The Expository Files

To Pray Or Not

1 John 5:16-17

16If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. 17All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death. (1 Jno. 5:16,17)

Begin your consideration of this passage by concentrating on what is simple, what is obvious. This is about what is visible in the behavior of our brethren. The passage says, "if anyone sees his brother sinning..." We may have heard rumors or we may have suspicions. There may be indirect evidence that leads us to believe some attitudes may need attention, or that growth should occur at a faster rate. Such matters may or may not require some attention. But they do not fall within the teaching of John in this verse. This is about what is visible in the behavior of our brethren: "If anyone

A brother may be guilty of sin, and the sin is not visible to us. We cannot detect it; we cannot see it; we have not knowledge of it. Only God has perfect ability to see and know all sin. So whatever this verse is about, it relates only to what is visible: "If anyone sees..."

Two kinds of sin are identified in the verse: (1) sin that does not lead to death, and (2) sin leading to death.

First, consider sin that does not lead to death. Sin that does not lead to death is sin we repent of! John has already written, back in chapter one: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness," (1 Jno. 1:9). So sin that does not lead to death is sin we confess; sin we forsake and ask God to forgive. When we see a brother commit a sin not unto death (the guilty one repents), our response should be, ask God to give that brother life. God will give life to the penitent brother.

"Sin unto death" would obviously be sin we see that the guilty brother continues in; does not repent of! John says, "I do not say that you should pray about that." Why? Because God will not give life to one who continues in sin. "The prayer of one human being can never cancel another's free-will. If God's will does not override man's will, neither can a fellow-man's prayer. When a human will has been firmly and persistently set in opposition to the Divine will, our intercession will be of no avail. And this seems to be the meaning of "sin unto death; "willful and obstinate rejection of God's grace and persistence in unrepented sin." (Pulpit Commentary)

Verse 16 functions to illustrate what verses 14 and 15 teach: Asking according to His will. If you ask God to overlook sin a brother continues in, you are not asking according to His will. If you ask God to give spiritual life to one who sins unto death, you are not asking according to His will. We should never ask God to do something we know is against His will.

It is true and John grants that "all unrighteousness is sin," but there is "sin not leading to death." Every form or kind of unrighteousness is sin. John isn't saying there is some unrighteousness that is not sin; it is sin - but if the sinner turns from the sin in repentance, it is sin "not leading to death." Sin is sin, but does not lead to (spiritual) death, when it is dealt with honestly, with repentance, confession and request to God for forgiveness in Christ.

It any confusion or uncertainty remains about the passage in John, refer to the book of Jeremiah.

"Therefore, do not pray for this people, nor lift up a cry or prayer for them, nor make intercession to Me; for I will not hear you," (Jer. 7:16). Why? Look back in Jeremiah 7, and find the list of their transgressions in verses 6-11. The people were guilty of oppression, shedding innocent blood, theft, murder, adultery, lying, idolatry and other sins. While practicing all this iniquity they would "come and stand" before God in His house and claim they
were permitted to do such things (see verse 10). God spoke to them about their rebellion, but they did not listen or answer (verse 13). God said to them, "I will cast you out of My sight." Thus God said, "do not pray for this people." They were continuing in sin, leading to their own destruction.

Likewise in Jeremiah 11:13,14 - "For according to their number of your cities were your gods, O Judah; and according to the number of the streets of Jerusalem you have set up altars to that shameful thing, altars to burn incense to Baal. So do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them; for I will not hear them in the time that they cry out to Me because of their trouble." Knowing this, if you had been there - observing the sins of Judah, would you have prayed for God to forgive them? They were setting up altars "to that shameful thing!" {See also, Jeremiah 14:10,11}.

What we ask God should always be in harmony with His will. We should never ask God to compromise; to overlook sin people continue in. We should never ask Him to do something He has said is against His will.

Let us also learn, it is possible for a brother to commit a sin unto death! This possibility should sober every Christian, causing us to keep ourselves, abiding in Christ, growing in Him, testing the spirits and keeping God's commandments.

By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 10.2, February, 2003