1 John 5:16-17, “16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.”
In our last article in this 1 John series, we saw that one of the results of the Christian’s assurance is confidence their prayers may be heard and answered when we pray according to Scripture. In 1 John 5:16-17, John continues teaching about prayer, telling Christians what they can be sure of as they pray for one another. Here John explains, Christians, if they pray for a brother who commits a sin not leading to death, God will grant it to that life to that sinner. With that said, there is a sin that leads to death. John does not explicitly forbid praying for a brother who so transgresses, but his language does help readers understand we should be concerned to pray for those who commit the sin leading to death (1 John 5:16).
1 John 5:16 is a challenging passage, and that also, means, we could spend significant amounts of time unpacking its various nuances, provide further clarification, and to help to understand what John is saying here. With that said, this is not the place to do that in this article. The difficulty in this passage comes from what John means by the sin leading to death. The death spoken here refers to eternal death. It seems then that John understands there to be at least one unforgivable sin.
Coming to difficult passages requires, we understand the context and the difficulty in order to properly interpret the passage. Various interpretations have been offered for the sin John mentions here. Those include the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit mentioned by Jesus Himself in Mark 3:28-30. Others include a persistent refusal to hear the gospel. It’s difficult to be precise here and uncover what John means here in this passage; these various possibilities I’ve already mentioned cannot be excluded. Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is understandably most often seen as a denial of the Holy Spirit’s work in the ministry of Jesus, even when the person making such a denial knows better than to do that. Final apostasy would qualify under this category. Such apostasy can be committed only by those who have come to some knowledge of biblical truth already. Such blasphemy would result in the consequence of a heart unwilling to respond in faith to the gospel.
John’s implication that a brother can commit this sin, whatever, exactly it is does not mean it’s possible for a child of God to fall away from the Lord in apostasy. The term brother here can be used of any professing Christian, whether they explicitly have saving faith or not. John knows all true Christians will not commit the sin that leads to death. Though Christians may sin, Christians will not persist in unrepentant sin that leads to a final hardening of the heart, since the Lord has sovereignly removed their heart of stone, and replaced it with a new heart, with new desires and affections for Himself.
As mentioned throughout this article, this particular passage is difficult, regarding what the sin leading to death is, exactly. Even so, this passage encourages Christians to pray for one another. While John does not suggest that praying for people who have committed the sin leading to death, we must not be hasty and assume such a person has committed final, unrepentant apostasy. The key though that we need to ask ourselves, as we wrap up this article is found in this question, “Are you praying for fellow church members in your local church each day?” Please take some time today to pray for those you know who are struggling specifically with particular sins, including yourself.