Wednesday, May 16, 2012

To Pray or Not to Pray: That is the Question

A Tough Text in 1 John

At Liberty, a group of us gathered this past semester, every Thursday night, to study through John’s epistle verse by verse. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get all the way through the book; so, I thought I would write about one of the difficult passages in this letter we didn’t have time to address.

1 John 5:16-17
English Standard Version (ESV)
16 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. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.

One element that makes this text difficult is John’s ambiguity. As soon as we read these verses that are wedged in the midst of John’s closing to the epistle, we are forced to stop and ask: What kind of sin is “not leading to death?” What is the kind of sin “that leads to death?” And perhaps the most pressing question that came to my mind: Why are we not commanded to pray for the sin that leads to death?

All Sin Brings Death Without Jesus

Death is a common symbol tied with sin in Scripture. John recognizes this result of sin earlier in the epistle when he talks about those who do not love as “abiding in death” (3:14). John is not the only New Testament author who uses the symbolism of death to describe the result of sin, either. For example, Paul says in Romans 6:23, For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” So, we can infer from this universal statement that all sin is in fact sin that leads to eternal death. All sin brings death without Jesus.

I add the clause ‘without Jesus,’ because the essence of the gospel is that death is no longer the fate of those who sin once Jesus intercedes. Paul teaches this after describing his great battle with sin in Romans 7. The whole chapter explodes into 8:1 when he promises believers that because of the cross, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” In other words, they may sin, but it will not lead to death for them.

The Death-Reversing Power of God-Given Repentance

The Bible goes to greater detail still about what sin that doesn’t lead to death looks like. In Romans 8:13 Paul writes, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Building from his idea in 6:23, Paul is establishing a difference when it comes to sin in the life of a believer. He begins by affirming that uninhibited, unrepentant sin leads to death. Paul defines sinfulness in this instance as living “according to the flesh.” However, even though the believer still lacks perfection, he battles his sins “by the Spirit.” The believer’s life is defined by Martin Luther’s words when he wrote, “All of life is repentance.” Repentance reverses the sentence of death we should endure for our sin by turning us toward Jesus instead, the one who endured it for us.

Romans 8:13 is not the only place that Paul teaches the death-reversing power of God-given repentance. Paul uses the death and life symbolism once again in his letter to the church at Corinth. He says in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” In other words, if you have the kind of grief over your sin that causes you to repent, then your sin will not ultimately lead you to death. But, if you only experience the kind of grief that effects no change in your heart, no stirring toward repentance, no love for Christ, then your sin will lead you to death.

It’s no surprise that this idea is not just isolated in Pauline epistles but is scattered throughout the whole New Testament. Note the way the church responds to Peter’s news in Acts 11:18: “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Repentance doesn’t mean an absence of sin. But it does mean a life that is constantly turning away from sin as dissatisfying and toward Jesus as all-satisfying. In this way, the sin that resides with a believer until he arrives in glory is sin that does not lead to death.
In short, sin that leads to death is the sin of those who are unrepentant and thus prove themselves to be unbelievers. The sin that does not lead to death is the sin of the believer who is repentant and whose sin was atoned for at the cross.

So how are we to respond to each of these kinds of sins?

Our first response is to the sin that does not lead to death. John tells us that we will respond in prayer toward the believer who is wrestling with his sin in a state of repentance. Notice that he calls this person a “brother.” This fortifies the conclusion that the man who has sin that does not lead to death is in this gracious position because he is a believer. Also notice that John tells us “we shall ask,” not “we should ask.” In the Greek, John is not writing in the imperative tense, but is simply forecasting what the believer will do for his fellow brother in the faith.  Apparently, he is confident that the believer’s natural response will be to lift up his struggling brother before the throne. John is also confident of the result: the struggling saint will receive life. Perhaps the prayers of fellow saints are one of the tools the Spirit uses to help us “put to death” the deeds of the body, like Paul says in Romans 8:13.

The second response we need to address involves the sin that leads to death. Given the context, it’s possible that as John wrote this closing to his letter, he had in mind the men he spoke of in 2:19: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” John could have intended that his readers think of these false teachers and converts when they thought of sin that leads to death. Whatever the case, he tells us that we do not have to pray for such a sin.

Why does he not command us to pray?

Apparently, within Scripture there are some extreme cases where a people or a person can reach a point that is beyond forgiveness and therefore beyond intercession. The “unforgivable sin,” or blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, comes to mind as one example (Mark 3:29, Matthew 12:32). Another example of such an extreme instance is found within Jeremiah 7. God tells the prophet, “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you” (7:16). In this chapter we find a lengthy explanation of the people’s extreme, unrepentant wickedness. It had reached such a degree that God would no longer hear prayers on this people’s behalf. Perhaps John had such a situation in mind.

Be careful to note that John does not forbid we pray for such a thing. He only mentions that he does not command it. John knew that God, in his justice and sovereignty, has foreordained certain extreme situations in which he does not respond to intercession for unrepentant wickedness.

Do not be confused by this reality. Know that the Word encourages us to pray for unbelievers. In Romans 10:1 Paul says of his kinsman, “my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.” I don’t think John ever intended that we should walk away from his letter like one commentator and conclude:

The prayer of one human being can never cancel another's free-will. If God's will does not override man's will, neither can a fellow-man's prayer. When a human will has been firmly and persistently set in opposition to the Divine will, our intercession will be of no avail.”

Thankfully, God’s will does override a man’s will, once God finally redeems him. The Father draws him to Jesus (John 6:44). God takes out his heart of stone and gives him a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19). God causes him to be born again (1 Peter 1:3). God opens his eyes so that he can believe the gospel (Acts 16:17). And God grants him repentance (2 Timothy 2:25-26). So pray for these things, and pray boldly. Don’t be timid about asking the sovereign God of the universe to save. Don’t ask that he make a cute, enticing path toward the cross that they might hopefully in the power of their own free-will decide to choose to walk down one day. But pray that he would save them, just like Paul did. Heed the words of the great reformer, John Calvin, who said:

“To make intercession for men is the most powerful and practical way in which we can express our love for them.”

Might there be a situation beyond intercession? Yes. But be weary of making that call. Think of the worst of sinners God has drawn, including you. And pray boldly and without giving up. Maybe he will grant them repentance. 

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