"What is a Sin unto Death?"

1 John 5:14-17 is an often discussed and debated passage. What is a sin unto death? The simple answer to the question is: a sin of which one will not repent. (And likewise, a sin not unto death, is a sin of which one does repent.)

This answer is based upon interpreting this text in light of the rest of the scripture. The best way to understand one text is to understand it's immediate context and then look at the rest of the scriptures. The immediate context does not define a "sin unto death." John is discussing intercessory prayer and assumes his reader knows what he means. So we must go to the rest of the scriptures.

The subject of 1 John 5:14-17 is prayer (see, vss. 14-15). The subject of verses sixteen and seventeen is praying for a brother in sin. One is to pray (a pray of intercession) for a brother who sins a "sin not unto death" and God will "give him life." If a brother sins a "sin unto death," John says "I do not say that he shall pray for it." John is not promising prayer for a brother's "sin unto death" will "give him life."

What makes the difference in God answering my prayer on behalf of my brother in sin? The attitude of my brother in sin. God will not forgive my brother's sin without his repentance. This is exactly what James says, "Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins" (Jas. 5:19-20). The word "repent" simply means "to turn." John's warning about not interceding in prayer for those in "sin unto death" is also found in the prophets: "Therefore pray not thou for this people, neither lift up cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to me: for I will not hear thee" (Jer. 7:16). "Then said the Lord unto me, Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my mind could not be toward this people: cast them out of my sight, and let them go forth" (Jer. 15:1). God had called his people to repentance and they refused. Thus, he tells his prophet that intercessory prayer will not bring forgiveness to these people.

The scriptures teach that the consequence of sin is "death," that is separation from God (Rom. 6:23; Eph. 2:1; 1 Tim. 5:6). When one repents in "godly sorrow," he "turns from" of his sin and comes out of "death," and into life. "Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death" (2 Cor. 7:9-10).

The best passage to illustrate that a "sin unto death" is a sin one will not repent of is Ezekiel 18 and 33. "Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine; the soul who sins shall die" (Ezk. 18:4). "Therefore you, O son of man, say to the children of your people: `The righteousness of the righteous man shall not deliver him in the day of his transgression; as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall because of it in the day that he turns from his wickedness; nor shall the righteous be able to live because of his righteousness in the day that he sins.' When I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, but he trusts in his own righteousness and commits iniquity, none of his righteous works shall be remembered; but because of the iniquity that he has committed, he shall die. Again, when I say to the wicked, `You shall surely die,' if he turns from his sin and does what is lawful and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has stolen, and walks in the statutes of life without committing iniquity, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of his sins which he has committed shall be remembered against him; he has done what is lawful and right; he shall surely live" (Ezk. 33:12-16).

I believe one can see a "sin unto death" and a "sin not unto death" herein without further comment.

By Wayne Greeson

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