If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. (1 John 5:16-17 ESV)
Two questions immediately come to mind: 1) how can there be sins that lead to death and sins that don’t lead to death, and 2) why should I pray for one and not the other?
What it Definitely Doesn’t Mean
John isn’t saying that there is sin that means the judgment of immediate death. This is obvious because the promise of praying for this person is that God gives them life. Unless that means actual physical resurrection, the death is spiritual or eternal death.
Some sins are mortal and some are not
The Bible is clear that all sins are mortal. The wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23) There are faith traditions that try to put sin on a scale and say that some are venial (forgivable) sins; some are mortal (unforgivable) sins—just make sure you don’t do those or you will go to hell.
So people feel free to sin as long as it’s not a really bad sin. That is not what this is teaching and that approach is nowhere taught in Scripture. As an example, I have run into very sad situations in which a family has suffered through a suicide. There is a teaching out there that it means for sure that the person is not saved. The Bible doesn’t teach that, but if you get this teaching wrong, such pain can ensue. It is better to say that all sin is mortal and all sin rightly causes eternal death.
What it Does Mean
We should pray for our brothers and sisters
This whole letter has emphasized Christianity as a horizontal experience and how important it is to love one another. This means that none of us live as if the others don’t matter. Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. There are no Lone Ranger Christians and part of living in love with one another is caring about the moral choices we are making. The Bible urges responsibilities we have in this respect:
- Admonish one another (Colossians 3:16)
- Speak the truth in love to one another (Ephesians 4:15)
- Confront one another (Matthew 18:15ff.)
- Lovingly discipline erring members of the church (1 Corinthians 5:1ff.)
- Pray for one another (James 5:16)
We should pray for our fellow Christian who is in bondage to a sin
It is the last responsibility that John is addressing. He has said we can go confidently before God, and when we pray according to God’s will, our prayers are answered. What do we know about God’s will regarding our brothers and sisters? 1 Thessalonians 4:3 NIV says, It is God’s will that you should be sanctified. So when I see a brother or sister deceived by sin or in bondage to sin or perhaps, just being plain stupid in some sin, John says, pray for him! What do we know about the sins sinned by genuine believers? Are those sins going to end in eternal death? No. They were forgiven in Jesus and Romans 8:1 NIV says, There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
So the sin not leading to death is any sin committed by a genuine Christian. God will answer and give them life, which I take to mean that God will bring them to repentance that they may live out the newness of life. Verse 12 tells us, whoever has the son has life.
There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. (1 John 5:16)
Accordingly, a sin that leads to death is any sin committed by an unbeliever. To this John says (but doesn’t forbid), don’t pray for that. We look around the world and see people in bondage to sins all around. What should we pray for them? Lord, help them overcome their addiction to alcohol! Lord, help them overcome their pride! I wouldn’t say it’s wrong to pray for that, but what really needs to happen is not for them to overcome a sin, but for their sins to be forgiven.
God never forgives the sin of those who do not believe in his Son. In a sense, the unforgivable sin is the sin of unbelief. So for our brothers and sisters, we pray for sanctification. For our unbelieving neighbors and coworkers and fellow students, we pray for justification.
Our prayers are a means for God to bring repentance to the genuine believer
The exciting promise here is that we have an important role in each other’s lives. A church the size of Bethel seems to always have Christians teetering on the edge of falling. Temptation has overcome them. Perhaps they have sampled the sin. Their hearts are moving away from God’s will and toward the tantalizing pleasures of whatever. We need to pray for one another, that God would grant repentance and life.
Even when a Christian makes willful and rebellious decisions, we should continue to pray that God would grant them repentance and restore them. Our hope in our prayers is that they are genuinely saved, which time will tell.
Over the past few months, our leaders have rejoiced in three significant situations where God has granted this kind of apparent repentance. Let me share one of them with you. Some details are delicate so I’ll speak vaguely. A man was a member of our church and decided to walk away from his marriage. This was ten years ago. Our church followed Matthew 18 and was sadly forced to remove him from our membership. Over these years, those close to him continued to care about his soul and pray for him.
Some months ago, God began to work in his heart. He began to read Christian books and there was a stirring in his heart. This led him to desire to make things right, including at Bethel. He and I talked and this led to him meeting with the elders and reading a letter of repentance and asking to be restored as a member. Here is part of his letter:
Pastor Steve, it is my desire to be reunited with Bethel Church. Ten years ago I was asked to leave the church for leaving my wife and I was unrepentant. What brought me to that point was my disregard for anything. I was very self-centered and full of sinful pride… My problem was I had spent no time in the Word or on my spiritual growth. I had lost touch with God and the Holy Spirit’s voice. I only cared about myself and not about all the people I hurt. God never gave up on me and he never left me alone. I was never truly happy trying to live out in the world. What I’ve learned through daily reading of God’s word and reading Christian books is that the only happiness is in the grace of God through his son Jesus Christ. I asked God to forgive me for my sin in not trusting Him and my sin of faithlessness. I’m leaning on God’s grace through the blood of Jesus Christ…I know this is my heart, to serve him daily and be a witness of his saving grace.
We were delighted to restore him to full membership and share the specifics with those who walked this journey with him.
God doesn’t give up on his people and his people shouldn’t give up on each other. I think we will get to heaven and find out that God answered the specific prayers of people, including his family, that he would be restored.
Let’s pray for one another, especially our dear ones who are in a sin. Pray that it would not be sin that indicates no spiritual life but a fleeting sin followed by a sincere repentance.
A visitor at a fishing dock asked an old fisherman who was sitting there, “If I were to fall into this water, would I drown?” It was a weird way of asking how deep the water was, but the old fisherman had a good answer. “Naw,” he said. “Fallin’ into the water doesn’t drown anybody. It’s staying under it that does.”
Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Additional Scripture quotations taken from Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
©2013 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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