By Dr. Robert R. Seyda


CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson CXII) 04/17/23

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 restoration is, in many cases, effective by requesting God’s intercession rather than criticizing the offender. But the prayer must be definite and personal, prompted by what one has seen and felt about the given case, or it is not likely to convince God to answer. It is to be any Christian’s option when they are disturbed by fault and wrongdoing that meets their eyes in the Church. But they must not go around gossiping about or publicizing the story.

These are not the Scripture’s instructions. The Master gave us two plain directions: first, “If a brother sins against you, go to him privately and confront him with his fault. You have won back a brother if he listens and confesses it.”[1] Then, by the beloved disciple John, “Lay the trouble before God in prayer.” This is the proper way to take up the case.

By doing it this way, the concerned believer will win a blessing for the offender, come to see the offense in a different light, and avoid the aggravation produced by other less effective methods. Intercessory prayer is the antidote for scandal in the Church. The Apostle James has a postscript to his Epistle on this painful topic; his observation supplements John’s advice: “Anyone who brings a sinner back from the wrong way will save that person from eternal death and cause many sins to be forgiven.”[2] [3]

With his stately speaking style, William M. Sinclair (1850-1917), the Apostle John mentions sin that is not deadly. By this, the apostle probably meant unintentional wrongdoing that does not imply any distinct, willful, deliberate severance from faith in the Anointed One. To divide sins, on the authority of this passage, into moral and mortal is to misunderstand the whole argument of the Epistle. John implies that although prayer can do much for an erring believer, there may be an unwillingness against which it would be powerless: even prayer is not stronger than free will.[4] The interceding Christian is regarded as gaining life for the erring believer and handing it to them.

But John says there is a limit to the power of intercession. Any conscious and determined sin shows a loss of unity with the Anointed One. Such a state would be a sign of spiritual death. Such hardheadedness would be invincible, as it would not be according to God’s will. Therefore, John thinks that intercession ought to stop here. At the same time, he is careful not to forbid it; he only says that he would not recommend intercessory prayer for token Christians in such cases.[5] [6]

One of the most influential Anglican reconcilers, Charles Gore (1853-1932), reasons that, following what the Apostle John just said, the Apostle Paul defines the true spirit of intercessory prayer – speaking of the intercession of the Spirit in the body of the Anointed One – as “in accordance with God on behalf of saints” – that is, on behalf of consecrated persons who are moving in harmony with the Spirit. Thus, if we take the intercessory prayers of the Final Covenant – our Lord’s great prayer and Paul’s prayers for his converts – we see that they are prayers for perfecting those already in communion with God.

Our Lord’s voiced principle, “I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours,”[7] appears in the other examples. So, then, the standard action of intercessory prayer is within the responsive body. From there, it flows within the body so prosperous and united in life that those on the outside are impressed and desire the same. So here, John speaks about intercessory prayer as a petition for the cleansing and recovery from incidental sins of those who are still responsive to God and living the true life.

However, for those who hand themselves back to the world of darkness and death by deliberate apostasy, we cannot help thinking of those leaders in error whom John describes as antichrists – he does not say that we should pray for them. On the contrary, he does not forbid it. It is, for instance, very hard to suppose that John did not pray for the young man in the story Clement tells,[8] who had been guilty of the most flagrant apostasy from the Anointed One and become a leader in outrageous crimes, entrusted to the Apostle John, is described as “dead – dead to God.” It is very difficult to believe that John did not pray for him as soon as he heard of his sad case before; he so lovingly and bravely sought and won him. But he does tell us that this is not the standard action of intercessory prayer.[9]

Beyond any doubt, remarks Alonzo R. Cocke (1858-1901), that having introduced the assurance enjoyed by the believer in prayer, the Apostle John passes to the subject of special prayer. Prayer is the expression of the Anointed One life. In the pleading of prayer is mingled faith and love. Hence, when a Christian sins, loving prayer for them goes out to reinstate them at God’s throne. Relief from sin is our fellow believer’s most significant need; our prayer for them will express itself concerning that need. How much more in unison with the Anointed One is prayer for the erring spiritual brother or sister than hostile criticism? Feeling their need and realizing our weakness, we are lenient in our judgment and take their case to a loving, forgiving Father.

Such prayer should go out for all stumbling Christians except those who have committed an “unforgivable sin.” What, then, is the unforgivable sin? Johann Eduard Huther’s (1807-1880) explanation is, perhaps, as good as any: “If any man sees his brother sin in such a way that the sin which he commits does not involve absolute renunciation of Anointed One, and therefore does not necessarily bring condemnation with it, he shall pray for him.” Of course, according to this, the unforgivable sin involves “absolute renunciation of the Anointed One,” and “necessarily brings condemnation with it.” It also indicates that no Anointed One-life has ever existed in the heart guilty of it; no such sin could co-exist with that life.[10]

In reviewing what the Apostle John says in this verse, Archibald T. Robertson (1863-1934) points out that most sins are not mortal, but clearly, John conceives of a sin that is deadly enough to be called “deadly.” This distinction is familiar in the rabbinic writings and in the Septuagint, where we read “to incur a death-bearing sin,”[11] since many crimes then and now bear the death penalty. There is a distinction[12] between sinning willfully after full knowledge and sins of ignorance.[13]

Jesus spoke of the unpardonable sin,[14] attributing the manifest work of the Holy Spirit to the devil. John may have this idea in mind when he applies it to those who reject Jesus the Anointed One as God’s Son and set themselves up as antichrists. Concerning John’s caution about praying for those worthy of the death sentence due to their sin, even if they ask, it can only be unforgivable. John does not forbid praying for such cases; he does not command prayer for them. He leaves them to God.[15]

With an eye for detail, David Smith (1866-1932) tells us that after the assurance that prayer is always heard, never unanswered, the Apostle John specifies one kind of prayer called “intercession,” in the case of a “fellow believer” who is caught sinning. Prayer will allow their restoration, with one reservation that their sin be “not deadly.” The reference is to those who had been led astray by the heresy, moral and intellectual, which had invaded the churches of Asia Minor. They had closed their ears to the voice of conscience and their eyes to the light of the Truth. As a result, they were exposed to the operation of that law of degeneration in the physical, moral, intellectual, and spiritual domains. 

We should observe how tenderly John speaks of “unforgivable sin.” There is a fearful possibility of a person putting themselves beyond the hope of restoration, but we can never tell when he has crossed the boundary. If we were sure that it was a case of “unforgivable sin,” we should refrain from praying for them. But, since we can never be sure, we should always keep on praying. So long as a person is capable of repentance, they have not sinned deadly.

Therefore, (1) the intercessor will give them life instead of death, or (2) God will give them life in answer to the intercessor’s prayer. The former avoids an abrupt change of subject and attributes it to the intercessor of what God does through them, paralleled by what the Apostle James says.[16] [17]

Inspired by Jesus’ words, “Go into all the world,” Edward J. Malatesta (1932-1998) indicates that in the preceding section, we saw that verse thirteen concludes both the Apostle John’s third exposition of communion with God and the body of the entire letter. But just as a prologue and epilogue characterize the Fourth Gospel, this epilogue can be conveniently divided into reflections on prayer: verses fourteen and fifteen, sixteen and seventeen, and the compact summary of the main teaching in verses eighteen to twenty-one.

While verse eighteen is linked to verses sixteen and seventeen by the theme of sin, verses eighteen to twenty-one can best be considered a development of verse thirteen because of the importance given to the theme of knowledge. The second half of the epilogue will concern us at this juncture, for it contains the letter’s last expression of interiority.[18] [19]

With a Jewish convert’s enthusiasm for the Christian Messiah, Messianic writer David Stern (1935) informs us that Judaism distinguishes between unconscious sin, for which sacrifices atone, and deliberate, “high-handed” sin, for which only death atones. In the context of this letter, those who deliberately choose not to “keep trusting in the person and power of God’s Son,[20] who do not obey God’s commands,[21] and who do not love their spiritual brothers and sisters,[22]are not spiritually alive.[23] Therefore, a believer’s responsibility to a spiritual brother or sister caught sinning is not only to ask God to give them life but also to “show them their fault,[24] to “set them right in a spirit of humility,[25] and to “turn” them “from their wandering ways.”[26] [27]

As a seasoned essayist on the Apostle John’s writings, John Painter (1935) finds that verse sixteen introduces a new subject, though it still comes under the heading of confidence in prayer. It clarifies what asking according to God’s will means in a particular instance. It also concerns the policy on prayer concerning sin. Three matters are specified. First, it is a sin committed by a spiritual brother or sister in the Lord. The wrongdoing is perceptible so that it can be seen. Second, it is a sin, not deadly. In John’s Gospel, the expression is used of Lazarus, whom Jesus says that his sickness is not deadly.[28] For Lazarus, that meant it was not a sickness that would lead to his death. Third, in the process of the story, the expression takes on a second level of meaning concerning spiritual death.

But the question remains: How is the expression understood here in verses sixteen and seventeen? Much of the rest of the verse needs to be filled in by the reader. The context makes it fairly clear how the gaps should be filled. First, if the outlined conditions are fulfilled, the one who sees will ask. The future tense here is an implied appeal or command. Second, the context of verses fourteen and fifteen clarifies that they will ask God. When God is the one to whom the request is made, it is evident that “He” will give them life.

This can only be the spiritual brother or sister whose sin is not deadly because the one who sees the sin committed is a believer who has God’s Son and already has life.[29] In an additional clause, John resumes reference to the one sinning, but now in a generalizing fashion extending the scope to cover those sinning, not deadly.[30]

Ministry & Missions Overseer Muncia Walls (1937) agrees with others that verse sixteen is a problematic verse to interpret. Commentators are divided about just what John means by this verse. First of all, if we see our spiritual brother or sister sin, why should we pray for them? Shouldn’t they be the ones who do the praying? In chapter one, didn’t John say that God will forgive us if we confess our sins? How can we pray for a fellow believer who has sinned to be of any help to them? John is speaking here about intercessory praying. John had just spoken previously in this Epistle about seeing them in need and how we should help them if we have the things they need.

John goes beyond the physical needs to spiritual needs in this verse. We who are strong should help bear the infirmities of the weak. Just what is a “sin which is not deadly?” And what is an “unforgivable sin?” This is the problem that presents differing opinions from the commentators. We know that many laws under Torah did not require the death penalty, whereas adultery, idolatry, and judgment resulted in execution. But John is not writing under the law, nor would we think he is having any comparison with the law.

However, intercessory prayer is not mandatory if it involves a “sin that leads to death.” This is puzzling, admits. We do not know exactly what John has in mind. Judaism distinguished between deliberate or presumptuous sins – sins of open rebellion against God that are punishable by death versus sins of ignorance or carelessness that can be atoned for.

So, who then is excluded from worthwhile prayer? The text offers no clues. It might refer to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.[31] But the epistle’s content may imply that the sin John has in mind is false teaching. For anyone to say that life should be given to those who deny Jesus the Anointed One, hate their spiritual brother or sister, and refuse the witness of God would be a contradiction. This verse places the child of God in the position where they must decide prayerfully and sincerely who to pray for and in what manner. No believer wants to find themselves praying against the will of God. [32]

Expositor and systematic theologist Michael Eaton (1942-2017) thinks that the controversial situation in Ephesus has been so fierce John must tell them to pray for those who are struggling with doubts concerning the false teachers. Some of John’s friends have fallen into lovelessness and neglect Christian fellowship. But the Christians can help each other. Is it that the Christian can pray, and God will give the stumbled Christian life? Or is it the Christian should pray, and the Christian will give life to their friend who has fallen into sin?

[1] Matthew 18:15

[2] James 5:20

[3] Findlay, George G., Fellowship in the Life Eternal: An Exposition of the Epistles of St. John, p. 403

[4] Cf. 1 John 2:1; Luke 22:31, 32; John 17:9; Hebrews 7:25

[5] Cf. Matthew 12:31-32; Mark 3:29; Hebrews 6:4, 6; 10:26-27

[6] Sinclair, William M., New Testament Commentary for English Readers, Charles J. Ellicott (Ed.) op. cit., Vol. 3, p. 493

[7] John 17:9

[8] Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History, Bk. 3, Chap. 23:6-19

[9] Gore, Charles: The Epistles of St. John, op. cit., p. 207

[10] Cocke, Alonzo R: Studies in the Epistles of John; or, The Manifested Life, op. cit., pp. 133-135

[11] Numbers 18:22

[12] Hebrews 10:26

[13] Ibid. 5:2

[14] Matthew 3:29; 12:32; Luke 12:10

[15] Robertson, Archibald T., Word Pictures in the New Testament, op. cit., pp. 1970-1971

[16] James 5:20

[17] Smith, David: The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 1 John, op. cit., pp. 197-198

[18] Interiority means inner character or nature

[19] Malatesta, Edward J., Interiority and Covenant, op. cit., p. 318

[20] 1 John 5:13

[21] Ibid. 5:2-3

[22] Ibid. 4:21

[23] Ibid. 5:12

[24] See Matthew 18:15-17

[25] Galatians 6:1

[26] 1 John 5:19-20

[27] Stern, David H., Jewish New Testament Commentary. op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Edition

[28] John 11:4

[29] 1 John 5:12

[30] Painter, John. Sacra Pagina: 1, 2, and 3 John: Volume 18, op. cit., p. 597

[31] Mark 3:29

[32] Walls, Muncia: Epistles of John and Jude, op. cit., pp. 93-94

About drbob76

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