From: 1 John 5:14-21
Prayer for Sinners
The Christian’s Confidence as a Child of God
 We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil
 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding,
to know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ.
This is the true God and eternal life.  Little children, keep yourselves from
13-21. St John’s words in v. 13 are evocative of the first epilogue to his Gospel,
where he explains why he wrote that book: “that you may believe that Jesus is
the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (Jn
20:31). In this verse of the letter, the Apostle stresses the efficacy of faith, which
is already an anticipation of eternal life (cf. notes on 1 Jn 3:2; 5:9-12).
His final counsels are designed to strengthen our confidence in prayer and to
urge the need for prayer on behalf of sinners (vv. 14-17); they also stress the con-
viction and confidence that faith in the Son of God gives the believer (vv. 18-21).
14-15. Earlier, the Apostle referred to confidence in prayer and to how we can be
sure of receiving what we pray for: that confidence comes from the fact that “we
keep his commandments and do what pleases him” (1 Jn 3:22). Now he stres-
ses that God always listens to us, if we ask “according to his will”. This condi-
tion can be taken in two ways, as St Bede briefly explains: “Insofar as we ask
for the things he desires, and insofar as those of us who approach him are as he
desires us to be” (”In I Epist. S. Ioannis, ad loc.”). The asker therefore needs to
strive to live in accordance with God’s will, and to identify himself in advance with
God’s plans. If one does not try to live in keeping with God’s commandments,
one cannot expect him to listen to one’s prayers.
When prayer meets those requirements, “we know that we have obtained the re-
quests made of him”, as our Lord himself assured us: “if you ask anything in my
name, I will do it” (Jn 14:14). “It is not surprising, then,” the Cure of Ars teaches,
“that the devil should do everything possible to influence us to give up prayer or
to pray badly, because he knows better than we do how terrible it is for hell and
how impossible it is that God should refuse us what we ask him for in prayer.
How many sinners would get out of sin if they managed to have recourse to pra-
yer!” (”Selected Sermons”, Fifth Sunday after Easter).
16-17. “Mortal sin”: the meaning of the original text is “sin which leads to death”.
The gravity of this sin (St John does not specify its exact nature) recalls the gra-
vity of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (cf. Mt 12:31-32) and of the sin of apo-
stasy which Hebrews speaks of (Heb 6:4-8).
The Fathers have interpreted this expression in various ways, referring to different
grave sins. In the context of the letter (in the previous chapters St John often
speaks about the antichrists and false prophets who “went out” from the commu-
nity: 2:19) the best interpretation seems to be that of St Bede and St Augustine,
who apply it to the sin of the apostate who, in addition, attacks the faith of other
Christians. “My view is”, St Augustine says, “that the sin unto death is the sin
of the brother who, after knowing God by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, at-
tacks brotherly union and in a passion of envy reacts against that very grace by
which he was reconciled to God” (”De Sermo Dom. in monte”, l, 22, 73).
If St John does not expressly command his readers to pray for these sinners,
it does not mean that they are beyond recovery, or that it is useless to pray for
them. Pope St Gelasius I teaches: “There is a sin of death for those who persist
in that same sin; there is a sin not of death for those who desist from sin. There
is, certainly, no sin for the pardon of which the Church does not pray or from
which, by the power which was divinely granted to it, it cannot absolve those
who desist from it” (”Ne forte”).
Referring to this passage of St John, Pope John Paul II says: “Obviously, the
concept of death here is a spiritual death. It is a question of the loss of the true
life or ‘eternal life’, which for John is knowledge of the Father and the Son (cf. Jn
17:3), and communion and intimacy with them. In that passage the sill that leads
to death seems to be the denial of the Son (cf. 1 Jn 2:22), or the worship of false
gods (cf. 1 Jn 5:21). At any rate, by this distinction of concepts John seems to
wish to emphasize the incalculable seriousness of what constitutes the very es-
sence of sin, namely the rejection of God. This is manifested above all in aposta-
sy and idolatry: repudiating faith in revealed truth and, making certain created re-
alities equal to God, raising them to the status of idols”; and false gods (cf. 1 Jn
And after referring to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (cf. Mt 12:31-32) he adds:
“Here of course it is a question of extreme and radical manifestations — rejection
of God, rejection of his grace, and therefore opposition to the very source of salva-
tion (cf. St Thomas, “Summa Theologiae”, II-II, q. 14, a. 1-3) — these are manifes-
tations whereby a person seems to exclude himself voluntarily from the path of
forgiveness. It is to be hoped that very few persist to the end in this attitude of re-
bellion or even defiance of God. Moreover, God in his merciful love is greater than
our hearts, as St John further teaches us (cf. 1 Jn 3:20), and can overcome all
our psychological and spiritual resistance. So that, as St Thomas writes, ‘consi-
dering the omnipotence and mercy of God, no one should despair of the salvation
of anyone in this life’ (”Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 14, a. 3, ad 1)” (”Reconciliatio
et Paenitentia”, 17).
18-20. “We know”: each of these verses begins this way. He does not mean theo-
retical knowledge but that understanding that comes from living faith. St John is
once again stressing the Christian’s joyful confidence, which he has expounding
throughout the letter (cf. 2:3-6 and note). This confidence is grounded on three ba-
sic truths: 1) he who is born of God does not sin (cf. 1 Jn 3:6-9 and note); 2) “we
are of God”, and therefore we are particularly free of the world, which is still in the
power of the evil one (cf. 4:4; 5:12); 3) the Son of God has become man (cf. 4:2;
5:1). The incarnation of the Word is the central truth which sheds light on the two
previous ones, because our supernatural insight is the effect of the Incarnation (v.
20): Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is also eternal life, for only in him can
we attain that life.
18. “In this Johannine affirmation”, Pope John Paul II teaches, “there is an indica-
tion of hope, based on the divine promises: the Christian has received the guaran-
tee and the necessary strength not to sin. It is not a question therefore of a sin-
lessness acquired through one’s own virtue or even inherent in man, as the Gnos-
tics thought. It is a result of God’s action. In order not to sin the Christian has
knowledge of God, as St John reminds us in this same passage. But a little ear-
lier he had written: ‘No one born of God commits sin; for God’s seed [RSV: “na-
ture”] abides in him’ (1 Jn 3:9). If by ‘God’s seed’ we understand, as some com-
mentators suggest, Jesus the Son of God, then we can say that in order not to
sin, or in order to gain freedom from sin, the Christian has within himself the pre-
sence of Christ and the mystery of Christ, which is the mystery of God’s loving
kindness” (”Reconciliatio et Paentientia”, 20).
19. “The whole world is in the power of the evil one”: although the Greek term
may be neuter and would allow a more abstract translation (”in the power of evil”),
it is more consistent with the context to take it in a personal sense. St John is
pointing up the contrast between Christ’s followers and those of the evil one:
whereas the world (in the pejorative sense) is like a slave in the power of the devil,
true Christians are in Christ, as free people, with a share in Christ’s own life. “We
have been born of God through grace and have been reborn in Baptism through
faith. On the other hand, those who love the world are in the power of the enemy,
be it because they have not yet been liberated from him by the waters of regene-
ration or because, after their rebirth, they have once more submitted to his rule
through sinning” (”In I Epist. S. Ioannis, ad loc.”).
20. “Him who is true”: that is, the only true God as distinct from false gods; the
Jews used to refer to God as “the True”, without naming him. When St John
goes on to say that “we are in him, who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ”, he is
confessing the divinity of Christ and the fact that he is the only mediator between
the Father and mankind.
21. Although at first sight, this formal exhortation may seem surprising, it was
appropriate in its time, because these first Christians were living in the midst of
a pagan world, and were exposed to the danger of idolatry.
However, St John may be speaking metaphorically: the true danger facing Chris-
tians, then and now, is that of following the idols of the heart — that is, sin; in
which case he is giving this final counsel: Keep away from sin, be on guard a-
gainst those whose fallacious arguments could lead you to sin.
Source: “The Navarre Bible: Text and Commentaries”. Biblical text from the
Revised Standard Version and New Vulgate. Commentaries by members of
the Faculty of Theology, University of Navarre, Spain.
Published by Four Courts Press, Kill Lane, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, Ireland, and
by Scepter Publishers in the United States.