7/5/12 V. 16-17, This can feel like an abrupt change in topic, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. John has been talking about keeping God’s commands and loving each other and when we do this we can ask God for anything and receive it. One of the things we are to ask God for is the lives of others. Intercession.
If one loves his brother and sees him commit a sin he should intercede for him in prayer and God will give him life. This is illustrated in the way that Moses prayed and Aaron burned incense and stood between the living and the dead. It’s also illustrated by the way Jesus prayed for Simon when Satan wanted to sift him as wheat.
One idea of these verses, though, is a little harder to understand. John says we are to pray for those whose sins do not lead to death and not those sins that do lead to death.
Many commentators cite the Jewish thinking that sinning by mistake is a different thing than sinning in rebellion. The sins that do not lead to death are those sins that are merely mistakes and can be atoned for. Sins of rebellion, however, could not be atoned for. That explanation doesn’t seem air tight, though, because we can cite example of rebellion that responded to intercession. One of those instances was when Aaron stood between the living and the dead. All the people were in rebellion but those still living when the plague stopped were forgiven presumably.
Another interesting example that supports this is when Achan stole the silver and garments from Jericho. After their defeat at Ai Joshua and the elders of Israel lay on their faces before the ark and God asked them why and told them to get up. Israel had sinned and transgressed the covenant. The sin was still active. It hadn’t been confessed or repented. It was ongoing. No sin can be forgiven while it’s still in it’s active state.
Another explanation would be to differentiate acts of sin from the disease of sin. Acts of sin can be forgiven and overcome whereas the disease of sin cannot be cured before all sin is forever destroyed by Jesus’ second coming. It’s no use to pray against the disease of sin since we will bear that burden for life, but we should definitely pray to overcome the acts of sin because we can grow in that area. That is the next verse.
V. 18, We must stop participating in the acts of sin even though we still have the disease. And we are able to overcome through Jesus. He protects us from Satan who tempts us to continue to participate in acts of sin.
It seems to make a good deal of sense, then, to understand the sin that leads to death as ongoing, unrepentant rebellion, which is the disease of sin in an active stage. In other words, the unpardonable sin. The sin that does not lead to death is sin that is in process of being overcome, sin that is being fought, sin that is a result of weakness and mistakes but the sinner desires to be free.