What is the sin that leads to death in 1 John 5:16? By Jack Kettler
“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.” (1 John 5:16-17)
This a challenging text, which has led to much speculation as to the meaning. Does this text refer to a Christian?
While lengthy, Barnes' Notes on the Bible interacts with the differing points of view on this text from 1 John, and because of this the Barnes' Notes entry is beneficial:
“If a man see his brother sin a sin ... - From the general assurance that God hears prayer, the apostle turns to a particular case in which it may be benevolently and effectually employed, in rescuing a brother from death. There has been great diversity of opinion in regard to the meaning of this passage, and the views of expositors of the New Testament are by no means settled as to its true sense. It does not comport with the design of these notes to examine the opinions, which have been held in detail. A bare reference, however, to some of them will show the difficulty of determining with certainty what the passage means, and the impropriety of any very great confidence in one's own judgment in the case.
Among these opinions are the following. Some have supposed that the sin against the Holy Spirit is intended; some that the phrase denotes any great and enormous sin, as murder, idolatry, adultery; some that it denotes some sin that was punishable by death by the laws of Moses; some that it denotes a sin that subjected the offender to excommunication from the synagogue or the church; some that it refers to sins, which brought fatal disease upon the offender, as in the case of those who abused the Lord's Supper at Corinth, (see the notes at 1 Corinthians 11:30); some that it refers to crimes committed against the laws, for which the offender was sentenced to death, meaning that when the charge alleged was false, and the condemnation unjust, they ought to pray for the one who was condemned to death, and that he would be spared; but that when the offence was one which had been really committed, and the offender deserved to die, they ought not to pray for him, or, in other words, that by “the sin unto death,” offences against the civil law are referred to, which the magistrate had no power to pardon, and the punishment of which he could not commute; and by the “sin not unto death,” offences are referred to which might be pardoned, and when the punishment might be commuted; some that it refers to sins “before” and “after” baptism, the former of which might be pardoned, but the latter of which might not be; and some, and perhaps this is the common opinion among the Roman Catholics, that it refers to sins that might or might not be pardoned after death, thus referring to the doctrine of purgatory.
These various opinions may be seen stated more at length in Rosenmuller, Lucke, Pool (Synopsis,) and Clarke, “in loc.” To go into an examination of all these opinions would require a volume by itself, and all that can be done here is to furnish what seems to me to be the fair exposition of the passage. The word “brother” may refer either to a member of the church, whether of the particular church to which one was attached or to another, or it may be used in the larger sense which is common as denoting a fellow-man, a member of the great family of mankind. There is nothing in the word, which necessarily limits it to one in the church; there is nothing in the connection, or in the reason assigned, why what is said should be limited to such a one. The “duty” here enjoined would be the same whether the person referred to was in the church or not; for it is our duty to pray for those who sin, and to seek the salvation of those whom we see to be going astray, and to be in danger of ruin, wherever they are, or whoever they may be. At the same time, the correct interpretation of the passage does not depend on determining whether the word “brother” refers to one who is a professed Christian or not.
A sin which is not unto death - The great question in the interpretation of the whole passage is, what is meant by the “sin unto death.” The Greek (ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον hamartia pros thanaton) would mean properly a sin which “tends” to death; which would “terminate” in death; of which death was the penalty, or would be the result, unless it were arrested; a sin which, if it had its own course, would terminate thus, as we should speak of a disease “unto death.” Compare the notes at John 11:4. The word “death” is used in three significations in the New Testament, and as employed here might, so far as the word is concerned, be applied in any one of those senses.
It is used to denote:
(a) literally, the death of the body;
(b) spiritual death, or death “in trespasses and sin,” Ephesians 2:1;
(c) the “second death,” death in the world of woe and despair.
If the sin here mentioned refers to “temporal” death, it means such a sin that temporal death must inevitably follow, either by the disease which it has produced, or by a judicial sentence where there was no hope of pardon or of a commutation of the punishment; if it refers to death in the future world, the second death, then it means such a sin as is unpardonable. That this last is the reference here seems to me to be probable, if not clear, from the following considerations:
(1) There is such a sin referred to in the New Testament, a sin for which there is forgiveness “neither in this life nor the life to come.” See the notes at Matthew 12:31-32. Compare Mark 3:29. If there is such a sin, there is no impropriety in supposing that John would refer to it here.
(2) this is the “obvious” interpretation. It is that which would occur to the mass of the readers of the New Testament, and which it is presumed they do adopt; and this, in general, is one of the best means of ascertaining the sense of a passage in the Bible.
(3) the other significations attached to the word “death,” would be quite inappropriate here.
(a) It cannot mean “unto spiritual death,” that is, to a continuance in sin, for how could that be known? And if such a case occurred, why would it be improper to pray for it? Besides, the phrase “a sin unto spiritual death,” or “unto continuance in sin,” is one that is unmeaning.
(b) It cannot be shown to refer to a disease that should be unto death, miraculously inflicted on account of sin, because, if such cases occurred, they were very rare, and even if a disease came upon a man miraculously in consequence of sin, it could not be certainly known whether it was, or was not, unto death. All who were visited in this way did not certainly die. Compare 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, with 2 Corinthians 2:6-7. See also 1 Corinthians 11:30.
(c) It cannot be shown that it refers to the case of those who were condenmed by the civil magistrate to death, and for whom there was no hope of reprieve or pardon, for it is not certain that there were such cases; and if there were, and the person condemned were innocent, there was every reason to pray that God would interpose and save them, even when there was no hope from man; and if they were guilty, and deserved to die, there was no reason why they should not pray that the sin might be forgiven, and that they might be prepared to die, unless it were a case where the sin was unpardonable. It seems probable, therefore, to me that the reference here is to the sin against the Holy Spirit, and that John means here to illustrate the duty and the power of prayer, by showing that for any sin short of that, however aggravated, it was their duty to pray that a brother might be forgiven. Though it might not be easy to determine what was the unpardonable sin, and John does not say that those to whom he wrote could determine that with certainty, yet there were many sins which were manifestly not of that aggravated character, and for those sins it was proper to pray.
There was clearly but one sin that was unpardonable – “there is a sin unto death;” there might be many which were not of this description, and in relation to them there was ample scope for the exercise of the prayer of faith. The same thing is true now. It is not easy to define the unpardonable sin, and it is impossible for us to determine in any case with absolute certainty that a man has committed it. But there are multitudes of sins which people commit, which upon no proper interpretation of the passages respecting the sin which “hath never forgiveness,” can come under the description of that sin, and for which it is proper, therefore, to pray that they may be pardoned. We know of cases enough where sin “may” be forgiven; and, without allowing the mind to be disturbed about the question respecting the unpardonable sin, it is our duty to bear such cases on our hearts before God, and to plead with him that our erring brethren may be saved.
He shall ask. That is, he shall pray that the offender may be brought to true repentance, and
may be saved. And he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. That is, God shall give life, and he shall be saved from the eternal death to which he was exposed. This, it is said, would be given to “him” who offers the prayer; that is, his prayer would be the means of saving the offending brother.
What a motive is this to prayer! How faithful and constant should we be in pleading for our
fellow-sinners, that we may be instrumental in saving their souls! What joy will await those in heaven who shall see there many who were rescued from ruin in answer to their prayers! Comp. See Barnes “Jas 5:15,” See Barnes “Jas 5:19.”
There is a sin unto death. A sin, which is of such a character that it, throws the offender beyond the reach of mercy, and which is not to be pardoned. See Mark 3:28, 29. The apostle does not here say what that sin is; nor how they might know what it is; nor even that in any case they could determine that it had been committed. He merely says that there is such a sin, and that he, does not design that his remark about the efficacy of prayer should be understood as extending to that.
I do not say that he shall pray for it. “I do not intend that my remark shall be extended to all sin, or mean to affirm that all possible forms of guilt are the proper subjects of prayer, for I am aware that there is one sin which is an exception, and my remark is not to be applied to that.” He does not say that this sin was of common occurrence: or that they could know when it had been committed; or even that a case could ever occur in which they could determine that; he merely says that in respect to that sin he did not say that prayer should be offered. It is indeed implied in a most delicate way that it would not be proper to pray for the forgiveness of such a sin, but he does not say that a case would ever happen in which they would know certainly that the sin had been committed. There were instances in the times of the prophets in which the sin of the people became so universal and so aggravated, that they were forbidden to pray for them. Isa 14:11, “Then said
the Lord unto me, Pray not for this people for their good;” Isa 15:1, “Then said the Lord unto me, though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my mind could not be toward this people; cast them out of my sight, and let them go forth.” Comp. See Barnes “Isa 1:15.”
But these were cases in which the prophets were directly instructed by God not to pray for a people. We have no such instruction; and it may be said now with truth, that as we can never be certain respecting any one that he has committed the unpardonable sin, there is no one for whom we may not with propriety pray. There may be those who are so far gone in sin that there may seem to be little, or almost no ground of hope. They may have cast off all the restraints of religion, of morality, of decency; they may disregard all the counsels of parents and friends; they may be sceptical, sensual, profane; they may be the companions of infidels and of mockers; they may have forsaken the sanctuary, and learned to despise the sabbath; they may have been professors of religion, and now may have renounced the faith of the gospel altogether, but still, while there is life it is our duty to pray for them, “if peradventure God will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth,” 2 Tim 2:26. “All things are possible with God;” and he has reclaimed offenders more hardened, probably, than any that we have known, and has demonstrated that there is no form of depravity, which he has not the power to subdue.
Let us remember the cases of Manasseh, of Saul of Tarsus, of Augustine, of Bunyan, of Newton, of tens of thousands who have been reclaimed from the vilest forms of iniquity, and then let us never despair of the conversion of any, in answer to prayer, who may have gone astray, as long as they are in this world of probation and of hope. Let no parent despair who has an abandoned son; let no wife cease to pray who has a dissipated husband. How many a prodigal son has come back to fill with happiness an aged parent's heart! How many a dissipated husband has been reformed to give joy again to the wife of his youth, and to make a paradise again of his miserable home!” (1)
A contemporary evaluation of this text will be helpful from Simon J. Kistemaker:
“16. If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him 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 he should pray about that.
17. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
We should never limit our prayers to personal needs. Rather, as brothers and sisters in the Lord, we need to exercise our corporate responsibility to pray for each other. Especially when we notice a brother (or sister) committing a sin, we should pray to God for remission.
16. If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him 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 he should pray about that. 17. All wrongdoing is a sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
John recapitulates his teaching on sin. He has conveyed this teaching in every chapter of his epistle (1:7–9; 2:1–2, 12; 3:4–6, 8–9; 4:10). Now he speaks of sin and death, of prayer and life, and of wrongdoing and remission.
“If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death.” When John writes “brother” in his epistle, he means a fellow believer. Whenever a member of the Christian community notices that a brother is falling into sin, he should pray to God on his behalf (compare James 5:20).
John distinguishes between “a sin that does not lead to death” and “a sin that leads to death.” In this passage, he mentions the first kind three times and the second only once. He clearly implies that praying for the sinner who commits “a sin that does not lead to death” is the intent of his writing.
What is the meaning of the word death? In addition to 5:16, where it occurs three times, the word appears twice in 3:14: “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death.” John is not thinking of physical death. Rather, he is referring to spiritual death. He contrasts death with eternal life (3:15) to set apart the believer, who possesses this life, from the person who denies that Jesus is the Son of God (2:22–23) and who hates the believer (3:13).
Who, then, commits the sin that leads to death? The person who rejects Jesus as the Christ and who does not love the believer commits this sin. He does not share in the fellowship of the Father and the Son (1:3), and is excluded from eternal life (4:12). He left the Christian community because he did not really belong to it (2:19). He had been a pretender.
Although a believer commits sin (2:1), he does not practice the sin that leads to death. If a brother sins, John counsels, the community ought to ask God to “give him life.” That is, God will forgive his sin and restore him to fellowship. John knows that in the Christian community many believers fall into sin. He uses the plural and writes, “I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death.”
Should the Christian community pray for the person who commits “a sin that leads to death”? John does not call this person a “brother.” Writes John, “I am not saying that [the believer] should pray about that.” In these words, we hear the echo of Jesus’ voice when he prayed for his followers, “I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours” (John 17:9). The false teachers whom John opposes in his epistle “have gone out into the world” (4:1), because “they are from the world” (v. 5). These teachers have directed their false doctrines against the believers, have been disruptive in the Christian community, and have demonstrated their hatred against the church (compare 2 John 7). Therefore, John adds his personal advice not to pray for them. Note that 5:16 is the only passage in this epistle that has the personal pronoun I.
“All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.” John calls attention to the seriousness of sin. “Sin is lawlessness” (3:4) and is always an affront to God. In fact, in the sight of God, sin is a transgression of his law and the person who “stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking” the whole law (James 2:10).
But not every sin leads to death. When a believer transgresses God’s law, he does not deny the sonship of Christ and hate the church. Moreover, God stands ready to forgive his sin. John teaches that “if we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1:9). God forgives sin when the sinner confesses and fellow Christians pray for him, for “God will give him life.”
Doctrinal Considerations in 5:16–17
The Old Testament makes a distinction between unintentional and intentional sin. When a person sins unintentionally, he is forgiven when the priest makes atonement for him. However, the person who sins intentionally blasphemes the Lord, despises his Word, and breaks his commands. “That person must surely be cut off,” says God (Num. 15:31; also see vv. 22–31).
Even though John distinguishes between two types of sin in verses 16 and 17, allusions to similar teachings in the Old Testament are entirely absent. We should listen to what John has to say and interpret his message in the historical and theological context of his day.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, by contrast, exhorts his readers not to turn away from the living God and uses examples and precepts from the Old Testament to strengthen his admonition. Says he, “Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Heb. 10:28–29; also consult 6:4–6).
Greek Words, Phrases, and Constructions in 5:16
ἐάν—this is a conditional sentence of the future more vivid type: the aorist subjunctive ἴδῃ (from ὁράω, I see) in the protasis and the future indicative αἰτήσει (he will ask) in the apodosis. The aorist signifies single occurrence.
ἁμαρτάνοντα—the present active participle denotes continued action. It is followed by the noun ἁμαρτίαν (sin) as the cognate accusative that repeats the content of the verb.
μή—the negative particle with an implied participle expresses condition or prohibition. The negative particle in verse 17 is οὐ (not).
δώσει—although grammatical syntax requires that the subject of this verb be the same as that of αἰτήσει, the meaning of the verbs demands that the one who prays is the believer and the one who gives life is God.
ἐρωτήσῃ—the aorist subjunctive from ἐρωτάω (I ask, request) is in a clause that indicates indirect command. In this verse, the verb ἐρωτάω is the same as the verb αἰτέω.” (2)
“But the person who does anything defiantly, whether he is native or an alien, that one is blaspheming the LORD; and that person shall be cut off from among his people.” (Numbers 15:30 NASB)
“While it is said, today if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation.” (Hebrews 3:15)
“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” (Hebrews 10:26 ESV)
After reviewing Barnes and Kistemaker’s comments, it is reasonable to conclude that John is speaking of the sin of unbelief at the time of death and is not speaking of a Christian.
There is no second chance:
“Therefore, just as the Holy Spirit says, ‘TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS AS WHEN THEY PROVOKED ME, AS IN THE DAY OF TRIAL IN THE WILDERNESS,’” (Hebrews 3:7-8 NASB)
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
1. Albert Barnes, THE AGES DIGITAL LIBRARYCOMMENTARY, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, 1 John, Vol 3. p. 4888-4892.
2. Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary, James and 1-111 John, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, 1986), pp. 362-365.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com