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.

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

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 about the sin unto death 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 did not properly observe the Lord’s Supper are another 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.

The sin unto death is not a sin to spiritual death, but a sin that leads to an untimely physical death. ⇦ Tweet that!


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. Such people are already dead, and are with God. So we don’t need to pray for them. We can pray instead for those who are alive and in need of our prayers.

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  1. cookie says

    Can you elaborate on the untimely deaths of them overeating at the lords supper? I dont understand, God punished them because they were gluttons or they died because they were gluttns? I know I’m missing something here. I never understood that passage.

  2. says

    Very well put Jeremy. I’ve had a similar take on these verses. Though, I think we should pray for all-our prayers are useless for those who are unrepentant & refuse to heed. That ultimately is the sin unto death (second & spiritual); unrepentant sinners.

  3. Sam says

    Reading the post and the first comment reminded me of a family member in the medical profession who in the 1970’s told a group of us at a family gathering how eight people in her church would die. All had major eating issues (what most people would describe as gluttony in the extreme). This medical professional explained what diseases the eight would probably develop, the progression of their diseases, and how and approximately when they would die.

    Within thirty years, much to our amazement, all of the eight had died prematurely as a result of the diseases they had developed, the very diseases the medical professional had predicted. I’ve always thought they died as the end result of gluttony. But now you’re telling me that they died of the “sin unto death”? Surely God would not have “disciplined” those good religious people for eating (way too much)! There must be some misunderstanding here.

      • Sam says

        It is a true story and of course I was being a bit cheeky with the comment. The medical professional in the story believed that people do die as a result of the sin of gluttony, but as you might guess thought that sins such as gluttony were minor sins that one paid for with a shortened life. Other, more serious sins, might land one in hell.

  4. says

    The more i read on your blogs the more it becomes evident to me that those that adhere to a “belief” system similar to yours will be in for a rude awakening on the judgement day.

    The “sin unto death” is simple. ignore the Holy Spirit’s call in your heart to repent and follow Jesus and you will NOT be saved.

    As for death…we are already dead(in our sins)unless we receive the Holy Spirit, are born again to the new life in Christ and follow Him by the leading of the holy Spirit that dwells in our heart.

    “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.”

    I’m almost speechless with that thought from you. Did not Jesus say:

    John 6:63

    63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.

    and Paul:
    2 Timothy 3:16

    16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,

    It seems you do not understand that every book written by man will burn, but not the words of God, catalogued in the Bible, never to pass away.

  5. Shawn says

    Excellent article, thank you! Really great explanation of what is going on here.

    Sometimes, we put on the “spiritual-colored glasses” — and sometimes, we forget to take them off:

    1. “Prayer for the sins of the deceased accomplishes nothing.” Only in the same sense that prayer in all its forms accomplishes nothing. Prayer is communication, and it is its own joy and reward. Father gave it as a gift to YOU (and me, and so on). Prayer changes nothing, by which I mean, our prayer does not alter Father’s plan for creation. We don’t get Him to “change His mind” (as if!). At best, we are called by Father to pray according to His will for what shall be (though it is not us, but His Spirit in us, that does this type of praying — for we do not know how to pray for what shall be, simply because we do not know what shall be, see Romans 8:26).

    2. It is therefore acceptable to pray for the dead. And why wouldn’t it be?

    • says

      I actually believe that prayer accomplishes much (James 5:16). It does, of course, work on us as well to bring us into conformity to God’s will.

      So I just don’t know why we would pray for the dead. What do they need that we would pray for? There are so many needs among the living, I think that is where we should focus on prayers.

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