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“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” (1 John 5:16-17).

In the previous article we looked at the view which says this “sin” is apostasy, the loss of salvation. In this second article in the series, we look at the view which says it is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.

Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit

Others say the “sin unto death” is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This view finds its most able proponent in John Stott. His arguments are as follows.

The brother about whom John speaks is not a Christian man. The term brother is being used in “the broader sense of a ‘neighbor’ or of a nominal Christian, a church member who professes to be a ‘brother’” but who in reality is a counterfeit (John R. W. Stott, The Epistles of John: An Introduction and Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976], 190). He appeals to 1 John 2:9-11 for an example of this broad use of the term. Also, how can a Christian with eternal “life” (1 John 3:14) be given “life” as John affirms? “How can you give life to one who is already alive? This man is not a Christian, for Christians do not fall into death when they fall into sin” (189). Stott agrees with Marshall that both the “life” and “death” of which John speaks are spiritual and eternal in nature.

However, neither individual in verse 16 is a Christian. The individual in verse 16b who commits “sin that leads to death” is no more a believer than the “brother” of verse 16a. He is, most likely, one of the false teachers about whom John has been warning his readers, a counterfeit Christian who is exposed by his eventual departure from the church (1 John 2:19). The sin which “leads to death” is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:22-32), that is to say, deliberate, open-eyed, and persistent rejection of Jesus Christ. Sin that leads to death, therefore, is not some solitary sin, but a settled state of sin. It is the high-handed and obstinate repudiation of the claims of Christ as made known in the gospel. Although John did not forbid us to pray for someone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit, he did not recommend it because he could not be certain that God would answer it.

Again, several observations are in order. First, although it is possible, I think it is highly unlikely that John would here refer to a non-Christian as a “brother.” Most commentators agree on this point.

Second, if both men in verse 16 are nonbelievers, men who reject and disbelieve the gospel of Jesus Christ, how are we to know which one has committed sin that does not lead to death, and which one has committed sin that does lead to death? How are we supposed to differentiate between an unbeliever and a so-called “hardened” unbeliever, in order that we might pray for the former but not the latter? If John was supposed to be giving us guidance for knowing when and when not to pray, he was uncharacteristically fuzzy about it.

Third, Stott’s view must also face a problem that plagues every interpretation. When we read verse 16 in the light of its immediately preceding context (verses 14-15), one gets the impression that John was describing a particular kind of prayer that we could know would always be answered. In other words, prayer for a brother whose sin is not unto death is always according to God’s will. Consequently, John assured us that in response to such prayer God would give life to the errant brother. If this is correct, the implications are astounding, for it would mean that any non-Christian for whom we pray, assuming that he has not sinned unto death, will be saved, will be given eternal life. Even were we to interpret “brother” as referring to a Christian, the problem remains. In the latter case, it would imply that any sinning Christian for whom we pray will be restored and renewed. This, however, ascribes more to the power of prayer than the rest of Scripture would allow. And although it is not a final authority, experience itself teaches us that not every believer for whom we intercede responds and repents.

Also, what about the man who commits sin that leads to death? In Stott’s view, John was saying that he does not recommend we pray for him because it is doubtful if that prayer will be answered. If “sin that leads to death” is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, as Stott argues, then whoever commits this sin will never be saved. But if it is never God’s will to give life to a man who is committing sin unto death, why doesn’t John explicitly forbid prayer for him? The fact is, whereas John does not require that we pray for this man, neither does he prohibit such prayer. But why doesn’t he forbid it if, by definition (on Stott’s view), the sin he has committed is unforgivable?

Donald Burdick, although not agreeing in every particular with Stott (he said the “brother” is a believer), suggests that one reason why God may not answer prayer for the man sinning to death is because “the stubborn will of the sinner may not bend. God,” says Burdick, “though sovereign, chooses not to coerce the will and thus violate the integrity of the personality he created in his own image” (Donald W. Burdick, The Letters of John the Apostle: An In-Depth Commentary [Chicago: Moody Press, 1985], 408).

But God’s effectual grace in converting the sinner is persuasive, not coercive. More important still, if Burdick’s point is valid, why would it not also apply to the brother who commits sin not unto death? Why should we think that God’s activity with regard to the brother not sinning to death is any less “coercive” or any less a “violation” of the integrity of his personality than God’s activity with regard to the man whose sin is unto death? Sin is a stubborn, rebellious act of one’s will, both in the believer and unbeliever, regardless of who commits it. The alleged coercion or violation that concerns Burdick, irrespective of its degree or intensity, is coercion and violation, nonetheless.

Perhaps a way to avoid this problem is to understand John to be saying that giving life to brethren who do not sin unto death is something that God often desires to do. Therefore, we should pray to that end. There is no guarantee that it is always God’s will to answer such prayers, even though the language of verse 16a is seemingly unconditional. But even this does not explain why John does not forbid prayer for those who, by definition (on Stott’s view), can never be forgiven of their sins (for remember, blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is, according to Jesus, “unforgivable”).

Finally, if the man who commits sin unto death is a non-Christian, he is already dead. What, then, could John have meant by saying that if he sins deliberately and persistently, that is, if he blasphemes the Holy Spirit, he will die? Stott agrees that the man is already dead, but by persisting in unbelief he will die the “second death” (Rev. 20:11-15). “Spiritually dead already, he will die eternally” (190).

More to follow . . .


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