A Sin Unto Death and A Sin Not Unto Death (I John 5:16-17)

In I John 5:14-15 John writes of the Christian’s confidence in prayer. In the next two verses John gives us an example of this confidence. He writes, “If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death” (I John 5:16-17).

A recurring theme throughout this epistle of John is brotherly love. In I John 3:16 John tells us, “we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” And in I John 3:17 he speaks of one who “seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him,” asking the question, “how dwelleth the love of God in him?” In the verses under consideration in this article it seems certain that we as Christians ought to be willing to pray for our brethren, and especially when we see them sinning a sin not unto death.

There has been great discussion of this passage over the years, however, it is not difficult when you look closely at what John says. Notice the persons involved in these verses: “any man” and “his brother.” Since the relationship of the first (any man) to the second (his brother) is that of a brother it is obvious that the words “any man” must be understood of those who are members of the body of Christ and approved of God; and the “brother” discussed is an erring child of God. The connection between verses 14 and 15 and this one is very close. Faithful children of God have great confidence in the Father. This confidence leads us to make our desires and needs known in the assurance that if we ask according to His will, he hears us. Even though we are unable to “see” the answer to our prayers, the confidence which we enjoy in Him enables us to “know that we have the petitions we desired of Him.”

As an example, John says that we see a brother “sin a sin not unto death.” We can “ask” in his behalf, assured that God will “give him life.” We must not assume, however, that God will give life for them that “sin unto death.”

When we analyze what is said we learn: (1) a child of God can sin; (2) there is a sin “not unto death”; (3) we are encouraged to pray for those thus sinning, assured that God will hear and answer our prayers; (4) there is a sin “unto death”; and (5) for those guilty, it is useless to pray.

What then is the “sin unto death” and the “sin not unto death?” It seems quite obvious that John is not speaking of any specific sin or act of disobedience to God. The “death” referred to is not physical death, but spiritual death—separation from God and all that is good (Isa. 59:1-2). It is a sin of a “brother” and therefore is a sin that children of God may be guilty of. Any correct interpretation of this passage must take into consideration these things. It is possible for one who prays to distinguish between the two types of sins mentioned.

To what kind of sin is John speaking? Already in this epistle, John had written several things about sin and forgiveness. Any interpretation of the passage under review must not contradict what John has previously taught. Previously he has taught: (1) that we all have sin in our lives (I John 1:8-10); (2) sin originates with the devil (I John 3:8); (3) Jesus died in order that forgiveness of our sins might be possible (I John 3:16); (4) when through weakness, ignorance, and inadvertence we sin, Jesus is our “advocate” who intercedes on our behalf (I John 2:1); (5) His blood keeps on cleansing us as we “walk in the light” (I John 1:7) ; and (6) He has promised that, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). In summary of what John has taught: (1) the Lord will forgive every sin, of whatever nature, if a brother turns in penitence and confesses it (I John 1:8); (2) there is a sin, however, that the Lord will not forgive (I John 5:16); (3) therefore, the sin which the Lord will not forgive is a sin, any sin, and all sin, that a brother refuses to confess.

The context supports this conclusion. If my brother sins, and manifests penitence, I not only may pray for him, but it is my duty to do so. See James 5:16. However, it is useless and vain to ask forgiveness for a brother who exhibits a stubborn impenitent heart and continues in rebellion to God. The Lord, under no circumstances, forgives the sin of impenitent people (Luke 17:3). Therefore, we conclude that the “sin unto death” is a sin committed by one who, due to his disposition of heart and/or his perverse attitude is unwilling to acknowledge it and turn away from it. This attitude effectively closes the door of heaven in one’s face!

The privilege of prayer is one of the Christian’s most wonderful blessings. Let us never fail to use it effectively and correctly. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”

Paul M. Wilmoth

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