Dr. Roger W. Maslin
I John 5:16,17 speaks of a “sin unto death.” This is probably one of the most difficult verses in the Bible to interpret. All of us are familiar with the precious promise of I John 5:14, 15 and those verses are easy to understand. However, when we come to the next two verses we struggle to understand the nature of the “sin unto death.” We can easily associate “unto” as “leading to” or “results in.” But we are not told the nature or identity of the “sin” mentioned, nor the nature of “death.” It could be either physical or spiritual. Different translations can aid our understanding, but in this case they do not help much. I will cite two that are highly regarded:
16 “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. 17All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.” (New American Standard Version)
16 “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray that God would give him life. This applies to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not telling you to pray about that. 17 Every kind of wrongdoing is sin, yet there are sins that do not lead to death.” (International Standard Version)
I guess the best way to approach the problem is first to identify the particular sin that results in death. There are several possibilities that deserve mentioning:
It is the “unpardonable sin” described by Jesus in the Gospel accounts. The difficulty there is that it is not so characterized. John would be familiar with Jesus teaching on that subject and yet he does not relate this sin to that description. I suppose it could still be possible since he lived in the apostolic period where and when miracles gave credence to the Gospel message being established in the world. To commit that sin it must be an intentional slandering of the Holy Spirit in the face of evidence to the contrary. There must be “light in the mind and malice in the heart.” Even in that age who would have known that those conditions were true and could ascribe that sin to another in practicing intercessory prayer? For further consideration see the article on What is the Unpardonable Sin?
It is the sin of “apostasy” described fully in this letter.An apostate person was one who had professed faith in Christ as Saviour but did not possess him in his real life. He could give assent to the truths of the Gospel and even have good intentions of someday trusting Christ. He might even know his need but procrastinate on that all important decision, then finally renounce his profession and spurious faith. Such a person has not been born of God, has never received the gift of eternal life, and repudiates all that he professed. John describes these people thus: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not of us.” (I John 2:19)
It is the continual practice of a sinful life style and rejection of all entreaties for repentance to the point of no probability of forgiveness. “A sin unto death may likewise mean, one which God has determined to punish with death.” (John Wesley) There is sufficient evidence in the Scripture to illustrate this view. A case in point is that of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-10. We are not told whether they were believers or unbelievers, but I assume they were believers since they were associated with the Christian movement. Their sin was that of hypocrisy, pretending to be more devoted than they actually were. Their sin resulted in immediate physical death. In I Cor. 11:28-32 there is indication that the persistent carnality while sitting at the Lord’s table resulted at times in physical death. “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.”(v.30)
”Sleep” is analogous to death. Hymenaeus and Alexander are said to be “delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.” (I Tim. 1:20) Here too we are not told whether they were believers or not but they made shipwreck of their faith. There are some sins which have an adverse effect on other people and the spread of the Gospel that may require severe discipline. The writer to the Hebrews gives a thorough explanation of God’s chastening process which “afterward yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.” (Hebrews 12:5-11) God has promised that “as many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.” He doesn’t do that without a purpose. He first calls us to “be zealous and repent.” (Rev.3:19) There are times in the sovereign will of God that He calls a believer home and that may be because of “a sin unto death.”
Two other concerns need to be raised in discovering the truth of these verses. One has to do with the nature of death; the other has to do with the practice of prayer in the described situation. If you take the position that it is spiritual death you would have to conclude that it refers to the sin of an unbeliever. But this hardly makes sense since the unbeliever is already spiritually dead and needs to be made alive spiritually through a new birth. If you take the position that it is physical death it can fit any of the three explanations offered, and it would be the most appropriate for the third explanation since the context deals with a “brother,” a believer. Physical death here is in apposition to “life” that is physical and indicative of restoration and forgiveness upon repentance.
The encouragement to pray for the sinning brother to be repentant is incumbent upon other believers and carries with it the assurances of v.14,15. In the first case a Christian is in the act of sinning and continuing in that sin. “Life was in process of being forfeited by the sinning brother when the believer's intercession obtained its restoration.” (JFB) This is in accord with Paul’s message to the Galatians. “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” (Gal.6:1) Kindly reproof should accompany the prayer of intercession. Prayer, work, and witness can bring about the restoration of abundant living and forgiveness. The apostle does not expressly forbid praying for the second specific class of sinners. He expresses himself quite cautiously because it is almost impossible to know when a man has reached that difficult point of implacable repentance and actually deserving of physical death. That is something that only God can know. It is the final stage of divine discipline when God removes from the earth the backslidden and unrepentant person deserving only of physical death. There comes a time when God no longer hears the prayers for a sinning believer, nor does he expect us to pray, for the one whom He has determined that the judgment of physical death is due.
Conclusion: I have only indicated the possibilities of explanations one and two. Personally I cannot make the connection between the unpardonable sin and the sin unto death. The apostle who must have understood perfectly Jesus teaching about the unpardonable sin does not make that definite connection. In the second explanation of apostasy as the “sin unto death” it is buttressed by the fact that apostasy is of primary concern to John in his letter. However, he has dealt adequately with that problem and now deals with intercessory prayer. I do not believe that he moves from his focus on that “brother”, any believer, to a nonbeliever without making clear his intention. An apostate person has never been a “brother.” I believe his message had more of the echo of Psalm 118:18 “The Lord hath chastened me sore: but he hath not given me over unto death.” Or the message to Ezekiel: “But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die.” (Ezekiel 18:24) Or Jeremiah’s message: “Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to me: for I will not hear thee.” (Jer.7:16) Jeremiah recounted further the sins of his people and rendered the verdict from the Lord: “Thus saith the Lord unto his people, Thus have they loved to wander, they have not refrained their feet, therefore the Lord doth not accept them; he will now remember their iniquity, and visit their sins. Then said the Lord unto me, Pray not for this people for their good.” (Jer. 14:10,11) I am sure that John was familiar with the fate of King Saul: “So Saul died for his transgression which he committed against the Lord, even against the word of the Lord, which he kept not, and also for asking counsel of one that had a familiar spirit, to inquire of it; And inquired not of the Lord: therefore he slew him, and turned the kingdom unto David the son of Jesse.” (I Chron.10:13,14) John’s description of “the sin unto death” is reminiscent of this event. This last explanation is also consistent with the fate of Ananias and Sapphira, the Corinthian Christians, and Hymenaeus and Alexandria which have already been mentioned. It is sad but true, that a believer can get so far out of fellowship with God that other believers are reticent to keep praying for his repentance and restoration. It is also true that the ultimate chastening is physical death.