoning the sovereign love of God when I am faced with the impossible task of sanctification.

There are several places we could look to see the biblical solution to these ideas, but being that I am currently studying through the book of Hebrews, I thought one verse in particular might be appropriate. In Hebrews 2:11 the author writes that, "Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers." Notice the emphasis on who brings about holiness, and who receives this precious gift. God makes us holy. We are made holy only through the overwhelming power and grace of the Creator King. Oh that my heart may bow before the words of my savior: "It is finished!" For he did not say, "it is partially finished," or "it is finished until you wander," or "it is finished unless you make me angry," but rather, that sin is altogether conquered for the adopted child of the Most High God. Charles Spurgeon masterfully authored it this way:

"Oh! it is not my remembering God, it is God remembering me which is the ground of my safety; it is not my laying hold of His covenant, but His covenant's laying hold on me."

In Hebrews 4 tonight, I stumbled upon a freeing truth. While I've always taken note of verses 12-16, I realized that I had largely abandoned the first 11 verses. Here is what the Word taught my tired heart tonight. The author begins by alluding to Psalm 95 where God justly pronounces His punishment for the particular people of Israel who walked away in disobedience. "They shall never enter my rest," He declares. And the author continues by telling us the valuable but simple truth of how we may avoid such a fate. For at the beginning of all things, after God powerfully created the universe by His very Word, Genesis records that God rested, a rest which God still resides in today. God in turn offers this sabbath-rest, this peaceful sanctuary to His children now. So in the beginning God did a magnificent work, and then rested. But, could this work at the beginning of all things be a prelude to an even greater work of God thousands of years later in human history? Its in the Gospels that we see the full story. We learn that God the Son did, perhaps, an even greater work at Calvary. The work of reconciliation. The work of becoming sin for the sinful. The work of wrath-absorbing. The work of full and total redemption for His ill-deserving children. The work of creating, not galaxies and mammals, but pure hearts for those whose hearts were stone. When Jesus completed this work, He shouted, "it is finished!" And just as God rested after His work of creation in the beginning, we now enter that glorious rest too. But oh how I hope we see the truth here! We are entering into--- rest! No work of ours can maintain this precious rest. For the author wisely records for us: "for anyone who enters God's rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his." The only way to keep in this rest, the only way to have peace with an everlasting Father, is to surrender your work. So, cease your striving, you weary brother! Lay down your filthy rags at the cross of Jesus, you downcast sister! He who did the great work of salvation in you will continue to mold you into the clay He has designed you to be. Yes, daily repent! But by turning from your sin and falling at the feet of Jesus, that He might clean you.

So rest. For: "It is finished!"