“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
Explanation of the Text: John gives us a powerful testimony of shepherding people. He is enveloped by a concern for the spiritual health of people. He writes in order that they are not deceived and instead have assurance of who they are in the Lord Jesus Christ. That level of care continues to be manifested in 1 John 5:16-17. It is here that he gives insight into the relationship not only that a shepherd has with his flock, but the relationship the flock has with other people.
He brings forth a level of accountability, but it is an accountability not between two people, but rather to God for a person in sin. Seeing others in sin, John writes that our response should be to pray to God for that person. As believers, we have access to God and we are reminded by Westcott that “the boldness of access to God, which finds its expression in prayer, find its most characteristic expression in intercessory prayer” (1).
John’s exhortation to prayer though is qualified here as he clearly differentiates between sin that leads to death and sin that does not lead to death. It is certain that all sin is wrong, as John asserts, but what does he mean by sin that leads to death? Commentators will agree that there are two views taken upon this text:
- One view is that the text refers to unbelievers who, having not believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, are spiritually dead and will spend eternity separated from the presence of God, which is what we see when the Pharisees denied Christ’s power and blasphemed the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:22-32).
- A second view is that John refers to believers here with the idea that a person can be so entrenched into sin that at some point God brings both judgment for sin and relief from it, like he did with Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11).
Both views have strong biblical support and therefore it is not an issue to be divisive over. What is certain is this: Sin is a serious thing and when we see others grossly engaged in it, we should be concerned. So we lift them up in prayer and trust that God would deliver them.
Examination & Application of the Text: Sin entraps the mind, endangers the heart, and ensnares the will. Not dealt with rightly it has the propensity to have both physical and eternal consequences (depending whether the person is a believer or not). And so, we uphold others in prayer. We ask that God would keep people from sin and deliver people from its engagement.
James urges believers to confront those in sin so that they may be delivered from their wandering back to the truth (James 5:19-20). But never is confrontation done without first praying. When sin is being dealt with it must be done with a soft heart and a soft hand. Accountability and discipline are part of the spiritual life and we must never neglect our calling to confront the sin of others (and likewise we should not neglect others calling to confront our sin as well). Yet, discipline should be an act of love meant to guide one towards repentance and restoration (which is what Christ outlines in Matthew 18). It is not a heavy hand of rebuke, but a compassionate display of love.
John writes to his readers urging them to love their fellow believers, and if they do not they have not seen the love of God (1 John 4:20-21). This is part of love. It displays the deepest level of concern that one can have for another because it means opening the door to the sacrifice of a human relationship in order that the divine relationship may be sustained.
Questions to Consider:
- Why is it so hard to confront others and pray for them when they are engaged in sin?
- Why is it so hard to be confronted by others when we are engaged in sin?
- What shift in worldview needs to take place for this point to become real to you?
- Is there someone in your life right now that you should be praying for because of their sin?
- If so, then commit to doing it and trust that God will work in that process.
(1) Brooks Foss Westcott, The Epistles of St. John: The Greek Text with Notes and Essays, Classic Commentaries on the Greek New Testament (New York: MacMillan, 1902), 190.