14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 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. 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. [ESV]

The former is used in verses 14, 15, and the beginning of verse 16; the latter at the end of verse 16. The latter is the less humble word of the two, being often used of equals or superiors requesting compliance with their wishes.

  • Hi. Can you please expand on your question, citing the verses and the lexicon entries for the words in question? There is one available here: perseus.uchicago.edu/Reference/LSJ.html Improving the question will improve the answers. Thanks.
    – Ruminator
    Sep 21, 2018 at 12:25

1 Answer 1


Excellent Question!!

To handle the question it is helpful in my mind to examine the second one first. In the New Testament there is a category of verbs known as being an idiom of prohibition. Prohibitions are present tense imperatives that also have the negative particle μή (not) and they are also aorist subjunctive verbs that also have a negative particle (normally μή (not) but in some cases it can also be οὐ (not)). So the question about the phrase at the end of verse 16 is whether it is a prohibition or not.

Here is what Alford said:

First, it necessarily by the conditions of the context involves what is equivalent to a prohibition. This has been denied by many Commentators, “Ora si velis, sed sub dubio impetrandi,” says Corn.-a-lap. And it is equally denied, without the same implied meaning being given, by Socin., Schlichting, Grot., Carpzov., Neander, Lücke, De Wette, Huther: some of these, as Neander, thinking it implied, that prayer may be made, though the obtaining of it will be difficult,—others, as De Wette, that it will be in vain, others as Huther, that St. John simply says such a case was not within his view in making the above command.

Henry Alford, Alford’s Greek Testament: An Exegetical and Critical Commentary, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Guardian Press, 1976), 510.

All of the English translations carry some degree of prohibition even if it is just saying I don't think you should pray for someone in this case. The idea being that only God can determine who has committed the sin unto death. This is ignoring the issue of whether this was possible only when the physical presence of Jesus was on the earth or if it is something someone can commit today. The reason this is skipped is it doesn't really affect your question that much since I do think this is a prohibition. If I were to paraphrase and expand on this, the idea is don't pray for someone in this circumstance because it is God alone who makes this decision.

In direct answer to your question

Alford is again very helpful:

The second point here relates to the difference between αἰτεῖν and ἐρωτᾷν. αἰτεῖν is more of the petition of the inferior: “in victum quasi et reum convenit,” as Bengel: ἐρωτᾷν is more general, of the request of the equal, or of one who has a right. Our Lord never uses αἰτεῖν or αἰτεῖσθαι of His own requests to God, but always ἐρωτᾶν, John 14:16, 16:26, 17:9, 15, 20. It is true, Martha says, ὅσα ἂν αἰτήσῃ τὸν θεόν, δώσει σοι ὁ θεός, John 11:22, but it was in ignorance, though in simplicity of faith, see Bengel in loc.: Trench, p. 142: and my note, Vol. I. And this difference is of importance here. The αἰτειν for a sin not unto death is a humble and trusting petition in the direction of God’s will, and prompted by brotherly love: the other, the ἐρωτᾷν for a sin unto death, would be, it is implied, an act savouring of presumption—a prescribing to God, in a matter which lies out of the bounds of our brotherly yearning (for notice, the hypothesis that a man sees a brother sin a sin unto death is not adduced in words, because such a sinner would not truly be a brother, but thereby demonstrated never to have deserved that name: see ch. 2:19), how He shall inflict and withhold His righteous judgments. (bold added)

Henry Alford, Alford’s Greek Testament: An Exegetical and Critical Commentary, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Guardian Press, 1976), 510.

Of course Alford's view is built on the premise that John is using an idiom of prohibition in that last phrase.

One last point on the idioms of Prohibition. Moulton in his Greek lexicon pointed out that there are 192 times that these idioms of prohibition are found in the New Testament. What George Cowan has pointed out in his three articles entitled The Prohibitions of Grace (Bibliotheca Sacra 103 Apr 1946) is that these prohibitions almost always come with either positive affirmations or positive commands that enable us to fulfill the commands. This is one of the distinctions between the Law of Moses (which was designed to teach us that we are sinners because we can't fulfill them) and the New Testament commands that we are intended to keep. even here, in 1 John 5:16, the prohibition is accompanied by a positive affirmation to pray for others who have not committed a sin unto death.

To help our minds to understand how prohibitions work in the New Testament, another example is John 14:1.

Jesus said (John 14:1 (KJV): 1 Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.

This is a case of a present imperative with a negative particle (therefore a prohibition) followed by two positive imperatives. Jesus intended that the disciples would be able to fulfill the command to not let their hearts be troubled (passive suggests things in their circumstances) by keeping first in their mind their belief in Him. Jesus reinforced this by adding the additional reinforcements that He would be going to prepare a place for them.

If you have never read Cowan's articles they are life changing as the prohibitions in the New testament take on a whole new look after reading his articles. They lead us to focus on following the commands instead of largely ignoring them as most Christians do in their daily lives.

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