One of my classes this season has been on preaching. Last week, for the final, I preached on this text from 1 John 5:
14And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.
16If 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.
18We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.
It’s a loaded passage and very difficult to make sense of at first glance, especially for those of us who haven’t yet been steeped in biblical study and theological reflection for a few decades. So I spent some time getting to know the epistle overall, and these words in particular, as well as some similar and related sayings of Christ in the gospel books, and eventually came up with what I hope is a decent understanding which made for a really great sermon, if I may say so myself. It’s a tad long to be posted here, but its highlights are worth sharing, especially as this passage has become a major staple in my understanding of the sacrament of confession & absolution.
This passage comes in two main pieces, one on prayer and one on giving life to Christians who sin. Verses 14 & 15 highlight the basic teaching that God hears and answers all prayer that is made according to His will. This is pretty straightforward, and is even highlighted by Christ towards the end of the gospel of John. Verses 16b-17 contain the oft-distracting material about mortal sin. I don’t think this is meant to draw a distinction between mortal sin and venial sin within the Christian community, but rather, draw the distinction between believers and nonbelievers. This is staked on the assertion that John has a high view of unlimited atonement such that the only thing keeping nonbelievers from the Kingdom of Heaven is their lack of faith in Christ. The mortal sin, to John, surely, must be rejecting Christ’s offer of salvation. Thus, this whole thing is almost an aside, clarifying that although all sin is bad, Christians’ sins are forgivable through this ministry of prayer. Remember, it isn’t harsh to say that nonchristians can’t get their sins forgiven unless they become Christians… that’s part of the whole point of Christianity!
Verse 16a is the heart of the message in this passage. If any Christian sins, he or she should be prayed for and given life. Literally, the text seems to be “pray and give him life,” though it’s usually translated “pray and God will give him life” (as the Latin title of this post reads), because we believe Jesus is the source of true life. But the fact that we get to participate in this process at all is pretty incredible. Most Protestants tend to ignore or reject such a notion because it sounds “too Catholic,” never mind that it appears in Scripture. But coupled with Christ’s words to the Apostles, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven,” the fact is undeniable: we have a scriptural injunction to pray for the forgiveness of each others’ sins. Logically, (as well as explicitly stated by James and John) this means we also need to confess our sins to each other so that those prayers can be made with proper fervor and sincerity.
Confessing sins can be done in a number of ways, and I listed these four in my sermon:
- A small group, especially for specific types of sins, is a great way for people to keep each other accountable. (Think AA as an example.)
- Having an accountability partner, who is willing to ask the difficult questions to make sure your life is godly in all aspects, is one of the strongest ways of going about this.
- Prayers of general confession in corporate worship services, although not so strong at addressing our specific or deep-rooted sins, are valuable for reminding us on a regular basis that we are sinful and in constant need of renewal.
- Making specific confessions to a priest can be a powerful experience, not only in baring your soul before a leader within the Christian community, but also in receiving a powerful prayer of absolution in the name of all Christ’s Church.
Something important to note about priestly confession & absolution is that it does not have to be an anonymous confessional booth with the creepy unseen priest behind a wood mesh screen. These days it is often done face to face, across a table, at the altar rail, in an office or study, with a more loving pastoral atmosphere to it. One person I spoke with the other day told me that she was uncomfortable confessing to a man, so she confessed to a female deacon, who then brought in the priest to pronounce the absolution on the deaconess’ silent testimony. It’s all a matter of pastoral care and concern for fulfilling the biblical mandate to carry out this aspect of the ministry of reconciliation.
I preached this on Thursday morning in class, and right afterward, at noon, I had an appointment to make a confession with a priest on campus. It was a pretty deep experience to practice what I preached, to submit myself to this powerful ministry of the Church, especially as it helped to prepare me for Confirmation three days later. It feels a bit overly dramatic to say that I’m a changed man because of it, though I have been unusually watchful for sin and depravity in my life since. It turns out there’s also a practical psychological benefit for practicing confession – it can inspire one to live better. (Though I will not deny that the Sacrament of the Eucharist is, in part, something that does grow us in Christlikeness.)
To summarize the message of the passage, I offer these three exhortations:
Pray your confessions with serious intent;
take real comfort in prayers for forgiveness (absolution),
knowing that it is God’s will to wash you as white as snow.