“If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that” (1 Jn. 5:16). This verse has always impressed me as being both perplexing and difficult. Does John forbid Christians to pray for brethren who are guilty of a certain kind of sin? If he doesn’t forbid such, does he recommend that it not be done? It strikes us as odd that we should be told not to pray for a certain class of persons, especially in light of Paul’s words, “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men” (1 Tim. 2:1). Can we scripturally tell distraught parents that we cannot pray for their spiritually wayward son or daughter? To say that there are certain persons for whom we cannot pray seems totally inconsistent with the nature of God, “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).
This verse is typically understood in two ways: First, the “sin not unto death” is believed to be that sin of which a Christian repents, confesses and prays to God for forgiveness (Acts 8:22; 1 Jn. 1:9). Second, the “sin unto death” is said to be that sin of which a Christian deliberately refuses to repent. Indeed, “sin” is one of the key words in 1 John, as evidenced by two groups of passages. In the first group of passages sin is treated as an isolated event in the life of a child of God (1 Jn. 1:7-2:2). Can a Christian commit sins? Of course! To insist otherwise is to deceive oneself and to make God a liar (1 Jn. 1:8, 10). In the second group of passages sin is treated as a continual thing in the life of some (1 Jn. 3:4-9). Can a faithful Christian persist in the habitual and constant practice of sin? No! Why not? Because the “seed” of God’s word (Lk. 8:11) that remains, or abides in his heart (Col. 3:16), will not permit it!
What is/was the “sin not unto death”? (Vs. 16) Let’s follow this question up with some other questions. What is the meaning of “death” in this verse? Is it physical? Spiritual? Eternal? The concept of death is treated in all three senses in the Scriptures (Jn. 11:21; Eph. 2:1; Rev. 21:8). What does it mean to “ask”? We are safe to conclude that it means prayer as stated in 1 John 5:14. What is the “life” that is given? Is it physical? Spiritual? Eternal? There were those in the first century churches of Christ that had the spiritual gift of healing which could save lives (1 Cor. 12:9). Also, John emphasized eternal life (1 Jn. 2:25).
It helps us to understand that John, in different words, says the same thing as James 5:13-16. Not only, therefore, does 1 John 5:13-17 help to explain James 5:14-16, but vice versa! In James 5:14 it was the elders in the local congregations that had the spiritual gift of healing. For example, Peter and John once healed a lame man at the gate of the temple (Acts 3:1-8). Not only was Peter an apostle, but also an elder (1 Pet. 5:1). Therefore, John’s “ask” (1 Jn. 5:16) is the same as the elder’s “the prayer of faith” (Jas. 5:15). “Life” in 1 John 5:16 is equal to “save the sick,” and, “the Lord will raise him up” in James 5:15. And James 5:16b implies repentance on the part of the one who was healed. James is discussing the same “sin not unto death” as mentioned in 1 John 5:16. The “sin not unto death” could have reference to anyone, in John’s day, endowed with the spiritual gift of healing (apostle, disciple, elder in a local congregation) who saw another brother who was sick due to sinful behavior, but having repented of his sins, the miraculously endowed saint would have prayed for him and healed him so as to save him from physical death. I, therefore, conclude that the “sin not unto death” was sin repented of that did not terminate in physical death because the person involved. was healed by one having the spiritual gift of healing.
What is the “sin unto death”? (Vs. 16) All unrighteousness is sin (1 Jn. 5:17), and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). There is, however, sin that does not lead to death and sin that does lead to death. And, again, what is the “death” to which this sin leads? Is it physical death? Spiritual death? Eternal death?
In order to illustrate this point we might consider 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Could any of the sins Paul listed have resulted in sickness and death? Of course. Fornication, adultery, homosexuality, sodomy and drunkenness could had disastrous health consequences then even as they do now. Paul said, “And such were some of you…” (Vs. 11), suggesting that they were no longer practicing these sins. The implication is also present that if there were health consequences associated with these sinful behaviors they could have been healed in view of 1 Corinthians 12:9 and James 5:14-15.
In keeping with the situation in the book of James, if an apostle, disciple or an elder in the congregation “sees,” or were to become aware of a brother living in a state of sinful indulgence, he is told by John, “I do not say that you should pray about that.” The point being that God would not grant that brother the physical healing of his afflicted body that would prolong his life as long as he persisted in the sin(s) that rendered him “sick” (Jas. 5:14). That is, God would not heal him while he persisted in a sinful lifestyle.
Suppose Paul had said, “And such are some of you…” meaning that they persisted in the practice of those sins. And let’s say, for example, that at least some of the fornicators, adulterers, homosexuals and sodomites were afflicted with STD’s, the idolaters were sick from infected meats offered to idols and the drunkards suffered from cirrhosis of the liver. The question might arise, should an apostle, disciple or elder who has the spiritual gift of healing pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord, thus resulting in God giving them “life,” by means of physical healing? John said, “I do not say that he should pray for that” (1 Jn. 5:16). Why? Was it because if such were to occur that it would give the impression that God sanctioned these people in their sinful lifestyles? We can only surmise. The “sin unto death” was a sin stubbornly continued in and not repented of that would end in the sinner’s physical death. The apostle, disciple or elder with the spiritual gift of healing, seeing this, was told by John, “I do not say that he should pray about that,” that is, to pray for the sinning brother’s physical recovery. I, therefore, conclude that the “sin unto death” was sin not repented of that would terminate in physical death because the person involved was not healed by one having the spiritual gift of healing.
I recognize the unpopularity of this view because of the fact that the conclusion of some of the ripest Biblical scholars is that John was not thinking about physical death in this passage (I. Howard Marshall, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistles of John, p. 247; R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude, p. 545). The very thing that the scholars deny is, however, exactly what the remote context of the passage would indicate. John was not talking about spiritual or eternal death, but physical death that would be held at bay. This was not spiritual or eternal life, but mortal life that God would give the sick person. We are not taught that God grants eternal life to a person simply because he or she asks for it. Eternal life is obtained by our faith and obedience to Christ whether or not someone prays for us (Jn. 3:36).
What must we conclude about the “sin unto death”? We are correct to believe that the sin involved was sinful behavior that was not repented of, but we need to revise our view of the meanings of death and life in the contextual setting of the first century churches of Christ. The remote context of James 5:13-16 helps to clarify an otherwise very difficult passage.
by Dennis Gulledge