By Dr. Robert R. Seyda


CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson CVII) 04/10/23

5:16 Suppose you see your fellow believer sinning (a sin that does not lead to eternal death). You should pray for them. Then God will keep them spiritually alive. However, there is sin that leads to death. So, prayer for that kind of sinner will not help.

When we look back on our lives, I wonder how many people and situations we saw headed for harm and destruction, but instead of standing in the breach, we stood in judgment and did not care if they fell to their ruin.  John makes sure his readers understood whom he was talking about.

I’m sure John was aware of a form of censorship practiced among the Jews in his day.  It was a form of what we call today “ex-communication.”  In Hebrew, it is called “shammetha.[1]  At first, it was observed that people were released from all debts every seven years.[2]  But it eventually began to refer to someone who was discharged or separated from the congregation.  In one place, we read: “For it is taught: ‘One who has been ‘separated’ [as under a ban] by the Master is [deemed] ‘separated’ from the disciple, but one who has been ‘separated’ by the disciple is not [deemed] ‘separated’ from the Master.’ [That means], not ‘separated’ from the Master; but to everybody else, he is [‘separated’].”[3]

We read in the Jewish Talmud that it became a form of enforced public discipline, especially if they were denounced for having sinned against the words [of Holy Writ] which is called “Shammetha.”[4] When Rabbis discussed the subject of how the word “shammetha” came about, we read: “What is [the etymology of the word] shammetha? Said Rab, [It is], sham-mitah, ‘death is there.’  Samuel said, [It is], shemamah yihye, ‘he shall be a desolation [staying there as a curse]; and its effects adhere to one like grease to the oven.”[5]  So we can see how John equates those mistakes made by believers as not being of the same magnitude as the Jewish shammetha. Today, the Amish people call it “shunning.”

Here we see that the early church fathers developed the distinction between Mortal and Venial Sin, as taught by the Roman Catholic Church today. Under Jewish law, there were sins for which sacrifices could be offered to receive forgiveness. Still, other sins required stoning to death or being cut off from the congregation and never allowed into the Temple or synagogue again.  It is demonstrated by what happened to Dothan and Abiram for offering strange fire on the altar.[6]

We also find this distinction between mortal sin and moral sin when Eli, the high priest, warned his sons, “‘If one person sins against another, God may mediate for the offender; but if anyone sins against the Lord, who will intercede for them?’ His sons, however, did not listen to their father’s rebuke, for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death.[7] So John makes it clear that when it comes to mortal sin.

This kind of sin can only receive forgiveness through the prayer of the guilty person to God.  They must confess and be apologetic for their wrongdoing.  And only God, through the Anointed One, can forgive them.  No priest, saint, elder, pastor, bishop, or other religious person can pray that prayer for the sinner. 

God made this very clear to Jeremiah, “Do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you.[8] When Jesus prayed His prayer for the disciples, He told the Father, “I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those, You have given me, for they are Yours.[9] Therefore, John is not excusing moral wrongdoing. 

The point is not that if God hears our prayers, He grants them (as if we could ever pray to Him without His being aware of it), but that if we know that He hears our prayers, we already have what we have asked following His will. It may be years before we perceive that our prayers have been answered: perhaps we may never be able to see this in this world, but we know that God has responded to them.

So, we see that God “hears” all prayers because He is all-knowing, but He only listens to those prayers under certain conditions. Corresponding confidence of assured answer to prayer follows the conviction of being heard.  We “know” that God hears us due to Spirit-imparted information. John conditioned “whatever” with “according to His will” in the previous verse. When a child of God believes God’s promises in prayer, God moves His hand for that believer. 

However, God has specific rules for answering prayer, first, praying in Jesus’ name [Yeshua, meaning “Savior”] consistent with His person and works and based on that authority,[10] abiding in fellowship (the Spirit-filled life),[11] and asking in faith,[12] according to God’s will.[13] God never violates Himself to answer our prayers.  He will not contradict His holiness to answer prayer.  As a parent will not give a sharp knife to a small child, so God will not provide certain things to His children.  He loves us too much to do that.  God will not give us something that will hurt us.

On the other hand, God does give us things we ask for according to His will. God wants to provide you with more than you imagine as you give your children more than oatmeal and underwear. If we would capitalize on this privilege of prayer, He will do amazing things for us.[14]

How does this position respecting God’s hearing of our prayers affect the question of intercession for the salvation of others, and especially of an erring spiritual brother or sister? If any prayer can be made with confidence of success, surely it is this. It is an unselfish prayer, a blessing of love. It is also a prayer in harmony with God’s will, a prayer for the extension of His kingdom.

The Apostle John points out that this reasonable expectation has limits. 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 believer’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. And this seems to be the meaning of “unforgivable sin;” (willful and obstinate rejection of God’s grace and persistence in unrepented sin).

When it comes to the word “death,” it corresponds to “life” spoken of above; and if the one is eternal, why not the other? Are sins punished with loss of life in this world, whether by human law or Divine will be meant? Christians have often suffered agonies of mind, fearing that they have committed what they supposed to be the “unforgivable sin.” But if they do not seek a pardon, they may come near to it. There are certain statements made respecting this mysterious passage against which we must be on our guard.

It is laid down as a canon of interpretation that the “unforgivable sin” is one that can be known and recognized by the intercessor. John neither says nor implies this. He indicates that some sins may be perceived but not unforgivable sins. Again, it is asserted by some that John forbids us to pray concerning unpardonable sin. The apostle is much more reserved. He encourages us to intercede for a sinning spiritual brother or sister with complete confidence in receiving an answer. But there is a limit to this. The sinner may be sinning deadly; in that case, John does not encourage us to pray.

So, the object of prayer in this verse is a believer out of fellowship with God. The Greek noun adelphois, “brother,” clearly indicates that the person in need of prayer is a Christian.[15]  The words “a sin” suggest that the issue is a specific or identifiable sin. The person who prays about this situation must “see” the sinning for themselves. They do not buy into religious gossip or slander. Christians operate on the principle of objectivity when correcting fallen Christians. 

Therefore, the issue here is not rumor or gossip via the grapevine but objective knowledge about the fact of a Christian’s sin.  Secondhand information might be false.  The usual response is to react subjectively to some sinful tendency in a believer. However, the spiritual believer does not pick up the phone and tell everyone they know about it.

The idea of “death” here is not spiritual death but physical.  Some Christians die prematurely because of prolonged unconfessed sin.[16] Some Christians die physically before their expected time. Christians begin eternal life at the point of salvation and can never lose that salvation at any future issue.[17] Christians also have the possibility of sinning until they reach the grave. There are several occasions of the “unforgivable sin” in the Word of God. 

Ananias and Sapphira are cases in point.[18]  God sentenced them to death for misrepresentation of the facts.  Paul assigned a Corinthian Christian living in incest to die should they refuse to repent.[19] The prophet Moses committed the unpardonable sin by striking the rock.[20] Also, Achan, one of the twins born to Judah and Tamar, committed an inexcusable sin by hiding condemned garments. He and his family were put to death for this.[21] 

However, we should not confuse the “unforgivable sin” with the unpardonable sin. Only unbelievers can commit an unpardonable sin; these are two different situations. The unpardonable sin was the sin of attributing the miracles of the Anointed One to the work of Satan.

Furthermore, the spiritual Christian who asks God to intervene for the carnal Christian to save their spiritual life.  “Life” here is fellowship with the Lord.  Sin separates us from God’s family.  Christians can effectually pray for the spiritual condition of believers out of friendship. This is a case in which prayer is effectual.  Any sin not involving the unforgivable sin is amenable to God answering prayer.  It is difficult to distinguish between those who commit the sin unto physical death and those who do not.  The spiritual life of the person who does not commit sin punishable by death is worth saving. 

Another thing to notice is that “pray” is a different Greek word than “ask” earlier in this verse.  The idea of “pray” is to request or inquire.  John does not encourage his readers to inquire about the healing of a narrow-minded Christian because the carnal Christian has willingly severed their relationship with God. That is a matter between the carnal Christian and God. God has His way of dealing with the obstinate. Christians living in ongoing sin can reach the point of being under a physical death sentence. Most sins that Christians commit do not result in immediate physical death or a sentence of physical death.  That is why we can pray for them. 

There is a sin where prayer is not effectual. It is an exception to the general rule that God answers all prayers prayed according to His will. So, for instance, it is useless to request a person out of God’s will with plans to sin until they die because he is under sin’s death sentence. That’s why the reference here is not to the sin leading to spiritual death – eternal separation from God.  Of course, all sin ultimately leads to death, but that is not the meaning here.  The idea here is that a Christian can die a premature physical death because of prolonged and stubborn carnality.

My, what a call for repentance and reconciliation!  This is what John was talking about and what he wanted his readers to be aware of.  While we may be familiar with Paul’s saying, “For the wages of sin is death,[22] we may not be as acquainted with this saying of James, “Then when lust is conceived, it brings forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, brings forth death.[23] So what does John mean here when he talks about seeing, “…a Christian spiritual brother or sister sinning in a way that does not lead to death?”[24]

In this verse, let’s look at what John says about sin: “Every kind of wrong-doing is sin.”  The Greek noun hamartia John uses here means: “missing the mark, to err, to be mistaken, (as in making the wrong choice”). However, John is clear that when someone who is part of the Kingdom of God errs or misses the mark, this does not lead to death. He goes even further when you see a Christian spiritual brother or sister sinning, should you pray for them to turn away and be forgiven?

When it comes to sinners, our prayer should be for the Holy Spirit to help us be instrumental in bringing them the good news to convict them of their sins and draw them to the Anointed One where they can be cleansed and made new. Prayer for a sinner’s sins to be forgiven is like a prayer for a single person not to get a divorce. You must be married for that to be a possibility.  So, it is with praying for a person’s forgiveness. They must be followers of the Anointed One before the Father can answer such a prayer. So, when it comes to a sinner getting forgiveness for their sin, they must be the one to pray that prayer, not you.

For instance, to maintain a system of Penitence, medieval Roman Catholic scholars invented categories of sins, mortal and venial,[25] with no such technicalities in mind. By “deadly sins,” they meant all such as the John recognizes here in verses sixteen and seventeen, and none other; that is to say, sins of surprise and spiritual weakness, having no malice or willful disobedience, such as prejudice or momentary neglect of duty. Should a dying person fail to recognize such an end’s fearful nature even after a life of love and obedience, not repent of such sin before expiring?[26]

The ethical or moral classifications of sins under the heads of mortal and venial have been based upon the Apostle James’ words.[27] It lends no authority to such attempts and has worked untold mischief in the Church. The Apostle John tells us that the distinction between mortal and venial exists, but he supplies us with no test by which one person can judge another in this respect. By pointedly abstaining from making any classification of sins into mortal and venial, he virtually condemns it. What neither he nor the Apostle Paul ventured to do, we may well shrink from doing. The same overt act may be a mortal sin in one case but not another.

The attitude of mind with which the sinner contemplates their act before and after the commission makes all the difference, and how seldom this is known to fellow believers! The change from the Greek verb aiteō, “we ask,” to the verb erōtaō, “pray for it,” is noteworthy. John uses the former in verses fourteen and fifteen, at the beginning of verse sixteen, and the latter at the end of verse sixteen. The latter is the less humble word of the two and is often used by equals or superiors requesting compliance with their wishes. Perhaps the Apostle John uses it here to indicate that a prayer of this kind is not humble.

[1] Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Mo’ed Katan, folio 14b, Shammetha, meaning “to ban

[2] See Deuteronomy 15:1-2

[3] Babylonian Talmud: Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Mo’ed Katan, folio 17a

[4] Ibid. folio 14b, footnote (11)

[5] Ibid. folio 17a

[6] Numbers 16:1-35

[7] 1 Samuel 2:25

[8] Jeremiah 7:16; cf. 11:14; 14:11-12

[9] John 17:9

[10] Ibid. 14:13-14; 16:23-24

[11] John 15:7; Psalm 66:18; James 4:3

[12] James 1:5-8; Jeremiah 33:3

[13] 1 John 5:14

[14] Proverbs 15:29; Luke 11:1; 18:1; Acts of the Apostles 6:4; 12:5; Romans 12:12; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; 1 Peter 4:7

[15] 1 John 2:9-11; 3:14-15; 5:1

[16] 1 Corinthians 5:5; 11:30

[17] John 10:10; 10:28-29; 17:11

[18] Acts of the Apostles 5:1-11

[19] 1 Corinthians 5:1-5

[20] Numbers 20:8, 12

[21] Joshua 7:19-26

[22] Romans 6:23

[23] Romans 6:23

[24] See verse 16 above

[25] In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1885) also (1861 & 1863)

[26] Tertullian: Ante-Nicene Fathers, Elucidations, Vol. 3, op. cit., p. 761

[27] James 1:15

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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