Don’t Pray

Yesterday in church, in preparation for a sermon on 1 Tim 2:1-7, our congregation confessed WCF 21.3-4. It was all good, until we got to the end, which asserts that prayer is not to be made “for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death.” At this point, my wife and I both looked at each other with a “huh?” expression.

At the time, I guessed that would be in reference to the unforgivable sin, but actually the confession’s scripture proof is 1 John 5:16, and Westminster is a pretty direct paraphrase:

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.

ESV footnotes link 1 John 5:16 back to Jer 7:16, 14:11, which in context seem to be fairly standard OT indictments of Israel for idolatrous unfaithfulness.

So what exactly is this sin that puts people beyond praying for? Can anybody name any specific individual that I should not waste my prayers on? Whatever the rule is, would it have precluded the early church from praying for pre-conversion Saul?

This entry was posted in Compare and Confess. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Don’t Pray

  1. Rick says:

    This is tough. I have no idea what the sin is or how it can be known that someone has committed it. But if you don’t know that it has been committed then you must still pray, right?


  2. RubeRad says:

    Given the “of whom it may be known”, maybe the Westminster Divines are merely saying “We don’t understand either how this could possibly be known, but while we’re creating a list of who/what not to pray for, there’s this one verse in the Bible we don’t understand, so we’ll put in the confession a placeholder statement, with a safety valve of ‘of whom it may be known’, to prevent binding until such time as somebody may come up with something in the future”?

  3. RubeRad says:

    Calvin says it is Apostasy…

  4. Rana says:

    Hey, I know the manager of the Calvin Classics Etheral Library, glad to see it being used!

  5. RubeRad says:

    I loves me some CCEL! That site rocks!

  6. Echo_ohcE says:

    1Cor. 5:4 When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus,
    1Cor. 5:5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

    Even excommunication is meant to bring people to repentance.

    1John 5:15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.
    1John 5:16 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.
    1John 5:17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.

    Take note of what John is encouraging us about here. He is saying that God will answer our prayers. He will give us what we have asked from him. So what does he say? He says if we see our BROTHER sinning – say we notice that our brother doesn’t discipline his children as well as we would like – then we should pray and ask God to forgive our brother, to give him life. In other words, we ask God not only to forgive him of this sin, but to sanctify him.

    Notice he is giving us guidance for how we should respond when we see our brother sinning. He’s not talking about when our brother sins against us, because Jesus is clear in Matt 18 that we should confront that one and ask him to repent. This is so that we have nothing against one another. And if you have never put this into practice, I would highly recommend that you do something like this, even though it’s uncomfortable, because it can be a really cool experience in the end, even if it’s horrible in the beginning.

    But anyway, John is addressing what we do when we simply regard our brother and notice his sin. We should pray that God would give him life. That is, sanctification, resurrection life, spiritual life.

    So again, if I see some father in my church who isn’t being a proper disciplinarian, I shouldn’t condemn him in my mind, I shouldn’t condemn him to his face. Rather, I should pray about it, and ask God to bring life where there is death. Sin is death. So I should pray, and trust in the Lord that he will take care of it, and let it go at that. And perhaps at some point, if I have opportunity, I should pull him aside and show him a more excellent way. But only if I have opportunity. John is telling us here that it’s ok and even a good thing to just leave it to the Lord to sanctify our brothers. We don’t need to take this burden on ourselves. And he is telling us that we may trust God to do what we ask him to in this regard.

    How can his sin not lead to death? Well, because he is IN CHRIST of course.

    However, going back to 1 Cor 5, we see that Paul is saying that a man should be excommunicated. The man in question “has his father’s wife.” This is not the kind of thing that John says we should simply pray about and leave it alone. This is not like when your brother is a little ignorant about child rearing. This is far different. This is gross, unrepentant sin. It is flagrant. The man who isn’t a very good disciplinarian might just be ignorant of how to discipline his kids. He might need a little help and guidance, and then he’ll do a better job. But the man in 1 Cor 5 who has slept with his mother – well, as Paul says in verse 1:

    1Cor. 5:1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.

    The man’s behavior is not even tolerated among pagans. This is the kind of distinction I think John has in mind here.

    So think about it. What kind of things will get a person excommunicated from a church? Well, pretty much anything of which he refuses to repent when confronted. If a man who is having an affair is confronted and refuses to repent, he’s gone. If a man refuses to acknowledge that Jesus is divine, he’s gone.

    But if a man is having an affair, and he’s confronted, and he repents and renounces his relationship with this other woman and is reconciled to his wife, notice that this sin doesn’t lead to death. Why? Because he has repented and God has heard him. God has forgiven him.

    But what John is telling us to do is, when we see our brother sinning – not gross, unrepentant sin for which the man should be excommunicated, but something of which we may have more understanding than our brother – we should have patience, and rather than condemn our brother, we should leave it in God’s hands and trust that God will handle it, giving the person in question life where now there is death.

    But John is NOT saying that this ought to be the reaction if a man refuses to renounce his affair with some woman or something. For this we should not pray that God will take care of it. Rather, the church must act and expel the man.

    But even THEN, excommunication should bring shame upon the man, and make him realize his error, and hopefully he will repent.

    But to put all of this more basically, sin that does not lead to death is sin paid for by the shed blood of Christ. Sin that DOES lead to death is sin that is not paid for by the shed blood of Christ.

    Ultimately, the distinction here is between the sin of the elect and the reprobate.

    The sin of the elect doesn’t lead to death. The sin of the reprobate does.

    But how can we, as human beings, tell if someone is elect or not? Well, we can’t. But the church has the authority to make certain judgments. It is obliged to excommunicate people under certain conditions. For example, if a man refuses to repent of something that the church has confronted him on.

    Again, Matt 18 helps us understand this. This is where Jesus says that if your brother sins against you, you should go to him and confront him, and ask him to repent. If he repents, your relationship only grows, and you are reconciled to your brother, and all is well. If he doesn’t, come back with 2 or 3 witnesses and ask him to repent again. If he does, great, you are reconciled. If however, he refuses to repent and witnesses are present, then you bring the matter to the church. And if he then refuses to repent, then he gets excommunicated.

    Notice that it is not qualified by which sins it has in mind. Jesus did not say that if your brother does something really, really, really bad against you, then go through these steps. No, this process can be a small matter as well. Maybe a rude statement on a bad day.

    Refusing to repent causes the man to come under suspicion. Why won’t he repent? If someone came to you and said that you really hurt their feelings by something you said, how would you react? Would you get mad at them and send them away? I hope I wouldn’t. I hope I would say I’m sorry. But if I don’t, and the person comes back with 2 or 3 witnesses, shouldn’t I then feel ashamed and apologize then, since the person has convinced 2 or 3 witnesses of the righteousness of their cause? I hope I would then. But then it goes to the church, and if even the elders agree I should repent, and yet still I refuse, then where is the evidence that I love my brother whose feelings I have hurt? Where is the evidence that I want to submit to the proper authorities God has placed over me, namely my elders? If I still won’t repent, I must be excommunicated, because my actions are communicating that I’m NOT a Christian.

    And this process can theoretically start with simply a rude comment. It doesn’t have to be an affair.

    The OPC recently excommunicated someone for refusing to take the Lord’s Supper. The person didn’t want to take the Lord’s Supper, because he felt that the OPC should be bringing people under discipline for theological views such as not believing in infant baptism. Now, if someone doesn’t believe in infant baptism, they can still take the Lord’s Supper at an OPC. So this person felt that this profaned the Supper, and therefore refused to take it. And I think he had been refusing in this way for a few years. Anyway, he was eventually excommunicated, because he refused to submit.

    This may seem strange, but his actions show that he regards the OPC as a false church. He is presiding in judgment of the entire denomination, saying that they have profaned the sacrament, and thus he cannot possibly partake of it. This is a gross sin on his part, and he refused to repent of it. He is saying that the OPC is not a true church because they’ll serve the Lord’s Supper to people who don’t believe in infant baptism.

    Whether or not he was rightly excommunicated is not my point here. I’m just saying that he was, and this is the kind of thing through which it comes.

    So that means that we can’t say that this sin leads to death and that doesn’t. It’s not about different kinds of sins. It’s about different kinds of people who do the sins. A very small sin can reveal someone to be worthy of excommunication. Like I said, even a rude comment can eventually get you there.

    So you see, when we approach this passage, we tend to want to know which sins fall into which category. Are there gross sins and sins that can be overlooked? To a degree, yes. But the real distinction is in unrepentant sin and the sin of believers in good standing.

    It’s not the repentance that’s the key either. When someone refuses to repent, that refusal is the FRUIT of this sin. It demonstrates that this person is not a true believer. Now, he may BE a true believer in the end, but his refusal to submit and repent NOW means that the church must pronounce judgment upon him and expel him.

    But on the other hand, John is not only asking us to pray for our brother ONLY when our brother repents. Maybe I notice some imperfection in my brother. Maybe he’s aware of it, maybe he isn’t. John is saying that I should pray, and God will give my brother life where there is death. God will sanctify my brother since I have asked him to. John assures us that God will hear that prayer and answer it.

    But we don’t have to confront someone and see if they repent first.

    I knew a man once who talked about covering sins over in love. Can’t we, when considering our brothers, overlook certain things in love? Can’t we recognize that we’re all weak sinners, and determine in our own minds that rather than judging our brothers, we should ask God to sanctify them by his Word and Spirit?

    Some things can be overlooked, some things can’t. If someone is continually rude to you, at some point you have to deal with this. But you don’t have to deal with all sins of your brothers. Your default mode should be to pray about it and leave it alone, and God will bring life.

    John assures us that God will answer such prayers.

  7. I wouldn’t bother praying for the devil.

  8. RubeRad says:

    ‘bino, I think we’ve already got that covered, since the devil is one of “those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death”. Anybody living you’d care to nominate?

  9. RubeRad says:

    Echo, that’s helpful. I think what may have been tripping me up is that WCF mentions “the sin until death” but 1 John 5:16 (at least in our more modern ESV) is indefinite: “There is sin that leads to death”. This changes from thinking of a particular sin, to categories of sin. And further, not categories like these types of sins vs. those types of sins (like RC mortal/venial), but these types of sinners vs. those types of sinners (elect/nonelect).

    So by what you’re saying, “sin that leads to death” = “any sin of any nonelect”, while “sin that does not lead to death” = “any sin of any elect”. Which is equivalent to “sin not atoned for by Christ” vs. “sin atoned for by Christ”. But of course, since we have no access to decretal truth, we can only judge based on disciplinary status within the visible church.

    Maybe all of what you are saying can be boiled down to:

    For those inside the church (for whom all evidence suggests that they are justified, so that their sins are not leading them to death), pray for sanctification.

    For those outside the church (for whom all evidence suggests that they are NOT justified, thus their sins ARE leading them to death), don’t bother praying for sanctification, because that’s putting the cart before the horse. For those outside the church, go right on ahead and pray for regeneration, conviction, repentance, faith, and justification. THEN, once they’re in the church, we can pray for their sanctification.


  10. Echo_ohcE says:


    Yes, more or less. But there is a further nuance, because those inside the church may commit heinous sin and even refuse to repent, but then are excommunicated. We still can’t say that they are reprobate, but they have sinned unto death (but I’m less sure about this opinion). So for instance 1 Cor 5 as I mentioned. Excommunication is still meant to lead to repentance, and is not a final judgment.

    However, say a man has an affair and refuses to repent – well, he may yet prove to be elect. However, we treat him as if he were not a believer, even though we hope he repents. So yeah, basically we would pray for justification or whatever, rather than sanctification. At least that’s what this passage seems to indicate.

    But the big thing is that we’re overlooking someone’s sin, not confronting them on it, but rather bringing it to God in private prayer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s