Take a look at 1 John 5:16-17
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. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. (1Jo 5:16 ESV)
This passage came up initially before study, but a congregant had an interesting experience/question after our Sunday morning bible study. We started looking at the Psalms and Bonhoeffer’s take on the Psalms as prayer in Thursday morning bible class, but the reactions were interesting enough and the groups different enough that I wanted to see what Sunday morning would do. (That is a hint, if anyone is interested, this is your invitation to come to class on either of those days if you would like to look at the Psalms and prayer. Now back to the point.) The experience was a statement that “the unbeliever is not able to pray”. The question was: in what sense that is true?
Bonhoeffer says that natural man left to herself would only pray the 4th petition (give us this day our daily bread). When you think of that in light of what Luther says in the catechism about the 4th petition (God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people) and the 1st article of the creed (All this he does out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy), that is not a big step from saying “the unbeliever is not able to pray”. The only thing they are able to pray for is what the Father provides from His very nature without our prayer. Luther goes on in that 4th petition to say that what we are really asking is that we would recognize God’s providence.
That leads to the 1 John passage. What does this mean: a sin that leads to death and one that does not lead to death? Roman Catholic tradition, stemming from the scholastics (I think), talks about mortal and venial sins. It is a gross distortion, but mortal = you are going to hell without repentance and venial = just purgatory. And this would remain one of the big stumbling blocks between a true Protestant and a Catholic. To the protestant all sin is mortal; but we are simultaneously sinners and saints. (See Augsburg Confession Article 2, and Formula of Concord Article 1.) As a confessing Lutheran we can’t actually put that interpretation onto 1 John.
What is the situation that John is talking about? Witnessing a sin that does not lead to death. What is that? Well, I would venture any sin except unbelief. Unbelief alone leads to death (John 3:18). If you are praying for the sin of someone, if they believe, that is good and acceptable. Pray that they will see the error of their way and God will give them life. This might actually be a good verse to think about the ELCA or other church bodies that have wandered into grave error. Lord, put them on the right path. We don’t know what that looks like, but that seems to be a valid and Christlike prayer. And it accepts their confession of faith in Jesus Christ. The next part is the tougher part. If one is committing the sin that leads to death (unbelief), John doesn’t say we should pray about that. Do we give up on them? I don’t think that is what he is saying. In the context John is talking about our continued life in Christ. For the fellow believer we pray that God’s mercy would be present. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” For the unbeliever, they are already “blinded and bound in the devil’s kingdom”. The only prayer that is possible is “hallowed be your name, your kingdom come”. That must happen before any mercy for sin.
Going from there back to the initial question, can an unbeliever pray? The answer is a squishy no/yes. As Bonhoeffer would say our natural (i.e. our unbelieving) prayers would be just the outpourings of our hearts which would be 4th petition stuff. And we don’t need to pray for that; God is good. What the Holy Spirit would be praying in those circumstances, or Christ as our High Priest, is that that we would recognize the true providence. The other part of that prayer would simply be that God’s kingdom would come to us also. So what I think you would see, if you could “see” the spiritual reality of an unbeliever’s prayer, is Romans 8:26. The unbeliever might have lots of words, none of which would be what they need to pray for. The Holy Spirit would be praying – “your kingdom come” or “help me see your providence”. And the divine response to that prayer might not look anything like what that stream of “OMG, help me” words that they would be conscious of is asking for. Can they pray, yes, but only for what they don’t currently know or believe.
In a deeper sense, I wonder if this is not always the Spirit’s prayer. If we are not all, in some sense, unbelievers. That our ultimate poverty is such that we always need the Lord’s petition, “forgive them Father, they don’t know what they do.”