By Dr. Robert R. Seyda


CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson CXII) 04/21/23

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.

After scrutinizing the Apostle John’s subject theme, William Loader (1944) believes that the Apostle John is telling his readers that they should pray (intercede) for their fellow Christians who are committing not spiritually fatal sins. Already this raises several further questions. Are they being asked to pray for the person sinning or the person who has already sinned? We might expect the prayer to be about forgiveness if it were the latter. While confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness is an early theme in the epistle, John formulated verse sixteen to suggest prayer for someone who is sinning. We might then understand the prayer to be about helping the person to resist temptation and avoid sin.[1] [2]

Great Commission practitioner David Jackman (1945) claims there are several related issues here, the central one being what John means by sin that is not deadly and deadly sin. In the former case, John urges Christians to pray for a brother (or sister) whom they see as sinning; in the latter, they are not. What is the distinction between the two? Are there distinguishing features for which we should look? There is nothing about a Christian believer committing the sin that leads to death, simply the reminder that such evil does exist.

So, the first part of verse sixteen is relevant to church life in every congregation and every generation and is part of the assurance in prayer God wants all His people to have. It is an instruction about what is sadly a common event in church life. When a Christian becomes entangled in some sin, and it becomes obvious to fellow believers, it is those believer’s privilege and responsibility to pray for the erring spiritual brother or sister, with confidence and faith that they will be renewed and restored to that full fellowship with God and others, which any and every sin corrupts, which is eternal life.[3]

After studying the context surrounding this verse, John W. (Jack) Carter (1947) states that the LORD has created us as social beings. Part of our basic needs includes a network of relationships with others. God ordained that we would have a connection with Him that would help form our relationships with one another. Sin serves to break such bonds. People of faith can become caught up in sin to the point that their communion with God has been so compromised that they can neither pray nor hear God’s still, small voice. 

Wrongdoing also serves to break our relationships with others as the character and nature of sin are often destructive to them. Since every Christian struggles with sin, the first line of support for those facing such spiritual wrestling is the caring ministry of other Christians. John reminds us of the responsibility we have to one another to provide accountability and correction.

Since the LORD calls us to love one another unconditionally, that love will lead us to seek to bring an errant believer back to a proper relationship with the LORD and others. The Christian ministry is a ministry of reconciliation.  Suppose a believer observes another Christian in the act of sinning. In that case, the loving response is to confront the individual in a wise and tactful manner to return them to a full relationship with God, with complete repentance from the practice of sin.

However, there is another word for sin that John uses here that is rendered as “unforgivable sin.”  The only sin that can eternally separate one from God for eternity is that same sin that keeps all people from eternal security:  taking their rebellion against the LORD to the grave.  These never made a sincere profession of faith in the LORD in their lifetime. It is an “unpardonable” sin.  This interprets the commandment, “You shall not take the name [YHWH (meaning “to be”] of the LORD in vain.”[4]  One who takes His name in vain (refusing to accept the nature of God in their hearts) to the grave has sinned deadly.[5]

A man who loves sharing God’s Word, Robert W. Yarbrough (1948) says believers should offer petitions to God on behalf of those committing a sin that is not deadly. The expression occurs twice in verse sixteen, where the Greek adverb (“hope not” – expressing a will or thought) is used for the forgivable sin, and where we also find the Greek particle ou (“surely not – immediately preceding the word (most often a verb) which it negates) when speaking of sin that is deadly. What do these expressions signify? That John does not use the definite article and seems to stress the act of sinning rather than precisely delineate some misdeed weakens the case for seeing here one specific heinous sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.[6]

Although Calvin speaks primarily of apostasy as the violation John has in mind, notes Yarbrough, it is a traditional popular proposal.[7] But Jesus gives that sin a precise definition – those who attributed His earthly work done by the Holy Spirit to the powers of darkness – which is not easy to integrate with John’s language here. To see blasphemy of the Holy Spirit as something different from the unforgivable sin is not necessarily to create two unpardonable sins.

The unforgivable sin will amount to specific manifestations of unregenerate conduct for which “blasphemy against the Spirit” serves as an umbrella. Such blasphemy includes but is not strictly limited to, or identical with, transgressions that John breaks down into more refined, but not essentially dissimilar, terms appropriate to the setting he addresses. That is not the same setting that Jesus faced in his earthly days.[8]

Skilled in Dead Sea Scroll interpretation and Final Covenant writings, Colin G. Kruse (1950) sees the Apostle John amplifying the theme of prayer by applying the general statements of verses fourteen and fifteen to the need for prayer for believers who fall into sin: The fact that the readers may “see” a fellow believer fall into sin indicates that the sin is observable, not some internal attitude.

In his appeal, John uses a future form of the verb “to pray,” but here, it carries the sense of command. John adds, “He will give them life in response to such prayer.” Thus, it is not clear whether John is saying that God will give life to the repentant believer or that the believer who prays for them will give life to them through their prayers. Either way, God ultimately gives life in answer to prayer.

Now, John speaks confidently of prayer being answered for a person whose sin does not lead to death, but not for those whose sin leads to death by advising them that prayer for those who commit this sin may not be warranted. There has been a lot of debate concerning the nature of the sin that leads to death (usually called mortal sin). Traditionally it has been defined in terms of sins for which there was thought to be no forgiveness (murder, idolatry, apostasy, adultery, etc.).

Sometimes it has been assumed that believers are also in danger of committing mortal sins and losing the eternal life that God has given them. However, believers cannot commit sins that lead to death as far as John is concerned. Unlike other apostles, such as the author of Hebrews, John does not contemplate the possibility of apostasy on the part of true believers.[9]

Believing that Christians can fall away from the faith, Ben Witherington III (1951) asks, is the interceder able to “give life” to the sinner? This is a possible reading of the text, but in 1 John 1:1, God forgives and restores, so the second “he” in verse sixteen is more likely to be God. And what does “give life” mean? Does it imply “give new life” in the sense of the ability to repent or receive forgiveness? Perhaps. Does it mean “give renewed life” restoring a backslidden believer? Perhaps. We cannot be sure. In any case, John clarifies that all sin is a serious matter, and all wrongdoing is sin. Still, John believes that some sins are more spiritually deadly than others.[10]

With her crafted spiritual insight, Judith Lieu (1951) concludes that the comments here in verses fourteen to twenty-one suggest that John’s requests primarily concern the community of those who make them. His general outlook makes it unlikely that he would be involved with intercession for outsiders.[11] Though, elsewhere in the Scriptures, this is encouraged, notwithstanding the ultimate interests of those who must live among them.[12] However, the example John gives is firmly located within the Christian community. It also appears not to be a random example but the real reason he returned[13] to the theme of answered prayer.

The problem is not primarily how to deal with sin, which John addressed in the first part of the letter;[14] instead, it is how to respond to encountering a fellow community member caught sinning. If sin has no place in the community of those who believe in God’s Son, who belong to the light, and who share the assurance of eternal life, what happens when it does occur there? The picture of someone seeing this and the use of the term “brother” highlights a disruption in relationships that constitute the community. The proper relationship with a spiritual brother or sister is God’s love. Although using a different verb, John condemned any failure to respond when seeing a fellow believer in need in an earlier verse.[15] [16]

A scholar who truly inspires Christian missionaries, Daniel L. Akin (1957), says that verse sixteen is one of the most difficult verses to interpret in all of Scripture. However, a humble interpretation is the best way to express its intent. First, the Apostle John addresses a fellow believer breaking God’s law, but it is not worthy of the death penalty. Then he brings up the rebellion against God’s Word and will that is worthy of death. So, the crucial question is this: is John speaking of physical or spiritual death?

With a classical thinking approach to understanding the scriptures, Bruce G. Schuchard (1958) says that believers who only ask selfishly forget the accompanying fellowship that faith in Jesus inevitably involves. Therefore, interceding for a spiritual brother and sister caught in a “not deadly” sin. The scenario is not one of religious, moral police keeping each other under surveillance, helping the believer become aware of their sin.

Unfortunately, some are stubborn and fight against knowing the truth. They leave no room for improvement or hope for any correction and fruit of caution. Therefore, when the Holy Spirit is grieved,[17] and God’s children are unwilling to be judged and convicted by the Holy Spirit, this is a desperate and incurable disease.

On the other hand, to repent and believe is to live and love each other in union with the One who loved us first.[18] Then, to see a spiritual brother or sister in need and petition God on that believer’s behalf is to live as someone who knows and practices God’s love, who owes all things to the God who is love, apart from whose love none can spiritually survive, and confirmed in the certainties of faith that can, in the end, will be known.

In his unorthodox Unitarian way, Duncan Heaster (1967) believes that “asking” God must be understood in the context of the teaching about “asking” and “receiving” in verse fifteen. Through possessing the Spirit, the Comforter, we have the Lord “doing” things in response to what we ask.[19] For those with forgivable sin, our prayers can “work” in recovering them, for this is the Lord’s will, and all we ask according to that will shall be granted. There is an unforgivable sin.

But the Apostle John is not concerned that believers make requests for them. The allusion is to blaspheming the Holy Spirit.[20] John is up against the problem of Judaist infiltrators who falsely claimed to have the Holy Spirit but did not openly confess the Lord Jesus as the Anointed One, God’s Son, and were consciously trying to destroy the Christian movement.[21] Paul was up against these same blasphemers of the Spirit in Corinth and Ephesus.[22] These men were not to be prayed for in the same sense as interceding for a weak but genuine believer.[23]

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


The Apostle Paul echoed the words of the Apostle John when he told the Roman believers that passing so many laws against sin only produced more lawbreakers. Still, such a mound of evil deeds didn’t, and doesn’t, stand a chance in competition with the mountain of forgiveness we call grace. When wrongdoing is confronted by grace, grace wins every time.[24] 

And the Apostle James offers this advice, humbly let God’s Spirit work His will in you. Stand up against the devil and watch him try to hide. Draw closer to God, and He will greet you right there. Quit dabbling in sin. Decide to allow holiness to take control of your life. Cleanse your mind of all worldly thoughts and pledge loyalty to God. Let your tears flow for the wrong things you have done. Sincerely repent and express your grief over being so rebellious. It is not a time to be joyful but of conviction and consecration. Let there be sadness instead of laughter and gloom instead of joy. Get down on your knees before the Master once you realize your worthlessness before the Lord; He will lift you, encourage and help you get going again.[25]

This is similar to the message God gave Moses for the children of Israel, You must be careful to do everything the Lord commanded you. Do not stop following God! You must live the way the Lord your God commanded you. Then you will continue to live, and everything will be fine with you. You will live a long life in the land that will belong to you.[26] And when they were about to enter the promised land, Moses encouraged them with these words from the Lord, “You must be careful to do everything I’ve instructed you to do.  And don’t add anything to what I’m telling you, and don’t take anything away either.[27] But, of course, to do such a thing would be morally wrong. Interfering with God’s way and will is an insult to Him because it involves our treatment and care of others. So, John wanted them to know there were mistakes leading to damnation. This is what God was talking about in Isaiah when He said, “Come, let’s discuss this. Even if your sins are as dark as red dye, that stain can be removed, and you will be as pure as wool that is as white as snow.[28]

[1] Loader, William: Epworth Commentary, The Johannine Epistles, op. cit., p. 74

[2] 1 John 5:5-21

[3] Jackman, David: The Message of John’s Letters, op. cit., pp. 162, 165-166

[4] Still to this day Jews do not pronounce יהוה‎ (YHWH) nor do they read aloud proposed transcription forms such as Yahweh; instead, they replace it with a different term, whether in addressing or referring to the God of Israel such as Most High, El Shaddai, Yahweh, Elohim etc.

[5] Carter, Dr. John W. (Jack). 1,2,3, John & Jude: (The Disciple’s Bible Commentary Book 48), op. cit., pp. 132-134

[6] Matthew 12:31; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10

[7] Cf. Hebrews 6:4 & 10:26

[8] Yarbrough, Robert W., 1-3 John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), op. cit., pp. 307-308

[9] Kruse, Colin G., The Letters of John (The Pillar New Testament Commentary), op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Edition

[10] Witherington, Ben III, Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on Titus, 1-2 Timothy and 1-3 John, op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Edition

[11] See 1 John 2:15; also, John 17:9

[12] Cf. 1 Timothy 2:1; Jeremiah 29:7

[13] Cf. 1 John 3:22

[14] Ibid. 1:9-2:2

[15] Ibid. 3:17

[16] Lieu, Judith: A New Testament Library, I, II, & III John, op. cit., p. 225

[17] Ephesians 4:30

[18] 1 John 4:10

[19] John 14:13,14; 15:7,16; 16:23-26

[20] Mark 3:29

[21] Cf. Galatians 2:4

[22] Cf. 2 Timothy 3:1-9

[23] Heaster, Duncan. New European Christadelphian Commentary: op. cit., The Letters of John, pp. 79-80

[24] Romans 5:20

[25] James 4:7-10

[26] Deuteronomy 5:32-33

[27] Ibid. 12:32

[28] Isaiah 1:18

About drbob76

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