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Sermon Message

"Prayer for the Sinning Brother"

1 John 5:16-17
Theme: We are to pray for those who fall into sin with discernment in prayer.

(Delivered Sunday, September 1, 2002 at Bethany Bible Church.  All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)  


When I first began to serve our church family, I committed myself to pray for three things. First, I prayed that God would give our church a sense of His vision for its ministry. Second, I prayed that God would provide all the wisdom, talents, resources, finances that we would need to fulfill His vision in His way. And third, I prayed that He would make us a church of people characterized by personal holiness.

My conviction was then, and still is, that the most critical of those three requests is the prayer for personal holiness. I do not believe that God will entrust His vision of ministry to an unholy group of people; nor do I believe that God will bless a church family with resources to fulfill that vision if it is not a holy church. But by the same token, I truly believe that even if a church isn't too clear on its vision for ministry, and even though it may not have much in the way of material resources, God can still use it mightily to make a powerful impact on the world for His kingdom - if it is full of people who are actively, passionately, and persistently seeking to live holy lives before Him. Even when it comes to our need for daily food and clothing, Jesus established this priority before us when He said, "But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (Matthew 6:33). If this is to be the priority of our individual lives, it's certainly to be true of our gathering together as a church.

The Bible shows us just how serious Jesus is about the matter of holiness in His church. In the first chapter of Revelation, John tells us of a vision he was given of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rev. 1:12-16) - a vision so powerful that it caused him to faint and fall at His feet as a dead man (v. 17). In this vision, he sees Jesus in His resurrection glory, standing in the midst of seven golden lampstands which are symbolic of His churches. Jesus is shown to be standing in the midst of His churches clothed in a brilliantly white garment that reaches to His feet. He is shown to be girded about His chest with a golden band. His head and hair were shown to be white like wool - as white as snow. And in all this symbolic display of His holiness and purity, He is shown to have eyes like flames of fire - searching out and examining the doings of His people.

His voice in this vision is presented as strong and authoritative in the midst of His churches - bold as the sound of many waters. He holds tightly to the leaders of those churches, symbolically shown as stars in the palm of His right hand. A sharp sword is shown to proceed from His mouth, and His face is displayed as shining like the sun in its strength. And most instructive of all - at least to me - is the vision that is given of His feet. As He stands in the midst of His churches, His feet are described as being "like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace". Literally, they glow as if hot from the fires of refinement - which is a symbol not only His own unspeakable purity and holiness with which He stands among the gathering of His people, but also of the holiness which He purposes to see brought about in them as He walks in their midst.

Dear brothers and sisters; do you realize that this same majestically holy Jesus is standing in the midst of His churches today? Do you know that He walks in this manner in the midst of our church family even as we speak, through the mediating ministry of the Holy Spirit? And I can't help but wonder what He thinks about the condition of the lives He walks in the midst of. I can't help but wonder what His flaming eyes behold in us. I can't help but wonder that His holy heart, beating as it does beneath that golden band, must at times feel.

The great passion of our holy Savior is our own holiness. By grace, He accepts us just as we are whenever we come to Him; but equally by His grace, He does not leave us as we are once we've come. He stooped down to where we were in our sins order to elevate us to where He is in His holiness. It is His intention to present us to Himself "faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy" (Jude 24); and everyone who holds on to this hope for future glory in Christ "purifies himself, just as He is pure" (1 John 3:3). This is Jesus' burning passion for His church; and it's the goal in all that He does to us.

How does Jesus purify His church and advance the cause of holiness in it? Among the many things He uses to bring about our purity is us! He uses His own church - the family of His people gathered together - to peruse the holiness of the individual members within it. I believe that particular ministry of the church - that of seeking the personal holiness of its members - is what we find to be addressed in our passage this morning.

* * * * * * * * * *

If you were to ask why the body of Christ today isn't more effective at impacting the world than it is, you would have to admit that it isn't because the message God has entrusted to it has changed. The message of the cross has never been acceptable to this world, and it never will be; and yet, the Gospel is still just as powerful and life-transforming in the hand of God as it has always been whenever it has been faithfully proclaimed. Nor is it because the spiritual resources of the church have changed. We still have the same spiritual resources that the believers had in the Book of Acts when they turned their world upside down. The authority of the word of God hasn't changed, nor has the unfailing power of the God of the church changed. In fact, in spite of the bewildering ways the culture around us has changed over the past several years, the basic, fundamental spiritual needs of the people in that culture haven't changed one bit.

So what has changed? Why do we appear to be so irrelevant to this world? In the end, the only thing that has changed is us. By and large, Christians today, and the churches they are members of, have grown to be indistinguishable from the world with respect to holiness in the way they live, the things they believe, and ways in which they treat one another. We have become irrelevant to the world because we have become so much like the world. And I would suggest that the reason this is so is because, for the most part, churches have not maintained a sense of the majesty holiness of the One who walks in their midst; and the believers in those churches have neglected their God-appointed duty to actively peruse the holiness of each individual member in His name. I'm not here to point a finger today; because I have neglected this duty too.

Our passage this morning is a call to us from the majestically holy Lord Jesus Christ - issued to us through the apostle John - to make use of the resources He has entrusted to us, and to do our duty to peruse one another's holiness. It's a part of our ongoing study of First John; and it is, in many ways, an exhortation that the whole of John's little letter has been leading up to. It brings all that he has said in this letter thus far - concerning the tests of genuine faith, the assurance of eternal life, and the confidence we enjoy of fellowship with Jesus Christ - together into a single, practical exhortation of the utmost importance to the agenda Jesus Christ has for us. The apostle John writes;

If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin and there is sin not leading to death (1 John 5:16-17).

* * * * * * * * * *

As you may suspect, these two verses have been interpreted in a variety of ways. And admittedly, there's much in them that is hard to understand. But we can be sure that John wasn't trying to be mysterious; and we can be certain that the first century Christians who first read his letter understood what he was saying.

I believe we can best understand what John means if we interpret these two verses in the context of the verses that immediately proceed them. First of all, we need to note that John has just given us his "summary statement" for this whole letter in verse 13. So, in giving the exhortation he gives us in this morning's passage, he has in mind both the whole content of his letter ("these things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God ..."), and the purpose of his having written it ("... that you may know that you have eternal life ...") That will be very important to remember as we examine these verses together.

Second, we need to note that John has just given an exhortation that is based on that summary statement. Writing to believers who have the assurance of fellowship with God through Jesus Christ, and who therefore "know" that they have eternal life, John says,

Now this is the confidence we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him (vv. 14-15).

Now, put these two things together. He writes to these believers to assure them of their condition - that believing in the name of the Son of God, they have eternal life. And then he writes to inform those believers of their resource in that saved condition - that they can have confidence that their prayers, prayed in accordance with God's will, are heard and answered. And so, he now brings it all together and informs them of their duty. They who have eternal life in Christ are to use their unlimited resource of prayer to pray for those within their body who are trapped in a snare of sin.

Dear brothers and sisters; the Lord has - to some degree - placed it in our hands to seek and bring about each other's practical, personal holiness. He has entrusted us with the matter of each other's purity in our walk before Him! We have a great duty to perform toward one another. Let's examine this passage together and learn more about this awesome responsibility.

* * * * * * * * * *

I feel that the best way to study this passage is to take it apart and examine its individual principles in logical order. The first thing I'd like you to notice is John's affirmation that ...


In the original Greek, John states the matter emphatically: "All unrighteousness sin is" - placing the emphasis on the word "sin".

What John has to say to us in the rest of this passage may sound, at first glance, as if he was saying that some sins are not as bad as others. He says that there is such a thing as a sin leading to death; but he also says that there is a sin not leading to death. But here, John goes out of his way to make clear to us that, at a fundamental level, all acts of unrighteousness share the common characteristic of being acts of "sin"; and all sin is an affront to the holy character of God, whatever form it takes.

Earlier in this letter, John writes these words:

Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness. And you know that He [that is, Jesus] was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin. Whoever abides in Him does not sin [that is, does not live in a life-style practice of continual sin]. Whoever sins has neither seen Him nor known Him. Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God (3:4-9).

Sin is here defined for us as "lawlessness" - that is, an act of rebellion against God the Lawgiver, and an attempt to live outside the parameters of "righteousness" as defined by His commandments and ordinances. And this being so, all such acts of "unrighteousness" are "sin".

It's wise for us to remember this. It's true that Jesus saves us completely, and sets us free from the guilt of our sins; and for this we rejoice. But we should never lose sight of the fact that our sins made it necessary for Him to suffer the penalty of sin on our behalf in the first place. The Bible tells us that "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23); and the wages of sin will always be death. They manifestly led to the death of the Son of God on the cross.

Praise God that Jesus died in our place! He received the awful wages of our sins in His own Person on the cross. But let's never receive God's grace in a way that allows us to sugar-coat the true nature of sin. >From God's perspective, every time we disobey His commands and commit an act of unrighteousness - every time we rebel against His authority over us and do as He has told us not to do - we are committing an act that made the horrible death of His own precious Son an absolute necessity. All unrighteousness is sin; and it will always be an offense to a holy God.

* * * * * * * * * *

But this leads us to the next point we see in this passage. It's true that all unrighteousness is sin ...


Now obviously, I'm attempting to frame my words carefully. I DID NOT say that all sins do not lead to the same ultimate consequence, because they certainly do - they all lead to death. The single sin of our first parents, who ate the fruit of the tree God had forbidden to them, caused death to spread throughout all humanity (Romans 5:12ff). But, though sin always leads to death, Jesus has taken the penalty of our sins upon Himself; and for those of us who have placed our faith in His sacrifice, we have been set free from sins terrible wage. So while all sins lead to death; we can truly say that not all situations of sin lead to the death of the sinner. Praise God that this is so!

Notice carefully what John says. He says, "All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death." The word "leading" is supplied in the English; and what John literally says is, "there is sin not toward death." John says, in verse 16; "If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that." In all cases, John is literally saying that there is either such a thing as "sin toward death" or "sin not toward death". Plainly, John is making a distinction - not a distinction between sins; but a distinction between situations of sin that lead to dramatically different ultimate consequences for the one entrapped in them.

* * * * * * * * * *

Let's consider these distinctions separately. First, notice that he speaks of "sin leading to death". "There is a sin leading to death," he says. What exactly is "sin leading to death"?

Some commentators have suggested that this is speaking of situations of sin so severe that they result in the immediate death of the sinner. The Bible gives us examples of such a thing. In the fifth chapter of Acts, for instance, we're told of Ananius and his wife Sapphira. Many Christians in the church were moved upon by the Holy Spirit to willingly sell some of their goods or property, and present the money to the apostles for distribution to the poor and needy. Apparently, however, Ananius and Sapphira sold some property and only pretended to bring the whole proceeds to the apostles - keeping back a portion of the money for themselves. It was certainly theirs to do with as they pleased; but their great sin was that they schemed together to lie to the Holy Spirit. The apostle Peter confronted them on this; and they dropped dead right there in the church assembly (Acts 5:1-11). Theirs was certainly a sin that led to death!

Another example that the Bible gives us is of the believers in the church at Corinth. Many of them were observing the Lord's Supper together in a way that was very unworthy. Some were arriving to church early so they could gorge on the meal before others arrived; leaving nothing for their brothers and sisters. Some were even getting drunk on the wine of the supper. They were treating these symbols of the body and blood of the Savior in such a way as to eat and drink judgment upon themselves. Paul wrote and said, "For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep" (1 Cor. 11:30) - "sleep" being a euphemism for physical death. Apparently, some Christians died for their irreverent manner in the Lord's Supper; thus committing "a sin leading to death".

These stories concern the dreadful consequences of sins on the part of believers; and they serve to remind us of what a serious thing sin is. But I don't believe this was what John meant by "sin leading to death". After all; he says in this passage that "There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that". If John meant a sin so severe that it caused the person who committed it to die, we wouldn't know that such a sin had been committed unless the person who committed it actually died. That would be too late to find out! And it wouldn't make much sense for John to be saying, "There is a sin so horrible that the person committing it will drop dead; and if you see that they drop dead, I'm not saying that you should pray for them".

Others have suggested that John is speaking of the "unpardonable sin" mentioned in the Gospels. During the earthly ministry of our Lord, the Scribes were seeing the miracles Jesus performed as He cast demons out of people; and they were slandering Him by suggesting that He was casting the demons out by the power of Satan. Jesus said, "Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation" (Mark 3:28-29). Because it's a sin that will never be forgiven, many suggest that this is "the sin leading to death" - eternal death; and John does not say we should pray for such a sin.

But even though this is possible, I don't believe it's the correct understanding of "the sin leading to death." The "unpardonable sin" that Jesus describes seems very specific and situationally bound - not something that could be repeated. Mark says that this was told to the Scribes "because they said, 'He has an unclean spirit'" (Mark 3:30). The "unpardonable sin" in the Gospels seems to be that of beholding Jesus' miracles and rejecting who those miracles show Him to be - and attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan instead. If this was what John meant, it would seem a bit out of place in this context of his letter; and it would seem more likely that he'd use a more specific name for it than a "sin leading to death".

There are a lot of other opinions of what John is talking about; but I would like to suggest the one that makes the most sense to me. You'll remember that I said earlier that we need to understand these two verses in the context of the whole letter of John. John's main point is to show us how we can know whether or not we're truly in fellowship with God through His Son Jesus Christ; and to give us the assurance of that we truly have eternal life in Him. To help assure his readers of this, John elaborates in this letter on three different "tests".

The first of these tests is one that we've come to call "the test of obedience". Someone who is truly in fellowship with God and who has eternal life will prove it by the fact that they live a life characterized by obedience to God's commands and of turning away from sin. "If we say that we have fellowship with Him," John writes, "and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth" (1:6). "By this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, 'I know Him,' and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (2:3-4). "In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God ..." (3:10).

The second of these tests is one that we've called "the test of love". Someone who is truly in fellowship with Christ will love his or her brother or sister in Christ. John says, "He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him" (2:9-10). "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death. Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him" (3:14-15). "He who does not love does not know God, for God is love" (4:8). "If someone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar ..." (4:20).

The third of these tests is one that we call "the test of belief". If someone is truly in fellowship with God and has eternal life, they will show it by the fact that they whole-heartedly believe what the Bible says about God's Son Jesus. "Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either," John says; "he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also" (2:23). "By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God" (4:3-4). "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God" (4:15). "He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; he who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son" (5:10).

I believe that all sins could be understood as falling into one of those three categories: that is, sins of disobedience, sins of hatred and murder, or sins of unbelief. And what John is saying in all these expositions of these three tests is this: If even a professing believer is hardened in the persistent sin of either living a life of open disobedience to God's commandments, or of clinging onto hatred, bitterness and resentment toward other professing Christians, or of refusal to humbly bow to the Bible's teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ and embrace Him for who the apostles declared Him to be - if a confessing believer becomes hardened in such a way as to refuse to confess the sinfulness of these things, to repent of them, and to turn to the resources of Christ for deliverance from them - then person is showing himself or herself to be in a state of spiritual death. John as much as places the verdict of death on such sins: "... The world is passing away, and the lusts of it ..." (2:17); "Whoever does not love his brother abides in death" (3:14); "He who does not have the Son of God does not have life" (5:12). Those who are hardened in such sins are in a situation of sin that, unrepented of, reveals their true spiritual condition; and that condition will eventuate in eternal loss and endless separation from God in the Lake of Fire.

* * * * * * * * * *

What, then, is "sin NOT leading to death"? I believe John is here speaking of a situation of sin in which a brother or sister in Christ finds themselves ensnared - but a situation of sin in which they struggle in frustration over their sinfulness and failure; and sincerely seek repentance in the pardoning grace of God. They call their sin for what it is; and they cry out to God for the forgiveness of their sins and the strength to turn from them. I believe John is thinking of this difference between a sin leading to death and a sin not leading to death when he writes,

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world (1:8-2:2).

* * * * * * * * * *

That, I believe, describes a situation that is truly a situation of sin; but one that does not lead to death. This leads us, finally, to John's third principle ...


The sinning brother or sister is to be our great responsibility. The follower of Jesus is to obey the pattern set for us in the parable of the shepherd, leave the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost until it is found (Luke 15:4). And the believer is to use the great resource of prayer in our effort to win them back.

Now; John says, "There is a sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that." Does this mean that we shouldn't pray for someone who is hardened and unrepentant in sin? I don't think John means that. I notice that John doesn't "forbid" our doing so. He simply says, "I do not say he should pray about that" - as if to say, "That's a different subject from what I'm addressing right now." We're to understand that John's instruction here applies to the case of a brother who is sinning a sin not leading to death.

As to that subject, John writes, "If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death." I notice three things about this. First, I notice that he is speaking of "a brother". This means that his instruction on prayer is intended to be directed toward a professing Christian - a brother or sister in Christ. Second, I notice that his instruction assumes that we are so involved in one another's lives that we are able to detect sin in one another's behavior. It's a sin that someone "sees his brother sinning". And finally, I notice that a promise is given - that, for such a brother or sister who sins, our prayers for his or her life will be answered. God will answer our prayers and deliver our brother or sister who is ensnared by sin.

John's wording in this promise is remarkable. Literally, he says that, if someone sees his brother sinning a sin not leading to death, "let him [that is the one seeing his brother's sin] ask [in prayer], and He [that is, God] will give him [that is, the asker] life to the one sinning not toward death." In other words, when we pray for such a sinning brother, God give us life for him! It's as if life to our sinning brother is God's gift to us! This shows us how deeply connected we are to our brothers and sisters who sin; and also how much God esteems our prayers for them!

* * * * * * * * * *

This passage calls us to pray with discernment - making a distinction between sins leading to death and sins not leading to death. But how can we know the difference? How do we know that we're dealing with a sin leading to death - that is a sin in which the sinner has hardened himself or herself in unrepentence, and therefore a sin John does not say we should pray for?

I believe the answer to this lies in Jesus' instructions in Matthew 18. Jesus taught;

... If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them (Matthew 18:15-20).

If we approach a professing brother about sin, and that brother first refuses to hear us, then refuses to hear two or three others, and finally refuses to hear the church, then they are proving themselves to be sinning toward death. We will have done all we can. But up to that dreadful point, we must keep telling them and warning them; and we must keep praying that they will hear and repent. If, at last, they hear and repent, then praise God - we have gained our brother! God has given us life for them.

* * * * * * * * * *

Do you see your duty in all this? If you are a believer in Jesus, then God has given you a powerful resource in prayer; and He is calling you to use this resource diligently in seeking the restoration of a brother or sister who has fallen in sin. He is calling you and I to be a vital part of His great work of bringing about the holiness of His people. I believe that the passage we've studied from 1 John this morning is meant to encourage us that, through the resource of prayer, our work is attended with far more success than we realize.

In all that has been said, has the Holy Spirit been bringing someone to your mind? Is there someone that you now know God wants you to speak to concerning an area of sin in their lives? Do you now see that there is someone God is calling you to pray for and rescue? I close with these words to help encourage you to do your duty toward that sinning brother or sister;

Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20).

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