Supplication and Sin
What are sins that lead to death? What are sins that don't lead to death? 1 John 5:16-17 is one of the most challenging (and even confusing) passages in the Bible. Join Dr. Marty Baker as he helps us understand this passage, and more importantly, apply it to our own lives.
Years ago a Christian parachurch leader I knew well burst into my office needing quick counsel.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Why are you so upset and bewildered?” I couldn’t believe how he, a spiritual pillar in the community responded.
“Well, my wife and I have been married for over fifty years, and our marriage hasn’t been going well for quite some time. She ignores me a lot in every way. So, yesterday I decided to drive in an area where I knew there were questionable women. Within a few minutes I spotted one and decided I’d pull over and just talk with her. The next thing I knew she jumped in my car and I negotiated a price with her. That’s when she pulled out her badge and a number of police officers surrounded the car. They handcuffed me, threw me in the back of a squad car, hauled me down to the police station, and they gave me one phone call. I called my wife who had to come down and bail me out. Believe me she to say she was shocked and angry is to light of a statement. What do I do now? How do I go forward? How do I rebuild my marriage after this sinful move?”
Welcome to the pastorate. Welcome to being a believer in Jesus Christ. Who hasn’t sat face to face with a Christian friend who has sinned? What should be your course of action?
- Listen and love. We are under divine mandate to “love one another,” which means we don’t desert a brother or sister regardless of what they’ve done (1 John 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11, 12). Love pulls alongside a said instead of pulling away.
- Admonish in love and humility. Paul tells us this much in his writings: “14 And we urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all men” (1 Thess. 5). The Greek imperative for “admonish” (νουθετέω, noutheteo) speaks of offering counsel and instruction in order to motivate someone to avoid or cease inappropriate immoral conduct. Of course, as Paul says in Galatians, the one who admonishes must be gentle and humble because they, too, have clay feet: “1 Brethren, even if a man is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, lest you too be tempted”(Gal. 6).
What else should you do?
Pray for them. Why? For one, a spiritual issue must be met with spiritual discipline. Once more, Paul gives us sagacious advice in his concluding thoughts about the importance of wearing spiritual armor: “8 With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints” (Eph. 6). For another, we, as saints, are under divine orders to pray for saints when they fumble in the fray. John tells us this much in 1 John 5, verses 16 through 17. From what we’ve seen in this short letter, John did his share of admonishing for many Christians had unfortunately chosen to listen to the voice of false teachers, resulting in them being confused, compromised, and, at times, combative with truth speakers like John. Hence, in his final wrap-up counsel to these seven churches in Asia Minor he sought to strengthen, the aged and wise pastor tells us to . . .
Pray For Sinning Saints And Expect Divine Results (1 John 5:16-17)
Watch how John develops this motif:
16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death. (1 John 5).
These words should make you take a deep, defined gulp. Whoever said Scripture was always easy to interpret? Not I. Most of the time the meaning of Scripture is clear and relatively easy to discern. There are, however, those verses where no matter how many exegetical, grammatical, historical, and cultural tools we bring to bear, we are left in a quandary as to precise meaning and application. John’s words here are of this latter sort because he does not tell us what exact sin committed by a Christian does, in fact, trigger God to remove them. Based on the complexity of these verses, I will, therefore offer my best understanding of what I think the Spirit is saying through John, but at the end of the day, I know there is a mystery here of how the Lord deals with his people which we cannot fully comprehend.
What I do understand is that the Lord calls us to pray for saints when they sin. Do you? Will you? Instead of just saying, “Did you hear about what so and so did? Unbelievable. How tragic and terrible for them and their family,” you should be prompted to pray. Why? Pray because a spiritual battle is at hand and prayer is the weapon of choice to help a saint gain victory. We know this much from John’s opening words here in verse 16.
Pray Ardently For Those Who Fumble In The Fray (1 John 5:16b)
Listen carefully how John develops this important point:
16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this.
What is John teaching here about prayer as it relates to believers who sin? Let’s see.
First, please note whom John is speaking to: brothers, adelphos (ἀδελφός), which is a term used in the letter to denote genuine believers (1 2:9, 10, 11; 3:10, 12, 14, 15, 17; 4:20, 21). John’s use of this term never speaks of professing (fake) believers but possessing believers, or saints who are truly saved and enjoy eternal life, forgiveness, and the presence of the Spirit. This is a crucial distinction and one which will need to be kept in mind as we consider both verses. John isn’t speaking about Christian brothers in verse 16a, and then pivoting in 16b and 17 to address non-Christians. Brothers, and sisters, in Christ are in view in both verses and all are quite capable of sinning for they still struggle with the flesh (Rom. 7; Gal. 5:13-26). Can you relate?
Second, John states there are sins Christians commit which, though dangerous and destructive, do not warrant the Lord removing them from the earth. He does not, unfortunately, identify or classify those sins, leaving it up to us to offer our thoughts. The participle “committing” and the word for “sin” both come from the same root (hamartia), and collectively they describe a saint who sins by missing the mark (as an archer would miss the intended target) of God’s laws and codes of holy conduct. The sky, therefore, is the limit as to what sins this word denotes: anger, malice, bitterness, hatred, lust, pride, sexual deviation and the like surely fit the bill.
Read Christ’s words to these seven churches, as I’ve mentioned before, in Asia Minor, and you’ll instantly identify many sins they needed prayer for: Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-7): they were great on doctrine and short on love for Jesus; Pergamos (Rev. 2:12-17): they were prone to doctrinal compromise; Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29): they had some saints who endured cultural pressure to compromise, but many tolerated sexual perversion in their ranks; Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6): they looked like a vibrant church but were really spiritual dead and lifeless; and Laodicea (Rev. 3:14-22): they were spiritually lukewarm, meaning they could care less about spiritual truth or error. Everything was just fine with them. These churches, like many today, needed admonishment and prayer, and I’m quite sure John spent many hours on his knees concerning them in addition to confronting them as their shepherd.
Third, John states it is the Lord’s will to answer prayer(s) committed to saints who have fumbled the spiritual football in their lives. When you, like Moses of old, intercede for them, the Lord will grant them life. What does this mean? Life, zoe (ζωή), is used in First John of either physical (1 John 1:2 ) or transcendent, spiritual life (1 John 2:25; 3:14, 15; 5:11, 13). True, contextually, John has just spoken about eternal life, which all saints possess; however, I do not think it is logical for eternal life to be the meaning in verse 16. Why would Jesus give you, His child, spiritual life, when at the moment of conversion this is exactly what you received (John 3:15, 16; 5:24; 6:47; 1 John 2:25)? The only other conclusion is to assert the prayer for a straying saint eventually leads to their repentance and the extension of their physical life. You might need to read that sentence again. All sin leads to physical death; therefore, to pray and turn a saint from sin, as in the case of my friend we just spoke about, causes the Lord to extend their life. As a Jew steeped in the Old Testament, I’m sure John knew how holy, wise living is rewarded by the divine extension of physical life:
2 Ill-gotten gains do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death (Prov. 10).
28 In the way of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death. (Prov. 12)
19 He who is steadfast in righteousness will attain to life, And he who pursues evil will bring about his own death (Prov. 11:).
Do you now see why it is so important to pray for saints who stumble and fumble? Eternal life is not in view, while physical life is. Your prayer(s) might just turn the saint in question from their sin, and move God to mercifully and graciously give them more time to walk this old earth. Who are you praying for? Who haven’t you been praying for which you should be?
Here’s another pertinent question: What are you praying for, exactly?
- “Lord, help, Joe, see his sin so he can repent and restore his relationship with you.”
- “Lord, be merciful to Joe if you’re moved to discipline for his sin, and cause this discipline to grab his attention and guide him back to a vibrant relationship with you.”
You are praying for them to spiritually wake-up, confess their sin (1 John 1:9), and move onward and upward to holiness. Again, this is exactly what Moses did numerous times when Israel strayed from God. They sinned, God either proposed to move in judgment or He did, and Moses interceded in order to spare their lives from God’s discipline so they could continue to be His people. Israel’s sin with the Golden Calf is a historical representation of this cycle (Ex. 32). Read it and you will see what I mean. Israel rejected the worship of the living God when they created the idol, God knew of their sin and moved in disciplinary judgment, and Moses eventually stepped in to seek God’s mercy through passionate, highly emotional prayer before God’s throne.
Again, I ask: Which sinning saint are you praying for? Pray and God promises you will see Him act profoundly in their life.
I’m sure all of this causes you to ask the logical question: Does God, in fact, discipline His saints when we act in an unholy manner? The answer is unequivocally, Yes. The author of Hebrews gives us this insight:
5 and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; 6 For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives. 7 It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what LS