By Dr. Robert R. Seyda


CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson CXI) 04/14/23

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 Apostle Paul also testifies how much he bore this fruit of mediation and sought the intercession of the churches for himself.[1] For instance, John Newton (1725-1807) begged for help, even from faraway believers.[2] The extraordinary religious interest in Scotland in the 1850s seems to have begun and been mainly sustained by mutually intercessory praying among the laborers.[3]

As the Apostle John puts it in verses fourteen and fifteen when we ask God . . . God cares about what we say . . . He gives us whatever we ask from Him according to His will. In other words, there is the meaning of pleading, the most earnest petition, as one who feels their utter dependence. The intercessor, receiving a divine answer, commits to this ‒ this marvelous thing ‒ for the sinning spiritual brother or sister.[4]

With the ability of a linguist’s concentration on nuances, Greek word scholar Marvin R. Vincent (1834-1921) states that the difficulty of verse sixteen lies in explaining unforgivable sin. It is impossible to determine their exact meaning with certainty. Some reasons are as follows: Such sin as God punishes with deadly sickness or sudden death. The Church punished such sins with ex-communication (so the older Catholic theologians say). An unrepented sin. Envy. A sinful state or condition. The sin by which the Christian falls back from Christian life into eternal death. The anti-Christian denial that Jesus is the Anointed One. The phrase unforgivable sin[5] is a death-bearing sin, and the distinction between sins deadly and sins not deadly is common in Rabbinic writings.

In whatever way these scriptures and writings may have prompted John’s view of unforgivable sin, we must not assume that they determine the sense in which he uses it. Life and death in the passage must correspond. Bodily death and spiritual life cannot be meant. We must interpret verse fifteen in the light of John’s remarks elsewhere concerning life and death. For instance, in verse twelve, John says: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life.” Then in chapter three, verses fourteen and fifteen, John writes, “If we love our spiritual brothers and sisters who are believers, it proves that we have passed from death to life. But a person who has no love is still dead. Anyone who hates another spiritual brother or sister is a murderer at heart. And you know that murderers don’t have eternal life within them.”

These interpretations explain why some of the best authorities agree that the unforgivable sin does not refer to a specific act but a class or species of sins. It involves sinful tendencies that sever the fellowship bond with the Anointed One. Hence the passage is written in the keynote of fellowship which pervades the Epistle. Whatever breaks the connection between the soul and the Anointed One, and, by consequence, between the individual and the body of believers, is deadly, for there is no spiritual life apart from the Anointed One. It is indeed true that this tendency exists in all sin. Sin is essentially death. But a distinction is to be made between sins which flow from human imperfection and infirmity, and sins which are open manifestations of a character alienated from God.[6]

Whenever I was asked to explain the unpardonable sin or sin deadly, I used a very simple illustration. You are walking along a riverbank when you see someone struggling to keep their head above water. So, you yell to them, “Do you need help!” They shake their head, “No.” As you watch they are having more and more difficulty keeping from drowning. Again you yell out, “I can help you; let me help you!” Once more, they wave their arm at you as if to say, “Leave me alone.”

Now you can see that they will not make it to shore, so you throw them a round lifebuoy tied to a rope to pull them ashore. When the buoy reaches them, you shout, “Grab it! Pull it to you! Hang on and I’ll save you!” One more time they do not heed your voice calling out to save them. Then, you see their head go under and it never comes up. Their dead body is later recovered downstream. But God will never charge you for their spiritual death. This is the unforgivable sin when a lost sinner refuses to hear or heed the lifesaving Gospel when the Holy Spirit calls out to them through conviction of their sins. They are forever lost and will never experience the joy of heaven but be tormented for eternity by hell’s flames.

Noting the Apostle John’s doctrinal implications, John James Lias (1834-1923) states that verse sixteen in the Revised Version (1881) reads, “If any someone sees their spiritual brother or sister sinning,” implies the person is doing the action rather than it is suspected. We now perceive the drift of the Apostle John in the previous verses more clearly. Many of us have come to regard prayer as so entirely a selfish matter that we assume almost as a matter of course that when we ask anything of God, it will be for ourselves. The Apostle has nothing of the kind in his mind. The prayer he is thinking of has nothing selfish. The natural outcome of a loving attitude results from the indwelling of God’s Son. It consists, therefore, not of petitions for us but for others.

And the Apostle John points out the limits of such intercessory prayer are governed by the mysterious power of self-determination with which God has endowed every person. Nevertheless, he writes, “They shall ask, and they shall give life to those whose sin does not result in spiritual death.” These words are full of difficulties. At first glance, it would appear that “they shall ask” and “they shall give” are interpreted to be in close connection with each other and relate to the same subject.

But then two questions arise. Can “to him” in the singular be associated with “for them” in the plural? And, can the giving life to the sinner be established by anyone but God? The Authorized Version solves the difficulty by introducing a new subject, shown in the Amplified Version, “he will pray and ask [on the believer’s behalf], and God will for him give life to those whose sin is not leading to death.”

Then John introduces “unforgivable sin.” He further goes on to say that we must get rid of the notion that any such sin can be readily recognized by those among whom the person who commits it lives. So far as this refers to a sinful act, it is no doubt correct. But the condition of evil described by this passage would surely be readily recognizable as antagonistic to the Anointed One and other Christians. It would not be contended, for instance, that if the heart of a heathen were disposed towards the life which is in the Anointed One, it would be useless to pray for them. On the contrary, it would deprive those engaged in missionary work of great comfort and encouragement if we refused to let them expect an answer to their prayers on behalf of the heathen, of whom Jesus said, “are not far from the kingdom of God.”[7]

But that is not what John had in mind when he said, “I am not saying you shouldn’t pray for those who commit it [unforgivable sin].” In this case, though there may be hope, there can be no certainty that prayers for such sinners will be answered. There is doubtless some reason for the substitution here of the Greek verb aiteō denoting the confident petition of a child, inquiringly and expecting the gift to come. On the other hand, erōtaō suggests imploring, begging, or pleading.

So, it may be observed: (1) that the intercessory prayer of which the Apostle speaks is offered by one united by faith to the life of the Anointed One for all who are or may be possessors of that life; (2) that there are those whose conduct places them outside that certainty which under all other circumstances the Christian has that their prayer will be answered; and (3) that we misunderstand the Apostle if we suppose him to forbid prayer even for the most hardened sinner upon earth. He does nothing of the kind. All he says is that he is not speaking of such persons just at present because, in their case, at least we do not “know that we have the petitions we have asked.”

If we are to understand the passage, we must not treat it as an isolated assertion but keep the context clearly in view. It is impossible to grasp its meaning unless we keep in mind its close connection with the idea (1) of the union of humanity in the Anointed One and (2) of the consequent value, duty, and effectiveness of intercessory prayer.[8]

A tried and tested biblical scholar who believes in the up-building of the Christian life, Robert Cameron (1839-1904) rejoices in God’s amazing grace for reaching so far and bringing so near, stooping so low, and raising so high. As a matter of progression, what we ask, according to His will, is heard, and our petitions answered. With such closeness to God, we make His will our will, and then He who responds to all things according to His will must act in harmony with our prayers. If we know God’s perfect will and accept it cheerfully, it will be impossible to ask what He is unwilling to grant. Our asking must be in accordance with His generous giving and mighty power.

As soon as we are brought face-to-face with God, we come into contact with other believers. Therefore, let us fill our consecrated hours of prayer and worship with the spirit of kindness toward our fellow believers. “If anyone sees a brother sinning a sin, not toward deathhe shall ask of God.” The brother, or the one who has the standing of a brother, may take a course that leads to spiritual death. In that case, we may ask, and God will give them life. However, there is an unforgivable sin, and John does not encourage us to pray for the one engaged in that kind of foolery.

However, he allows it, but he assumes that if a person persists in taking a course that leads to death, death it will be. Then John puts in a piece of information that every departure from straight, upright, or godly is a sin, or literally, is missing the mark. It is coming short of the end, failing to attain the will and purpose of God. This departure may be internal and external – in thought and desire as well as in speech and act. It is a sin in God’s eye, even before we express it in actions and words of anyone. But while this is true, every sin is not deadly.[9]

As a spiritual mentor, Ronald A. Ward (1920-1986) notes that up until now, the Apostle John has been speaking about making requests to God. In verse sixteen, he gives a particular example. If a Christian catches a fellow believer sinning, they must quickly decide if they should pray for their rescue or not based on whether the sin is forgivable or unforgivable. If the sin is moral and forgivable, pray for God’s intervention and bring them back to the path to eternal life. However, if the sin is mortal and unforgivable, John suggests they not include them in their prayers. In either case, it is all up to God.[10] In the First Covenant, we find unforgivable sins,[11] but in the Final Covenant, we have the balance.[12] [13] Some Christians offer to pray for an unbelieving sinner but drive them away.

Manifestly and distinctly, Erich Haupt (1941-1910) explains that what follows in the Apostle John’s narrative shows that intercession has for its aim the winning of our brethren for the kingdom of God. But, before we look closely at the link between verses sixteen and seventeen and what precedes, we must examine the meaning of the verses themselves. What are we to understand by “unforgivable sin?” At the outset, John has in view a sin that irrevocably shuts the gates to eternal life, the consequence of which is death of the most disastrous kind. That there is such a sin, or such sins is affirmed by the Final Covenant.[14] This lies at the foundation of all such passages as proclaim an eternal condemnation.

What is peculiar and startling in our passage, is that our intercession depends upon whether or not the sin is deadly, thus indicating that its character may be discernible. Our possible knowledge of this mortal kind of sin may be reasonably questioned. For instance, our Lord sees the Pharisees in the act of sinning, or the unforgivable sin, because they would assign His works to the inspiration of Beelzebub;[15] but, on the other hand, He prays for His murderers, and therefore did not, according to our present passage, regard the unforgivable sin as conclusive in them: now in these cases would not human eyes have judged them differently?

It is impossible, to decide the greater or lesser alienation of a sinner from eternal life based on the more or less violent demonstration of sin as an act. For, even as a hardened sinner may be brought around by divine grace and saved from destruction, so may an individual devout in the eyes of others who desecrate everything sacred. Difficulties must be solved by observing what John elsewhere teaches concerning the ideas lying before us: first, that of sin; and, secondly, that of prayer.[16]

With his Spirit-directed calculating mind, Alfred Plummer (1841-1926) comments that the “prayer of faith” succeeds when done in accordance with God’s will. It is the sole limit as regards prayer on our behalf. However, is there any other limit in the case of prayer on behalf of another? Yes, the other person’s will. God endowed human willpower with royal freedom that not even His will forces it. If a human’s will has deliberately and stubbornly resisted God with persistence, the Apostle John says we have no guarantee of an answer from God.[17]

So, says John, if we see any Christian brother or sister sinning, we are to pray for this erring believer. However, the phrase “and he shall give him life” is unclear. It may mean either God or the intercessor may give, and “him” may mean the intercessor or the sinner for whom intercession is being made. We can compare what the Apostle James says, “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.”[18] Commentators are divided over this subject. Throughout Scripture, it is clear that to ask is the believer’s part, and to give is God’s. But, when two verbs are so closely connected as these, “will ask” and “will give,” it seems unfair to interpret them as; “he will ask, and God will give.” It seems better to translate; “he will ask and give him life.”[19]

A prolific writer on the Final Covenant Epistles, George G. Findlay (1849-1919), tells us that one particular matter of prayer weighs on the Apostle John’s mind: The case of erring brethren calls for the intervention of Christian prayer.  John said at the beginning, “we have an Advocate with the Father.[20] Thus, the powers and merit of the great Advocate are to be called on their behalf. But Anointed One is not the only Advocate. He shares this office with His redeemed brethren; He has “loosed us from our sins and made us priests to God, even His Father.”[21] We are also reminded of the Apostle Paul’s directions, “Spiritual brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.[22]

[1] Cf. Romans 15:30; Ephesians 6:18-20; Philippians 1:19

[2] Newton, John: “Letter XL,” The Christian Correspondent or a series of Religious Letters, written by The Rev. John Newton to Captain Alex. Clunie, from 1761 to the latter’s death in 1770 (Hull: Printed by George Prince, 1790). While Newton was in the Caribbean islands he met a ship captain, Alexander Clunie. Newton was a Christian but had not grown in the faith. Clunie was an older man and a mature Christian who disciplined Newton and later introduced him to a pastor in London. They maintained a lifetime friendship.

[3] Remembering the 1859 Revival in Scotland revealed that The United Presbyterian Church also, the third largest denomination in Scotland, reported that within their congregations 129 new prayer meetings had been started in the previous year and over the past two years attendances at prayer meetings had doubled.

[4] Sawtelle, Henry A., Commentary on the Epistles of John, op. cit., pp. 60-61

[5] Cf. Numbers 18:22

[6] Vincent, Marvin R., Word Studies in the New Testament, op. cit., pp. 370-372

[7] Mark 12:34

[8] Lias, John James: The First Epistle of St. John with Exposition, op. cit., pp. 400-410

[9] Cameron, Robert: The First Epistle of John, or, God Revealed in Light, Life, and Love, op. cit., p. 242

[10] See 1 Corinthians 9:22; Romans 11:14; 1 Timothy4:16; James 5:20

[11] Numbers 15:30ff; 18:23; Jeremiah 7:16; 14:10ff; see Luke 13:34

[12] Matthew 12:31ff; Mark 10:27

[13] Ward, Ronald A., The Epistles on John and Jude, op. cit., p. 58

[14] See Matthew 12:31 and parallels; Hebrews 6:4

[15] Matthew 12:22-32

[16] Haupt, Erich: The First Epistle of St. John: Clark’s Foreign Theological Library, Vol. LXIV, op. cit., pp. 325-327

[17] See 1 Thessalonians 5:25; Hebrews 13:18, 19; James 5:14-20; cf. Philippians 1:4

[18] James 5:20

[19] Plummer, Alfred: The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, N. T., Vol. IV, pp. 165-168

[20] 1 John 2:1

[21] Revelation 1:6

[22] Galatians 6:1

About drbob76

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