Someone emailed me this week asking about the meaning of 1 John 5.16, saying it had always been a puzzling verse to them. And I agreed – it is a strange verse. Read it for yourself in the KJV:
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.
So it would appear there are a number of questions: what is the difference between a sin leading to death and a sin that doesn’t lead to death. Any why would there ever be a divine instruction in Scripture not to pray for someone – especially someone in trouble!
Some people use these verses to justify an idea that there are different levels of sin: generally the sin that they do is acceptable, but other people’s sins are unacceptable. Two things we need to consider so we can discard that idea: firstly, John had just finished saying that all unrighteousness is sin (1 John 5.12), so it seems very unlikely that John is then after putting all sin in the same box separating sin into good sins (or less bad sins) and bad (or worse) sins. Secondly, it is clear that it is about seeing the sin: it’s not about gossip and finding out that way. It’s that the brother sees the other Christian commit the sin that does not lead to death.
Well the answer is not that there are different scales of sin, but that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6.23). Sin pays wages and the wages sin pays is death. But not every day is pay day! If you see your brother sinning, you should ask (pray) about it. But this is where the grammar of this verse gets confused. Most people translate the personal pronouns like this:
If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he [that man] shall ask, and he [God] shall give him [the sinning brother] life for them that sin not unto death
So the idea is that you see a brother sinning – you go round someone’s house and catch them watching a porno, you are with them when they explode in anger at someone and plan to hurt them, they tell you they are having an affair, you use their bathroom and the towels say “Hilton”. So you pray, and because your pray is so awesome God will pour life into that person and wipe away that sin.
That’s not how things work, and you know it! People sin – born-again, Spirit-filled, Christians sin. And your prayers don’t change that because prayers don’t override free will. You can pray for people in sin, don’t get me wrong, and if you rebuke the devil and pray for peace, they may suddenly regain a freedom and start living for God, but they could equally choose to keep sinning.
The point is that is not what this verse means. The pronouns in Greek are all referring to the same indiviudal, so the best way to translate this verse is:
If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he [the man that sees his brother sinning] shall ask, and he [the man who sees his brother sinning] shall give him [the brother sinning] life for them that sin not unto death
In other words when you catch someone in a sin, when you see it (not when you hear Sister Bucketmouth tell you all about it) then you don’t just pray. You give life to your brother. What does that mean? You tell them that they are righteous, you point out that sin is evil and its wages are death. You tell them that Christ has already paid the full price for their sin, and that they are dead to sin, and alive to Christ. You give them the life of the gospel of redemption and you love them will all the love you have. You are not the accuser of the brethen, you are the brethren of the brethren. Did you know in law courts judges aren’t allowed to judge family? That is because even this nation recognizes that family-ties overtake the role of being a judge. Yet most of the church want to judge their family in Christ. No! Love your family in Christ, be family to your family in Christ. Bring life to them. Speak words of life and hope and freedom! Whenever you see someone sin, let them know how much you love them and how free they are!
That’s why it’s not a sin unto death – you brought life before payday.
The next thing John says is: There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.
That seems harsh until you realize there is a mis-translated word in there. And it is the word “pray”. The Greek word here is not aiteo, the normal Greek word for prayer, it is eratao – which means to ask questions about. This verse is not saying “yeah, some sins are so bad that if someone does a sin from the bad list you should simply then not pray for them or help them because they are such bad Christians” – though I know a lot of people see it that way. It’s not saying that, it’s saying something else, something far more profound and far more Christ-like:
There is a sin unto death. I do not say [another Christian brother] shall ask questions about it.
You see sometimes a sin is hidden until it explodes in someone’s face. It’s not one of those times you find out about it, show love and life to the person and help them. You only find out when the person is suddenly dealing with the consequences. It’s now payday, the wages of sin are now being paid out in full. His wife turfs him out, his car is repossessed, his boss fires him, his friends abandon him. In those cases, the Scriptures are not telling you “don’t pray for such a wicked person”. It’s saying “don’t ask any questions” – mind your own business, don’t ask for all the juicy details. Get involved by loving, showing life, helping, praying, being kind. Don’t get involved by trying to find out all the juicy details, and give them your tuppence worth. No-one when their sin harvest comes in wants your tuppence worth, they want your love and life and abundance. We live in an age of gossips, and this verse is a timely encouragement to focus on what’s important.
So if you see someone sinning before their sin payday, pray and show them love and give them some life. If you see someone sinning after sin payday, show them love and grace and don’t get hung up on the details. Never ever forsake someone for messing up, but love them!