The following is a transcript of the audio.
David in Bristol, Connecticut asks: “Pastor John, over the last year, the Lord has taught me much about prayer, both by study of his Word and by lots of doing (and failing at) it. While I am sure there will always be some mystery to prayer, one thing that I have always struggled with is how to know if and when to stop praying for something, especially related to 1 John 5:14–17. Since God’s timing is rarely if ever ours, how do we know when to persevere in asking him for something, and when to stop, because nothing is changing, and it seems to be God saying ‘no’?”
Well, this is one of these questions where I am going to see how much I can say when I don’t know the answer. And I hope it is not fog and I am saying it up front so everybody will know I am not trying to hide it. I don’t know for sure, but this may help. It helps me to think out loud like this.
Isn’t it significant? I think it is that in the Bible we have a statement: You have not, because you ask not (James 4:2). But we don’t have a statement: You pray too much or too long. We don’t have a statement that says you have things I did not want to give you because you kept on asking me when it was time to quit. We don’t have anything like that. In fact, all the emphasis in the New Testament is in the other direction. Keep on praying. Don’t lose heart. Ask, seek, knock. Wake up your friend at midnight if you must. Go back to the city judge until he gives you justice even though he just wants you off his back. I mean, those are amazing, horrible pictures of God. And the point is he loves when we keep on coming and badgering him for something we want very badly according to his revealed will.
But here we have this difficult passage that was referred to in the question: 1 John 5:16–17. “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask. God will forgive him to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death. I do not say one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.” That is 1 John 5:16–17.
Now notice: It does not say don’t pray about sin that leads to death. It says, simply, “There is sin that leads to death. I don’t say that one should pray for that.” It does amount, doesn’t it, to a permission, at least, not to pray about sin that leads to death. And that is what makes the question so hard like David says. How do we know? How do we know when a person has sinned unto death? That is, there is not going to be any forgiveness. He has hardened himself so many times and so long that God has withdrawn from him and there is not going to be any repentance on his part and therefore not going to be any forgiveness on God’s part. How do we know when that has happened?
It is not a particular sin. Get that out of the court room right away. It is not murder or rape or treason, because it doesn’t say the sin like the unforgivable sin. That is not what this is about. It is not the sin or a sin that leads to death. It is sin or sinning unto death. It is not the act. It is the depth and irreversibility of the act that a person has sinned so long they are not able to repent any more. But how do we know that? And the answer is, I don’t know. But it might help to point to an analogy with a similar kind of difficulty.
Jesus said in Matthew 7:6, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.” So there seems to be a kind of hardness and resistance and cynical attitude that you should not share the most precious truths with. People are so utterly hard and cynical that they will only trample your gospel words under their feet. How do we know when that is? I mean Paul spoke to people who then threw him in prison and chanted songs for two hours to false gods. That is a lot of trampling going on in response to Paul’s preaching. And Jesus spoke and people killed him. That is trampling the pearl of great price.
So in the one case we don’t have to pray for certain hardened sinners. In the other case we shouldn’t give holy things to the certain hardened sinners. And when does that apply? I don’t know. But it may be that just knowing that such situations exist will help us by the Holy Spirit discern when we are in one.
And I will just say, last thing, Tony, that this hit home for me with my grandmother. She is gone now and, frankly, I doubt she’s in heaven. She is the closest one I came to where I almost said to the Lord: I am not going to pray for her anymore. She is so cynical to everything I say. She turns everything on its head. She is a terrible model for her grandkids, actually her great grandkids. My parents were not like that. But she was my grandmother and so she was a bad example to my kids, her great grandkids. But, frankly, I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t bring myself to stop praying for her conversion. So I have never come to a situation where I have said: That person is beyond my prayers.
Excellent, that’s very helpful Pastor John, thank you. On this topic of prayer be sure to check out episode 123 in this podcast, titled: “How Food and Sex Are Made Holy.” And also see episode 124, titled: “Mealtime Prayers: Necessary or Optional?” We will return on Monday with a new episode. Until then, be sure to check out the Ask Pastor John app for the iPhone and Andriod, and check out our website desiringGod.org, where you can find an archive of thousands of books, articles, sermons, and other resources all free of charge from John Piper, and all intended to help explain why God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. I’m your host, Tony Reinke, have a great weekend!