This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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16If 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. 17All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. 18We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. 19We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
Praying against Sin
John restates a key emphasis of the letter—love for fellow believers—in light of what he has just said about prayer. Thus love for the brothers is expressed in terms of praying for the perseverance of one another. If a believer sees “his brother,” a fellow believer, fall into sin, he should pray for him with the aim that God might grant him life, that is, that God might preserve this brother in the faith. The deep value and importance of life together with other believers is implied and assumed here.
However, two key questions remain: (1) What is the “sin that leads to death”? (2) Why does John “not say” we should pray for people committing such sin?
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While there has been much discussion about the identity of this “sin that leads to death,” we should look for clues within the context of this letter.1 John has been particularly concerned throughout the letter with sins that show that one does not have eternal life abiding in him, that is, with sins that do, in fact, lead to death. John has particularly identified such sin as rejection of belief in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, unwillingness to obey God and pursue holiness, and failure to love fellow believers. Thus, “Sin that leads to death is deliberate refusal to believe in Jesus Christ, to follow God’s commands, and to love one’s brothers.”2 This was the behavior of those who were seeking to deceive John’s hearers (1 John 2:26). This interpretation makes the most sense within the context of the letter.
Therefore, John is not describing a sin that can be committed accidentally or even in a moment. Yet all sin is gradual. No one reaches full degradation overnight. Rather, every sin paves the way for deeper and greater sin. Thus, John calls for believers to pray for one another lest anyone be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (similar to Heb. 3:13) so that he eventually turns away from Christ and goes out from the company of the redeemed, proving that he was never truly saved (1 John 2:19). Marshall’s challenging words are apt: “It is not characteristic of the modern church prayer meeting (if we hold one at all) that we pray for specific members who have fallen into sin by name. . . . John’s words are a challenge to the quality of our intercession for others.”3
John tells us to expect such prayer for other believers to be answered: “God will give him life.” This is not presumption, but we can pray boldly for one another, knowing that as we pray for the perseverance of the saints, we pray according to God’s will (1 John 5:15).
Lastly, how should we understand John’s counsel regarding those who do commit a sin “leading to death”? In a letter where John has been quite blunt, his words here are very careful, almost hesitant. Notice that he does not forbid prayer for those who have committed such sin. He simply notes that he has “not” told us that we “should pray for that” (“I do not say . . .”). His words leave the door open for us to pray, and then perhaps at some point to stop praying, without feeling guilty about it.
There came a time when God told Jeremiah to quit praying for his people (Jer. 7:16; 11:14; 14:11). Jesus told his disciples there would be a time to shake from their feet the dust of a city that would not listen (Matt. 10:14). It seems John is acknowledging that people may come to the point beyond which prayer would do no good. However, it is not always clear when this point is reached, so John does not prohibit praying for such individuals. Rather, he gives permission for such praying to cease when the time comes.
Is Sinfulness a Spectrum?
Lest the differentiation between sins seem to downplay the gravity of sins that do not lead to death, John quickly affirms that “all wrongdoing is sin.” No sin is acceptable. All sin is rebellion against God (1 John 3:4) and qualifies as “unrighteousness” or “wrongdoing.” But there is a wide range of sin short of deliberate refusal to believe or obey. Thus, while we maintain the heinousness of sin, we must also maintain the greatness of God’s grace and his willingness to forgive. This truth about God is what should animate our prayers for one another.
Following the discussion of apostasy, this verse not only restates John’s teaching on holiness but also offers assurance. Those who have truly been born of God do not continue in sin leading to spiritual death. When we are born of God, we are changed in such a way that we begin to fight sin, as John has already argued.
While we maintain the heinousness of sin, we must also maintain the greatness of God’s grace and his willingness to forgive.
Those born of God are protected by “he who was born of God.” This could possibly refer to a fellow believer, whose prayer protects his fellow brother (cf. v. 16). However, it is perhaps more likely that this refers to Jesus, highlighting the connection between Jesus as the “only Son” and believers as adopted children. Jesus protects the children of God so that the Evil One does not “touch” them. Jesus prayed for and thus protected Peter in a similar way (Luke 22:32).
But what does it mean that Satan cannot “touch” the protected brother? It would seem that Satan “touched” Job in one sense (Job 2:4–8, note the verb “touch” in v. 5). Jesus prayed not for his followers to be taken out of the world but for the Father to “keep” them (John 17:15). What this protection looks like can be deduced by the experience of the one “born of God.” Jesus suffered and died but was ultimately resurrected. So also we may suffer and even be killed, but our spiritual life cannot be touched.
We Belong to God
John has been providing his readers with proofs that they are “from God.” As he summarizes his message, John tells them directly, in effect, “We have been through the evidence. We are weak and fail and do stumble. But we believe, obey, and love, and so we are from God.” This affirmation from the apostle must have meant much to this beleaguered congregation.
John reminds his readers that there are two clearly distinct spheres at work in the universe. In contrast to John and his hearers, the world “lies in the power of the evil one.” This is the “world” we are not to love (1 John 2:15). In contrast to the life given to believers, these people are under the domination of the Evil One. This should make John’s hearers grateful while protecting them from thinking that in any way those who have departed from the church might be better off.
This also fills out the promise of protection in the previous verse. We know we are protected and that we belong to God, but we also know we currently live in enemy-occupied territory. John wants his audience to be under no illusion about the difficulty of their setting. The ultimate victory is assured, but there will be battles and casualties along the way.
- For an overview of the main interpretations, cf. Akin, 1, 2, 3 John, 208–211.
- Marshall, Epistles of John, 248.
- Ibid., 250–251.
This article is by Ray Van Neste and is adapted from ESV Expository Commentary: Hebrews–Revelation (Volume 12) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.
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