To pray for our abusers… or not? (we don’t need to pray for the sin that leads to death)

In Jeremiah chapter 7, God told Jeremiah to stand at the door of the temple and denounce the wickedness of the inhabitants of Judah. The message was that if they didn’t repent God would cast them out of His sight. God had inspired and empowered Jeremiah to deliver this message. (Can you imagine doing this at a church door today?) But God also said to Jeremiah:

… not pray for this people, and do not lift up cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with Me….  (Jeremiah 7:16  NASB1995)

While living in domestic abuse, Christians often pray fervently for their abusive partners. My prayers went something like this:

Dear God, please help my husband overcome his anger, depression, insecurity, addictions, demons, darkness, lack of insight, past wounds, terrible childhood, etc. Help him know and love You and receive Your healing deep in his heart where it really counts. Help him receive You as his Saviour if he hasn’t actually been born again. Don’t let him go to hell. Help him see Your loving kindness, so he can see how much he has been hurting me and our child; and enable him to fulfill his true potential with the power of Your Spirit. Dear God, help me forgive what he’s done to me and put it behind me. Help me love him. And oh God, please help my pain.

On our Prayer Requests [2012] page, Pepe asked for prayer for herself and her family and deliverance for her husband who has been revealed as a multiple and longstanding adulterer, liar and cheat. Pepe wrote (paraphrased a little by me) [Scroll down to September 27, 2012 on the linked page to see Pepe’s comment. Editors.]:

….He has been confronted by me with all that he KNOWS is what the Bible says…..and he says he just wants to die and go to Hell…. He would rather DIE and go to Hell than live rightly….even if only for the children. — ours and his mistress’s…. He is without sorrow that leads to repentance….

I told Pepe I would pray for her and the children, but I couldn’t honestly pray for her husband because it sounds like he comes under the category of the kind of sinner we are not called to pray for.

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.  (1 John 5:16  ESV)

Perplexing Scriptural guidelines about praying or not praying for our abusers

In response to my mention of John 5:16, Pepe asked some good questions…. [Scroll down to September 28, 2012 on the linked page to see Pepe’s comment that Barb paraphrased a little. Editors.] Here is what she said (paraphrased a little by me):

Jesus said —

(Matthew 5:44)  But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.

And —

(Luke 6:28)  Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.

I was wondering how we are to reconcile these verses with the John 5:16 which seems to say not to pray for someone who has “sinned unto death”?

When speaking of the unforgivable sin — blasphemy of the Holy Spirit — Jesus seems to have been talking about the obstinate and chronic rejection of the Word which is the incorruptible seed which when received with meekness is able to save one’s soul.

So when a person’s heart is hard, when their ears are “stopped” and they refuse to hear and heed, they have rejected the “means” by which the Holy Spirit comes. For the Holy Spirit comes by hearing the WORD then heeding then believing, since faith comes by hearing and hearing by the WORD OF GOD who is Jesus Christ according to Revelation 19:11-13 —

And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and HE that sat upon him was called FAITHFUL and TRUE, and in righteousness HE doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and HIS NAME IS CALLED THE WORD OF GOD.  [Capitalization done by the commenter.]

Then again, it seems that there is a distinction, because Jesus prayed the Father in John’s Gospel….Jesus makes this distinction between those who are his and those of this world:

(John 17:9)  I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine.

So perhaps it is those who refuse the road, who reject it, even if they hear it they disobey and do not repent, perhaps it is those people who are not to be prayed for?

If I, his wife, part of the one flesh that we are in marriage, do not pray for him, who will?

How do we know, in a particular case, whether it fits into the category of someone “sinning unto death”, as opposed to being an “enemy” or a “persecutor”? Furthermore, are these various texts reconcilable, or is there a contradiction?  [Emphasis added.]

In answer to Pepe’s questions, I would say that firstly, it’s important to realize that 1 John 5 does not command us not to pray for the man who is sinning unto death. It only tells us we are not required to pray for him.

 ….I do not say that one should pray for that.  (1 John 5:16  ESV)

As R C Sproul Sr puts it:

John does not exactly forbid praying for the brother who so transgresses, his language suggests that we should not be concerned to pray for those who commit the sin leading to death.  [Emphasis added.]

Secondly, in respect of Pepe’s worry that “If I don’t pray for him, who will?” I would say that she can let herself off the hook. If she does not pray for him that doesn’t mean she is forsaking her Christian duty and will get a “big black mark” from God. Her husband has categorically stated that he doesn’t care that he’s disobeying God. A wife of such a man need not consider herself one flesh with him, since the man has grievously broken the marriage covenant of unity that he should have honoured. There is no one-flesh-ness when one party crushes the other and violates their integrity and personhood in multiple ways.

Thirdly, it’s worth remembering that Jesus is always interceding at the Father’s throne. Even if we are not praying, Jesus is praying according to the will of the Father. Prayer is not a hydraulic system of simplistic cause and effect. It’s wrong to think of our prayers as pulling up bucketloads of water in order to make the waterwheel of God’s power turn. Yes, our prayers are heard by God; but He doesn’t act simply because we have poured enough buckets of water onto the top of the waterwheel. He isn’t just waiting till the right number of buckets have been pulled up and poured out by us. If we think prayer works like a hydraulic machine which operates when enough water pressure is applied to the system, we have an incorrect view of prayer and of God.

Fourthly, I don’t think there is a contradiction. Scripture quite often holds paradoxes in tension, without that being an out-and-out contradiction. Yes, we are told to pray for our enemies and persecutors, but we are also given permission NOT to pray for someone who seems to be “sinning unto death”. Scripture does not spell it out more fully than that. But I take great comfort from the precept in 1 John 5, as it frees me from the responsibility of indefinitely having to pray for my abuser when he has violated my trust so repeatedly and shown no real repentance. I can let myself rest in the knowledge that I am not sinning by ceasing to pray for him. And I can let myself be guided by the Spirit as to who and who not to pray for. What a relief! What liberty. Jesus said:

Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  (Matthew 11:28)

The sin leading to death

Lastly, let’s consider what the apostle means by “the sin leading to death”. There are various understandings of what John means by that phrase. The problem divides into two parts: what is the sin, and what kind of death John is referring to — physical death, or eternal death?

A well argued discussion that I find pretty persuasive is Irvin A Busenitz’s article The Sin Unto Death. The final paragraphs from his article are below. I’ve made some of the text bold to emphasise what will be key points for our readers. The italics (made into capital letters by me) are from Busenitz himself.

The apostle John appears to have in view an unsaved man who professes to be a believer, but who is in actuality in need of salvation. On the one hand [a brother committing a sin not leading to death], John refers to a man who is sinning but is not doing so to the point of the impossibility of being granted eternal life; he has not yet come to the place where the possibility of divine forgiveness has been revoked. In such cases, as a result of the intercessory prayer of a “brother,” God would grant spiritual life. On the other hand, the apostle asserts that if a man does sin to such an extent that repentance and forgiveness is impossible, it would be “unto death” spiritual death, spiritual death in the sense that his condition is irrevocable (cf. Matt 12:31-32). Thus the sin CAN be committed by a Christian when “Christian” is used in the broader sense to include THOSE WHOSE CHRISTIANITY IS MERELY A MATTER OF PROFESSION, but it cannot if “Christian” means one who has actually been regenerated.

It is clear that “brother” in Scripture normally refers to a saved individual, but John’s usage of the term implies that in some cases there will be a difference between what is professed and what is actually true.

Furthermore, experience has vividly illustrated the power of God to regenerate the most reprobate of sinners, and therefore the believer should be careful not to judge the status of another too quickly. Nevertheless, John asserts that the habitual practice of sin does indicate the spiritual state of a man (cf. Gal 5:21). Consequently, while the believer is to pray for this sinning brother until God reveals otherwise, John reminds him that the efficacy of his prayer may not extend to that person and that the believer’s confidence should not be diminished thereby.

….in keeping with the Johannine theme, persistent sin in the life of anyone who professes to be saved indicates that he is not saved, and that the ultimate end of such is spiritual death. Although acts of sin do not cause one to die spiritually (man is born spiritually dead), the habitual practice of sin may lead to an irreversible state, a condition in which forgiveness will be no longer available. The limitation has only to do with the unbeliever, however, for the believer’s full forgiveness was procured by the death of Christ at Calvary.

[February 17, 2023: Editors’ notes:

—For some comments made prior to February 17, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to February 17, 2023 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to February 17, 2023 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (February 17, 2023), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]


Further reading

Lord, Do Not Forgive Them, For They Know Exactly What They Are Doing

Have I prayed enough? — a question often asked by victims of domestic abuse

26 thoughts on “To pray for our abusers… or not? (we don’t need to pray for the sin that leads to death)”

  1. Barbara – you are right on in this post. Good job. Apostasy cannot be committed by a true Christian, one of Christ’s sheep. No one can snatch them out of His hand because the Father has given them to Christ. Those who fall away were never His at all. Therefore, as we have maintained in our posts here, the church experiences the most wicked abusers of all. The abuser who uses a facade of Christianity, and who then demonstrates by his ongoing, unrepentant, hard-heartedness that it is nothing but a facade proves himself to be a person who has tasted of the heavenly gift, and then like Esau, spewed it out and trampled underfoot the Son of God.

    1. UPDATE Sept 2021: I have come to believe that Jeff Crippen does not practise what he preaches. He vilely persecuted an abuse victim and spiritually abused many other people in the Tillamook congregation. Go here to read the evidence. Jeff has not gone to the people that he spiritually and emotionally abused. He has not apologised to them, let alone asked for their forgiveness.


      Thanks, Jeff C.

  2. It’s wrong to think of our prayers as pulling up bucketloads of water in order to make the waterwheel of God’s power turn.

    Great analogy on prayer!! Notice the same problem exists here, mankind-centered faith instead of Christ-centered faith.

  3. Great post, Barb. Thanks for that effort.

    Firstly, the “bucketloads of water” analogy — Is this similar to the teaching that was popularized not long ago, about our prayers going up like incense, and if God doesn’t get enough, He can’t do the miracle intervention? An author told of how his constant day-and-night intercession for a person in a coma resulted in the person rising, but it took a year of prayer. At that time my immediate thought was, “I have many young children, I don’t have the time or energy to invest into that kind of intercession, so I suppose I shouldn’t expect any answers to difficult situations then.” It was deflating.

    Secondly, on the point on sin leading to death. Is Busenitz’ position a widely accepted one? I think it makes sense, but I was of the impression that the sin leading to death was a very rare kind of “massive” sin, whatever that is! Certainly nobody I knew ever hinted that an abusive spouse could be in that category. How would Busenitz justify the argument that there is sin for which forgiveness is impossible? His statement that —

    the habitual practice of sin may lead to an irreversible state, a condition in which forgiveness will be no longer available

    —seems to be his personal opinion. Is there Scriptural backing for that?

    1. Anonymous, I have actually heard this addressed several times recently by various pastors with different answers (I haven’t gone looking – it just keeps coming up for some reason), so there certainly isn’t agreement. However, the view presented here, while with different nuances, seems to be one I’ve heard a lot.

      The basic idea being that there’s a difference between a truly regenerate Christian and someone who has heard and mentally assented in some way, yet not repented.

    2. Anonymous,
      I am so glad you brought up the incense aspect of prayer. Revelation shows that prayers are stored in vials [Revelation 5:8], and Luke shows that they can be stored for a long time (God doesn’t need time, it is an element made for the existence of mankind, like oxygen). Zacharias and Elizabeth were OLD when the angel appeared and told Zacharias —

      ….your prayer IS heard… [Luke 1:13, capitalization done by the commenter.]

      (in regards to having a child). Not “it was heard” but “it IS heard” — present tense.

    3. UPDATE Sept 2021: I have come to believe that Jeff Crippen does not practise what he preaches. He vilely persecuted an abuse victim and spiritually abused many other people in the Tillamook congregation. Go here to read the evidence. Jeff has not gone to the people that he spiritually and emotionally abused. He has not apologised to them, let alone asked for their forgiveness.


      Dear Anonymous, I’ve not heard a teaching that if God doesn’t get enough prayer —- incense— he can’t do the miracle intervention. (I haven’t been round Pentecostal circles for quite a while, so that may explain why I haven’t heard it.) But yes, it’s the same idea as what I was expressing in the waterwheel analogy.

      The error in that concept of prayer is that it makes God dependent on us, and gives us phenomenal power to push God around — if we have the hours to devote to that kind of prayer, which many of us don’t!

      That concept of prayer also seems uncomfortably close to the Roman Catholic system of “rote prayer”.

      And the idea that prayer is stored in vials (see below, mentioned by Laurie) and the prayer can be “held on the shelf” for years before God picks it up and acts on it, seems to me an over-literalization of what Revelation meant only as a symbol. To me, the mention of “vials of prayer” in Revelation simply indicates that God greatly values all our prayers, and He remembers each and every one because He loves us so dearly — and He loves us loving Him and expressing our dependence on Him in trusting prayer. But I don’t think He only acts because we have prayed. He acts sovereignly, of His own will, in His own perfect timing for the unfolding of all history throughout the ages, which He knew from before the beginning of time, being outside time. These things are almost too mysterious to articulate, but my bones tell me when they are being articulated in a way that debases or ignores the mystery, and turns prayer into a lever to twist God’s arm.

      I am not sufficiently widely read on the interpretation of 1 John 5:16 to say how widely accepted Busenitz’s position is. But it’s clear from his article that he’s interacting with many other scholars, so he is familiar with the breadth of views on this verse.

      You wrote:

      How would Busenitz justify the argument that there is sin for which forgiveness is impossible? His statement that —

      “the habitual practice of sin may lead to an irreversible state, a condition in which forgiveness will be no longer available”

      —seems to be his personal opinion. Is there Scriptural backing for that?

      Have you read the whole article by Busenitz which I linked to in the post? If not, can you please give it a go, and see if it answers any or all of your questions, and then get back to us here. Admittedly, he refers quite a lot to different Greek verb forms, which I am probably a little more familiar with than most of our readers are, having gained an superficial understanding of Greek verb forms (which differ from English in many respects) in my research for Not Under Bondage. I understand enough to see that Buzenitz is giving sound reasons for his conclusion, but I’m not sure I understand well enough to convey why his reasoning is sound to our readers. Sorry. Maybe Jeff C can chime in here.

    4. Jeff S, I don’t have a problem with the basic idea that you were talking about. My problem is how I would justify the position that “sin leading to death” refers to habitual sin for which there is no more forgiveness. At which point does a person go into the irreversible condition?

      1. I’d not be able to argue this from Scripture effectively myself; I was just pointing out that I’ve heard this perspective multiple times in order to address your question if this was an established viewpoint.

  4. I just want to tell you all, thank you, for your insight and understanding. Thank you for the encouragement and support. I really appreciate you all.

    Special thank you to Ps. Jeff and Sister Barbara, for all you do, and all you give that you receive from the Lord.

    There is a LOT of wisdom on these pages, and lots of water from the desert places of our experiences, pouring out to each other. I hope you all have a good day. 🙂

  5. Thank you all again for this blog! I seriously wondered for years if my husband was truly a believer, since I never saw any proof. Oh, he was an upstanding citizen, a hard worker, never cheated on me, didn’t drink much. He was always so convincing that he was better than I was that I believed him. But I never heard him repent because he was never wrong about anything. If I had to pick two words that described him, they would be “no mercy”. But he went to church with us. He was fairly honest in his business dealings. Kind of like a really good Pharisee. And mean as hell.

    I hope it is okay to express how I really pray. I pray that my kids will be safe. The court system doesn’t view “safe” the same way I do, so I pray that God will do whatever He has to to get my husband completely away from us. I don’t know if my husband will ever repent, but waiting on that event is not worth putting my kids in further danger for a minute. He tells my youngest son, who is the only one of our 4 kids who has to go to visitation with him, that there are lots of people praying we go back to him. So I pray all those prayers amiss will fall to the ground. I pray against any supernatural favor he may have and against any power that would protect him from experiencing the consequences of his actions. I pray —

    (Psalm 10:17-18 [AMPC – Amplified Bible, Classic Edition]) O Lord, You have heard the desire and the longing of the humble and oppressed; You will prepare and strengthen and direct their hearts, You will cause Your ear to hear, To do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed, so that man, who is of the earth, may not terrify them any more.

    I pray other imprecatory Psalms.

    Most of my Christian friends would disagree with this and say I am “bitter”, that “[it] is Old Testament and we are under grace now”. They have that luxury, I guess.

    1. Those sound like very wise prayers, Joyce. In fact, I may borrow some of those, if you don’t mind. 🙂

      I am especially drawn to the ones about all the prayers amiss falling to the ground and whatever supernatural favor he may be getting (that is not from God, but I’m sure that’s what you meant) is thwarted and he is not shielded from consequences.

      I have to say I am really amazed at what a spiritual battle this is. It is quite fierce, even for us supporters.

    2. Joyce, those are great prayers to pray, in such circumstances. And I bet the circumstances David was in when he prayed them were no more serious, and maybe less serious, than the circumstances your son is in (and you and the other kids, by implication).

      The imprecatory psalms are there for a reason, and saying “we are under grace now, that was the Old Testament”, is a wooden, superficial, anemic and pusillanimous way to read Scripture. It’s all that “gentle Jesus meek and mild” stuff, the Sunday-School-androgynous-Nordic-blonde Jesus “who just picks up pretty white lambs from rolling green hills”, but is never shown with the whip in the Temple.

    3. They have that luxury, I guess.

      This pretty much sums up the interaction between church and abuse victims right here.

      1. Yes, Jeff S – and the hard part is I know I need friends and a church so I’m not going through this alone. But they don’t get it. They may be programmed not to get it.

    4. Joyce, those are awesome things to pray for your son. You go, girl! Your precious, tenacious, mothering heart is strong and wise. I will be joining you in prayer, praying that your son (and your older children) will have eyes to see truth, ears to hear truth, a heart to understand truth, and feet that are quick to respond to the revealed truth.

      that [it] is Old Testament and we are under grace now

      When people say that, it is one of the most confusing statements I remember hearing. If the Old Testament produces “bitterness” and doesn’t promote “grace”, what reason is it included, referenced, and preached from today? I’ve heard speakers use that reasoning, and then get up and speak their message, using Old Testament Scriptures to validate their message. Sheesh! Talk about shifting sand!

      My heart and prayers are with you, Joyce.

      1. Spouse abuse is not a good place to apply Law versus Grace. God required different things at different times in history, but none of those things reflect a change in His character. There are things that have been condemned throughout Scripture from beginning to end. Harming another individual is one of them, witness the earliest recorded murder in Genesis 4.

        If you attempt to apply the differences between Old Testament and New Testament to abuse you have the ridiculous idea that under Moses you couldn’t even get away with talking bad about your wife in public without major penalty but you can beat your wife any time you like with impunity under Christ.

      2. Well said, Barnabasintraining. We can illustrate the error of a way of thinking by showing how ludicrous it is when pushed to its ultimate implications. Keep preaching it, sister!

    5. I pray that my ex will die soon if he is not going to repent while on this earth so that the children and I can be fully free from him and his wickedness. Sometimes I feel that this is wrong of me and other times I feel it is completely innocent and justified. Of course, if he is going to repent one day and be one of the Lord’s sheep (which I strongly doubt) than I would want him to live for as long as it takes for him to repent. But if he’s not going to repent and all he’s going to do is continue to inflict pain and suffering on this earth, I pray the Lord smites him. Is that wrong?

      1. Dear Fiftyandfree,
        Since I know you pretty well from this blog, I am confident that whenever you pray you have an over-arching respect for God’s sovereignty in His choice as to how all things work out. You never presume that you can twist His arm manipulatively. Therefore, I see no wrong in you praying that your ex will die soon if he is not going to repent. You pray that, knowing that God determines when your ex will die, He knows that date from where He sits outside time in eternity, and you will honour and love God no matter how He works this out.

        If your prayer that the Lord will smite your ex soon is wrong, then so are the imprecatory Psalms wrong; but those Psalms are not wrong because they’re the inspired Word of God. If you were saying to God “Please smite my ex and if you don’t smite him, I’m going to cast you aside and badmouth you because you don’t love me!” — that would be wrong. Petty. Selfish. Small-minded. And blasphemous. But your prayers don’t have that undertone, I’m sure. 🙂

        And in that prayer of yours God hears your great pain and your anguish for your kids. Your aching heart is known to God, and He tells us to voice our beseeching prayers to Him, in all their rawness.

  6. Bless you, Barnabusintraining, for being willing to enter the battleground. Barbara, you are a breath of fresh air! So true — that’s not the Jesus I know. So glad to have found you guys.

  7. Aspen made this comment on another post and I’m copying it here along with my reply to her, as it is very relevant for this thread. Here’s what Aspen said (you can find her original comment here):

    ….from what I have learned I do believe that an abuser changing falls under the category of “miracle”. It is not something that would happen in this natural world. It does take supernatural work to do something that will not occur otherwise. Despite Barbara’s position, I still think praying for the abuser in our family is something I should (and therefore do) do. My prayer for him is Romans 12:2 — that he be transformed by the renewing of his mind — because it is his thinking process that is the root of the abuse and that is what needs to change. And, yes, it will take a miracle to change that. I don’t “expect” it in the way of “making God do it because I prayed for it”, but I know we have a big God and He CAN do it if He chooses to. And I pray He does, for the sake of the kids if nothing else….

    And my reply to Aspen was this:

    ….I applaud you for following your inner prompting and keeping on praying for the abuser in your family. I don’t want to lay down a law for anyone. It’s hard to write about this stuff in a way that is clear and sometimes necessarily firm, but that doesn’t sound rigid. So glad you are not taking me as the final arbiter!

    I guess what I was responding to, when I wrote that post about praying for your abuser, was the overwhelming guilt that some survivors feel when they consider giving up praying for their abuser. I wanted to relieve survivors from that burden of false guilt.

    Someone called it the “youghta” teaching. “You oughta do this. You oughta do that!” It’s the “youghta” mind set that I felt needed to be challenged. But in cases like yours, it sounds like you aren’t operating from a burden of heavy false guilt, you are operating from a place of freedom.

  8. Sometimes it is mentally painful to remember a person and his / her deeds that are in need of prayer, and for sanity’s sake, my understanding is to give that person over to the Lord. Leave him / her in His hands to do as He wills and move forward.

    (Isaiah 43:18-19 NKJV – New King James Version)
    “Do not remember the former things,
    Nor consider the things of old.
    Behold, I will do a new thing,
    Now it shall spring forth;
    Shall you not know it?….

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