What is the sin unto death in 1 John 5:16-17?

sin unto deathRecently someone sent in a question about the sin unto death.

When I was writing my book about The Unforgivable Sin, I originally intended to include chapters on Hebrews 6, 1 John 5:16-17, and other similar passages that cause trouble in the minds of many. If you have read that book, you know that while it deals with some of the popular teachings about the unforgivable sin and the primary text of Matthew 12:31-32, it doesn’t deal with these other passages that are used to teach that certain sins can lead to God’s ultimate rejection. I have plans for a future expanded edition of that book, but that is still many years off.

So until the new version of that book comes out, maybe I can write a few blog posts once in a while about these other passages. I was given the opportunity recently when someone sent in this question about the sin unto death in 1 John 5:16-17:

Got any thoughts on 1 John 5: 16-17? What is the Father telling us about the sin unto death? Most ministries I have heard really don’t know and don’t teach on this.

For some reason, when people read the Bible, they tend to put on spiritual-colored glasses so that words which mean one thing in any other context mean something completely different when read in the Bible.

For example (and I have written about this before), take the word “saved.” If you were reading a book on finances, or energy conservation, or health tips, or almost any other topic, and the headlines read “8 Ways to Save!” you would understand that the word “save” has nothing to do with eternal life.

Yet when people read the Bible, they put on their spiritual-colored glasses so that when they read the word “save” they often put a spiritual twist on the word “save” and interpret it as having something to do with eternal life. Most of the time in the Bible, the word “save” (and saved) have nothing to do with eternal life.

Anyway, the same is true with the word “death.”

Sin Unto Death

If you read an article in a newspaper with the title, “8 Things that Bring Death,” you would know that the article is probably going to talk about 8 things that ruin your health and bring an early death. It might include things like smoking, not exercising, stress, or jumping out of airplanes.

Yet when most people are reading their Bibles (and they have their spiritual-colored glasses on), and read about some sort of sin that brings death, they put a spiritual twist on it, and think it is referring to spiritual death, or losing your eternal life, or something like that. This is what happens when people read about the sin unto death in 1 John 5:16-17.

A similar thing happens, by the way, when people read James 5:19-20 which talks about saving a soul from death. The word “soul” doesn’t mean “spirit;” it means “life.” So to save a soul from death means to save a life from death. And again, if we read without our spiritual-colored glasses, we will remember to read the word “save” as having nothing to do with eternal life and the word “death” as not referring at all to spiritual death or losing eternal life.

Sin Can Cause Death

In other words, James 5:19-20 is saying the exact same thing as 1 John 5:16-17: there are certain sins which can bring death.

But how should we respond to people who commit these sins? Here is where some of the confusion enters, because John seems to instruct his readers not to pray for people who commit sin leading to death. Does this mean that when Christians commit certain sins which may lead to death, we should not pray for them?

sin unto death

Hardly!

In one of his commentaries on 1 John, Zane Hodges points out that all sins ultimately lead to death, so what John is referring to here are “sins for which death is a rapid consequence” (BKC, 902). So when John says, “I am not saying he should pray about that,” Zane Hodges writes, “But this clearly does not forbid prayer even in the most serious cases. But naturally in such cases believers will submit their prayers to the will of God” (BKC, 903).

If this sort of interpretations seems strange to you, just remember that there are groups of people today who do in fact pray for the forgiveness of people who have already died. Apparently, there were people in John’s day who were praying similar prayers. John is saying that such prayers are unnecessary. If a person commits sin that leads to their death, we don’t need to pray about that. Pray instead for those who are still living, no matter how serious their sin might be.

In other words, it is wise for Christians to pray for people who are caught in sin and help rescue them from these sins so that they don’t die. Once a person has died because of sin, we do not need to pray for them any longer, because they are now in the hands of God. Prayer for the sins of the deceased accomplishes nothing.

Examples of Sin Unto Death

When read this way, the verses not only make more sense in context, but also make sense in light of the rest of Scripture, and in our own experience as well. For example, we all know that there are certain behaviors and actions which can lead a person to an early grave. But aside from that, there are even some sins which may cause God to discipline a person with early death. Those who overate at the Lord’s Supper are one example (1 Cor 11:30).

There is also the example of the man who was boasting about sleeping with his stepmother (1 Cor 5:5). In 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 there is a whole list of regenerated people who died as a result of rebellion against God. Then there is the account of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). All of these people committed a sin unto death, that is, a sin that led to their untimely death.

Conclusion

John’s advice (as well as that of James) is that when we see a brother or sister caught in a sin that may lead to their death, we should pray for them, plead with them to turn from their ways, and do all we can to help restore this person back into fellowship with God and with one another. If they die as a result of their sin, we can learn from their mistakes and plead with others to turn from similar sins, but we need not pray for those whose sin has led to an untimely death.

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