In the last essay we studied 1 John 5:13-15. In those verses John assured us of two important matters of faith. One, we can have knowledge of eternal life, verse 13. And two, we can have confidence in prayer, verses 14-15.
All right, in this essay, John turns from prayer in general to intercessory prayer. When we pray not for ourselves, but for others, that is intercessory prayer. The first thing we notice in verses 15-16 is that these verses are a powerful affirmation of intercessory prayer. And there are many others in the New Testament that do the same. For example, Paul says to the Thessalonians “Brethren, pray for us” (1 Thess. 5:25). The author of Hebrews makes the same request: “Pray for us” (Heb. 13:18). James calls upon the elders of the church to anoint the sick with oil and pray for them (James 5:14); and Timothy suggests that prayers should be lifted on behalf of all men (I Tim. 2:1). So intercessory prayer definitely is scripturally based.
John’s particular illustration is a bit mysterious, because he makes a distinction regarding sin that he doesn’t explain. The distinction is between sins that are mortal and those that are not mortal. The distinction is important, because he says we are to pray for those persons who commit sins that are not mortal, but not for those who commit sins that are mortal.
Thus there are two kinds of sin. The problem is, what is the difference between them? The Greek here (pros thanaton) literally means “toward death.” Evidently mortal sin is sin that is moving towards death, meaning spiritual death. That is, the goal and end of mortal sin is death. If one persists in this kind of sin it will result in death. But the question remains, which sins are mortal and which are not?
The Christians to whom John was writing obviously already knew what he meant by this distinction between mortal and non-mortal sins, because he didn’t explain it. We do not know. So the Scholars have discussed and cussed (metaphorically) the issue.
One point of scholarly discussion is the Old Testament distinction between unconscious or unwitting sins, on the one hand, and deliberate, highhanded sins on the other. The unconscious sins are not deliberate, or at least they are not premeditated. They are done out of ignorance, or in a moment of passion. The sacrifices made on the annual Day of Atonement atoned for those sins.
The highhanded sins, on the other hand, are done deliberately, knowing it is against God’s will. And under the Old Covenant, there was no atonement for that kind of sin. Although this distinction is helpful and may present part of the truth, in and of itself it does not fit the New Testament teachings of forgiveness. It leaves the category of sins leading to death much too broad.
Scholars offer many, mostly unsatisfactory, possibilities for what John meant by “mortal” sins. For example, it has been suggested that John meant sins punishable by death under man’s law. But the passage quite clearly means more than a matter of breaking man-made laws.
A second suggestion is that John meant sins punishable by death under God’s law, meaning the Mosaic law of the Old Testament. But most scholars agree that such an interpretation throws Christians back under the Old Covenant after the New Covenant was established.
Still a third suggestion is that John meant sins punishable by excommunication. But excommunication is hardly the same as death. So that idea has not gained support.
A fourth interpretation is that John meant post-baptism sins. The idea is that God forgives all previous sin when one is converted and baptized, but does not forgive sins committed after one is converted and baptized. But that idea goes beyond the overall teaching of the New Testament, which makes it clear that God does forgive post-baptism sins.
The best interpretation in my opinion is yet another one. I cannot guarantee that it is correct, so we have to sit lightly on it. It is the suggestion that the sin that leads to death, the mortal sin, is the one sometimes called the unforgivable sin.
The scriptures for the unforgivable sin are Lk. 12:10 and parallels and Heb. 6:4-6. The Lukan passage talks about “blasphemy against the Spirit,” and the passage in Hebrews speaks about true apostates, persons who experience all there is to experience in fellowship with Christ, and yet turn their backs on him. I believe these two ideas should be equated. In the end blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is experiencing all that there is to experience in Christ and then rejecting him. Heb. 6:4-6 reads:
For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.
That is the unforgivable sin. And in my mind it is the sin that is unto death, for which it does no good to pray. Of course all conscious sin, if persisted in, leads to death. And John has made it clear that Christians are not to sin at all. Therefore the category of sin for which prayer is not helpful has to be a special small category.
In my opinion mortal sin refers to those fairly rare apostates to whom Hebrews 6 makes reference. Those people have (like Satan) deliberately, knowingly turned their backs on God and his salvation. They know the consequences of their decisions, and they don’t care. These are the people who have blasphemed the Holy Spirit, who have committed the unforgivable sin (Lk. 12:10 and parallels). It also is important to recognize that this sin is unforgivable not because God won’t forgive it. It is unforgivable because those persons do not want to be forgiven. That’s why it does no good to pray for them. They are unmovable. God who knows that gives up on them. Prayer in such cases is a waste of time, because God no longer has any influence on them.
The much broader category of sins, the sins that do not lead to death, and for which prayer is helpful, includes primarily conscious sins of which we need to repent and seek forgiveness. One might think that unconscious sins should be included, but unconscious sins are taken care of by Christ’s shed blood as a universal benefit of the atonement, so prayer isn’t really necessary for them. Sins become mortal in an ultimate sense only if a person refuses to repent or seek forgiveness. And that is precisely what those who commit the unforgivable sin have done.
All right finally, not only can we have knowledge of eternal life and have confidence in prayer, third, we can have complete, spiritual victory over sin. In verses 18-21 John declares several things about Christians. First, we are free from sin (v. 18). This is a restatement of an earlier teaching in chapter three, verses six and nine. And the reason we who are born of God (believers) are free from sin is because “the one who is born of God” (Jesus Christ) protects us from the evil one.
And that gives us a second point about Christians: Christ protects us from the evil one.
Third, we are aware that we are of God in contrast to the world (v. 19). In other words there are two groups: those of us who are children of God make up one group; and those among us who belong to the world and the evil one make up the second group.
Fourth, we are aware that the way to being children of God, and of maintaining our relationship to him, is Jesus Christ (v. 20). Through faith in him, and by means of our mutual abiding relationship with him, we are in the One who is true (God), and we have eternal life.