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A SIN UNTO DEATH
Victor M. Eskew
There are several passages of Scripture that create pother among commentators. One of them is I John 5:16-17. In this text, John writes about “a sin which is not unto death” and “a sin unto death.” The whole text reads as follows: “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).
The primary question centers upon the “sin unto death.” Individuals ask: “What is this sin?” With regard to this sin, John writes: “I do not say that he shall pray for it.” In other words, there is no intercession for a sin unto death. In this article, we will do the best we can to accurately define this “mysterious” sin.
In the immediate context, John is teaching about prayer. In I John 5:14-15, we read: “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us: and if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desire of him” When Christians pray, they desire to be heard by God in a positive way. John gives instructions as to how this can be done, namely, one must ask “according to his will,” that is, according to God’s will. Surely, it would be God’s will for one to offer up intercessory prayer on behalf of a brother in sin. Yes and no. This is what leads to John’s discussion in verses 16 and 17. If a brother commits a sin not unto death, one can pray for him. On the other hand, if one commits a sin unto death, one may not pray for him. So, we are back to the question: “What is this sin unto death?”
In the passage, John indicates that both sins are recognizable. The passage opens with these words: “If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death…” The word “see” means “to perceive with the eyes…i.e. to turn the eyes, the mind, the attention to anything.” The Christians of the first century had the ability to know if a brother or sister were sinning a sin not unto death. In like manner, they could tell if a brother or sister were sinning a sin unto death. The sins were definitely recognizable. Still, we ask: “What are these sins?”
The best way to understand them is to look at what John says about sin within this brief epistle. First, John defines sin for us in I John 3:4 and I John 5:17. The first verse states: “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin is the transgression of the law.” The second verse reveals that “all unrighteousness is sin.”
A second point that John makes is that all of us commit sin. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). And again: “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (I John 1:10).
A third point that John expresses is that when we sin, we have a way to be forgiven. This forgiveness begins with man’s willingness to confess his sins. “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). When we do this, Jesus acts as our Advocate in the heavenly realm. He pleads our case before the Father based upon His sin offering on Calvary. “And if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:1-2).
Let’s briefly summarize our findings thus far. Sin is the transgression of God’s law. All of us commit sin. If we confess our sins, Jesus willingly acts as our Advocate, and we can be cleansed from our unrighteousness. Question: What is a man refuses to confess his sin? This man will not be forgiven. This man’s sin is now “unto death.” “For the wages of sin is death…” (Rom. 6:23). Herein lies the key to understanding I John 5:16-17.
When John speaks of “a sin not unto death” and “a sin unto death,” he is not referring to specific types of sin: blasphemy, murder, idolatry, etc. John is speaking of sin in general. When a brother confesses his sin, that is a sin “not unto death.” Faithful Christians can pray for the penitent brother and God will “give him life.” On the other hand, if a brother refuses to confess his sin, this is a sin that will not be forgiven. This is “a sin unto death.” The prayer of the righteous will not help the sinner because he is not penitent. Intercession will not bring the rebellious any forgiveness from God. These two states of man were easily seen by the one offering up prayers for his brothers and sisters.
Can men, and do men, commit a sin unto death today? Yes. When a Christian is in sin and refuses to repent of that sin and confess it unto God, it becomes a sin unto death. Those who are spiritual waste their time praying for this man’s forgiveness. He will not be forgiven until he meets God’s qualifications for divine forgiveness.