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1 John 5:16-17 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
16 If anyone sees his brother sinning 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. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.
Before beginning the commentary of these verses, here is the meaning of what John meant in a nutshell. All sin leads to death, of course. However, Jesus’ ransom sacrifice can save us from sin and death. (Romans 5:12; 6:23) Thus, a “sin that leads to death” would not be covered by Christ’s ransom. A person who commits willful, knowing, unrepentant sin has a heart and mind so hardened by his imperfection. He is so deep into his sinful path that he will never see the light that can enable him to change his attitude or conduct. This sin “will not be forgiven.” (Matthew 12:31; Luke 12:10) If we are aware of such willful, knowing, unrepentant sin, we should not pray for the person. God is the ultimate Judge as to the heart condition of the sinner. (Jer. 7:16; Matt. 5:44; Ac 7:60) Do not think that this must be some severe type of sin. Think of King Manasseh of Judah. He set up altars to false gods, sacrificed his own sons on the altar, practiced spiritism, and put a carved image in the temple of God. In fact, the Bible says that Manasseh and the people under his influence did “evil more than the nations whom Jehovah destroyed before the sons of Israel.” (UASV) God punished King Manasseh by sending him as a captive in chains to Babylon. (2 Kings 21:1-9; 2 Chronicles 33:1-11)
Were Manasseh’s sins so egregious that they led to death? Obviously not, for the Bible says of him: “And when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of Jehovah his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his forefathers. He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that Jehovah was God.” (2 Chronicles 33:12-13) Therefore, we should not assume that a person is guilty of a sin that leads to death just because it is a severe sin or he has left the faith. It is best to let some time pass to see if the heart attitude of the person is willful, knowing, unrepentant sin or if this is a serious case of stumbling spiritually.
Such a sin that leads to death is not simply a weakness of the imperfect human flesh. This sin is committed willfully, deliberately, unwaveringly, and stubbornly. It is not so much the sin itself, but rather, it is the heart attitude of the sinner that makes his sin unforgivable. This willful, deliberate, unwavering, and stubborn sin is against the Holy Spirit, and so forgiveness is impossible. (Matthew 12:22-32; Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:26-31) Such sin leads to death, and such sinners will receive eternal destruction in “the second death.” (Revelation 21:8; Matthew 23:15) If one’s sin is in ignorance or because of his human imperfections, he can be forgiven. But for willful, deliberate, unwavering, and stubborn sin, there is no ransom sacrifice: “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the accurate knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.” (Heb. 10:26-27, UASV) Willful, deliberate, unwavering, and stubborn sin, knowing unmistakably that the Holy Spirit was involved in one’s life, is unforgivable. It is not so much a matter of what the sin is, as it is more of what the heart’s attitude is. It is the extent of neglect and willfulness that is involved that will determine whether it is forgivable or unforgivable.
TO INTERCEDE OR NOT? 1 John 5:16–17
There are eye-popping phrases in this section: a sin that does not lead to death; a sin that leads to death; and I am not saying that he should pray about that (5:16). For one thing, it seems foreign to read that sins are simply divided into two categories; however, who would put lying to save a life in the same category as murder? It is easy to drift toward categorizing sins, but it is truly difficult to think of God assigning the exact same degree of wrongness to them all. It would have been helpful if John would have distinguished for us the nature of sins that lead to death and those that do not.
Do You Want What God Wants?
The will of God has been a subject of mixed emotions for many followers of Christ. For one thing, we tend to think that whatever we want, God will not, and we fear that whatever God wants will be the very thing we don’t. However, a study of 1 John and other scriptures will confirm that the following is more true to the essence of God’s will for our lives:
1. God’s will is liberating and positive (1 John 2:17; 3:23).
2. God’s will may take us out of our comfort zones (loving people who are hard to like, Matt. 5:43–44).
3. God’s will is more relational than directional (faith in Christ; loving others, Matt. 22:37–39).
4. God’s will is more about character than career (1 John 3:2–3).
5. God’s will for our lives, in one word: Jesus! (1 John 3:23).
Verse 16 opens with the admonition to pray, or intercede, for a believer who commits a non-lethal sin. This assumes that the phrase he should pray refers to the non-sinning brother and the statement “give him life” refers to the sinning believer. The Greek sentence structure does actually affirm this interpretation.
What is very interesting is that the phrase, pray and God, is not in the Greek text. This could raise the question of whether or not the asking is a prayer or a direct confrontation with the brother, much like Galatians 6:1, which says, “Dear brothers and sisters, if another Christian is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself” (NLT). John’s text does read that if anyone sees his brother, as the Greek text in verse 16 says, “sinning a sin,” then the context commands he should appeal to God for such a believer.
The following is the essence of Barclay’s excellent comments on the issue of the two categories of sin:
- The sin unto death is not a deadly sin, like murder; it is a sin that, if continued, is leading the person toward death.
- This sin is being committed by a person who is knowingly and intentionally defying judgment for his or her sin, or unconcerned about such judgment.
- This is the sin of a person who believes this sin to be as good as it is bad, and has so rationalized the sin that he or she has no intention of repenting; therefore, no forgiveness; therefore, death.
One view is that a sin that leads to death refers to physical death. This interpretation could be supported by the comment that a brother should pray for one whose sin did not lead to death, since praying for a living sinner is intercession with hope. The author does not encourage prayer for the person who has committed a sin that led to his death. Probably it is too late for the prayer to have redemptive effect.
Another approach to this passage is that John is speaking less about a particular type of sin and more about a deadly trajectory of sin that will lead to death—physical and/or spiritual. This interpretation gives us reason to be warned about concrete actions in our lives that are taking us on a course of destruction.
A third consideration is that he is referring to the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—a sustained resistance to conviction and repentance. That is a deadly pathway. It is difficult to tell what was on John’s mind when he penned these words. We can be sure, however, that the consistent and repeated teaching of Scripture is that God responds to the contrite heart. When a person repents of sin, there is forgiveness. That is the good news.
The final point of confusion is over the statement, I am not saying that he should pray about that. Once again, the usual Greek term for prayer does not appear in the Greek text. A Greek term that is better translated inquire appears in the text. John is challenging us to pray for those whom we know are sinning. However, he would also encourage us to challenge the person to be praying and inquiring of God for forgiveness and life (1:9–10). Repentance and confession of any sin is always the most certain way to life.
By David A. Case and David W. Holdren