Apostle John’s Three Letters . . . 1 John 5:16–17
Two Types of Sin
We find another difficult-to-grasp passage in today's two sin-specific verses. They speak of sins that don't lead to death and those that do, but there's nothing specifically mentioned about either type of sin; neither is there a suggestion of what "sin leading to death" implies, nor what is exactly meant by "death" itself. As a result of the difficulty that readers over the centuries have had understanding John's intent herein, much of this summary will include personal excerpts from trusted and qualified theologians, professors, pastors, and authors. Links to their works will be included when accessible.
Praying for a Brother Who Sins (1 John 5:16)
If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that (5:16).
Focus #1: The Nature of Sin
When we see a brother [or sister] in sin, John has already told us in v. 16 that the first thing we're to do is pray for that person. But he immediately mentions sin that leads to death and that which doesn't. Unfortunately for us believers, he doesn't define such sin; neither does he distinguish between natural and spiritual death. The difficult question is, what constitutes a sin unto death? Apparently, John’s readers knew what he meant (since he didn’t explain it) but we don't. Steven J Cole lists these four main views; however, no view resolves all the problems of this terse passage. "Sin unto death" . . .
1. IS SOME TERRIBLE SIN THAT GOD WILL NOT FORGIVE.
2. IS BLASPHEMY AGAINST THE HOLY SPIRIT.
3. REFERS TO APOSTASY FROM THE FAITH.
4. IS PHYSICAL DEATH INFLICTED ON BELIEVERS WHO PERSIST IN SOME SIN.
"A sin that does not lead to death" Some authors have suggested that "sin unto death" refers to total apostasy, exemplified by the renunciation of the faith. Alan England Brooke (1863–1939), a proponent of this view, maintains in his commentary that the sin is a deliberate rejection of Christ and his claims, for this was probably the most prominent in the author's thought. Biblical scholar F F Bruce (1910–1990) also believed that the most probable explanation of "sin unto death" relates to total apostasy of those who'd abandoned the authentic message, then established a new basis for faith and life to replace "that which was from the beginning" (2:18–23).
According to Albert Barnes (1798–1870), "The great question in the interpretation of the whole passage is, what is meant by the 'sin unto death.' The Greek (hamartia pros thanaton) would mean properly: (1) a sin which 'tends' to death; which would 'terminate' in death; of which death was the penalty or result, unless it were arrested; (2) a sin which, if it had its own course, would terminate thus, as we should speak of a disease 'unto death.'"
Barnes goes on to say, "Compare the notes at John 11:4. The word 'death' is used in three significations in the New Testament; as employed here it might be applied in any one of those senses. It is used to denote: (1) literally, the death of the body; (2) spiritual death or death 'in trespasses and sin' [Ephesians 2:1]; and (3) the 'second death,' death in the world of woe and despair."
Other Bible scholars suggest that John is referring to the "unpardonable sin" spoken of in Matthew 12:30–32, wherein it speaks of willfully rejecting the testimony of the Holy Spirit regarding the true nature and Messiahship of Jesus. John Stott (1921–2011) embraces this view also, contending that the one who is depicted in vv. 30–32 as deliberately and willfully rejecting known truth is also referred to here. He wrote: "In John's own [gospel] language that man has 'loved darkness rather than light' (John 3:18–21), and in consequence will 'die in his sins' (8:24). His sin is, in fact, unto death."
However, as Professor Irvin A Busenitz wrote in 1990, that view has some problems. "First, the passage really does not connect itself with the 'unpardonable sin' of Matthew 12. It contains no concrete evidence that such a connection was intended by the writer. Second, the one who had committed the 'unpardonable sin' would not be considered a 'brother' in the local fellowship. Willful and deliberate rejection of the work of the Holy Spirit, as described in the gospels, would be difficult to disguise. One guilty of such would hardly be accepted as a brother. Such open antagonism could not be masked and go unnoticed by the others in the fellowship."
Focus #2: The Nature of Death
In addition to our wondering about which sin(s) John refers to herein, we come to the second challenging issue in v. 16: the nature of the death that results from sinning, as noted by John. Although many different views have been propounded, there are basically two views held by present-day scholars regarding the nature of this death.
Probably the most common interpretation is that the death refers to the physical, natural death of a believer. It is a physical punishment or chastisement that God executes, as a result of sin in a believer's life.
Some commentators think that v. 16 refers to natural death. Adam Clarke (1762–1832) wrote: "The sin unto death means a case of transgression, particularly of grievous backsliding from the life and power of godliness, which God determines to punish with temporal [nonspiritual] death, while at the same time he extends mercy to the penitent soul. . . The 'sin not unto death' is any sin which God does not choose thus to punish."
In the opinion of Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952), the major support for this position is the interpretation of "brother." "The text is explicit. It refers to a 'brother,' a term never used of the unregenerate [unrepentant, not reformed]; it declares definitely that a Christian may sin in such a way that the chastisement of death may fall upon him." Thus, as Busenitz puts it, "It is concluded that since a believer cannot apostatize, John must be speaking of physical death and not spiritual death. However, as was noted earlier, the term 'brother' cannot be so restricted; rather, it may be used sometimes to refer to one who is only professing to be a believer, for John does employ the term at times in a more universal sense.
"Another proof used for this view is the fact that other passages suggest that sin does sometimes result in a believer's physical death. The most prominent incident is noted in 1 Corinthians 11:30, where Paul indicates that the partaking of the Lord's Supper unworthily (11:27) has been the reason that 'many among you sleep.' While it is granted that the physical death of a believer may be in view in 1 Cor. 11, this does not prove that physical death of a believer is in view [here] in v. 16. In addition to the fact that nothing in this part of 1 John indicates that 'sin leading to death' must be understood as sin punished by fatal bodily illness, there is significant evidence that suggests otherwise."
Pastor David Guzik writes this about the phrase "There is a sin that leads to death." "Because John wrote in context of a brother, it is wrong to see him meaning a sin leading to spiritual death; he probably meant a sin leading to the physical death of the believer. This is a difficult concept, but we have an example of it in 1 Cor. 11:27–30. This death came not as a condemning judgment, but as a corrective judgment: 'Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world' (v. 32).
"Apparently, believers can sin to the point that God believes it is best to bring them home, probably because they have in some way compromised their testimony so significantly that they should come home to God. However, it is certainly presumptuous to think this about every case of an untimely death of a believer. . . Our lives are in God’s hands, and if He sees fit to bring one of His children home, that is fine."
Others think that v. 16 refers to spiritual death. Pastor Jim Gerrish doesn't believe that what John wrote intimates a natural death because this does not seem to match up with John’s description herein. He writes: "We must remember that John’s context has to do with false antichrist-type teachers and some supposed believers who have absolutely abandoned their faith. The 'sin unto death' thus makes more sense if it is a reference to spiritual death. R Alan Culpepper affirms this saying, 'In the case of 1 John, it is more likely that the Elder had in mind the Christological heresy of his opponents.' The early seventh-century monk Andreas said: 'It is the sin of heresy, or of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which leads to death.'"
Pastor Gerrish adds: "Obviously, when the verse begins, it is speaking of a brother in Christ who commits a sin that does not lead to death. For him we should pray. And as James says, our prayer will not only raise up the sick brother, but that God will forgive his sins (James 5:14–15). As John continues though, he no longer speaks of a brother; he speaks of those who are apparently apostates or antichrists. Some of these could have come out of church membership for sure but obviously were not of the church (1 John 2:19).
"A prime example of this type thing," Gerrish continues, "was Judas Iscariot. He was called and even selected as a disciple, yet Jesus knew he was a devil (John 6:70). He was exposed to a great deal of spiritual light, even participating in evangelistic work, but he renounced all this and betrayed the Lord. It would have been totally useless to pray for such a one. John says, such people who deny the Father and Son should not even be greeted and certainly not invited into our houses (2 John 1:10)." Kenneth Wuest (1893–1961) comments: "… 'sin unto death' refers, in the context in which John is writing, to the denial of the Incarnation, and that it would be committed by those whom John designates as antichrists, who did not belong to the true Christian body of believers, but were unsaved.”
". . . and God will give them life." Beyond the issues of the types of sins and death to which John refers, it's comforting to know that God promised to bless those prayers that we make on behalf of a brother in sin. Perhaps such prayers have special power before God because they're prayers in fulfillment of God's command to love our brethren. We certainly love others best when we pray for each other; thereafter, the Lord gives them life forever.
Regarding salvation and the assurance of it, all of us fall into one of three groups of people: (1) those who are "secure" but not "sure," being saved but lacking assurance; or (2) those who are "sure" but not "secure," saying, Although I live in sin, I'll make it. After all, 'once saved, always saved!'; or (3) those born-again believers who are "secure and sure," enjoying a warm, secure relationship with Christ. The objective basis of our salvation is the finished work of Father God's Son on the cross; the subjective basis for our assurance is our (a) believing the truth written about Christ Jesus (2:2, 4; 2:15; 5:1), (b) loving our brethren (3:14, 18, 19, 4:7–8), and (c) obeying Christ's commandments (2:3–5).
There's a lot that we don't understand about prayer. But, we shouldn't let that keep us from using it in accordance with what we know truthfully. That is, as children of God, "This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us" and will grant our requests (5:14). So, let us pray at all times and not lose heart (Luke 18:1)!
"I am not saying that you should pray about that." About that sentence (v. 16b), Guzik says this: "Apparently, when a Christian is being corrected in regard to a 'sin leading to death,' there's no point in praying for his recovery or restoration — the situation is in God’s hands alone."
Sin that Doesn't Lead to Death (v. 17)
John has made a distinction between sins. Some lead to death while some don't. This doesn't mean that some sins are worse than others. The false teachers in John's day might have taught that not all wrong actions were sinful. Biblically, such assertions are incorrect; all sins are serious! We mustn't think that some aren't so bad. After all, depending on the version, "All wrongdoing is sin," "Every kind of wrong-doing is sin," "All wicked actions are sin," "Every wrong is a sin," "All unrighteousness is sin," "Everything we do wrong is sin."
All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death (5:17).
". . . there is sin that does not lead to death." Guzik adds this about John's text of v. 17: "John takes pains to recognize that not every sin leads to death in the manner he speaks of, though all unrighteousness is sin."
Matthew Henry (1662–1714) said this about vv. 16–17 in his concise commentary: "We ought to pray for others, as well as for ourselves. There are sins that war against spiritual life in the soul, and the life above. We cannot pray that the sins of the impenitent and unbelieving should, while they are such, be forgiven them; or that mercy, which supposes the forgiveness of sins, should be granted to them while they willfully continue such. But we may pray for their repentance, for their being enriched with faith in Christ, and thereupon for all other saving mercies. We should pray for others, beseeching the Lord to pardon and recover the fallen, as well as to relieve the tempted and afflicted. And let us be truly thankful that no sin, of which any one truly repents, is unto death."
Apostle John appears to have had in view an unsaved man who professes to be a believer but is in need of salvation. On the one hand, John refers to a man who's sinning but not doing so to the point of being denied eternal life; he hasn't yet come to that place; the possibility of divine forgiveness hasn't been revoked. In such cases, as a result of praying an intercessory prayer for brothers, God would grant spiritual life. On the other hand, John asserts that if a man sins to such an extent that repentance and forgiveness is impossible, it would be "unto death," a spiritual death such that his condition is irrevocable.
God hears the prayers of God's faithful. But in the context of our two-verse passage, one specific kind of request is heard: the petition on behalf of a community member who's sinned. Sin threatens the possession of eternal life (comparing v. 16's "sin that leads to death, with v. 17's "sin that does not lead to death"). Even as Jesus prayed for the perseverance of his followers and continues daily to intercede for their forgiveness, so too is the community of believers who are asked to intercede for those who confess their sin. Most thankfully, we know this: (a) God will answer these prayers and (b) the sinner will be forgiven and kept safe in eternal life (which we'll see in v. 18, next week, so stay tuned).
Thus, John's statements about prayer in vv. 14–15 provide the rationale and basis for the particular requests in vv. 16–17. Our "prayer for life" for another believer who's committed a sin that does not lead to death (v. 16) is precisely the prayer that God hears, in the same way that God heard and answered Jesus' prayers that his followers be given life (John 17:1–3). For it is the essence of God's will to grant life to those who believe.
1 John 5:16–17
New International Version (NIV)
[View it in a different version by clicking here; also listen to chapter 5 narrated by Max McLean.]