By Dr. Robert R. Seyda


CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson CVIII) 04/11/23

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, you shouldn’t pray for that kind of sinner.


This verse has comments, interpretations, and insights of the Early Church Fathers, Medieval Thinkers, Reformation Theologians, Revivalist Teachers, Reformed Scholars, and Modern Commentators.

Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 AD) was one of the most influential early Christian theologians. He reports that an impostor named Callistus[1] established a school of theology in resentment of the Church. He first invented the policy regarding indulgence in sensual pleasures, saying that he had all their sins. For those who attend a different congregation and is called Christian, should they commit any wrongdoing, they are not responsible for their forgiveness unless they hurry over and join his school of theology. Many people were content with their regulation since they were convicted in their conscience and rejected by numerous sects. After being forcibly ejected from the Church.[2]These new followers of Callistus crowded into his school.

One of Callistus’ teachings was that if a bishop was guilty of any sin if even an unforgivable sin,[3] he ought not be deposed. As a result, bishops, priests, and deacons, who had been twice and thrice married, were allowed to retain their position among the clergy. Also, should anyone ordained get married, Callistus permitted them to continue in their ministry if they had not sinned. After all, does not the Scriptures say, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?[4] Not only that, but our Lord stated, “Let the tares grow along with the wheat.”[5] In other words, let those who are guilty of sin remain in it.

This imposter Callistus also pointed out that when Noah gathered the animals into the ark, both dogs, wolves, and ravens, he kept everything clean and unclean safe from the flood. So, says Callistus, should the Church not proceed in the same manner?  But, Hippolytus marvels, how can so many Scriptures be falsely interpreted?[6] Is it any wonder that what Hippolytus thought to be blasphemous and immoral became common practice in the Church later and followed to this day? I’m sure the Apostle John would tremble and weep if he were told this is how his words in verse sixteen were so misused.

With a studious monk’s spiritual insight, Bede the Venerable (672-735 AD) distinguishes between “mortal” and “moral” sins. According to God’s will, these things are asked for because they are part of what it means to love our brothers. John is talking here about trivial, everyday sins that are hard to avoid but easy to put right. The question of what constitutes a mortal sin is complicated, and it is hard to accept that there are people whom John tells us not to pray for when our Lord tells us that we should pray for those who persecute us.

The only answer to this is that there must be sins committed inside the brothers’ fellowship which are even more severe than persecution from outside enemies. Mortal sin, therefore, occurs when a brother opposes friendship after he acknowledges God by the grace of our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One given to him, and when he starts to fight against that grace, by which he has been reconciled to God, with the weapons of hatred. But on the other hand, a nonmortal sin does not infringe on brotherly love but merely fails to show it adequately because of some weakness of the mind.[7]

Respected Reformation writer Matthew Poole (1624-1679) interprets what the Apostle John says here in verse sixteen about unforgivable sin. It implies that the erring member does not appear uncooperative or uncaring. Therefore, they should pray for their recovery with confidence.[8] But there is an unpardonable sin, namely, which does not deserve death, as all sin does, nor which argues a person to be probably in a present state of death or born again, which the sinful ways may do of many that never made profession; but of such as have apostatized from a former careless profession of faith into heresy and immorality, and continue with stubbornness against all methods of recovery, are referred to as “twice dead.”[9] John did not forbid praying for these lawless sinners, but neither did he not encourage prayer for them without any hope or expectation of success[10]

Influenced by his Arminian view of salvation, Daniel Whitby (1638-1726) says we should note the phrase here. “He shall give him life” cannot reasonably be interpreted as eternal life for three reasons: 1) Eternal life does not depend on the prayers of others; nor can they be sure that their intercession will succeed since it belongs only to them who truly repent and reform their lives. 2) Because the person’s sin is not mortal; namely, they have not committed a sin that requires eternal damnation. 3) An unforgivable sin is that which eternal death will undoubtedly follow, by God’s decree.

The Apostle John’s words, “If a believer sees their spiritual brother or sister committing a moral sin,” sounds like those of the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “If they see someone overtaken with a fault,”[11] defined as an act of injustice against a fellow believer. So, to awaken them from their wrongdoing, God inflicted sickness on them, as He did on the Corinthians.[12] That sickness then becomes the object of prayer. So also, John’s words, “Let them ask, and He will give them life,” seem parallel to the Apostle James’ statement, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will restore them to health.”[13]

In case this interpretation does not meet some doubter’s standards, then consider how, after all the miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit, granted in confirmation of the Gospel, many Jewish converts apostatized from their faith and relapsed back into their former Judaism. This backsliding may be termed an unforgivable sin. It could also be compared to what our Savior represents as the sin against the Holy Spirit, which is unforgivable.[14] And they who commit it are those for whom it is impossible to renew unto repentance,[15] and to whom there remains nothing but fearful anticipation of judgment.[16] Then John adds, “there is no need to pray for them.”[17]

From his Scriptural viewpoint, William Burkitt (1650-1703) notes that the Apostle John informed us in verse fourteen of believers’ comfort in their prayers for themselves; God grants all that they request. So now, in verse fifteen, he relates the benefit that others receive by their prayers and themselves, assuring them that if they did pray for an offending member, God should hear what they desired. Still, unless the person they prayed for committed the unpardonable sin, by which we are to understand falling away from the Christian faith back into idolatry, as appears from the words in verse twenty-one. 

There John’s caution has no manner of dependence upon what went before unless we understand the unforgivable sin in this sense; the sin against the Holy Spirit, it comes to the same; for what is that sin but a renouncing of Christianity, denying the truth of the Christian faith, after illumination and conviction by the Holy Spirit, and maliciously persecuting the sincere professors of it? Make note; a believer is not to hide their eyes from being observant but ought to take notice of the sins and miscarriages of their fellow saints, which they cannot do if they neglect to observe them.[18]

An Anglican priest opposing the monarchy of Church and State in favor of a constitutional parliamentary system, Thomas Pyle (1674-1756) hears the Apostle John saying this here in verse sixteen: Before I conclude, I must advise you in one moral principle, relating to any fellow believers among you who are suffering from some extraordinary spiritual heart problem as divine punishment for any dishonorable sins.

Now where the offense is not of the most willful and determined kind, where, by the circumstances, you gather that the punishment inflicted was not sent for their destruction but only to awaken them to a sense of their breaking of God’s law, and you find them willing to repent; in such a case, let the Christian ministers attend to them, interceding with God for them by earnest prayers, which, upon their repentance, will a pardon of their sin, and for restoring them to spiritual health again.

But when you discover this person backslidden, let heaven censor them for a chronic and incurable degree of scandalous vice and immorality, or for willful and total disregard of their Christian faith. In that case, you have no obligation to throw away your prayers for them but justly leave such a person to God’s justice, as one that has rejected all methods of repentance and restoration to God’s graces.[19]

With meticulous Greek text examination and confirmation, Johann Bengel (1687-1752) finds that the Apostle John adds the most important in all cases is that you can pray even for another, in a most serious matter.[20] That way, the regenerated can know this sin as “sinning a sin, is not punishable with everlasting separation from God.” Thus, praying is lawful if it is not evident that it is an unforgivable sin. 

Therefore, we can say about the disease that caused Lazarus’s death, “It is not deadly.[21] But King Hezekiah was sick deadly,[22] had he not recovered by a miracle. But John is here speaking of death and life.[23] Moreover, what is meant by unforgivable sin, is declared from the opposite side in verse seventeen, where the subject is all unrighteousness. Therefore, any unrighteousness committed in everyday life is not a sin that brings eternal death.

But, the unforgivable sin is not an ordinary or sudden sin but a state of the soul, in which the flame of faith, love, and hope, in short, the new life, is extinguished when anyone knowingly and willingly embraces the acknowledged punishment, not from the temptations of the flesh, but the love of sin. It is a deliberate rejection of grace. A person pushes everlasting life away while committing this sin: how can others procure eternal life for them?

Yet there is also a sin to the death of the body; for instance, in the case of the people, for whom the prophet Jeremiah wanted to petition God three times but was denied each time: “Those who would not listen to God’s voice.”[24]Those who would not obey God’s Word,”[25] “Those who love to wander into wickedness,”[26] Christians are not to assume the authority which would imply requesting forgiveness for a sinner who has sinned the unforgivable sin.[27] [28]

With scholarly meditation, James Macknight (1721-1800) notes that according to Joseph Benson (1749-1821), the immoral sin of which John speaks is any single sin a believer commits through infirmity or by mistake. So also, Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) says it is any sin, except that the Anointed One declared it unpardonable.[29] But as no sin will be pardoned which the sinner has not repented of, the circumstance by which the sinner for whom death is required distinguishes it from those whom God might ask for their life, namely, that their sin is not a deadly sin, implies that they have repented of their sin.

Some scholars, like those above, think that John authorizes any saintly person to ask God for eternal life for all penitent sinners, except those who have sinned against the Holy Spirit; and assures them that in answer to their prayer, God will grant eternal life to such sinners.

Macknight’s point may appear complicated due to the language and grammar of that time. But it is pretty simple: If you are praying for some backslider whose immoral sins have blocked their relationship with God, or some sinner who has not yet repented unless they’ve committed an unpardonable sin, God will honor your prayer for them.

Benson and Doddridge’s opinions are vulnerable to two objections. First, unless a sanctified Christian knows whether the person, they ask eternal life for, has sincerely repented of their sins; they are not warranted to ask eternal life for them, especially with the boldness mentioned in verse fourteenth. Second, although any dedicated person may pray for eternal life for a fellow believer, the scripture gives no one reason to think that asking for eternal life for their spiritual brother or sister has any influence in securing that blessing. Little does right-reasoning warrant such an unreasonable expectation.

Nevertheless, according to Benson and Doddridge, it is expressly promised that anyone who sees their spiritual brother or sister committing an immoral sin and asks God’s eternal life for them will undoubtedly have it granted. This concept proposes that without such a prayer, the sinner’s repentance would not procure God’s mercy and grace. Therefore, believe that in this passage, John speaks of persons and things very different from those that these scholars had in mind.[30]

So, what is this difference of opinion all about? It involves whether a prayerful believer can bring eternal life to a sinning Christian or does it all depend on God to determine. Praying does not activate eternal life in a weak believer or sinner. But praying can move God in mercy to send the Holy Spirit to draw this person back into His saving arms. In addition, by this fallen person knowing that you, a faithful and sanctified believer, are praying for them, God will hear you and answer your prayer. That is a real shot of believing faith passed on to another.

[1] The Bishop of Rome from 217-222 AD

[2] Elucidation XII

[3] 1 John 5:16

[4] Romans 14:4

[5] Matthew 13:30

[6] Hippolytus: Refutation of all Heresies, Bk. IX, Ch. VII, p. 131

[7] Bede the Venerable, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scriptures, Bray, G. (Ed.), op. cit., Vol. XI, p. 227

[8] 1 John 5:14

[9] Jude 1:12

[10] Poole, Matthew. Commentary on the Holy Bible – Book of 1st, 2nd & 3rd John (Annotated), Kindle Edition

[11] Galatians 6:1

[12] 1 Corinthians 11;30

[13] James 5:15

[14] Matthew 12:32

[15] Hebrews 6:4-6

[16] Ibid. 10:26-27

[17] Whitby, Daniel: Critical Commentary and Paraphrase, op. cit., p. 471

[18] Burkitt, William: Expository Notes, op. cit., Vol. II., pp. 378-739

[19] Pyle, Thomas: A Paraphrase of the Epistles of the New Testament (1725), op. cit., p. 402

[20] Cf. 1 John 2:1

[21] John 11:4

[22] Isaiah 38:1

[23] See 1 John 3:14

[24] Jeremiah 7:12-16

[25] Ibid. 11:10-14

[26] Ibid. 14:10-11

[27] 1 Samuel 15:35; 16:1; Mark 3:29

[28] Bengel, Johann: Gnomon of the New Testament, Vol. IV, op. cit., p. 151

[29] Matthew 2:31-32; Mark 3:28-29

[30] Macknight, James: Apostolic Epistles with Commentary, Vol. VI, pp. 117-118

About drbob76

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