By Dr. Robert R. Seyda


CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson CIX) 04/12/23

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.

Considering everything the Apostle John has said so far, Adam Clarke (1774-1849) states that verse sixteen is a challenging passage and has been variously interpreted. What is the forgivable sin, for which we should ask life, and it will be given to those who commit it? And what is the unforgivable sin, for which we should not pray?

There are three chief opinions on this subject: (1) It is supposed that there is here a suggestion to a distinction in the Jewish law, where there was “a sin punishable by death;” and “a sin not punishable by death.

1. Murder – Exodus 21:12,14; Leviticus 24:17,21; Numbers 35:16-21;30-31
2. Kidnapping – Deuteronomy 24:7 3. Child sacrifice – Leviticus 20:2
4. Both the man and woman who commit adultery – Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22-24
5. Rape – Deuteronomy 22:25
6. Daughter of a priest who became a prostitute – Leviticus 21:9
7. An idolater – Exodus 22:20; Deuteronomy 17:2-5; Numbers 25:1-5
8. Breaking the Sabbath – Exodus 31:14; 35:2; Numbers 15:32-36
9. A woman having sex before marriage – Deuteronomy 22:21-22
10. Homosexuality – Leviticus 20:13
11. Incest between a man and his father’s wife – Leviticus 20:11
12. Incest between a man and daughter-in-law – Leviticus 20:12
13. A man who marries a woman and her mother (all three must die) – Leviticus 20:14
14. Bestiality (Sex with an animal) – Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 20:15-16
15. A false prophet – Deuteronomy 13:5; 18:20
16. A false witness – Deuteronomy 19:16-21
17. A disobedient son – Deuteronomy 21:18-21
18. A child who assaults his father or mother – Exodus 21:15
19. A child who curses his father or mother – Exodus 31:17; Leviticus 20:9
20. Men who are fighting and hit a pregnant woman, causing her to lose her baby – Exodus 21:22
21. A man whose ox kills someone after previously goring other people – Exodus 21:28-29
22. A witch – Exodus 22:18
23. A medium or spiritist – Leviticus 20:27
24. A brother, son, daughter, wife, or friend who entices you to go after other gods – Deuteronomy 13:6-11
25. Everyone in any town that entices people to go after other gods – Deuteronomy 13:12-15
26. A blasphemer – Leviticus 24:10-16, 23
27. Anyone who failed to abide by a decision of the court – Deuteronomy 17:8-12
28. Any non-Levite who tried to set up or take down the Tabernacle – Numbers 1:51

(2) All other sins were punishable but could be forgiven through repentance. Only a few of these were carried over into Federal Law in America, such as treason, espionage, murder, large-scale drug trafficking, or attempted murder, especially of a witness, juror, or court officer.[1] (3) But when it comes to crimes against the Anointed One’s Law, only one carries the death penalty: Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

With unwavering trust in the Apostle John’s teaching, William Lincoln (1788-1844) says that the Apostle John’s words, respecting unforgivable sin, need an explanation. Some people at once conclude that what is meant here is unpardonable sin. That is not what is meant by the apostle. What is meant is bodily death.

The idea is that a professing believer who grieves God’s will is seen in two cases from the Final Covenant. Ananias and Sapphira were professed believers ‒ whether they were sincere or not, they sinned grievously and were struck with death. That was an unforgivable sinbodily death – they died. Some persons come to the Lord’s table, “not discerning the Lord’s body, for this reason many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.[2] In plain terms, they died physically not spiritually. They behaved at that table as if they were partaking of an everyday meal. We forget that the bread we share is the communion of the body of the Anointed One.

So, if God deals with His children’s sins through discipline, their future is beyond our judgment, and we must leave it to God. You can imagine a case like this, a person who is guilty of such fearful sin that instead of feeling love for them, the feeling is horror and surprise; they may be anxious that their sin will allow the enemies of God to make fun and they are horrified that they could be guilty of such evil. Well, as long as they have life, pray for them. However, when God deals with their unforgivable sin, we must leave them in God’s hands.[3]

After analyzing John’s conclusions, Gottfried C. F. Lücke (1791-1855) comments that here in verse sixteen, the Apostle John distinguishes between an internal and external community of Christians; only the former consists of God’s true children, and the latter contains a medley of perfection and imperfection. John can, accordingly, without contradicting himself,[4] quite well suppose the possibility of mortal sin within the Christian community. John does not declare whether mortal sin can be forgiven or not. However, he prohibits Christians from interceding for believers who sin but not deadly for no other motive than this, that otherwise the essential distinction between good and evil, between light and darkness, between the communion with God and the communion with the world, would be weakened and obscured in the Christian’s conscience.

If, according to God’s eternal law and judgment, the loss of eternal life in the Anointed One is inseparably combined with the sins of infidelity, worldliness, and lack of charity because they directly abolish the Christian principle: the faithful Christian cannot and may not implore God to give life to those who commit mortal sin. He would be asking what cannot be granted; he would be praying for that which is repugnant to God’s will; he would confound light with darkness, in God who is holy and just, and thus suppose a repugnance in God. Therefore, the Christian may ask of God, only for such as do not unforgivable sin, and, consequently, do not eradicate the spiritual life in themselves; for, in that case, only if His request is according to God’s will and can be granted.[5]

Without using complicated language, Albert Barnes (1798-1870) writes that from the general assurance that God hears prayer, the Apostle John turns to a particular case that may be graciously and effectually employed in rescuing a fellow believer from death. There has been a great diversity of opinion regarding the meaning of this passage, and the views of expositors of the Final Covenant are by no means settled as to its true sense. However, a passing reference to some of them will show the difficulty of determining the passage’s meaning and the impropriety of any very great confidence in one’s judgment.

Among these opinions are the following: Some have supposed that the sin against the Holy Spirit is intended; some that the phrase denotes any appalling sins, such as murder, idolatry, or adultery; others have implied some wrong punishable by death by the laws of Moses. Then others feel that it identifies a sin that subjected the offender to ex-communication from the synagogue or the church; A few take it as a reference to sins that brought a fatal disease upon the offender, as in the case of those who abused the Lord’s Supper at Corinth.[6]

Several interpret it as crimes committed against the Law, for which the offender was sentenced to death, meaning that when the charge alleged was false and the condemnation unjust, they ought to pray for the one who was condemned to death and that they would be spared; but when an offense has been committed, and the offender deserves to die, they ought not to pray for them, or, in other words, that by “the unforgivable sin,” offenses against the civil law are referred to, which the magistrate had no power to pardon, and the punishment of which he could not commute.[7]

With impressive theological vision, Richard Rothe (1799-1867) points out that to make it more transparent that the Christian, by way of a believing prayer to the Anointed One, really possesses a spring of eternal life, John adds that utilizing such devotion, they not only draw spiritual energy for themselves, but even shares it with a fellow believer who has sinned, and whose true life has thereby become impaired can still obtain life from the Redeemer. It is the most striking proof of the greatness of the believing Christian’s power from the Redeemer. John, in this passage, is by no means thinking of giving a command to intercede for our brethren.[8]

But supposing that a Christian sees their fellow Christian sinning and becoming spiritually sick, they assume that it will be unnatural for them to do anything else than intercede with the Redeemer for them. And by so doing, they will renew their spirit since, through intercession, a sinning spiritual brother or sister will receive the grace that heals from the Redeemer. Does that mean a Christian can give spiritual life to others through prayer? No. The question discussed here is the power of faith in the Redeemer to bestow life, namely, true, eternal life.[9]

Consistent with the Apostle John’s advice, Heinrich A. W. Meyer (1800-1882) finds the Apostle John changing the thought from a general prayer to a particular prayer for a sinning believer. This change, and the introduction to a fellow Christian, may relate to brotherly love, which is so prominent in the Epistle. We may believe, however, that the new verses sixteen and seventeen are suggested partly in connection with some dangers which belonged to the time and surroundings of those to whom the apostle was writing.

The fact that the prayer here spoken of is limited to the case of sinning and that the unforgivable sin is prominent confirms this view. Moreover, the prominence of the unpardonable sin is highlighted, not only because it is distinctly mentioned but also by the notable exception of it in the other verses.[10]

According to Robert Jamieson (1802-1880), Andrew Fausset (1821-1910), and David Brown’s (1803-1897) suggestion, let us examine the Apostle John’s supposition that when you see your fellow believer sinning (sin that does not lead to eternal death). You should pray for their recovery. Then God will revive their spiritual Life. They point out that this does not imply on a special occasion but under any circumstance.

The key here is that this wrongdoing is not part of any unforgivable sin. Therefore, John urges intercessory prayer for God to revive that person’s spiritual life with CPR (“Christian’s Prayer of Repentance”). They go on to tell us that John’s formula includes a kind reprimand accompanying one’s intercession. It is because this person’s spiritual life was in the process of being forfeited when the believer’s intervention obtained its restoration.

The oft-disputed portion “shall give life” is better translated as “shall obtain life.” John is adamant that intercessors should never assume the authority that their prayer empowers them to give the spiritually dying believer new life.  Instead, their humble petition is according to God’s will. Anyone requesting spiritual life for someone who has committed an unforgivable sin would imply they were more merciful than God.

Called the poetical theologian par excellence, Johann P. Lange (1802-1884) believes that the Apostle John’s simple annulment is that no prayer should be made for those with mortal sins. He only makes prominent the circumstance that he confines himself to, saying that intercession should be made for the person with moral wrongs. It is essential to note the difference in the words employed by John. In contrast, he made use of the Greek verb aiteō (“he shall ask”) and then used the verb erōtaō (“he shall pray”) [KJV]. The Greek aiteō and erōtaō mean “to ask” [KJV] and imply equality on the part of the asker and the one for whom the favor is sought. Jesus designates His petition by that term.[11]

We should note that aiteō denotes the confident petition of a child inquiringly and expecting the gift to come. On the other hand, erōtaō suggests imploring, begging, and beseeching. Hence, the force of erōtaō refers to intercession for a believer committing a mortal sin. However, it doesn’t guarantee the assurance of success or that the mediation will be heard or answered.[12]

With an inquiring mind, Daniel D. Whedon (1808-1885), the Apostle John, gives an example of a prayer that is heard, with its possibility of apparent failure. Yet it is not only a particular instance, but it lies within the category of spiritual life. Therefore, prayer for Moral Sin accords with divine will, but not in the case of Mortal sin. But an unasked question is facing us. So, what is this mortal unforgivable sin?

The phrase was familiar to the Jews. God told Moses to tell the people, “From now on, the people of Isra’el are not to approach the tent of meeting, so that they will not bear the consequences of their sin and die.”[13] The Rabbis based their distinction on this verse of sins deadly and not deadly. But when transferring the expression to the Final Covenant, it does not necessarily retain precisely the same meaning. Does the Apostle John assume that we must know whether a fellow believer’s sinis unforgivable? 

The Apostle John goes on to reaffirm that they need to find this out. There isa distinction between mortal and moral sins. And he explains why the prayer is not granted because it is not according to God’s will.[14] We, therefore, hold that mortal sin is an “unpardonable sin,” the sin against the Holy Spirit.[15] But let no one charge God as unfaithful if the prayer fails to be fulfilled because the believer proves to be rigid and stubborn.

There is a deliberate reaffirmation of the actuality of such a sin. It is confirmed as a solemn fact and a reason for ungranted prayer. We should not take this as an absolute prohibition. It is only caution in advising prayer if the deadly nature of the sin is known. We should leave that to God, pray in hope, but not be disappointed or discontented with God if it proves to be an unpardonable sin.[16]

In line with Apostle John’s conclusion, Henry Alford (1810-1871) urges us to join in confidence concerning prayer and the all-essential Christian principle of brotherly love. By doing so, we have the duty and the practice of intercessory prayer for an erring spiritual brother or sister, but not with a defined limitation. These verses address anyone “having seen” a fellow believer, one born of God as they are, is not merely a logical conclusion but more graphic, describing the person actually in the act and under sin’s bondage.

This adds to the Apostle John’s command to ask God for their forgiveness. In doing so, they assure that this person will continue to have spiritual life. Such praying is interceding for their spiritual brother or sister. Everlasting life is not bestowed on someone by intercessory prayer, nor is it accompanied by a brotherly connection to give the sinner a repentant heart. But, understood as explained by John, the restoration of divine life was necessary because sin brought them to the precipice of falling away from their faith. Therefore, there is a difference of importance here.

[1] Clarke, Adam: Wesleyan Heritage Commentary, op. cit., Hebrews-Revelation, pp. 398-399

[2] 1 Corinthians 11:29

[3] Lincoln, William: Lectures on the Epistles of St. John, op. cit., Lecture VIII, p. 162

[4] See 1 John 3:6-9, & 5:18

[5] Lücke, Gottfried C. F., A Commentary on the Epistles of St. John, op. cit., p. 285

[6] 1 Corinthians 11:30

[7] Barnes, Albert: New Testament Notes, op. cit., 1 John 5, p. 4889

[8] See such. Apostolic commands in 1 Timothy 2:1-4; James 5:14-20, etc.

[9] Rothe, Richard: Exposition of the First Epistle of St. John, op. cit., The Expository Times, July 1895, p. 470

[10] Meyer, Heinrich A. W., Critical Exegetical Handbook New Testament, op. cit., Vol.10, pp. 816-817

[11] John 14:16; 16:26; 17:9, 15, 20

[12] Lange, Johann Peter: Commentary on the New Testament, op. cit., Vol. IX, p. 171

[13] Numbers 18:22 – Complete Jewish Bible

[14] 1 John 5:14

[15] Matthew 12:31-32

[16] Whedon, Daniel D., Commentary on the New Testament, op. cit., p. 280

About drbob76

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