Post Series on 1 John 5:13-17:
- How Confident are You That You Have Eternal Life? (1 John 5:13)
- Confidence in Our Eternal Life Results in Prayer (1 John 5:14-15)
- Praying for the Prodigal Brother (1 John 5:16-17)
In 1 John 5:13-15, John explains how the confidence that we have toward our eternal life translates into the way we conduct lives that are motivated and governed by prayer. In v. 16-17, John gives us a very specific application for the prayer that should stem from our confidence:
 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)
The particular application of the general principle of prayer is the reclamation of a wandering, prodigal brother. John always uses “brother” to refer to a believer in his Letter, and so the situation is that of one believer sinning in such a way that is visible to a fellow believer. The believer who observes his brother’s sin is neither to gossip or to ignore–the believer is called to pray for his brother, with the confidence and assurance that God will give life to this struggling brother.
The obvious question in this passage concerns the “sin that leads to death.” What on earth might this be? Based on the context of the entire book, the sin that leads to death is most likely persistent, apostate rejection of Jesus Christ’s being the Son of God, resulting in a schismatic separation from the church of faithful believers (cf. 1 John 3:18-27; 1 John 4:1-6). This is debated some, but the “antichrists” and “false prophets” whom John denounces seem to be the most obvious candidates for this ignominious status.
Two cautions about how we should interpret the “sin that leads to death”:
- While John enigmatically says, “There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that,” we should keep in mind that he does not forbid that we should pray for those who commit the sin that leads to death. I point this out so that you are not hindered in your prayers by a concern about praying for the wrong people. God may teach you that praying for a particularly hard-hearted person is not according to his will; he told Jeremiah to cease praying for the hard-hearted Israelites (Jeremiah 7:16-18; 11:14; 14:11; cf. Colin Kruse, The Letters of John), but that is his business. Pray until God directs you not to.
- The majority of focus in this text is not on obsessively speculating on what the “sin that leads to death” might be; rather the majority is on reclaiming a prodigal brother. John’s point is that praying for such a brother is absolutely the will of God, and that God has made special promises to restore such wanderers through our prayers. This is where I would like to focus the rest of this meditation.
My experience is that we Christians make this business of reclaiming wandering brothers too complicated for ourselves. We hope problems will go away on their own; we worry that we might offend our friends; we justify our non-action by Jesus’ warnings about the logs in our own eyes (Matt. 7:1-5); or, we simply don’t take the time to listen to our fellow believers.
John’s pastoral counsel here, though, is that we must be committed to prayer for fellow believers who are stumbling into sin. Through his entire Letter he has been preaching the necessity of loving one another, and now he outlines one of the key means of such love: prayer. God’s will is that we would love his other children so deeply that we would not cease to pray fervently for their souls, to keep them from embracing destruction.
What typically happens when we begin to pray for our friends in this way, then, is that God begins working on us so that we can go talk to them about our concerns. When we approach friends to confront them for their sin after deep, pleading prayer on their behalf, the pride and judgmentalism that Jesus condemned will be impossible. Moreover, God will use us as vessels through which he will grant life to our fellow believers.
This is, in fact, what John describes in v. 16. Although there is some debate, I would paraphrase the translation of the verse this way: “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he [the one who sees his brother] shall ask, and God will give him [the one who sees his brother] life for the sake of those who sin the sins that do not lead to death.”
The second “him” (“…and God will give him“) and the phrase “to those who commit sins that do not lead to death” cannot be the same person, because the former is singular, and the latter is plural. God gives one person life, and he gives it on behalf of those who commit sins that do not lead to death.
God is calling us to radical love for our neighbor that will not only commit to fervent prayer for their holiness, but that will result in being the means through which God restores life to them. What a privilege to minister to one another in this way! God actually uses us to restore and heal each other!
But we forfeit this great privilege if we do not pray for our prodigal brothers on the basis of our confidence in the reality of our eternal life, which is ours in Christ Jesus the Son. Our life in Christ is the foundation of everything–especially of any ministry to which God is calling us.