1 John 5:16-17 has always caused problems for Bible commentators. What is the sin unto death? How do we know when someone has sinned this sin? How do we know when to stop praying for someone?
The answer I have heard most often is this. Yes, there is a sin unto death. For instance, those who “sleep” in 1 Corinthians 11:30 are those who died because they partook of the Lord’s Supper unworthily (v.29). However, we cannot know when someone crosses this line. Therefore, as I was always told, we should simply pray for everyone and let God sort things out.
Yet, this answer does not satisfy. It does not tell us why John gave us a command that we can not knowingly obey. In short, this interpretation must be wrong. We need to look deeper into the passage in order to understand what is going on. Let us see if we can approach the passage in a way that will answer the problem.
What Kind of Prayer is in Question?
John had been teaching the effectiveness of our petitions to God. Any prayer asked according to His will is heard (1 John 5:14), and the God who hears our prayers will also grant our petitions (v.15). Then, when we get to verse 16, John referred to a specific kind of petition. “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.” Consider the situation:
- A man sees his brother sin a sin
- The sin is not unto death
- The man prays concerning the sin
- The prayer brings life to the sinning brother
This promise deals specifically with the kind of prayer that is called intercessory prayer. The observing brother prays in behalf of the sinning brother and brings life to the sinning brother. He prays in the place of another. That is, he intercedes for him.
What Exactly is Being Prayed For?
Although most people assume that the sinning brother is being prayed for in this passage, that is not the case. The praying brother is praying in behalf of the sinning brother, but he is praying for the sin—that is might be forgiven and that thereby the sinning brother might be led in the paths of life (Psalm 16:11; Proverbs 2:18-19). Remember, when he prays for his brother, “he shall give him life.”
Notice carefully the last part of verse 16: “There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.” John mentions the sin unto death and counsels the praying brother not to pray for it. The pronoun, it, would refer to the sin—not the sinner. There is no need to pray for a sin that is unto death. Intercession is not needed in such a case.
Therefore, the prayer of this passage is not a prayer for the sinner to get right with God or convert. It is a prayer that the sin might be forgiven by the Lord. This may seem a minor distinction but it is important to our understanding. This key point will help us to interpret the passage as a whole.
What then is the Sin unto Death?
We need to consider other Bible passages at this point. Are there sins in the Bible that are turned over to their just deserts in a way that removes prayer for them? Yes, there are. We will look at a couple of them.
- In 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, Paul referred to a man who had taken his fathers wife. He declared that this level of perversion was not even known among the Gentiles. Something had to be done. Paul counseled the church at Corinth to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.
- In 1 Timothy 1:19-20, Paul spoke of Hymenaeus and Alexander. These two men had made shipwreck concerning the faith and Paul had delivered them unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.
In both cases, the men in question had gone into perversion: the first into physical perversion; the second into doctrinal perversion. These were not minor things, but matters of immorality or infidelity. They involved a total and blatant rejection of the truth of God. In both cases, Paul delivered them unto Satan.
However, this was not a condemnation to hell. In the first example, the man repented of his sins and got right with God. The act of turning the men over to Satan was a last act of outreach to them. Paul was removing all the protections that prayer often provides and allowing them to suffer for their own sins while still on earth.
These are clearly the sins unto death spoken of in 1 John 5:16-17. They are outright and rebellious rejections of God and His word. The best way for these sinners to get right with God is to remove the hedge between them and the devil (Job 1:10). The resulting sufferings will make them face the consequences of their sins. We would be foolish to seek the forgiveness of these sins when the best hope of the sinners getting right with God would be to face the consequences of those sins.
The prayer of this passage is intercessory prayer in which the praying brother seeks forgiveness for a sin that he sees another commit. However, if this sin is one of such proportion that scripture has taught us to turn the person over to Satan, then a prayer for that sin should not be made. Now, let us look at some applications.
1 John dealt with those who denied that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:22-23; 4:2, 15; 5:1). Very likely, this is one of the sins unto death that John has in mind. In 2 John 1:9, John declared, “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God.” Why should we ask God to forgive someone for the sin of denying the person of Jesus Christ?
However, 1 John 5:16-17 does not deny us the right or responsibility of praying for the sinner. What is in question is prayer for the sin. In fact, we should pray that the consequences of sin should lead the sinner to God. But we should not pray that God should forgive them of their sins on behalf of the praying brother’s prayer.
There may still be cases where it is difficult to draw the line. However, the principle is clear. We are encouraged to pray for the forgiveness of the sins of fellow believers when we see them do something that is in disobedience to God. In fact, God promises to answer these prayers in their behalf.
However, when the sins we observe are sins of high immorality or doctrinal infidelity, the rule changes. We may pray for the sinner, but we should not seek to intercede between the sinner and God for the sin. Their only hope to get right with God may be to face the full consequences for their disobedience in this life.