After discussing the amazing promise that God always answers prayers according to His will, John tells his readers they can use the power of prayer for more than just themselves. As believers who come confidently before God, we can ask Him to give life to a brother who sins and He will do it. But John qualifies the promise. The answered prayers are only for those who have committed a sin not leading to death. What exactly this means is one of many challenges in these verses.
This text is yet another difficult passage in the letter. John seems to have more than his share of these. The little children/fathers/young men passage in 2:12-14 – talking about antichrist and antichrists in 2:18 and 4:3 – saying we have confidence before God when our heart does not condemn us and God is greater than our heart in 3:19-20 – telling us on two different occasions (5:14-15 and 3:22) that God gives us whatever we ask in prayer – and in 5:6-9 saying that Jesus came by water and blood and the water and blood and Spirit all bear witness of the Son. All of these have an element of mystery to them and all engender disagreement as to their real meaning.
This text, however, may be the hardest to understand in the whole letter. Almost every phrase of verse 16 is open to interpretation. What is sin leading to death and sin not leading to death? Is there such a thing as mortal sin? Are these sins really off limits for prayer? Is the brother we pray for a believer? If so, can believers commit mortal sins? And what does it mean that God gives life to those brothers we pray for? If they are believers, why do they need life? Are they in danger of damnation? And why do believers need us to pray for their sin at all? Can they not ask for their own forgiveness and restoration? Finally – do we have to understand all these concepts to appreciate the promise John gives us here?
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin
This is one of the main points of this text but one we could easily miss while focusing on the more difficult statements. John says we can use the power of prayer that he discussed in verses 14-15 for other believers. In a community of believers where we are to lay down our lives for one another (3:16) and meet the physical needs of one another (3:17-18), we are also to intercede on behalf of one another. When we see a brother sin we pray for Him – and we can pray in confidence that we will be heard.
It is interesting that he says we pray when we see a brother sin. This seems to be prayer on behalf of one who does not ask us to pray. We pray for what we witness in another and we pray even without his participation. We take the initiative to pray and do not wait for confession or request. Instead of condemnation or gossip or resentment or withdrawal, we respond to others’ sin with prayer. We see sin and pray – it is the first and best response.
Note too that it is anyone who sees the sin. This command is not limited to pastors or teachers or others in ministry. This is a ministry all of us have. Anyone who sees any brother sin prays for that brother. We all have the responsibility to bear one another up. No one member of the community is satisfied merely with his own sanctification – if a family member falls he attends to him.
Why does the brother not pray for himself? The answer lies in the idea that we pray for what we see. This is likely prayer for someone who does not understand his need for prayer. Perhaps this is the backslidden believer – the believer who has fallen away and no longer has a renewed mind or perspective. We see his state and we pray. We go to God for him because he does not go himself.
This is really both privilege and responsibility. Because of our standing before God we can not only go with confidence into His presence ourselves, we get to take others with us too. And we have the responsibility to take others if because of their own sin they do not go themselves. We love our brothers in the community of faith; thus we will not allow them to run into sin without crying out to God on their behalf (and while it is not specifically said, it makes sense that our love for the brethren would require us to pray for them as diligently as we pray for ourselves).
Sin not leading to death – sin leading to death
These are the phrases which cause the most conjecture and confusion. What is a sin that leads to death? How can a sin be beyond the scope of prayer? Since he is talking about praying for brothers, can believers commit this kind of sin?
Some comparisons with other stories in scripture shed light on this topic. David committed both adultery and murder and was forgiven. Paul killed Christians and was converted. The thief on the cross lived a life that was worthy of the worst sentence Rome could give and was promised eternal life because of his confession of faith. Peter denied Christ three times to save his own skin and was fully restored as an apostle. All these examples lead to the conclusion that there are no sins inherently beyond the scope of God’s forgiveness.
Also, in this same letter (1:9) John says when we confess our sins God will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. He uses the same words in verse 17 to describe sin – all unrighteousness is sin. So if all unrighteousness is sin and God is willing to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, how can a specific sin be unforgiveable?
Perhaps the clue lies in 1:9. John says God forgives sin that is confessed. Could it be that John is referring to sin that is never redeemed? Might he mean that sin that goes with its host to the grave is sin leading to death? Sin that refuses to be redeemed is not redeemed. If we know that God has a history of forgiving the most heinous sins of those who repent, it makes sense that the only unforgiveable sins are the ones never confessed.
This goes along with what Jesus says about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in Matthew 12. He says in verse 31 that any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. There is no sin that is outside of God’s forgiveness when it is brought to God as sin. But the one who blasphemes the Holy Spirit – intentionally denies the work of God (as the Pharisees did) or rejects the witness of the Spirit on behalf of the Son (5:7) and calls God a liar (5:10) – is so lost in his sin that he no longer sees it as sin. Thus he is beyond forgiveness because he sees no need for forgiveness. He refuses to repent because he has nothing to repent of.
That is the key to understanding this passage and others similar to it (Heb 6:4-6 and 10:26-31). People beyond God’s forgiveness are the ones who refuse to seek it. They are not people who want to be forgiven and cannot be, they are ones who reject the truth because they see no need for it. They have nothing to confess and thus nothing to forgive. Their sin leads to death because they do not seek life.
This explains why John does not encourage his readers to pray for this type of sin. We cannot ask for life for one who has not repented. Said another way, we cannot pray, “Father, I know he does not believe and I know he will not repent, but please save him anyway.” We can pray for repentance for one who does not believe, but we cannot pray for salvation or restoration for one still in an unrepentant state. (It could also be that there are those who are beyond even prayer for repentance – but the discernment to identify these cases must come from the Spirit.)
If this definition is correct, it means believers cannot commit a sin leading to death. If sin leading to death is the ultimate and willful rejection of the gospel, believers by definition cannot commit it. John has already said that believers do not practice sin (3:9) and that the heretics who went out from the community proved by leaving they were really never of it (2:19). Consequently, one who consistently rejects the gospel and refuses to repent cannot be a believer – and a true believer cannot reject what by definition makes him what he is. This also means if we worry that we have committed a sin leading to death we can be sure we have not. Our concern is proof we are not guilty. One who is lost in this sin is not concerned about it because he arrogantly assumes he has nothing to confess.
So why bring it up if believers cannot commit it? Perhaps because of the type of person we are to pray for. If we are correct that John is talking about praying for believers who have fallen away (praying for sins we see), it could well be that in some cases we find that the brother we pray for is not a brother at all. And in that case we realize that instead of praying for life, we should pray for repentance and acceptance of the gospel.
God will for him give life
Why do we ask God to give life to a brother? Is he dead in his sin? Has he lost the promise of eternal life (5:13)? Is there a different meaning for life as John uses it here?
John started this letter with his stated desire for all to share in fellowship with the Father and the Son (1:1-3). John’s desire dovetails with Jesus’ words that eternal life consists of knowing the Father and the Son (Jn 17:3). And John has said repeatedly that loving each other is a mark of belief – thus stressing community – and even said we complete the love of God when we love each other (4:12). Thus, it makes sense that John urges us to pray for the restoration of a sinning brother into the community of believers – back into fellowship with the Father and the Son. Sin interrupts fellowship. Our intercessory prayer can restore it.
This is another version of the promise John gave us in verses 14-15. God answers prayers that are according to His will and restoration of a brother is certainly in His will. Consequently, we can pray for others with confidence that God will in fact hear us and grant our requests. If the sin we pray for is not the willful and ongoing rejection of the gospel, we can be sure that God will in fact restore the erring brother (we can pray for ANY and ALL sin outside of willful rejection – this means the opportunity and responsibility of prayer are massive). Put this way we understand prayer to be an enormously powerful weapon in the fight against evil. We can actually bring a brother back through prayer. OUR prayer can change a man’s life.
All unrighteousness is sin
John makes sure his readers understand there is no such thing as acceptable sin. Though there is sin that does not lead to death it does not mean it is OK. ALL unrighteousness is sin just like lawlessness is sin (3:4). Any violation of God’s standards and commands is sin, and sin is serious.
Whether or not we fully understand the mysteries of this passage we must understand the underlying promise and command – we have the responsibility and privilege of lifting sinful brothers up to God in prayer. We can actually restore a brother to fellowship within the community and with his Savior and Creator through prayer. We get to do this and we must do this. One more time John takes out his divine shovel and heaps an amazing promise all over us. We have the power to affect others’ lives for eternity. We have God’s promise that He will heed prayers offered for others’ sin. We hold in our sonship the privilege of taking others confidently before God.
This makes the promise of verses 14-15 even more wonderful. We not only have the power of God for ourselves – we have it for each other! I can protect YOU! You can protect ME! If one of us dissolves into his own pool of selfishness and sin, the other can bring him up through the power of God. And that is really the best part. I am not responsible for bringing you back – I am responsible for bringing the power of God to bear on your life. I am responsible to tell my heavenly Father that you need help. HE brings you back – I just rely on His power. I effectively play the role of cosmic tattle-tale to make sure you stay on the straight and narrow.
This is another reason the thought that I can practice Christianity in a vacuum is nonsense. God wants us in community. He wants us there for encouragement and teaching and accountability and protection. Texts like this make it clear that I cannot serve God alone nearly as well as I can in fellowship with others. And I must invest in others and know others in order to fully realize the benefits of that fellowship. We are family – and family members watch out for each other. In the family I am not only concerned about my own relationship with the Father; I am concerned about all my family members’ relationships with the Father. Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up (Ecc 4:9-10).
It pays to remember, however, that answers to these prayers can be rough. Praying a brother back into the community might entail some tough times for that brother. It might also entail tough times for the one praying so as to impact the straying brother. Like we said about the prior passage (14-15) – “yes prayers” can be scary prayers. When we ask God to intervene in a life we should be prepared for fire and pruning.
Lastly – is this not a call to more prayer? How many brothers do we have? How many straying brothers or almost-straying brothers do we have? How many brothers and sisters simply need my prayers for protection even if they are not straying? And how many brothers and sisters would I like praying for MY protection? If all of us are going to pray for all of us we should be prepared to spend an enormous amount of time in prayer. Community prayer is time-consuming prayer. Protective prayer for the family cannot fit into the three prayers I snap off at mealtimes. John’s promise lends more weight to Paul’s words to pray without ceasing.
Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.
My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth, and one turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins. James 5:16,19-20
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. Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ. Gal 6:1-2
And it came about, when the days of feasting had completed their cycle, that Job would send and consecrate them, rising up early in the morning and offering burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “Perhaps my sons have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually. Job 1:5
Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Phil 2:4