Yesterday I posted what several commentaries say about I John 5:16, which is one of the more difficult verses to interpret and apply in the New Testament. Here is the verse:
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. (ESV)
Here are my thoughts on the text.
First, I lean towards the “brother” in the first part of the verse as being a true Christian, even though “life” in John’s writings usually refers to eternal life. John is clear in chapters 1 and 2 that Christians do sin. The “his” at the beginning of the verse would also indicate that this brother is a Christian. Colin Kruse’s suggestion that “life” refers to resurrection life is a tempting interpretation, though I have not researched it enough to say for sure.
Second, while the “sin to death” might mean blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, this seems unlikely given the context of I John. I John revolves around three main tests to see if one is a believer: the doctrinal test (believe Jesus came and died), the ethical test (obey God), and the relational/social test (love the brothers). I John orbits around these three ideas. In I John these three ideas are inseparable, though I would argue that the doctrinal test forms the foundation for the other two. John writes his letter so his readers can know who is in and who is out by looking at these three sign posts. That is not all John is doing, but it is a large part of what he is doing. The “sin to death” is a reference to someone who either denies Jesus came in the flesh, rejects obedience, and/or refuses to love the brothers. More than likely all three of these are involved in the “sin to death.” I think it is referring to an apostate.
Third, but it is important to remember what type of apostate this is. We are not talking about a man who simply walked away from the faith. We are probably talking about teachers or those who want to teach who are trying to lead John’s readers astray and who have denied by both word and life central tenets of the Christian faith. John is not talking about some who slipped quietly into the night. He is speaking of someone who has visibly rejected Christ in both doctrine, life, and love.
Fourth, I do not think John is commanding us not to pray for the apostate. I think Yarbrough’s suggestion that John is stating an option is a solid one. We are obligated to pray for the sinning brother. We are not obligated to pray for fire-breathing apostate. The phrase, “I do not say that one should pray for that,”is awkward in the Greek and could have been stated as a command, but wasn’t. John does not say, “Don’t pray for him/that situation.” John says, “I am not saying he should pray for that.” He seems to leave the reader the freedom to make the choice whether or not to pray for that man.
Finally, while a situation like this is rare, it does happen. There are people who leave the Christian faith, deny its central tenets, and begin teaching others to do the same. When someone does that John does give us the option of crossing them off our prayer list.