1 John 5:16, 17
If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not to death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not to death…
If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, etc. Having expressed his assurance as to the efficacy of the prayers of Christians generally (verses 14, 15), the apostle here brings forward a special case in which prayer may be beneficently exercised, viz. on behalf of an erring brother, Notice -
I. THE OCCASION OF PRAYER FOR THE BRETHREN. We do not mean that St. John would restrict our prayers to any one occasion, but he mentions one in which they may be profitably exercised. "If any man see his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask," etc.
1. The liability of a brother to sin. Whether we limit the term "brother" to those who are believers in Christ - Christian brethren, or take it in its broadest signification of our fellow-men, it is true that they are liable to sin. Genuine Christians are so (cf. 1 John 1:8, 10). The grave fact of temptation to sin, the proneness of man to sin, the moral weakness in some respects of even good men, the history of the godly, the teachings of tile Bible, and our own experience, - these show our liability to sin.
2. The knowledge of a brother's sin. "If any man see his brother sinning a sin." The sin spoken of is not a secret one. The knowledge of it is not derived either from irresponsible rumour or from malignant slander. To these we should pay no heed. We should discredit them, and seek to extinguish them. But it is immediate, direct, and certain.
3. Prayer for a brother because of his sin. "If any man see his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask," etc. Without entering at present upon the inquiry of what is the "sin unto death," we may say, with Ebrard, that taking the statements and directions of the text as to "sin not unto death" "in their simple meaning, the only thing laid down and presupposed is this - that a sin which is not unto death may be surely known as such. That any particular sin which another may commit, as also the general state in which he may be found, is not unto death - that he may still repent and be converted - this may be easily and with the utmost confidence known. And where this is known with certainty, where there is no necessity for thinking another to be hardened and past salvation, there must prayer be offered." We know a great many sins which men commit for which there is forgiveness with God, and in all such cases, unhindered by any question as to the "sin unto death," we should pray to God for the sinner. But more than this, is not Barnes right in saying, "It may be said now with truth, that as we can never be certain respecting any one that he has committed the unpardonable sin, there is no one for whom we may not with propriety pray"? Let us, then, learn from our text what our conduct should be towards a sinning brother. We are not to sit in judgment on him and condemn him, not to spread abroad the fact of his sin, not to turn away from him as if he were unclean and we holy, not, on the other hand, to make light of his sin. Such, alas! is the treatment very often dealt to a brother who has sinned. But so should not we do. As Christians, our duty is to pray for him. Such prayer is not optional, but obligatory; it is not a thing which we may do, but which we ought to do. "He shall ask." In this spirit St. Paul exhorted the Galatian Christians, "Brethren, even if a man be overtaken in any trespass, ye which are spiritual, restore such a one," etc. (Galatians 6:1).
II. THE ENCOURAGEMENT TO PRAY FOR THE BROTHER WHO HAS SINNED, "He shall ask, and God will give him life for them that sin not unto death." How unspeakably great and precious is the blessing which by our prayers we may secure for our erring brother! As a result of our petitions on his behalf, God will grant him forgiveness of his sins and confer upon him spiritual life. How exalted and glorious a boon is this! The knowledge that we may obtain such a blessing for him should prove a powerful stimulus to us to pray for the brother who has sinned. How can we do other than pray for him when our prayers may have such a glorious issue? "My brethren, if any among you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins" (James 5:19, 20).
III. THE LIMITATION TO OUR PRAYERS FOR THE BROTHER WHO HAS SINNED. "There is a sin unto death: not concerning this do I say that he should make request." What are we to understand by the "sin unto death"? With a view of ascertaining this, let us endeavour to fix upon the meaning of "death" here. There are three distinct uses of the word in the sacred Scriptures.
(1) The death of the body.
(2) That death of the spirit which is common to all men apart from the renewing grace of God. "Dead by reason of trespasses and sins."
(3) The eternal death, which is the antithesis of the "eternal life" which God gives through Jesus Christ (verses 11-13). Now, "death" in the text cannot mean either
(1) the death of the body, for that is the lot of all men; or
(2) the spiritual death above mentioned, for every sin tends to such death. If we are right thus far, and in this also that the death must be the antithesis of the life, we conclude that it must be that death which is the just retribution of those who have deliberately and resolutely rejected the Christ. Such a sin involves the abiding loss of the life which is derived through him (verse 12). The rejection of the Christ necessarily involves the renunciation of the life. If a man deliberately and decidedly rejects the only Being through whom he can obtain eternal life, what remains for him but to abide in the dark night of death? For such persons St. John does not encourage us to pray. He neither prohibits nor commands us to pray for them. The negation belongs to the "I say," not to the "he should make request." "Not concerning this do I say that he should make request." The encouragement to offer prayer for those whose sin is not unto death is withheld in respect to prayer for those who have committed the sin unto death.
1. Let the fact that it is possible to commit a sin which is unto death lead us to watchfulness and prayer against every sin and all sin. Beware of beginnings in evil.
2. Let this gracious assurance as to the result of prayer for those who have sinned lead us to he often at the throne of grace on behalf of our brethren. - W.J.
Parallel VersesKJV: If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.
WEB: If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life for those who sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death. I don't say that he should make a request concerning this.