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. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. -ESV
I like the ESV translation of this a lot. The big thing is in the beginning of verse 16, with ask and give, it keeps it in the future tense, and, most importantly, keeps the word ask instead of changing it to pray. The verb there is aiteo which is the same verb that has been used in the previous verses promising that we will be given anything which we ask of God. This is clearly intended to be an example of this promise.
Indeed, I would say this is the highest example of it. Often we take promises of provision and apply it to our wants, such as a new car, or even a new job. This isn’t always illegitimate, but keeping it as a focus is not the heart of God. In Scripture, this promises are usually tied to commands of service and action. God is promising that He will help us when we ask for help doing His will.
In this case, we have the act of “asking” for someone who is committing sin. This distinction between sin that leads to death and sin which doesn’t is rather difficult to deal with. I believe this is where the Catholic Church gets the idea of the 7 deadly sins, though, if that is true, I would say that their 7 are way off the mark regarding what John is talking about here. When John is talking about sin which leads to death, he means unforgivable sin. There is no point to pray for this since there is no hope. John gives us no context with which to identify which sins are which, though unforgivable sin is defined elsewhere in Scripture.
However, the defining of these sins is not what’s important. If it were, John would have taken the time to define it. The more important thing is asking God to give life to those who are sinning. This is clearly not a promise that if you say one word of prayer about coworker Bob, he’ll be instantaneously saved. I think, instead, it means that diligent prayer in the area of praying for a sinner will result in deliverance from sin.
After all, the text is clearly speaking of a brother in the Lord. This is someone who is already saved who keeps falling into a particular sin. If sin is death, and God promises life, than I believe that what is being promised here is deliverance from sin for a sinning brother.
But here in America we don’t do this. We instead chastise the brother, and command him to repent. Rarely do we pray for his deliverance. We’ll pray that an unbeliever will get saved, but we never pray for the believer to be delivered from the flesh. Why is this?
Though this is not a command, but a promise, this morning I give it to you as a command. John picked this example because it is among the highest things to ask for. Therefore, we should be asking for it. If there is a brother or sister in the Lord that you know who has been dogged by sin, pray for him/her. Pray for deliverance. If this is a promise, than the reason why a person remains dogged by sin is because they are not being prayed for. So pray.