Earlier this year, a research company surveyed Americans and Britons regarding their confidence in their ability to defeat various animals in unarmed combat. The study presented respondents with fifteen animals and asked, “Which of the following animals, if any, do you think you could beat in a fight if unarmed.” The results were fascinating.
On the lower end of the ferocity spectrum, 68% of American women and 76% of American men were confident in their ability to beat a rat in unarmed battle. British women were slightly less confident (57%) while British men were about as confident (77%) as their American counterparts. Results were similar when gauging confidence in ability to defeat a house cat in battle.
General opinion was that geese are slightly more formidable opponents: 51% of American women and 74% of American men believed they could best Abigail Gabble. The British again displayed lower confidence among women (32%) and roughly the same confidence between American and British men (75%).
Confidence further waned when asked about ability to overcome medium and large dogs, eagles, and King Cobras. Certainty dropped more drastically when asked about wolves, crocodiles, grizzly bears, elephants, lions, and gorillas—though not as drastically as you might imagine. On the whole, Americans were more confident than Britons and men more confident than women. (The single exception is that more American women than American men believed they could beat a lion in unarmed battle.)
Nine percent of American women believed they could defeat a wolf; 8% were confident that they could best a crocodile, grizzly bear, elephant, or lion; and 6% were certain that they could overcome a gorilla. By contrast, British women were 1% confident of their ability across the board.
Sixteen percent of American men felt that a wolf posed little threat, as opposed to 8% of British men. Crocodiles would bow before 10% of American men and 4% of British men. Grizzly bears and elephants would draw the short straw against 9% of American men and 3% of British men. Seven percent of American men were confident of their superior strength to lions and gorillas, as opposed to just 2–3% of British men.
What do we learn from that study? On the one hand, we discover that 28% of Americans and 33% of Britons need to be a little more confident in defending their children against a rat. (I assume the survey did not ask about the formidable Splinter, rat sensei to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.) More tellingly, we learn that 6–8% of Americans and 2% of Britons are probably a little overconfident in their ability to best a grizzly bear, elephant, lion, or gorilla in unarmed battle.
Why do I raise this study? I do so because it highlights the often-flaky nature of human confidence. We are sometimes less confident, and sometimes more confident, than we should be. This is one thing when it comes to cowardice or bravado in hypothetical battle against wild animals and quite another when it comes to certainty about the claims of Christianity.
We live in a world in which certainty is increasingly vilified. Douglas Sean O’Donnell captures it well: “It is a strange day in which we live when doubt is deemed a virtue, skepticism hallowed as humility, and absolute truth viewed as absolutely false.”
To be fair, there is a time to claim certainty and a time to admit uncertainty. That is, there are some things that we should be more certain of than other things, even when it comes to our Christian faith.
Several years ago, in a podcast interview, American atheist philosopher Peter Boghossian asked Phil Vischer, creator of VeggieTales and What’s in the Bible? how certain he was about the claims of Christianity. Vischer thought for a moment before replying, “More than 50%.” He later qualified that he would have answered differently if he were asked, for example, about his certainty in the resurrection of Jesus. His point at the time was that there are a lot of things he believes that he holds quite loosely; that he is open to correction and change.
This is commendable. It is often commendable to be open to change. In fact, it is probably true that most of what you believe about the Bible is not of absolute importance. I don’t say that to undermine the authority of Scripture but to say that we can be wrong about quite a lot in Scripture without it affecting our stand before God. Chris Date often says that, when we stand before God, we will probably learn more about how wrong we were than how right we were. When you stand before God at the final judgement, it will prove relatively unimportant whether you were right in your convictions about the mode of baptism, your interpretation of Revelation, or whether Jesus was actually born on 25 December. You can be wrong about a whole lot and still be a Christian. But there are other claims of Christianity about which we must be certain. That is John’s burden in the closing section of his first letter. This becomes clear as you read 5:13–21.
In many ways, these verses summarise John’s burden throughout his letter. The idea of confidence or certainty (“know”) is all over these verses. John desperately wants his readers to be certain of their standing before God.
In this study, we want to examine this idea of certainty. In one sense, it is academic that 6–8% of Americans and 2% of Britons are wrongly overconfident in their ability to beat a lion in a fistfight. It is unlikely that they will ever be put in such a situation. On the other hand, every person reading this will one day give an answer about whether they were right about Jesus Christ. We desperately need to hear John’s message.
Structurally, John offers a two-part appeal to his readers to be right about Christ (vv. 13, 21) and, within that appeal (vv. 14–20) gives a fourfold warning of the consequences of getting it wrong. This closing section is his answer to the question, how important is it to be right about Jesus Christ?
The Plea to Get it Right
From the outset of this letter, John was burdened to present the true Christ to his readers. He wrote to them about what he had his fellow apostles had “heard,” “seen with [their] eyes,” “looked upon,” and “touched with [their] hands” (1:1). The Gnostic heretics had presented a false view of Jesus Christ to John’s readers, who had been tempted to believe it, and John wrote to correct this. He was deeply burdened that his readers be right about the person of Christ.
For John, disagreement over the person of Christ was more than academic. It was not something over which he could simply agree to disagree with the Gnostics. His readers could not happily coexist in a church in which there were opposing views of Christ: some Gnostic and some apostolic. The apostolic testimony about Jesus Christ was true and the Gnostic vision was a lie. Eternal life itself was in the balance: “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” (v. 13).
John had preached the true gospel and presented Christ to these believers because he wanted them to experience eternal life. He knew that life was to be found in Christ alone—and in Christ as he really is. The only way that they could be certain of eternal life was if they embraced Christ as he truly is.
The apostle strengthens his plea in v. 21 when he writes, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” In 1 John, an idol is not a carved statue. It is not a misplaced priority. In this letter, idolatry is specifically a wrongly held view of Jesus Christ. The Gnostic vision of Jesus was not merely a different spin on Christianity; it was rank idolatry. Any view of Christ that does not align with apostolic teaching is idolatry and we embrace such idolatry to our own eternal peril.
We face a litany of false christs in our own day that we must beware of embracing. Jesus is not merely a guru—a religious teacher with some helpful things to say. He is not a grandfather who always smiles kindly on everything we do, makes excuses for our wrongdoing, and is prepared to bail us out at any moment. He is more than a cheerleader who stands by to congratulate us on how well we are living life.
Jesus is the God-man, born of a virgin, who lived a sinless life, willingly died and was buried for our sins, rose victoriously from the grave, ascended to heaven, and now calls us to follow him in a life of repentance and obedience. He demands our ultimate allegiance. He claims to be the exclusive way to God, the exclusive truth, and the exclusive giver of life. Any view that does not embrace all of this is idolatry and idolatry robs us of eternal life.
This is the crux of the gospel message. While a changed life is certainly evidence of salvation (and we will see this below), our ultimate confidence for eternal life lies not in how we behave but in what we believe about Jesus Christ. If you want to be sure of eternal life, ask yourself what you believe about Jesus. Do you believe that he is who the New Testament says he is? Have you responded accordingly in repentance and faith?
The Peril of Getting it Wrong
In vv. 14–20, John highlights several additional benefits of being right about Christ. Placed within the context of his appeal for his readers to embrace the true Christ, and to thereby avoid idolatry, these benefits come only to those who keep themselves from idols. Those who embrace idols—who embrace a superficial view of Jesus Christ—miss out on these benefits. The offer of the gospel is extended to all, but the benefits of the gospel are only given to those who embrace Christ as he is. John highlights four benefits of embracing Christ as he is. Conversely, these can be viewed as four things that we miss out on if we embrace idols. In a sense, then, these verses highlight the fourfold peril of being wrong about Christ.
First, if you are wrong about Christ, you lose out on effective prayer: “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 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” (vv. 14–15).
It is an incredible truth that Christians can approach God confidently in prayer. Confidence is not presumption. We do not approach God with arrogant presumption that he owes us whatever we ask. Indeed, we are confident only to the degree that “we ask anything according to his will.” Prayers outside of his will are entirely ineffective. You cannot pray confidently for God to help you not get caught as you cheat on your exam. You cannot pray confidently for bitter revenge against a colleague who has upset you. You cannot pray confidently for God to help you hide an inappropriate relationship from your spouse. But when you pray in accordance with God’s will, you can do so with confidence.
Confident prayer must also be believing prayer. Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13–14). To pray in Jesus’ name is not simply to add those words to the end of a self-focused prayer. To pray in Jesus’ name is to pray in utter reliance on him, knowing that your prayers can only be effective as he intercedes for you. It is to pray with the conscious acknowledgement that you cannot earn God’s favour and that you can come to him with your requests only in the merit of Christ.
As we pray in Jesus’ name, according to God’s will, we can pray with confidence. But if we embrace idolatry—if we embrace a false view of Jesus Christ—our confidence in prayer entirely erodes. Our prayers are entirely ineffective if we do not pray them in deliberate reliance upon Christ as he really is.
Second, if you are wrong about Christ, you lose out on eternal life: “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. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death” (vv. 16–17).
These verses have caused a great deal of debate and have invited at least four distinct interpretations. If we consider the immediate context, however, as well as the broader context of the book, I believe what John is saying becomes evident.
John’s broad concern in this section is that we embrace a correct view of Jesus Christ—that we avoid idolatry. I believe that the “sin that leads to death” in this context is specifically a rejection of apostolic teaching about Jesus Christ. This is a “sin that leads to death” in the sense that it shows that a person is still dead in their trespasses and sins. While “all wrongdoing is sin” not all wrongdoing is evidence that a person is still dead in his sins. But a rejection of apostolic teaching concerning the person of Christ is exactly that.
Christians sin. John has highlighted that in this letter. He has gone so far as to say that we call God a liar if we claim to never sin (1:10). He has pleaded with his readers to confess their sin (1:9) and has encouraged us that Jesus is our advocate when we do sin (2:1–6). Now, he urges his readers to help others by prayer when they sin.
One way to pray according to God’s will is to pray for your brothers and sisters in Christ when you see them sin. When you see a fellow church member sin, pray that God will convict them of their sin, bring them to confession, and thus forgive their sin and cleanse them from unrighteousness. Since repentance is one sign of spiritual life, praying in this way will result in God giving renewed life to the Christian who has sinned. This does not mean that the person has lost their salvation when they sin and that God restores their salvation upon repentance; it means that the evidence of life in Christ can be seen in the person by their repentance.
But John warns that not every sin is the same. There are sins that a believer can commit and of which that believer must repent. But the “sin that leads to death” is different. This is a sin that proves that one does not have life. When a person commits this sin, it becomes evident that that person is not a Christian. It does no good to pray for that person to confess and thereby be restored to the joy of their salvation because the very commission of the sin highlights that the person does not have salvation. That sin, I believe, is rejection of apostolic teaching regarding the person of Christ. It is rejection of essential doctrine about Jesus Christ.
There is room for debate about theological matters. There is even room for debate about matters relating to Christ that the apostles never addressed. (Was Jesus born on 25 December? Did he die on a Friday?) But the clear apostolic claims about Christ must be embraced to receive eternal life. You cannot deny core truth about Jesus Christ and be a Christian. If, for example, you reject that Jesus is the Son of God who died physically on a Roman cross for your sins and rose bodily from the grave, you are not a Christian. To reject clear apostolic teaching on the person and work of Christ is to commit a sin that leads to death—to commit a sin that proves you are still dead in your trespasses and sins. It is to commit a sin that proves you do not have eternal life.
I ask again, do you believe what the apostles taught about Jesus Christ? John warned his readers that to reject the apostolic teaching about the person of Christ was to forfeit eternal life. What you believe about Christ is, quite literally, a matter of life or death—eternal life or eternal death.
Third, if you are wrong about Jesus Christ, you lose out on the gift of spiritual protection: “We 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. We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (v. 18–19).
Christians cannot commit the sin that leads to death because that sin proves that one does not have eternal life. But Christians can commit all sorts of other sins. Christians can lie, cheat, and steal. Christians can commit murder and adultery. Christians can take God’s name in vain and profane the Sabbath. Christians can be guilty of covetousness, lust, and envy. But the mark of Christianity is repentance. When Christians sin, they repent and, over time, grow in their commitment and ability to overcome sin. “Everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning.”
When someone claims to be a Christian but persists in sin in an unrepentant fashion, it gives us good cause to question their profession of faith. That is why churches are instructed to treat unrepentant church members as Gentiles and tax collectors (Matthew 18:17). When a person will not repent of sin, they are making a statement with their lives. They are professing by their refusal to repent that they are not Christian because “everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning.” If you do “keep on sinning” you are making a statement—a statement that you have not been born of God.
The reason that “everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning” is that “he who was born of God protects him.” “He who was born of God,” in this context, is Jesus Christ. Jesus protects those who believe in him from a life of unrepentant sin.
The devil, on the other hand, is “the evil one” who wishes to hold us under his power. The only adequate protection from Satan’s power is Jesus Christ. We must embrace Christ as he is if we will receive divine protection from the evil one, who desperately wants to hold us captive to sin. But if we reject the apostolic Christ, we lose the only means of protection adequate to keep us safe from Satan and the evil world system.
The Gnostic gospel offered no protection against sin and Satan. That protection comes only in and through the Christ whom the apostles preached. John’s readers could experience wonderful protection against Satan—but only if they believed the apostolic testimony about Jesus Christ. If they embraced the Gnostic gospel they forfeited this promised protection. The same is true of us: If we will benefit from Christ’s protection, we must embrace him as he is. If we embrace an idol, we will lack the power to resist sin and Satan.
I ask once more, who do you believe Jesus Christ is? Do you find that you lack the ability to resist temptation? Do you find that you lack the desire to repent of sin when it is pointed out to you? Then ask yourself, do I believe in the Christ of the apostles, or have I embraced an idol and thereby forfeited God’s promised protection in Christ?
Fourth, if you are wrong about Jesus Christ, you lose out on the spiritual knowledge that God reveals to his children: “And 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, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life” (v. 20).
Do you want to know God? Do you experience the restlessness of heart of which Augustine spoke when he said, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in you?” Your longing for knowledge will be satisfied only in Jesus Christ.
The greatest truths of life and the universe are encapsulated in Jesus Christ. We cannot know God, or what he expects of us, without embracing Jesus Christ.
Christians sometimes fall into the trap of wishing that they can move beyond the basic truths of the gospel to deeper, more spiritual truths. The New Testament affirms that the gospel is “the depths of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10). We can go no deeper into the Christian faith than focusing on Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. Everything we need to know about God can be found in Christ. If you have embraced Christ as he is, you have opened the tap to a world of spiritual knowledge that comes in and through him.
Conversely, to ignore Christ is to lose out on knowledge of the true God. This is crucial to understand. There has been a great deal of debate in recent years over whether Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God. Each of these major world religions claims to worship the God of Abraham. Do we simply worship the same God in a different guise?
John says that we come to the knowledge of the true God through Jesus Christ. In him is knowledge. In him is eternal life. Apart from Christ, as he is revealed in the Scriptures, knowledge of God, and the eternal life that comes with it, are impossible.
What do you believe about Jesus Christ? Have you embraced a faulty, superficial view, which hinders your growth in the knowledge of God, or have you embraced Christ as he is, leading you to a fountain of spiritual knowledge? Embrace the apostolic Christ today.
Those who believe in the Christ the apostles preached have wonderful certainty. They have confidence of effective prayer, confidence of eternal life, confidence of spiritual protection, and confidence of theological knowledge. This confidence comes to them in and through Christ alone.
One last time, let me ask, who is Jesus Christ? How do you answer that question? Your embrace or rejection of Christ, as preached by the apostles, has consequences in this life and in the life to come.
If you have embraced the Christ of the apostles, then rejoice in the confidence you have in effective prayer, eternal life, spiritual protection, and theological knowledge. If you are holding onto an idol, repent today, believe in Jesus, whom John preached, and receive the gift of eternal life and the benefits that go with it.