1 John 5:16-17
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 never had much desire to study this verse. However, that changed when someone sent me an email which piqued my interest. After reading the email I decided to take a closer look.
My initial study led me to the same conclusion Warren Wiersbe states in his NT Commentary: “a sin unto death is a sin that results in the death of the sinner.” For example, the sin that Ananias and Sapphira committed, recorded in Acts 5, could be considered a sin unto death because it resulted in immediate judgment, i.e., death. Another example is Achan’s covetousness mentioned in Joshua 7. Lastly, there is the warning of Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 about taking communion unworthily. There Paul instructs the Corinthians concerning the question of eating and drinking unworthily, writing, “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (1 Corinthians 11:30). Again, the sin that many in Corinth committed led to death.
Those passages seemed to provide an answer; However, I wasn’t fully satisfied with that conclusion, so I decided to read through all of 1 John to get a better handle on the context of the entire book. I’m glad I did. The thought that John is describing deadly/non-deadly sin is anachronistic. The words “life” and “death” in 1 John are not to be understood as terms which refer to normal human life and mortality. In other words, John is not referring to the life that all experience as human beings; he is referring to spiritual life and death (1 John 1:1-2; 2:25; 3:14-15; 4:9; 5:11-13).
John makes it clear that saints commit sin on occasion. I know that is shocking revelation for some of you (that was a joke). As Rev. Mike Easter, an anointed and knowledgable minister pointed out to me, in his unique way, “Christians are not sinless, we just sin less.” Christians do not, however, live in a constant state of willful disobedience. Instead, we sin and ask for forgiveness. So, in that sense, our sin is not unto spiritual death.
All throughout 1 John believers are contrasted with a second group or category of people who hate their brother and deny that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. The second group or type of people addressed in 1 John are those “antichrists” who “went out from us” and decided to live in willful disobedience (1 John 2:18-19). They are the folks whose sins were unto spiritual death.
I am of the opinion that John said not to pray for those “antichrists” because he understood that a person who rejects God’s grace and lives a life of persistent, calculated sin has taken a stance against God that our prayer cannot fix. It is the goodness of God that leads one to repentance (Romans 2:4). If God’s goodness and love which continually reaches for those who are out of the way isn’t enough to convince an individual to repent, no amount of prayer can do the trick. God’s grace and love don’t override the free will of man, and the same is true of prayer.