Posted by: Moses | June 30, 2010

Deadly Sins and Confident Prayers: Part 3 of 4

Contributions to Meaning from the Content
        The use of the word “brothers” presents an apparent difficulty for any view that sees those who “sin unto death” as committed by an unbeliever, whether general or apostate. Generally the “brothers” referred to in the New Testament are the members of the church. However, even in the context of 1 John this is not always the case. Consider 1 Jn 2:9: “Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness” (1 John 2:9 ESV). Here John clearly describes someone who claims to be “in the light” as a part of the believing community and refers to someone else in the community as “brother.” However, from the end of the sentence, this person who calls another a “brother” is “in the darkness even up to that point” (1 John 2:9). Thus, even in John’s terminology, “brother” is not so technical a term that it cannot be used to describe a professing brother and not a genuine brother. This only makes sense in his epistle since he is writing to reassure his hearers that they can in fact have confidence even though others who appeared to be brothers have fallen away (1 Jn 5:13). Randall Tan points out that “common experience supports this view: unlike Jesus, we cannot look into the hearts of professing Christians. Thus, we accept as brethren all who make a credible profession of faith. It is only after someone falls away from the faith that we know, after the fact, that his or her profession may have been false (1 John 2:19).”

        Dodd comments that apparently, “the writer is thinking of an overt sinful act or course of action, and not of an inward state of mind, for it is something that can be observed by others and known for what it is.” If this were true, unbelief could not be “the sin unto death.” Unbelief is a bit difficult to see without your spectacles on. Viewed in a vacuum, Dodd’s point is very logical; however, John has just spent the past four chapters describing how the works of believers and unbelievers betray them (1 Jn 3:10 et al.). Who we truly are is betrayed by our actions (existence displays essence). Westcott seems to catch a clearer vision of John’s broader context, concluding that “the duty, the instinct [to reprove an erring brother], is universal in the Christian Society. At the same time the character of the sin towards which the duty is exercised is clear even outwardly. It is not a matter simply of suspicion or doubt.” Westcott sees that the sin is clear and can be observed outwardly, but this does not rule out a view that this sin is the more expansive category of unbelief. All unbelief leads to visible, discernible characteristics that John has already laid out.

        A third point of interest in the text lies in John’s odd refusal to make an explicit prescription or prohibition concerning praying for the sin “unto death.” According to Westcott, the phrase here used for the request “would naturally express the prayer of brother for brother as such, to the common Father. Such a prayer is not enjoined by the apostle. At the same time he does not forbid it.” Thus, though there may be no confidence in praying for someone who may not be a brother in the same way that there is confidence in praying for an apparent believer, nevertheless such a prayer is permissible and may even be demanded by the love of Christ.

        There is an interesting parallel between 1 Jn 5:17 and 1 Jn 1:9. Each verse seems to qualify the other with respect to “all unrighteousness.” All unrighteousness should lead to death, but because of the truth of 1 Jn 1:9, not all sin will lead finally to death. Seen in this light the odd phrase “there is sin not leading to death” takes on genuine meaning (1 John 5:16). Blass remarked that this pleonasm (round about way of saying things) has particular meaning because of the subsequent “qualifying phrase,” “not unto death.” John has some particular kind of sin in mind. In light of John’s statement in 1:9 that God “cleanses us from all unrighteousness,” John does not want his hearers to conclude that they need to downplay sin as merely “unrighteousness” or some other sub-strata of rebellion that a believer can commit without ensuring perdition (1 Jn 1:9). John reassures his hearers that some sin is in fact “not unto death,” namely sin that is confessed and placed under the blood of Christ our advocate boldly as sin (1 Jn 1:9-2:1). Thus rather than merely apologizing for this section of 1 John, perhaps it plays a vital role in the closing exhortations of the epistle. It pulls together both the themes of a believers continuing sin from chapter 1 and his necessary purity in chapter 3 through a distinction of sins based on God’s final gift of life through faith in His Son alone.

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