Prayer is a ministry in which the bond of Christian fellowship is strengthened as mutual needs and burdens are presented before the Lord. Incessant prayers for one another are taught in the Scriptures (Hebrews 13:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:25) with regard to physical (James 5:16) as well as spiritual (Colossians 1:9) blessings. As such, it is expected of every Christian to pray one for another. An Old Testament prophet even declared that it is a sin to cease praying for the people of God (1 Samuel 12:23).
Jesus prayed for His disciples and all believers (John 17:9, 20). Thus, the habit of intercession was highly regarded and zealously practised by His apostles and prophets of old, for it was the very trait that made them more like the Lord. Scripture is, in fact, replete with many exhortations on prayer. It is without doubt a solemn duty for Christians to pray for one another.
While it is important for Christians to intercede one for another continually, there are situations in which prayer is more urgently needed. Surprisingly, there are also situations when we do not pray for a person. This teaching can be found in 1 John 5:16-17.
When Should We Pray for Others?
In verse 16, John presents a situation when earnest prayer is required from the brethren. “If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death” (v. 16a).
When we see a brother living in sin, and being afflicted with and suffering its consequences, we must pray for him that he will repent lest he be destroyed. Prayer should be the believer’s first response on behalf of the errant brother instead of reacting in disgust towards him.
Sins of Christians may result in sickness. The apostle Paul mentioned in his first epistle to the Corinthians that some of them were sick and even dead because they partook of the Lord’s Supper while sinning without repentance (1 Corinthians 11:28-30). Weakness, sickness and death were the three forms of chastisement with which the Corinthian church was visited. Even today, these can be the experiences of sinning Christians.
So the sick brother must examine himself as to whether there is any sin in him, for some sickness may not necessarily mean the presence of sin in his life but only a trial or test of faith. Nevertheless, if sin indeed is present, immediate confession is required. When there is an offended party, he must seek reconciliation. This then is where prayer comes in for the repentance, forgiveness and healing of the offender. “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16).
Church leaders should also be called upon to intercede for that ailing brother, praying not only for his healing, but more so for his spiritual restoration (James 5:14-15). If we pray in such scenarios and if the brother, who has sinned and is afflicted, is willing to repent, God will deliver him. Because of his repentance, his sins will not work out to his death. Thus John says, “… he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death.”
When Should We Not Pray for Others?
Astounding as it may be, Christians should also be aware that there is an occasion where it will not be prudent to pray for the healing of others. John wrote, “There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it” (v. 16b). A sin unto death can be any particular sin in one’s life. It can be as simple as lying, gruesome as murder, or complex as teaching false doctrines. What makes that particular sin deadly is the attitude in taking it lightly and refusing to repent from it. This presents us with a case of an unreasonable and unrepentant individual in the church. Thus, there is no point in praying for this person. His cries unto God and even those that might be uttered on his behalf will most certainly be in vain (cf. Jeremiah 14:10-12).
God, in His grace, does not always immediately punish us for our sins. However, there comes a point when God will no longer allow the unrepentant person to continue in his sin (Acts 5:1-10 and 1 Corinthians 11:28-32). At the final stage of divine discipline, God will put an end to his life. It is His prerogative, as the Sovereign Judge, to decide when to remove the person by death.
John mentions some wicked characters found in the early church in the second chapter of this epistle. They are referred to by the phrase “he that hateth his brother” (1 John 2:11). A hateful, unforgiving and implacable spirit towards others describes such a one. Another group of evildoers are named “antichrists” who “went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us” (vv. 18-19), and “a liar … that denieth that Jesus is the Christ …” (v. 22). They are not of us, in the sense that they twist and deny the fundamental truths about Christ and His words. They lie through their teeth in denying the Person, work and words of the Lord Jesus Christ.
There are sins that may or may not result in physical death, but engaging in sin without repentance does indicate one’s spiritual death (cf. 1 John 3:9; Matthew 7:18). A person may continue to live; yet spiritually he is dead already. Let it be a warning to us that every sin is deadly and no sin should be cherished in our lives. “All unrighteousness is sin” (v. 17). And though “there is a sin not unto death”, we should not take the presence of sin lightly in our lives. Frequent and ceaseless intrusions of sin can be a mark of one’s spiritual deadness!
It must be reiterated that it is not for us to judge that whenever someone falls sick or even dies, it happened because of that person’s sin. Christians must therefore be very careful in deliberating matters like these. Such problems in the church must be approached with much humility, love and truthfulness.