By Dr. Robert R. Seyda


CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson CX) 04/13/23

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.

The Greek aiteō denoting the petition for sin not deadly to eternal life, is a humble and trusting petition in the direction of God’s will and prompted by brotherly love. The Greek erōtaō suggests that pleading for pardon for an unforgivable sin would be like asking a doctor to prescribe a particular medication for a terminally ill patient on hospice. These matters are outside a believer’s sphere of interceding for someone sinning deadly. Some suggest that this yearning is not presented in words indicating this is a spiritual brother or sister, thereby demonstrating they never deserved that name.[1] [2]

As a faithful and zealous scholar, William Graham (1810-1883) notes that from prayer in general, the Apostle John now comes to a particular case. The ordinary principles that guide us in our supplications are somewhat limited in their application. To understand this problematic passage of verses sixteen and seventeen, we must lay down the following principles, which perhaps may lead to the proper exposition.

The life and death mentioned in the text cannot be eternal life or death, for God never promised to remove from anyone the curse of eternal death and endow them with the blessings of eternal life in answering the prayer of another. But God has promised to heal the sick members of the Lord’s body by the prayer of faith, raise them, and forgive their sins.

Therefore, comparing this passage of James and our text and applying the principles mentioned above, we arrive at the following conclusions: (1) The unforgivable sin is a sin which the Lord, for the punishment of the sinner, and to be a warning to others, visits with temporal death. (2) Any person mentioned in the text only performs the gift of healing, along with the church elders mentioned by the Apostle James.[3] (3) The promise of life, given in the text, is the promise of restoration, or recovery, by the power of God, at the prayer of faith, to their former state of health.

So, this verse may be paraphrased thus, “If anyone among you, endowed with the gifts of healing, see a fellow believer laboring under the effects of some sin, which, however heinous, you are led by the indwelling Spirit to believe is not to be punished with the judgment of temporal death, like Ananias and Sapphira, then, in that case, you are warranted to pray for it, and God has given to your prayer the promise of restoring him to life and health.”

Indeed, there are cases where it is the manifest intention of God neither to heal the sick nor raise the dead. In such instances, as in others where temporal death is to be inflicted for the punishment of certain sins, you are not required to exercise the gift of healing: they have sinned deadly, and no special gift of healing is to be exercised in their case. This exposition is strengthened by verse seventeen. All sin leads to death, for the wages of sin is death, and all unrighteousness, namely, every violation of the law of brotherly love, is sin, though, in God’s mercy, they will suffer the punishment of temporal death.[4]

With the zeal of a scriptural text examiner, William E. Jelf (1811-1875) says that the best way to explain the Apostle John’s introduction of this dogmatic statement in verse sixteen is to view it as a case in which prayer, according to God’s will, is heard and one which is not God will leave unanswered. Of course, its doctrinal value is not the least altered, but it comes upon us rather unexpectedly, without connection with the context. Here, the apostle distinguishes between sins that are not deadly and those that are and takes for granted that one is distinguishable from the other. The question is: “What are their natures and characteristics that distinguish one from the other?”

In the Septuagint (LXX) Version, a sin worthy of death was one of which death was the penalty under the Mosaic law, but here the words “will give him life” exclude the notion of bodily death. Another interpretation similarly excluded is those sins God punishes with physical sickness.[5] In addition, those sins which the Church punished by ex-communication would suppose that individuals had the power of neutralizing such sentences, which certainly is not consistent with the view of ecclesiastical discipline held by those who favor this interpretation, nor again is it likely that such a formula in that early age was invented for this definite class of sins. It must also be an actual, not a technical term; its elements must have existed in John’s mind, not merely formal and unreal meaning in ecclesiastical phraseology.

Furthermore, it cannot mean bodily death; if so, it must mean some mental state of which death was the appropriate expression, the spiritual death of the soul. And when and how does this occur to a Christian? It is not any single sin or sort of sin, such as certain sins committed after baptism, for there are no such unpardonable sins. The blood of Jesus the Anointed One cleanses from all sin on faith and by repentance. So, a state of spiritual death can only be that state where repentance and faith are impossible.

There is but one sin whereby a person is brought to be in a death state, and that is where it excludes the possibility of repentance and faith, which are the two conditions of the sinner spiritual life being re-invigorated. One of these would be the state, springing from the intellect, which excludes faith, such as the sin against the Holy Spirit, which ipso facto[6] prevented anyone from receiving the Anointed One because it prevented our Lord’s saving miracle as evidence of His Divine mission.[7]

After checking the text closely, Richard H. Tuck (1817-1868) states the usual distinction between the sins of frailty and will. Sins of spiritual weakness are possible for a child of God. It indicates that, for a time, the renewed spirit is dormant – those born of God cannot willfully sin. Willful sin in one claiming to have the Divine life does not bring it into the sacred sphere of Christian prayer for one another because such is not regarded as possible. John does not go so far as to say that it is not a subject for prayer at all.[8]

With an inquiring spiritual mind, Johannes H. A. Ebrard (1819-1893) finds the Apostle speaking of a limit on the world-overcoming prayer power. If any petition might be supposed to be “according to the will of God,” it would undoubtedly be the petition for the conversion and salvation of our neighbor. So, it is indeed prayer, not for us, but for them. Therefore, springing from love is a request, not for earthly good, but a soul’s salvation to be ready for God’s coming kingdom.

Hence, there is the possibility of being misled into the theoretical notion that every prayer for the conversion of another human must be heard and granted. Nevertheless, our transformation proceeds in a sphere of its own. It touches on all points of voluntary human determination. In this realm, there is a point at which the human will have so hardened itself against the converting influences of God’s grace that God cannot and will not offer any salvation. However, intercession has no assurance of being heard upon reaching this point.[9]

With a spiritual mentor’s mind, Friedrich Düsterdieck (1822-1906) lays down the following norms for the exposition of the idea of unforgivable sin: 1) That it may be known; 2) That it can be committed only by a member of the Christian community; 3) That for those who have committed it “there may not be prayer;” 4) That in and of itself it is not distinguished from every other sin, since every sin is an unforgivable sin.

Accordingly, the Apostle John decides that any Christian charged with an “unforgivable sin” cannot be since “sin against the Holy Spirit,[10] is committed by unbelievers. Neither can lack of repentance continue even to bodily death since it could never be known whether they would have continued their unrepentance to the grave. Therefore, it is nothing other than the shipwreck of faith or backsliding.[11]

After contemplating John’s train of thought, William Kelly (1822-1888) says that by abiding in love, we stay in God and in us. This, through His grace, expels prominent or petty hindrances and gives us boldness through a love that is unchanging amid all changes. God is pleased with this boldness in counting on His care for us during our trials, weakness, needs, sorrow that sickness brings, painful circumstances, and all the ways in which we are put to the test daily.

What, then, should be our feeling? Have we boldness of faith in our present intercourse with God and reckoning on Him through the grace that delivered us from death and sins, that gave us life and the Holy Spirit? and are we trembling and doubtful in the little troubles of this life? Is not this unworthy and a strange inconsistency? By faith, bold about the best blessings; let us have no less confidence about these minor things’ day by day. We should never doubt that He who loves us goes with us through anything sent to prove us.

The words: “This is the boldness which we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He heareth us.” Certainly, we should be ashamed to ask anything against His will. His words let us know His will and what is not. But there is more: “And if we know that He hears us, we know that we have the petitions we asked of Him.”[12] Let us never doubt Him in these comparatively small trials after proving His infinite love in the deepest wants that can be!

Chapter four offers that nothing is too great for anyone in union with the Anointed One, and in chapter five, nothing is too small for God’s love. How easily we forget to act when it might be for His answer, and then calls come in when it cannot be! Prayer is due to our God and a rich blessing to us and others. But it is not as it should be without the boldness which honors God’s love for us.[13]

With holiness doctrine expertise, Daniel Steele (1824-1914) states that the sin the Apostle John mentions is not limited to a single act, such as a crime worthy of punishment by death or punished by the church with ex-communication. It is instead a tendency to sin in defiance of the known law of God willfully persisted so obstinately against the influences of the Holy Spirit that repentance becomes a moral impossibility, just as a person may starve themselves so long as to lose the power to appropriate, digest and assimilate food. Just as abstinence from food leads to death, some have a career of sinning and refusing the offers of grace until the power to receive grace perishes. Here arises the question, “How can we know when a sinner has reached this fatal point? How can we know when we are excused from intercessory prayer on their behalf?”

So far as our powers of perception are concerned, the line between God’s mercy and wrath in this world is indistinguishable. But since prayer is prompted and helped by the Holy Spirit,[14] the total absence of such prompting and assistance for an individual, whether a spiritual brother or sister in the church or not, affords the believing Christian, who has the spirit of prayer for sinners, grounds for the implication that this person has sinned deadly, having passed the point of sin which marks the soul for eternal despair. John pauses to note one exception to this promise. Praying for another becomes useless when that person in persistent sinning reaches the point beyond which there is no possible passing from spiritual death into life.

Hence, since the “unpardonable act” is a sin , however shocking, it is the culmination of a state or habit of participating in sin willfully chosen. It is the deliberate and final preference of darkness to light, falsehood to truth, sin to holiness, the world to God, and spiritual death to eternal life. It is the choice of Milton’s Satan, “Evil, be thou my good; by thee at least divided empire with Heaven’s King I hold.”[15] [16]

After sufficient examination of the Greek text, Brooke Wescott (1825-1901) says that this awareness of some spiritual brother or sister sinning should be the duty of every Christian. At the same time, since we cannot see what’s in their heart, the character of the sin towards which intercession is exercised is seen outwardly. It is not a matter of suspicion or doubts about a fellow believer’s commitment to holiness. The end of prayer is the perfection of the whole Christian body. The believer prays for themselves only as a member of the Christian society. John is only dealing with Christians and the necessity for mediation.

The expression “sinners” (inadequately rendered in Latin as peccatores) emphasizes the act’s outward character. Sin begins in the mind and is only carried out by the body. Therefore, a person is a sinner inwardly before they sin outwardly. [17]

As a commentator and translator of many German religious works Jacob Isidor Mombert (1829-1913) agrees that intercession is improper for those who have unforgivable sins. There is not enough mediation for such sins. After all, it is an unpardonable sin. That is why the Apostle John neither requires nor advises us to make intercession for those sinning deadly. Every Christian is, to some degree, in a state of grace so long as they are invited to repentance.

We learn this from those words of John: “All unrighteousness is sin, and there is an unforgivable sin.” To some degree, we are vulnerable to different sorts of sin because of latent sinful tendencies due to imperfection. However, the person who committed them is still within the realm of pardon and has not forfeited the entitlement to the promises and covenant of repentance.

Nonetheless, there is an unforgivable sin. It is where some proceed beyond the measures of the Gospel and the usual methods of repentance caused by stubbornness and preserving a sin, by willful, spiteful resisting, or despising the offers of grace and the means of pardon. For such a person, John does not encourage us to pray. Our prayers will do no good for anyone who goes beyond the limit.

Any sin that displeases God must be repented and might need many mighty prayers for their pardon. Yet, anyone in the state of grace and pardon stays within the covenant of mercy. Their intention should be to return to duty. Being in a state of grace is having a title to God’s loving-kindness, not being rejected by God but beloved, and, for mercy’s sake, having these measures to live a holy Christian life.[18]

Like a spiritual farmer planting the seed of God’s Word, Henry A. Sawtelle (1832-1913) remarks that the phrase “any man” is a praying Christian. The “brother” is a fellow born-again believer. In the case supposed by the Apostle John, the intercessor must “see,” be personally aware of the person’s offense to know its true nature; it is not enough to learn of it through others. They must observe the person in the act of sinning. And the sin must not be deadly.

In other words, it must not be the sin to which a death sentence is ordered and can never be forgiven. So, having spoken of the effectiveness of Christian prayer as the expected fruit of God abiding in us, John proceeds to talk about prayer’s usefulness in a particular direction – namely, when it takes the form of intercession on behalf of other believers, especially those who have lapsed into sin. A Christian’s priestly office is analogous to the Anointed One in chapter seventeen of John’s Gospel.

[1] See 1 John 2:19

[2] Alford, Henry: The Greek Testament, op. cit., Vol. IV, pp. 509-510

[3] James 5:14-16

[4] Graham, William: The Spirit of Love, op. cit., pp. 343-345

[5] Cf. James 1:2-3

[6] Ipso facto (“by the fact itself”)

[7] Jelf, William E., Commentary on the First Epistle of St. John, op. cit., pp. 77-80

[8] Tuck, Richard H., The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary, op. cit., p. 329

[9] Ebrard, Johannes H. A., Biblical Commentary on the Epistles of St. John, op. cit., p. 337

[10] Matthew 12:31

[11] Düsterdieck, Friedrich: Biblical Commentary on the Epistles of St. John, op. cit., p. 339

[12] 1 John 5:14, 19

[13] Kelly, William: An Exposition of the Epistles of John the Apostle, op. cit., p. 385

[14] Romans 8:26

[15] Milton, John: Paradise Lost, Printed by S. Simmons, London, 1674, Book IV:110

[16] Steele, Daniel: Half-Hours with St. John’s Epistles, op. cit., pp. 142-145

[17] Westcott, Brooke F., The Epistles of St. John: Greek Text with Notes, op. cit., p. 191

[18] Mombert, Jacob Isidor: Lange’s Commentary on the New Testament, op. cit., Vol. IX, p. 176

About drbob76

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