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Prayer: A Case Study 1 John 5:16-17



Text: 1 John 5:16-17.
John has been speaking about prayer, and how we may have confidence in prayer, and then he adds this next verse, perhaps as a case-study for what he has just taught us; praying for sinners! What does John mean when he says that there is a sin not unto death, and a sin unto death?

1. Sin unto Death / Sin not unto Death.
Now John’s readers knew what this meant. We have a little more difficulty with it. I’m intrigued, and I have looked at as many commentaries on the subject that I can find, and all I can conclude is that every commentator seems to treat this text differently! Here’s a couple of suggestions:-

  • Roman Catholic view of sin. The Roman Catholic Church has a two tier view of sin, – sin that is mortal and sin that is venial. So the priest in the Roman confessional has the horrendous task of trying to decide which sins are mortal and which are venial and which will carry which penalty, and how much penitence will be needed for each sin. IT IS THE MEASURE OF THE SIN THAT DETERMINES ITS SEVERITY AND WHICH CATEGORY IT IS IN.
  • The Jewish belief in sin. The Jews also had a two-tier view of sin. Sins for which atonement could be sought and sins ‘with a high hand.’ A man could be tempted and sin, or be filled with anger or passion and sin, he could err, make a mistake and sin, or he could sin without even being aware at the time that he had sinned. But when that man realises he has sinned, he is filled with remorse. He is ashamed at what he has done and filled with regret and sorrow, and he REPENTS of his sin before The Lord, and is forgiven. BUT, what if he sins ‘deliberately?’ What if he plots to sin, and having sinned, he has no regrets, what if he enjoys his sin, and revels in his sin and continues in his sin with arrogance and pride? That is SIN WITH A HIGH HAND and for sin like this there is NO FORGIVENESS!

I wonder is that what John is speaking about here? Is John simply talking about sins that lead to death, because the sinner refuses to repent of his sin and be forgiven. Romans 3:23, For the wages of sin is death! Now, if that IS what John is referring to here, then the implications of what John is saying is clear. We must pray for sinners, and we must pray for sinners to be saved, to know God’s forgiveness and pardon, so that they may have eternal life, – BUT IF THE SINNER WE ARE PRAYING FOR WILL NOT REPENT OF HIS SIN, turn from his sin and turn to Christ, OUR PRAYERS WILL NOT BE ANSWERED AS WE WOULD WISH THEM TO BE!

2. Examples of Sin that Leads to Death.
Now, do we have any examples of wilful, unrepentant sin, sin that leads to death, in the Bible? Yes, we do, so lets see some of them…

  1. Unrepentant misuse of the sacraments. 1 Cor. 11:29-30,.
  2. Unrepentant apostasy. John has already warned us that some will depart from the church, 1 John 2:18-19, 1 Tim 1:18-20 Paul has literally handed apostate blasphemers over to spiritual eternal death! Harsh? Yes, but totally necessary to protect the church!
  3. Unrepentant wilfulness. You know what I mean – doing what I want to do, instead of what God wants of me. In Corinth there was a situation just like this. A man was sleeping with what we presume was his stepmother, and the church had not dealt with the situation. See how Paul dealt with it in 1 Corinthians 5:1-7 Death can be PHYSICAL DEATH as well as SPIRITUAL ETERNAL DEATH. Ecclesiastes 7:17

3. Praying for Sinners.
Now, moving on from the difficulties that the text undoubtedly presents us, let’s look at a few simple practical principles from John’s case-study in prayer:-

  • INTEREST. We should be concerned when our brethren sin. If we see a brother fall into sin, we will pray for him.
  • INVESTIGATION. Notice that John’s language here implies a measure of investigation. He does not say, ‘if we hear that someone has sinned’. Gossip won’t do for evidence – it wouldn’t do in a secular court, and it won’t do for us either. We are only to pray after there has been some evidence! If anyone SEES his brother sin…
  • INTERCESSION. We are to bring their needs before the throne of Grace in prayer. We ask. God hears. The sinner lives.
  • INTERDEPENDENCE. Because we all need someone to pray for us! We talk to our Father about each other.
  • INTROSPECTION. One final but vitally important point. When we look at others, and see sin in them and it concerns us, let us, before we pray for them, remember to examine ourselves. Matthew 7:2-4

4. A Clear and Unambiguous Statement about Sin.
All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.
John completes his case study now, with a characteristically black and white statement. ALL SIN IS SIN! Large or small, whatever the sin is, it cannot be written off as ‘just me being me…’ All unrighteousness is sin.  There is none righteous – not one of us. No one can match God’s righteous standards of holiness, and we continually fall short. We are condemned by our own sin. We deserve nothing more than to be cast into the lake of fire for all eternity. That is the natural and just reward for our sin.

Revelation 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”

But there is a remedy.  John points out that there is a category of sin which does NOT lead to death!  Is He contradicting Paul, who said, ‘the wages of sin is death?’  Not at all!  The sin which is ‘not unto death’ is FORGIVEN SIN!

God who loved us more than we could ever imagine, took all of our sin and placed it upon Jesus and poured out his wrath upon his sinless spotless son, so that we would not be punished for our sin. When we ask him for forgiveness and pardon he blots out all our sin, and our death sentence is lifted from us.

© Bob McEvoy

From → 1st John

One Comment
  1. This is a great study and explanation of sin. Thanks brother!!

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