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. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death (1 John 5:16-17).
What is going on here? A sin not leading to death? This is such an odd passage that there have been many attempts to explain it. (The sheer number of theories cautions us against being too hasty). Some, wishing to cling to “once saved always saved” limit the sin leading to death to an individual Antichrist, or the sin against the Holy Spirit. In that case, very few people would be in any danger from sin at all. Some suggest “death” should be read as physical death, and thus John is referring to sins which lead to disease or injury or execution. But, the Bible’s main concern is spiritual death. Some use this passage to divide sin into two classes, mortal and venial, those that will destroy the soul, and those that won’t. But, what about Romans 6:23?
If this phrase, “a sin not leading to death,” doesn’t contradict the rest of the New Testament, what nuance must we add to our concept of sin?
First of all, let’s remind ourselves of some things that are true of sin. Sin leads to death, spiritual death. “The wages of sin is death,” (Romans 6:23). “The soul who sins will die” (Ezekiel 18:4, Exodus 32:30-33). All have sinned (Romans 3:23). And any sin can lead to death. It’s not just murder, but gossip, envy, greed (Romans 1:28-32). And while there are differences in the physical penalties of sin, and differences in the blow to one’s reputation, we must remember that God is infinitely holy (Psalm 51:3-4), and thus any sin leads to separation. God is the only one who keeps the spiritual books. You can steal a $20 and ask the person you stole from to forgive you; but it’s not dealt with until you’ve dealt with God.
So how can John make a distinction between a sin that leads to death and a sin that does not lead to death? The Greek phrase “unto death” is found in only one other place. It is John himself who uses it, regarding Lazarus, in John 11:3-4: “this sickness is not to end in death” (despite differences in translations, it’s the same Greek phrase). But wait, Lazarus did die; the sickness was a deadly sickness! But it’s ultimate end would not be death, for God intervened in the normal process, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the death.
It’s wrongheaded to use 1 John 5 to propose a class of minor sins that is not deadly. All sins are deadly. But they don’t have to lead to spiritual death. What is the sin that won’t ultimately result in death? The one we repent of and bring to God in confession, the one God our Savior cancels in the blood of Christ. This is exactly John’s point in 1 John 1:9-2:1.
Appropriately, the one whom John tells us to pray for, the one who commits the sin not leading to death, is identified in v. 16 as a “brother.” While it’s difficult to prove anything from an omission, John does not so identify the one committing a sin leading to death. Being in Christ and being repentant are necessary for sins not to lead to death. “Unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). All sin is deadly, all sin has the potential to lead to spiritual death, unless God steps in and changes it. After all, why else would God need to “give life” (v. 16) for “a sin not leading to death” unless that sin could in fact eventually lead to death?
This is why John offhandedly remarks that he isn’t suggesting his audience pray for the one committing a sin leading to death. Wouldn’t this be the person who most needs it? Yes, but that person is refusing the very thing, the only thing, that could keep the sin from leading to death. Even at their angriest, ministers pray. In Exodus 32, Moses was angry with Israel after they made the molten calf, but he interceded in prayer. In 1 Samuel 12:18-25, Samuel was angry that Israel had asked for a king and called for thunder, but he still prayed for them. But these people still looked to God as their Savior. Jeremiah is the only person I can think of who was specifically commanded not to pray (Jeremiah 7:16-20, 14:11, 15:1) because Israel’s idolatry had reached a point where they no longer looked to God for salvation.
When you “see a brother” (v. 16) struggling with sin, pray for him with an interceding love (James 5:19-20). It’s a deadly-dangerous situation, but doesn’t have to end in death. On the other hand, when you see one who has left the Lord and abandoned himself to the world, there’s little point in praying for his forgiveness. It’s a logical non-starter. Pray that God would prick his heart and cause him to rethink his stubbornness.
“God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 John 5:11-12).