I have always been puzzled with 1 John 5:16-17 and the meaning of the “sin unto death.” Can you explain exactly what John is referring to?

16 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.
17 All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.

I would really appreciate any help you can give me on this.

Thank you for your e-mail and your concerns about “the sin unto death” mentioned in 1 John 5:16-17.

Let me see if I can give you an acceptable answer to your question. In doing so, we will first have to explore a number of factors which come from the Bible. Let me begin with a passage from Hebrews 12:

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord. . . Nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and scourges every son whom He receives. It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? . . . “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet. . .” (Heb. 12:5-13).

Whether we are reading the Old Testament or the New, we find that God is at work to create a family for His own pleasure, a company of sons and daughters who will commune with and look to Him for love, provision, guidance, and consolation. In the Gospel of John, chapters 1 and 3 make it clear that when we place our faith in Jesus Christ to be our Savior Who, through His death, can make us presentable to God, we join the family of God through a new spiritual birth and thus embark upon our personal Christian pilgrimage which ends on the day we die.

As newborns in this family, we are admonished by the Word to “Grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18), and “as newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the Word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Pet. 2:2).

All children, physical and spiritual, undergo a process of development which involves time. The theological term for this process is “sanctification,” which means the Christian life. Along the way, as we saw above in the Hebrews passage, we observe that God, like any good father, disciplines us appropriately when necessary. The goal is training, not punishment. This training process may occur through circumstances we encounter, and which God allows, or it can come through knowledge of the Bible:

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16,17).

We have a vivid example of this process in the Apostle Paul’s life. He describes it this way:

“And because of the surpassing abundance of (my) revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me–to keep me from exalting myself…. Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness'” (2 Cor. 12:7-9).

We don’t have a clear picture what this “thorn” was. Most believe it was a physical ailment. There is some indication that it may have been an eye problem. But the point I make here is that God may allow all kinds of circumstances into our life which are designed for training purposes. This process is the normal Christian Life.

Another good example comes from 1 Corinthians 11:21-31. Paul writes this epistle to address several problems and/or abuses occurring among the church members there. One abuse was that when the believers came together to take communion, some of the members showed up to enjoy the food and some came drunk! Paul rebukes them saying, “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry, and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you. . . For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep.”

This passage makes it clear to us that there are consequences to our disobedience. Some of these Corinthian believers evidently are disciplined by God through both illness and even death (“some of you sleep”). That is not to say that all illness and death are divine judgments, but some are.

In this particular instance, some of the disobedient Corinthians experienced the “sin unto death.” (That is, some of them died).

With this background, we come to the heart of your question. The “sin unto death” is found throughout the Bible and seems to be connected to new eras of biblical history.

Here are some examples where people experienced death through disobedience:

  • Giving of the Law, Mount Sinai: Golden Calf (Exodus 32)
  • Institution of Levitical Priesthood: “Strange Fire” (Leviticus 10)
  • Conquest of the Land: Achan (Joshua 7)
  • Beginning of the Church: Ananias & Sapphira (Acts 5)
    (See also Samson and Saul–God was longsuffering with both)

Speaking of the incident in Leviticus 10 where Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, offered “strange fire” which “consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Lev. 10:2), Rev. Ray Stedman of Palo Alto Bible Church says:

This was a sin of presumption, not a sin of ignorance. They knew better and what incense they were supposed to burn. . . they had been told emphatically that God would be offended if they offered incense other than that which he had prescribed.* Second, it was a sin dealt with severely because it distorted God’s revelation of Himself. All of these sacrifices and rituals were intended for us to learn what kind of God He is. Third, God used it to set an example. God is here teaching a lesson-to show how important it was for the priests at the beginning of their priesthood to follow explicitly what God commanded. And it only happened once. Similarly, though the sin of Ananias and Sapphira (deception, hypocrisy) was common among Christians of the early church and common ever since, God never visited death like that again. It is a manifestation of God’s love and concern. At the outset, He is wanting to stop this kind of thing from happening again, and He is giving fair warning of the eventual consequences to anyone presumptuous enough to sin deliberately in this way.” That is the way we human beings work. Unless an issue is vividly, dramatically, openly, symbolically made clear to us, we’ll go right on and do the wrong thing. So God is stopping that, arresting it with his judgment at this point. But he really wants us to learn to refrain for the sake of his glory, not out of fear for our lives. *(Cf. elaborate instructions on incense, Exodus 30:34-38, particularly v. 38).

Sin Unto Death (1 John 5)

Now let’s look at the passage you have questioned. The first thing to note is the context. This major topic from 5:13-18 is prayer. We are given in verses 13-15 that God hears and responds to our prayers. The key word is “anything.” Then John remembers there is an exception: praying for a disobedient, sinning brother or sister in Christ. What to do? How do we pray for that one? Here is the sequence we must keep in mind for such a one as we pray.

First of all, the Apostle John tells us that there is a sin not leading to death (physical). In verse 16, he tells us that it is possible for Christians to fall into this sin not leading to death. [See also 1 John 2:1,2–the ideal is to “sin not.” But if anyone sins (and we will), we have an Advocate, a defense attorney.]

When Christians observe disobedience in brothers and sisters, they are to pray for him/her (16b); as a result of these prayers, God may choose to preserve, prolong, extend the person’s physical life (not eternal life, since that life is determined by one’s personal faith decision).

This intercession is effective only in the case of sin not leading to death (16c): that is, the person has not reached the end limits of God’s patience and grace (His “last straw”). See also v. 17 where John says, “All unrighteousness is sin, but there is a sin which is not unto (physical) death.”

Secondly, there is a sin which results in physical death–the sin unto death (v. 16d): This is the death of a believer characterized by persistent, willful sinning in which “the flesh is destroyed [physical death–1 Cor. 5:1-5] so that the spirit might be saved.”

John tells us that this is a sin not to be prayed for, because God’s immutable law concerning this final, “last straw” disobedience is involved and will be unaltered by intercessory prayer (16e), and frankly, we do not know another’s heart condition before the Lord. We are not encouraged to speculate about the cause of any believer’s untimely death. In our prayer life, we can continue to intercede for a wayward brother or sister, but we are not to draw any conclusions about what may, should, or has happened in regard to a believer’s death.

Thirdly, when some Christian we know dies, we might be inclined to ask the question of ourselves, “Was this the sin unto death or not?” John is telling us in this passage not to speculate, because we just don’t know.

All through this Epistle (1 John) the Apostle has been addressing sin in the life of the believer–yours and every Christian you know. It is fitting that John portrays the remedy of habitual sin on the part of a believer in the context of the new birth. The “black and white” contrast all through 1 John concludes with the same idea, and one that is also expressed in the book of James:

“Even so, faith, if it has no works is dead, being by itself. But someone may say, ‘You have faith, and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.’ . . Are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? . . . For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17,18, 20, 26)

The New Testament clearly teaches that “Faith alone saves (Ephesians 2:8,9; Titus 3:5), but saving faith is never alone.”

This leads us to a practical application in observing/evaluating another believer’s life and imperfections. This verse comes to mind: “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God” (Romans 8:16). What we learn from this verse is that we can know about ourselves, (i.e. that we have the Spirit, that we are born again), but ultimately we cannot know about another. In other words, I can know about me, but I can’t know about you. You can know about you, but you can’t know about me.

Practically speaking then, we should accept every person’s testimony who claims to be a Christian. Actual Christian behavior is on a spectrum which John describes by saying, “all sin [big and little] is unrighteousness.” Only God can rightly see the totality of a believer’s obedience and disobedience over a lifetime, and rightly judge it. As a loving Father, He may bring discipline to get us “back on track.” 1 John 1 and 2 speak to the way this may be accomplished–God’s grace through the Blood of Christ providing daily cleansing through confession/acknowledgement (1 John 1:9) and thus, further potential opportunity to serve.

Since we cannot see the heart of another, we can only inspect the “fruit” (or lack thereof) we see in a life. The farther a believer appears to wander away from God, the more “bad fruit” we observe, and the more we wonder about the truthfulness of that believer’s profession of faith. We cannot help being tempted to ask the question: “Is this person really a Christian?” We are to go no farther in our evaluation or conclusion; rather, we should continue our intercession for him or her.

John 21: 20-22: “And looking around, Peter saw the disciple whom Jesus loved (John the Apostle) following them. . .and therefore seeing him said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (Old Aramaic Expression: “Stick to your knitting!” <smile>).

I hope this answers your question, ______.

Sincerely in Christ,

Jimmy Williams, Founder
Probe Ministries

James F. Williams was the founder and past president of Probe Ministries International. He held degrees from Southern Methodist University (B.A.) and Dallas Theological Seminary (Th.M.). He also pursued inter-disciplinary doctoral studies (a.b.d.) in the humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas. Over a thirty-five year period, he visited, lectured, and counseled on more than 180 university campuses in the United States, Canada, Europe, and the former Soviet Union. He also served on the faculties of the American, Latin American, and European Institutes of Biblical Studies. Jimmy won his (and his family's) 14-year battle with Alzheimer's when he graduated to heaven in September 2019.

What is Probe?

Probe Ministries is a non-profit ministry whose mission is to assist the church in renewing the minds of believers with a Christian worldview and to equip the church to engage the world for Christ. Probe fulfills this mission through our Mind Games conferences for youth and adults, our 3-minute daily radio program, and our extensive Web site at www.probe.org.

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