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1 John 5:16 is considered “hard to understand.” (2 Pet. 3:16). It says, “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.” What is the sin leading to death as opposed to the sin not leading to death? Some believe it is 1)Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. 2) A crime for which authorities may enact the death penalty. 3) A sin like that of Ananias and Sapphira’s which brings instant physical death. 4) A sin which causes the church to withdraw fellowship. 5) Any sin which goes unrepented of and therefore causes one to die spiritually now and to face the ultimate second death at judgement. This brief list of interpretations of this passage illustrates that it is somewhat difficult. When dealing with any difficult passage, there are two primary rules of Bible study we must keep in mind... 1) Any understanding we reach must correspond with the context in which it is found. 2) Any understanding we reach must not contradict any other plain teaching of Scripture. I believe the sin unto death corresponds to number (5) given above. Nothing, contextually, indicates capital punishment, church discipline, or blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The statement is made in the context of prayer. Other passages teach that prayer is required for the forgiveness of any sin committed by a Child of God. After sinning, Simon the ex-sorcerer was told to “...pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you.” (Acts 8:22) Simon then asked Peter to pray for him. This is the subject of our passage. John is talking about a brother praying for the forgiveness of another brother who has sinned. If that person has sinned, repented, and confessed, then another brother may pray, asking God to forgive him (This is just what we do when someone comes forward to confess sin). The fact that he repented means that it was not a sin unto death. However, if the Christian does not repent of his sin, but persists in it, he is sinning unto death. For this, John says it is useless to pray, asking God to forgive him, because God will not forgive any sin which is not repented of. This man, because of his unrepentence, is sinning a sin which has caused him to die spiritually now, and will cause him to ultimately die the second death at judgement. (The “death” here is likely spiritual rather than physical death because it’s in contrast to the “life” (spiritual life) which God will give him when the prayer is said.) This verse, although difficult, is crucial to understand because there are some who may feel they have committed some mysterious “sin unto death” and can never be forgiven. No, the sin unto death, which is useless to pray about because it can’t be forgiven, is ANY sin that is unrepented of.
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