The Confidence, Necessity, and Limitations of Prayer
13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. 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.
Last week we learned from 1 John 5:13 that one of John’s aims for writing this letter is to help his readers deepen their assurance of eternal life through regular fellowship with Jesus, who is eternal life (1 John 1:2). I suggested that the way to grow in assurance of eternal life is by seeing the evidence of eternal life within us. And the greatest evidence is a real, vibrant, joy-filled fellowship with Jesus resulting in an orthodox faith that Jesus is the Son of God, loving obedience to his commandments, and radical, sacrificial, God-exalting love for one another.
In verses 14-17 John wants us to see just how real our fellowship with Jesus can (and should) be. How can I know that I have real fellowship with Jesus? John says that one way we can see evidence of our fellowship with Christ is through prayer. When we pray and God answers, we deepen our assurance that we have eternal life.
Praying with Confidence
The more assured we are of our fellowship with Christ, the more confident we are in our relationship with him. John says, “this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (v. 14).
The word confidence appears three other times in 1 John. In 1 John 2:28 John urges his readers to “abide in [Christ] so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.” Confidence with a person is built by maintaining a real relationship with that person. Ask a couple who has been married for 25 or 40 or 50 years. When you have a real relationship with another person you know that they will accept you in spite of your imperfections. That’s why John says in 1 John 4:17-18 that believers can have confidence on the day of judgment rather than fear.
But John’s point in today’s text is not merely that we can be confident that God will not reject us. Our confidence with God, he says, is that God will say “yes” to our requests. It’s as if John is wanting us to see God as a Father who is so gracious and so giving that whenever we make our request to him, he answers in the affirmative. He doesn’t just “hear us;” according to verse 15, “we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.”
Don’t miss the power of what John has just told us. And don’t fall for the temptation to somehow explain away this clear teaching. John is telling us that receiving answers to prayer should be normal for the Christian. It is part of the confidence that we should have based on our real relationship with a real God who loves to say “yes” to his children.
Conditions for Answered Prayer
Of course, we left out one very important detail. There is a condition that must be met before our request is granted. John says God will hear us when we ask anything that is “according to his will.” God will not grant our requests if our requests do not fit with his purposes. In 1 John 3:21-22, another place where John speaks of our confidence with God, he says that “whatever we ask we receive from him” but only “because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” So obedience is also a requirement for answered prayer.
We find at least three other conditions for answered prayer in the Bible.
- If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)
- Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (Mark 11:24; Matt 21:22)
- If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14:14 cf. 15:16; 16:23-24, 26)
Abiding in Christ refers to having real fellowship with him. Making request in Jesus’ name refers to speaking accurately for him as one of his authorized representatives. So that would be the same concept as John describes here, making our requests according to God’s will. And when Jesus says we must believe when we pray, he doesn’t mean we must utilize the power of positive thinking. He is saying that we must have faith in God, that he will accomplish exactly what he sets out to do. The conditions for answered prayer, then, are a genuine relationship with Christ and a prayer of faith that God will do whatever he is pleased to do. Our prayers need to flow out of our fellowship with Christ and need to line up with the will of God.
Lining up with the Will of God
So if you would like to have your prayers answered here is the key: the will of the intercessor needs to coincide with the will of God. “Prayer is not a battle, but a response; its power consists in lifting our wills to God, not in trying to bring his will down to us.” That means that prayer is first and foremost designed to change us. When we pray for God’s will, we are not so much trying to discover his will. We primarily want to adjust our will to match his. God may reveal his will to us in prayer, but our biggest struggle is making his will our will. We are not to merely accept his will; we are to desire his will.
This is what happened in Gethsemane. Listen to how Jesus prayed, just hours before he went to the cross. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Jesus’ prayer was granted (Heb 5:7) because he aligned his will with God’s will by desiring God’s will to be done above all else. The very next verse says that “there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him.” This is what Jesus really needed, the strength to carry out God’s will. And God gave it to him because Jesus’ will was aligned with his Father’s will.
If we could know the mind of God perfectly, if we could see everything from his viewpoint, if we were as wise as God, we would choose to do things exactly the way he wills to do them. We would not improve on one thing that God has already planned to do. So rejoice that your prayers are not always answered! And realize that one of the greatest benefits of prayer is that it prepares our own heart for seeing the glory of God in whatever he decides to do.
The Problem of Unanswered Prayer
Let me say this again for emphasis: whenever we meet the biblical requirements of intercessory prayer, we are guaranteed that our prayers will be answered. And the key requirement for the believer is praying according to the will of God. If we ask for that which matches God’s will, God will most surely bring it to pass.
So what, then, can be said for prayers that appear to be made with the proper conditions and still remain unanswered? There are two possible answers.
First, we cannot always know or comprehend the ways in which God answers our prayers. A free and sovereign and eternal God is able to do the impossible, and so he does not work under the same parameters as we do when it comes to accomplishing his will. The Bible does not promise that our prayers will be answered in our timeframe or even in our lifetime. The Apostle John closed the book of Revelation with this prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20). Because God has decreed that Jesus will return, we are guaranteed that John’s request has been granted, even if 2,000 years have transpired since John uttered that prayer for the last time.
Another way of saying this is that God’s will may be carried out in ways that we simply would not expect it to be carried out. Perhaps this little story will illustrate just one of the infinite number of possible ways that God can carry out his will.
A legend says that Moses once sat near a well in meditation. A wayfarer stopped to drink from the well and when he did so his purse fell from his girdle into the sand. The man departed. Shortly afterwards another man passed near the well, saw the purse and picked it up. Later a third man stopped to assuage his thirst and went to sleep in the shadow of the well. Meanwhile, the first man had discovered that his purse was missing and assuming that he must have lost it at the well, returned, awoke the sleeper (who of course knew nothing) and demanded his money back. An argument followed, and irate, the first man slew the latter. Where upon Moses said to God, “You see, therefore men do not believe you. There is too much evil and injustice in the world. Why should the first man have lost his purse and then become a murderer? Why should the second have gotten a purse full of gold without having worked for it? The third was completely innocent. Why was he slain?”
God answered, “For once and only once, I will give you an explanation. I cannot do it at every step. The first man was a thief’s son. The purse contained money stolen by his father from the father of the second man, who finding the purse only found what was due him. The third was a murderer whose crime had never been revealed and who received from the first the punishment he deserved. In the future believe that there is sense and righteousness in what transpires even when you do not understand.”
God Does Whatever He Pleases
The only other explanation we can give for unanswered prayer is that we have not prayed according to the will of God in spite of the fact that we think we have. But God is not trying to trick us. Unanswered prayer is not due to our inability to know God’s will, as if it is a mystery hidden from us. Unanswered prayer is due to our failure to desire God’s will.
I am suggesting that the reason why there is unanswered prayer is because our sinfulness keeps us from seeing the world the way God sees it and so keeps us from wanting things to be done the way God wants them to be done.
Why is there drought where Christian farmers are pleading for rain and at the same time floods where Christian believers are begging God to take the rain away? Why do the prayers of them both go unanswered? Because they do not line up with the will of God. How can we say that drought and floods tornadoes and earthquakes are the will of God?
Because of Psalm 105:16-17. “When [the Lord] summoned a famine on the land and broke all supply of bread, he had sent a man ahead of them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.”
And because of Isaiah 45:7: God says, “I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the LORD, who does all these things.”
And because of Job 42:2, where Job says to God, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”
And because of Psalm 115:3, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.”
If these verses are true, then God is a totally free, totally Sovereign God who is able to do (and indeed does do) whatever it is that pleases him most.
God Wills Some Things that Do Not Happen
But we cannot speak of God’s will only in the sense of what God wants. Thinking of God’s will only in those terms will get us into theological difficulties.
Several years ago a good-intentioned minister was encouraging me to continue to pray for some relatives of mine whom I feared did not know Christ as Savior. “Keep praying, “he said, because if you do, your prayer will be answered. They will be saved.” The reason he told me this was because of 2 Peter 3:9, read in light of 1 John 5:14: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
But this friend failed to understand that “the Scriptures lead us again and again to affirm that God’s will is sometimes spoken of as an expression of his moral standards for human behavior and sometimes as an expression of his sovereign control even over acts which are contrary to that standard.”
In other words, when thinking about the will of God, “We must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen.”
That means that God wills some things that in fact do not happen. How can this be if he is able to do whatever he pleases? The answer is that there is something that he wills more than that everything he is willing to do come to pass. Why is it that many people do perish when God is not willing that any should perish? It is because God’s greater will is “the manifestation of the full range of God’s glory in wrath and mercy and the humbling of man so that he enjoys giving all credit to God for his salvation.” 
So there are at least two ways of speaking about the will of God. There is God’s decreed will that cannot be altered or thwarted. And there is God’s preceptive will that he commands us to obey but we often choose to disregard. Clearly when 1 John 5:14-15 speaks of praying according to the will of God, it means asking God to do what he has already decreed he will do. Because when we pray according to the will of God, we are guaranteed that our request will be granted.
Prayer is Effective and Necessary
Earlier we said that the reason God wants us to pray is not so much to discover his will as to accept his will. It is while he is in communion with God that the pray-er finds his will lining up with the will of God.
But is there more to prayer than that? If the prayers that God promises to answer are requests that line up with what God has decreed he will do anyway, we cannot escape the question “why then does God want us to pray?” Or, if we don’t pray, what is the harm—since God’s will cannot be thwarted? Is there any objective value to prayer or did God design prayer just to change us?
I think this is one of the reasons why John wrote verse 16. John gives us a specific illustration to show us that prayer is not only effective but also very necessary. He says, “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.”
Sin that Leads to Death
First John 5:16 is also probably the most difficult verse in the entire book to comprehend thanks to the reference to “sin that leads to death.” Various suggestions have been made over the years in attempts to interpret the meaning.
The Catholic Church has historically divided sins into two separate categories. Venial sins are relatively minor sins that can be forgiven through the sacraments of the church. Mortal sins are much more severe and threaten the sinner with eternal damnation if they are not absolved. By the 14th century the church had identified seven mortal sins which came to be known as the “seven deadly sins.” But such classifications of sin cannot be found anywhere in the New Testament, so this interpretation should be rejected.
Another common interpretation of “sin unto death” is that it refers to the so-called unpardonable sin in Mark 3:29. That particular sin, called blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, was deliberate rejection of known truth. Those who say that the sin that leads to death is the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit usually say that it involves “a deliberate refusal to believe in the One who alone can give life, Jesus Christ the Son of God.”
I think the best way to view “sin that leads to death” is to take it to referring to sin in general, not to any specific sin. But this verse will make much more sense if we understand the “death” that John refers to here not as physical death, but as spiritual death, eternal condemnation and separation from God. There is no way for us to know whether or not someone has committed “sin that leads to death;” that’s why John reminds us in verse 17 that “all wrongdoing is sin.” All sin is an enemy and a threat to your soul.
So let me summarize what I think John is saying. Several times in this letter John has warned his readers—whom he presumes are true believers in Jesus—to be on guard against the serious effects of sin. Whenever a “brother” sins, it is a serious situation. We have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters in Christ to watch out for their souls. Any sin, if left unchecked, could be the beginning of our apostasy from Christ, just as some in the church to whom John was writing had left the assembly and thereby proved they were never truly apart of it to begin with.
John says that if you see someone in the church sin, you should pray for that person, and if that person is a true believer in Christ, his sin will not lead to final apostasy and eternal condemnation. Rather, through your intercession, he will be given life. Most translations read, “God will give him life,” but the Greek is ambiguous and could just as easily be understood to read that the intercessor will give the erring brother life. Of course it would be understood that it was actually God who gives life to the sinner, but perhaps John wanted us to see how critical our intercession was to the whole process. The sinner will be given life to be sure, but only by means of the intercession of another Christian.
So prayer really does change things; it brings life to a sinner. This seems to be exactly what James tells us in James 5:19-20:
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from teh truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
Yes, we should pray, because God has chosen to accomplish his will, even his life-giving will, by answering the prayers of his people.
Prayer is not magical
It is surely John’s intent to encourage his readers to be a prayerful church. But prayer is not a silver bullet. God is not a genie in a lamp ready to do our bidding. “There is sin that leads to death,” and John is not optimistic that our prayers will do anything to change the outcome in that situation.
In other words, God is still sovereign. He cannot be forced to do our bidding. Those who finally turn away from Christ will not be spared from eternal death, no matter how many of us pray for them. John does not forbid us to pray for anyone, so we should be hesitant to ever stop praying for someone on the grounds that we believe they are guilty of sin that leads to death.
But may we be a church who is faithful to pray, knowing that our prayers really are effective, but also knowing that it is God’s will and not our own that is always accomplished when our prayers are heard.
 Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), comment on John 14:12.
 Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Dallas: Word Books, 1984), 295.
 Richard Wurmbrand, 100 Prison Meditations: Cries of Truth from Behind the Iron Curtain (Bartlesville, OK: Voice of the Martyrs, 2004), 6-7.
 John Piper, The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2000), 331.
 I. Howard Marshall, “Universal Grace and Atonement in the Pastoral Epistles,” in Clark H. Pinnock, ed., The Grace of God, The Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 1995), 56.
 Piper, The Pleasures of God, 334. Piper cites Rom 9:22-23 and 1 Cor 1:29 as support for this viewpoint, which is the Calvinistic viewpoint as opposed to the Arminian viewpoint which argues that it is man’s free will that God values more than the accomplishment of everything he wills.
 I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978), 248.