Updated: Sep 4, 2019
Question or Topic
In 1 John 5 we read "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." (verses 16-17) What is a sin unto death?
1 John 5:16-17
Answer This question is closely related to one of our previous articles. The subject was about sin against the Spirit. ( Matt 12: 31-32) We suggested that that sin referred to blasphemy, and that refusing to acknowledge the power of God when His miracles are being performed would demonstrate a complete lack of faith. Faith is an essential ingredient in the process of having our sins forgiven.
In addition to comments made in that article, the reference in 1 John 5 provides us with some other interesting considerations on the subject. What did John mean? What are the differences between a sin unto death, and a sin not unto death?
The Law Of Moses
Under the Law, there were actually several sins that were sins unto death. These included: idolatry, murder, adultery, blasphemy, cursing father or mother, having a familiar spirit, lying with a beast, and others. (Examples: Ex. 21, Lev. 21 and Lev. 24:16, Deut 13, Deut 17:2-7)
There are numerous other transgressions that would have been considered sins that were not unto death, with specific instructions for each case.
John's Sin Unto Death
It is interesting that John mentions a number of sins that definitely should be discouraged, and yet among these there is only one that he clearly links to death. That sin is related to the sin of murder under the Law. John tells us: "We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him." (1 John 3: 14-15)
In addition to this clear statement, John also adds several additional comments on this subject. His emphasis on this one particular sin illustrates just how serious it is. The following verses are worth our consideration:
Chapter 2: 9-11: "He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him. But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes."
Chapter 3: 9-11: "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God. In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother."
Chapter 4:20-1: "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also."
Teachings Of The Master
Jesus had already taught the same principles in his Sermon on the Mount: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire" (Matt 5:21-22)
John tells us concerning his "sin unto death" that "I do not say that he shall pray for it." This seems like an inconsistent instruction when compared to the Master=s words at the time of his crucifixion: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." ( Luke 23:34)
John’s words are not without precedent. There are actually incidents when the prophets were told not to pray for Israel: (See Jer. 11:13 -14, Jer. 14:10-12) It would appear that responsibility is a key, and that when the servants of God, who know better, turn their back on him, they run the risk that God will no longer listen to prayers made for them. Prayer appears to be still encouraged for hose who know not what they do.
Perhaps the best example of a situation where Israel was not to pity (or pray for?) a brother or any other family member was when they were promoting idolatry: "If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people." (Deut 13: 6-9)
This "sin unto death" may be similar to the situation that John spoke of in his 2nd Epistle: "If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds."(V.10-11)
It is difficult to be certain about John’s definition of a "sin unto death". The significance that he places on the sin of hating a brother makes it a very grievous sin. The additional emphasis that John places on the "spirit of antichrist" working in those who confess not that Jesus came in the flesh, places this doctrinal issue on a par with idolatry under the law. We are not to receive these teachers of error, (nor pray for?), nor bid them God speed.
Obedience Unto Life
Rather than dwell on the negative, and John’s "sin unto death", we would do well to consider the positive messages in his Epistle concerning life eternal. He guides us towards obedience unto life with words such as: "walk in the light" and "confess our sins" for "whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him." "He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him." He adds "he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever." For "this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment."