Prayer and the Sin Unto Death
Scripture: I John 5:13–18
Have you ever wished for a Biblical “sure-fire, never fail” formula for getting what you ask in prayer?
John closes his first letter with the promise that if we ask anything according to God’s will, He hears us and promises to give us exactly what we ask (5:14-15). John has worked to give his readers a solid foundation for their faith in Jesus Christ.
The word group “to know” (oida and ginosko) occurs with greater frequency in 1 John than in any other New Testament book. And 1 John 5 has a greater density of use than any other New Testament chapter.
In his closing paragraph (5:13-21), John repeats again and again that he has written so that his followers might know with certainty the truth of their convictions (vv. 13, 15, 18, 19, 20). First John was written for believers. Having believed, they now need to know, with every fiber of their being, that they possess eternal life. The basis for our assurance is faith in God’s written Word.
I. The Certainty That We Have in Eternal Life.
“These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God” (5:13).
At the opening of this letter John said, “These things write we unto you, that our joy [yours as well as mine] may be full” (1:4). Now he says the same thing, using other words. A Christian’s joy springs from the unshakable knowledge that, because he has believed on the name of the Son of God, he now has eternal life.
John’s favorite expression “believe on” (pisteuein eis) expresses the strongest belief possible. It involves complete confidence that Jesus is indeed the truth, the life, and the only way to God and that He has provided a complete atonement for our sins.
It means that we acknowledge Him not only as the object of our faith but also as the uncontested Lord of our life.
II. The Confidence That God Hears Our Prayers.
“And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him” (5:15, 5).
John previously addressed the subject of receiving answers to prayer in 1 John 3:21-23. There he taught that confidence toward God requires a clear conscience.
Further, he taught that God answers the prayers of those who “keep his commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight” (3:22). Now he tells us that God hears the prayer of those who pray “according to His will” (5:14), and as a result (verse 15), we have what we ask. God promises to answer only those prayers that are in conformity with His will.
All the other prayer-promises in the New Testament must be interpreted in light of this pivotal factor. Believers do not get to decide what God should or should not do. He gives us what we ask only when we ask in harmony with His will.
III. The Clarification of This Prayer-Promise.
“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 unrighteous-ness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death” (5:16, 17)
John now issues a prayer-warning. If you see a fellow believer sinning, you are to seek to discern what type of sin is involved. Although “all unrighteousness is sin,” there is a significant difference between a “sin unto death” (5:16) and a “sin not unto death” (5:17).
If a fellow Christian sins a “sin not unto death,” we are to pray to God on his behalf and God “shall give him life for them that sin not unto death” (5:16a). But, if a fellow Christian sins a “sin unto death,” says John, “I do not say that he shall pray for it” (5:16b).
What is the death to which John refers when he contrasts a “sin unto death” with a “sin not unto death?”
A . The meaning of the phrase “a sin unto death.”
I believe that there are several reasons why John is probably referring to a sin that will result in permanent spiritual death in Hell.
First, Scripture teaches that without repentance, all sin separates from God (Isa. 59:2).
Second, Scripture teaches that “the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).
Jesus explained that eternal life is more than just a promise for the future; it is an inheritance enjoyed in the present. It is having a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ (John 17:3; see also 1 John 1:3, 4).
Therefore, the opposite of eternal life is spiritual death—not having a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ which ultimately climaxes in permanent spiritual death in Hell. T
Third, in all other references to life and death in 1 John, he is speaking of spiritual life and death, not physical life and death. John does teach that some sins do not result in permanent spiritual death in Hell. These are the sins that are confessed and repented of (1 John 2:1). This is most likely what John means when he says that there is a sin that does not lead to death.
But some sins do result in permanent spiritual death in Hell.
For example, if a believer errors from the way and then refuses to believe that what he is doing is wrong, he is committing a sin unto death. John has been warning about this type of sin throughout his letter. He has written non-negotiable definitions of those who are of the truth and of those who have falsified it.
- These people loved the world (2:15-17) and some had even denied that Jesus had come “in the flesh” (4:1-3).
- They claimed to have fellowship with God but walked in darkness (1:6).
- They argued that the gift of eternal life was irrevocable and nothing could nullify their relationship with God, not even the continued practice of willful disobedience to God’s commands (2:3-6).
- Some went so far as to deny they had ever sinned (1:10).
These were not the mistakes of an uninformed new convert, or even a temporary lapsing into some “besetting” sin, but rather a deliberate turning away from the truth. John is quite clear that such practice proves these people are not Christians at all.
John makes it clear that it is only as we continue to walk in the light as Jesus is in the light that we continue to have fellowship with the Father and the Son and the blood of Jesus Christ continues to cleanse us from all sin (1 John 1:7).
If a believer does not continue to walk in the light, he ceases to have the cleansing of Jesus’ blood, and if he dies in an unrepentant condition he will not enter heaven. When John speaks of a believer sinning “a sin unto death,” he is speaking of a person who has willfully rejected the truth but is sure he is right with God.
B. The meaning of the phrase, “I do not say that he shall pray for it.”
Observe that John does not forbid us from praying for these people.Remember, too, that John is talking about the assurance of receiving what we ask from God because we ask according to His will.
In the case of a fellow believer who sins a “sin unto death,” we cannot have confidence that God will answer our prayer because God cannot save those who will not repent and who persist in a life of rebellion against Him.
People who have deliberately turned from the truth and who have convinced themselves that they are right are in a state of serious self deception. John is implying that there is little hope that they will ever see the error of their ways and truly repent and return to the truth. While God would surely forgive such people if they repented, no argument will change their minds.
It is as Proverbs warned: “There is a way which seems
right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (14:12; 16:25; 21:2).
C. The meaning of the phrase, “he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death.”
John is calling for three things that are poorly practiced in the church today.
- First, we must assume personal responsibility for the spiritual well-being of fellow believers.
- Second, if we see a fellow believer sin, we are to be proactive in our response and seek to restore them (see Mat. 18:15-17; Gal. 6:1-2).
- Third, we are to pray to God for their forgiveness.
John is reminding us that we need to take seriously any sin we see in a fellow believer’s life. If one persists in such sin, it can lead to grave consequences.
You can be sure that you have eternal life. Moreover, God graciously has promised to answer our prayers when we pray according to His will. We also have a God-given responsibility to pray for our fellow Christians.
Therefore, John calls us to live our lives transparently before one another so that we give and receive correction. Not only will this keep us from the “sin unto death,” but it will help us to keep walking in close fellowship with the God who is light (1 John 1:5).
Dr. Allan P. Brown teaches such courses as Christian Beliefs, Doctrine of Holiness, Wisdom Literature, Hebrew, Preaching Holiness, Romans and Galatians, and Letters to the Hebrews.
He has been on faculty at GBSC since 1996 and is the author of several books and articles.
Dr. Brown also speaks at churches, camp meetings, revivals and more.