By Dr. Robert R. Seyda


CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson CXV) 04/19/23

5:17 Doing wrong is always a sin. But there is sin that does not lead to eternal death.

With clear spiritual eyesight, we can see, says Neal M. Flanagan (1908-1986), that the Apostle John touches on four points in this section from verses fourteen to seventeen. The first, found in verses fourteen and fifteen, is simple: Ask, and you will receive.[1]  The door to God’s throne room of grace and mercy is always open.[2] The second point in verses sixteen and seventeen is considerably more complex. We are encouraged to pray for backslidden Christians with the promise that God will answer our prayer. But John expresses serious doubt about the value and efficiency of prayer for those whose sin is unforgivable. He does not say don’t pray for them but cautions that it might be a waste of time and devotion. 

Consequently, in verse sixteen, we must view those whose sin is unforgivable. It might require us to think of such people as no longer Christians because they moved out of Light into endless darkness. It would have been nice if John defined what sin remains unforgiven. Some commentators have suggested murder and adultery, but it seems more in accord with identifying such sin as deliberate falling away from the faith, such as choosing “hate” over “love,” everlasting spiritual death over eternal spiritual life, and ungodliness over Godliness.

The third point, verses eighteen to twenty presents a rather black-and-white worldview. On the one side are God’s children, protected by divine power, dwelling in the Father and His Son, graced by eternal life. On the other side are the evil one and his anti-God world. For modern readers, such a contrast seems too strong, too definite because they specialize in the shadows of Situational Ethics,[3] personal Code of Ethics,[4] and Captain of their Soul.[5] [6]

Called a great and rare spiritual thinker, Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-1872) points out that we are approaching the conclusion of the Epistle; the words, “These things have I written,” indicate that the Apostle John is about to explain its general purpose, if not a summary of its contents. Thus, much is evident in the first reading. His object was not to make proselytes of those who lay outside the Christian Church. Instead, he addressed himself to “those who believed in the name [Yeshua, meaning “Savior”] of God’s Son” They were baptized into that Name; they publicly confessed that Name; it was the Name which drew on them the charge of blasphemy from Jewish rulers and scribes; it was the Name when associated with the person of Jesus the Crucified, which excited the contempt or hostility of the worshippers of the Greek divinities. All acts of united worship among the disciples, all their sufferings, recalled this Name.

But if they did not need to be convinced of its worth or power, what good was an Apostolic Epistle to do them? John answers: “That you may know that you have eternal life and believe in the name [Yeshua, meaning “Savior”] of God’s Son.” You will wonder at the last clause. It sounds as if he proposed to convert them to a faith that they already possessed. But, before you determine that it is so empty of meaning, consider the first clause. That is not commonplace. “You have eternal life.” Not “you may have it,” or “sooner or later this unspeakable blessing may become yours,” or “on those who deserve it.” No! “It is yours now.” The gift has been assured. Perhaps, some Christians of John’s day and ours would rather be startled by the strangeness than by the simplicity of this assertion; they would deem it very unlike the notions which they had associated with their traditional faith.[7]

With his lifework well-illustrating the biblical and reformation ideal of the pastor-theologian, Robert S. Candlish (1807-1873) takes the Apostle John’s words in verse seventeen as assuming that one chief use which believers will be disposed to make is their right and power to pray for others. He puts a case. You see your spiritual brother or sister sinning; they are members of God’s family. It does not necessarily imply that those who sin are faithful believers. More than once in this epistle, it has already been made clear that the relationships in God’s family have a much broader reach and range in John’s view.

It arises not so much out of the character and standing of those whom you call your spiritual brother or sister but out of the nature of the affection you have for them. In the highest regard, your fellow believers are those who, being God’s children, are spiritual brothers and sisters in the Lord. But whomever, you love them with family love; with a passion that treats them as a spiritual brother or sister; not as a mere instrument to be used or companion to be enjoyed for a day, but as one having an immortal soul saved for eternity is your Christian spiritual brother or sister.

Now, when you see them sinning, it upsets you because they are family. You cannot look on and see them with indifference or amusement or contempt as if they were a stranger, hoodlum, or homeless person. It is your spiritual brother or sister whom you see sinning. And therefore, you speak to them as to a family member about their sin, not harshly, with sharp criticism or cutting sarcasm, or cold superiority. With a sibling’s voice coming out of the depths of your heart, you earnestly caution and affectionately plead with them. However, they may turn a deaf ear toward you, and you have no power to open it.

But another ear is open to you, the ear of your heavenly Father, and He can open their ear. To your Father in heaven, you go. You intercede with Him about your sinning spiritual brother or sister’s case. You ask that spiritual life be restored to those whose sin forfeited “eternal life.” If you are persistent in asking; your insistence is in proportion to your love shown in truth and warmth; you feel almost as if you cannot talk with God about anything else. You do well in using the liberty you have to “ask anything, knowing that God hears you.”[8]

Scottish preacher and hymn writer Horatius Bonar (1808-1889) mentions that the unforgivable sin is not the “sin against the Holy Spirit.” The people the Apostle John speaks of as guilty are different from each other. In the forgivable sin, as Scribes and Pharisees, the spiteful enemies of the Anointed One and a Christian spiritual brother or sister, their fellow believers. Thus, much depends on the meaning of the expression, “unforgivable sin.” For Bonar, death may mean either temporal or eternal, either the death of the soul or the body.

Verses sixteen and seventeen indicate a sin God would discipline by withholding healing and death, though He would not exclude its doer from His kingdom. In the case of Moses, we have this paternal chastisement involving death. The most remarkable instance is in the Corinthian Church.[9] The three forms of chastisement visiting the Corinthian Church were weakness, sickliness, and death. These passages show the true meaning of our text. What this sin is, we do not know. It was not the same sin in all but different in each. In the case of the Corinthian Church, unworthy communication was “the unforgivable sin,” but what it was in others is not recorded.

So, the question arises, how are we to know when a sin is deadly, and when it is not deadly, so that we may pray in faith? The last clause of verse sixteen answers this question. It admits that there is an unforgivable sin put in the seventeenth verse: “All unrighteousness is sin, but all sin is not deadly.” But what does the apostle mean by saying, “I do not say that he shall pray for it” at the end of verse sixteen?

The word translated “pray” also means “inquire” and is elsewhere translated so.[10] If thus rendered, the meaning would be, “I say he is to ask no questions about that.” If he sees a brother sick and ready to die, is he to say he sinned deadly, or has he not?” He is simply to pray, let alone all such inquiries, and leave the matter in God’s hands.[11]

With a spiritually activated inquiring mind, Daniel D. Whedon (1808-1885) speaks of all wrongdoing (unrighteousness) or voluntary wrong-being as sin. It may be an offense against others; it may be corrupting our nature; it may be a small act, even a thought, but in each case, it is designated by God as an offense against Him. Even a minor transgression, shortcoming, or moral error, even then, is not an unforgivable sin. There may be an underlying spirit of conviction or repentance, so it may not forfeit justification or regeneration. And even if it renders us corrupt, it is not necessarily unpardonable.[12] Repentance may restore our fellowship with God and other believers.[13]

In line with Apostle John’s deduction, Henry Alford (1810-1871) states that in verse seventeen, John seems to say SIN is a significant word, encompassing all unrighteous acts, whether by God’s children or the devil’s brood. But, of all the thoughts evoked by these words, unrighteousness is mild, meant to express that every slight stumble of a good Christian falls under sin, so there may be a forgivable sin. But, whatever the case, it is not one dependent on judgment but an objective fact: by not being deadly, it is something God can cleanse for all those who confess their sins.[14] [15]

With the zeal of a scriptural text examiner, William E. Jelf (1811-1875) notes that for some reason, the Apostle John, probably against some notion of all transgressions of revealed or natural law being exposed to an equal degree of God’s wrath, introduces a distinction between them. Every unrighteous act is a sin, but not equally.[16]

After checking the text closely, Richard H. Tuck (1817-1868) recalls that the Apostle John explains his purpose in writing his Gospel in verse thirteen. “I write these things to you who believe in the name [Yeshua, meaning “Savior”] of God’s Son so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Life is John’s great word, and by it, he means that life as a child of God, in loving and obedient relations with the eternal Father, which is seen in His Anointed Son and becomes ours as by faith we are linked with that Son to receive His life. When we become God’s children, we gain possession of three rights or privileges, and we ought to thankfully use them: I. The right to eternal life. II. The right to expect answers to prayers. III. The right to intercede for others.[17]

After observing the Apostle John’s attention to detail, John Stock (1817-1884) states that from the power of prayer, which God appoints as a means to the receiving, His is ceaseless and enriching gifts, whose mercies and compassions never fail but are new every morning, for great is His faithfulness.[18] Thus, the Apostle John passes this on to anyone who sees a fellow believer who lapsed back into sin; that they may be restored. It is sad to think this is possible – even to fall – let this be a warning for you, too, may fall into sin.[19] We are not in heaven yet, but pilgrims and a militant Church faithful to the end. No one is above the liability of falling.[20]

With an inquiring spiritual mind, Johannes H. A. Ebrard (1819-1893) says that in verse seventeen, the Apostle John follows the simple explanation that many unrighteous acts are called sin, but there is one unforgivable sin. The Greek esti (“it is”) is a very substantive verb that is plain from the arrangement of the words. The first words have an external resemblance to 1 John 3:4, but the likeness is only superficial. There, the matter of the idea of unrighteousness John defines as “lawlessness,” but here, the comprehensiveness of the concept is defined as “injustice.” There, the point was that sin is in its nature a transgression of God’s commandments; here, the thought is that not merely the “unforgivable sin,” but every act of “injustice” falls under the idea of “error.” while there is within this range of the fact that there is “forgivable sin.” 

So, “injustice” is, therefore, an idea altogether different from lawlessness,” which serves as the qualitative definition and limitation of the idea of “error.” However, “lawlessness” is that which offends the specific commandments of God. So, in chapter three, verse four, it says that all sin offends against God’s commandments. “Injustice” is all that is opposed to the innermost, the most profound idea of “justice,[21] and it is said in our passage that every deviation from the nature of Him who is righteous and makes righteous is of itself a sin, but not every sin is deadly.[22]

So, to put Ebrard’s commentary into perspective, he says that when we commit any sin, of which there are many, that causes us to miss the mark (hamartia) or do some unjust thing against another child of God, it is breaking the law. Therefore, God’s justice is called upon the deal with the erring believer since any act of unrighteousness is forgivable when it is not a sin for which some stubborn Christian never plans to repent.

After contemplating John’s train of thought, William Kelly (1822-1888) notices that the Apostle John touches on the delicate case where we may or may not follow John’s instructions and discuss it with God. This passage often raises difficulties because of preconceptions, such as forgetting the moral government that applies to all believers. Nevertheless, it is the question discussed in the book of Job, where his three friends noticeably failed to do so. The Final Covenant makes it plain.[23]

It is no question of the second death[24] but of a saint cut off in this world for a sin of such a character, or in such circumstances, that unless they repent, will take it with them to the grave. As we see of old, it might be the removal of saints previously in high honor, such as Moses and Aaron, who greatly displeased Yahweh in Kadesh,[25] or its immediate execution, as on Ananias and Sapphira.[26]

But the principle is explained by the Apostle Paul to the Corinthian saints, many of whom were not only old and frail, but a good many already lay in their tombs. “But when the Lord judges us, he punishes us to show us the right way. He does this so that we will not be condemned along with the world.”[27] This then was sinning deadly, the Lord’s chastening of erring saints, expressly that they should not be condemned to the second death as the world is.[28]

Familiar with John’s writing style, William B. Pope (1822-1903) notes that the Apostle John’s transition from prayer in general to intercessory prayer seems abrupt. Still, brotherly love is identical to Christian living, and its offices strive to do God’s will. Passing by countless other objects of intercession on behalf of a fellow Christian, John at once rises to the highest peak ‒ praying for the believer who fell victim to sin’s temptations. Two phrases are still in John’s thoughts: “whatever we ask” and “eternal life,” which the born again have in themselves and may obtain by prayer for others.

[1] Matthew 7:7-8; Luke 11:9-10

[2] Hebrews 4:16

[3] Situational Ethics by Joseph F. Fletcher

[4] Saints and sinners: Completing identities in public relations ethics by Johanna Fawkes

[5] Invictus by William Ernest Henley

[6] Flanagan, Neal M., The Johannine Epistles, Collegeville Bible Commentary, op. cit., p. 1026

[7] Maurice, Frederick D., The Epistles of St. John: A Series of Lectures on Christian Ethics, op. cit., Lecture XVII, pp. 285-303

[8] Candlish, Robert S., The First Epistle of John Expounded in a Series of Lectures, op. cit., Lecture XLII, pp. 518-529

[9] 1 Corinthians 11:30

[10] 1 John 1:18; See also John 1:21, 25, 5:12, 9:2, 19:21

[11] Bonar, Horatius: The Biblical Illustrator, Vol. 22, First Epistle of John, op. cit., pp.454-455

[12] See Isaiah 1:18

[13] Whedon, Daniel D., Commentary on the New Testament, op. cit., p. 281

[14] 1 John 1:9

[15] Alford, Henry: The Greek Testament, op. cit., Vol. IV, pp. 510-511

[16] Jelf, William E., Commentary on the First Epistle of St. John, op. cit., p. 80

[17] Tuck, Richard H., The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary, op. cit., p. 339

[18] Lamentations 3:22-23

[19] 1 Corinthians 12:10

[20] Stock, John, An Exposition of the First Epistle General of St. John, op. cit., pp. 450-454

[21] See 1 John 1:9; 2:29

[22] Ebrard, Johannes H. A., Biblical Commentary on the Epistles of St. John, op. cit., p. 342

[23] See, John 15:1-10; 1 Corinthians 11:27-32; Hebrews 12:5-11; 1 Peter 1:17

[24] Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8; Jude 1:12

[25] Numbers 20

[26] Acts of the Apostles 5

[27] 1 Corinthians 11:32

[28] Kelly, William: An Exposition of the Epistles of John the Apostle, op. cit., p. 387

About drbob76

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