Posted by: Moses | June 30, 2010

Deadly Sins and Confident Prayers: Part 1 of 4

        1 John 5:14-18   Now this is the confidence we have before Him: Whenever we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears whatever we ask, we know that we have what we have asked Him for.  If anyone sees his brother committing a sin that does not bring death, he should ask, and God will give life to him—to those who commit sin that doesn’t bring death. There is sin that brings death. I am not saying he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin that does not bring death. We know that everyone who has been born of God does not sin, but the One who is born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him. (HCSB)

        John’s literature is the simplest and yet in many ways the most complex of any literature in the New Testament. The syntax and vocabulary is by far the simplest of any of the writers and has been used consistently for young theologians to cut their teeth on in learning biblical Greek. However, despite a limited vocabulary and surface-level simplicity, John deals with some of the most penetrating topics of theology. He wrestles with his culture, adapting to Greek philosophy in his presentation of the “logos” form, refuting Gnosticism, refuting dualism, and discussing how essence precedes existence (Jn 1, 1 Jn 1:5-9, 1 Jn 5:18-21, Jn 10:25-30 et al.). Such undertones give John’s writing an incredible depth belied by their surface structure. John perhaps more than all the other New Testament writers proves Gregory the Great’s truism that the Word is “like a river again, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.” Many elephants have drowned in 1 Jn 5:16-17.

        There are two primary genuses of commentators on this text, those that view the verses as referring to physical death and those who view the verses as referring to spiritual death. Of the genus that sees physical death there are two species. Some see physical death meted out by law; whereas others see death due to the intrinsic nature of certain sins. Representatively, Matthew Henry interprets the passage as pertaining to sins that are legally punished by death. Origen champions the other variety of physical death, concluding from this passage that “since there are sins ‘unto death,’ it follows that anyone who commits one of them will die as a result.” The Holman Bible Dictionary adds a nuance to this view, explaining the passage as actually expressing God’s discipline, “For the believer, ‘sin that brings death’ may mean that he or she is disciplined by dying early (Acts 5:1-5; 1 John 5:16; Gal. 6:8).” This is really no different from Origen’s view, since sins that lead naturally to physical death are ordained of God to that end. The latter view merely perceives God in a more active role as sovereign judge.

        Of the genus that sees spiritual death there are also two species, spiritual death due to an unforgivable sin, and spiritual death resulting from apostasy. The unforgivable sin seems to be one of the more popular lay interpretations and is not unknown in the more scholarly world. Many have seen apostasy, where those of the visible church openly repudiate their faith with a high hand and a hard heart. Calvin says, “It may be gathered from the context, that it is not, as they say, a partial fall, or a transgression of a single commandment, but apostasy, by which men wholly alienate themselves from God . . . . They must then be reprobate and given up to destruction, who thus fall away so as to have no fear of God.” In many ways both of these interpretations would be sub-species of a broader category that “unbelief leads to death.”

        Roman Catholicism offers a completely different interpretation based on a division of sins into mortal and venial categories: “Mortal sin is contrasted with “venial” sin which is seen as less aggravated and therefore much less damaging to the soul than mortal sin.” Thomas Aquinas saw from these categories that “mortal and venial are mutually opposed as reparable and irreparable.” Thus John’s words in his epistle would yield an exhortation to pray for venial sin with confidence since it is “reparable” but to have no confidence to pray for those who have committed mortal sin since it is “irreparable” apart from personal confession to a priest and subsequent penance. Such a construct allows for convenient reading of this text, but seems to have neither warrant from the text itself nor the surrounding context. Calvin mocks this position rather mercilessly. In John’s mind one is either believing unto life or doubting unto death. Categories of the severity of sin and their ramifications for the soul seem foreign to John’s polarized examples. Rudolf Bultmann concurs, going so far as to see a redactor in these verses. Though his conclusion is erroneous, he clearly points out the foreign nature of this interpretation to John’s teaching style. According to Bultmann, “With vv. 16ff the redactor comes to his particular concern . . . . that prayer has a peculiar limit.”

        I will not attempt to critique each of these views individually or extensively; however, I will make two general critiques. Any of these views, which end up focusing primarily on the “sin unto death” while neglecting intercessory prayer, have missed John’s point. Even if they have pegged “the sin unto death correctly,” John’s main intention in the text is to exhort his hearers to pray for their fellow brothers not to instruct them on the intricacies of “sin unto death.” Law writes that though “perhaps inevitable, it is unfortunate that the mention of the perplexing “sin unto death” has always awakened a livelier interest than that which is the central truth of the passage—the Christian prerogative of fearless and expectant prayer.”

        Additionally, each of the categories described above has difficulties within this text or within the broader theology of the New Testament. Of these, the apostasy view seems the least objectionable. This view frames 1 John as a polemic against the Cerinthian heresy. Trouble with apostasy is plain from the internal evidence of the book (1 John 2:18-27), and Iraeneus provides historical warrant for an even more specific reading. Iraeneus (a disciple of Polycarp a disciple of John himself) states that, “John, the disciple of the Lord, preaches this faith, and seeks, by the proclamation of the Gospel, to remove that error which by Cerinthus had been disseminated among men, and a long time previously by those termed Nicolaitans.” This context should certainly be a weighing factor but not a determinant. Thus, though I believe that John has the Cerinthian apostates particularly in view, he argues from a broader stance of God’s sovereignty over both the believing and unbelieving. At other places in his epistles he very clearly refers to apostates as “antichrists,” but here the apostle avoids that specific terminology and seems to be intentionally more general. This intentional generality must also be accounted for. Thus I conclude that in 1 John 5:16-17 John does have apostasy in view ultimately; however, John argues from a general class of unbelief, clearly implying that the specific sin of apostasy is also included. John Stott concludes that “he who sins unto death is not a Christian,” and therefore an unbeliever. Thus, John exhorts his congregation to pray with absolute confidence for the forgiveness of fellow believers but to not overstep their bounds and pray confidently for those who dwell in unbelief—most specifically, the apostates.

An examination of the data from the text to follow.

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