Friday, June 21, 2024

The Vision: What is "a sin unto death"? (1 John 5:16-17)


Image: Round bales, North Virginia, June 2024

Note: Devotion article taken from last Sunday's sermon on 1 John 5:16-18.

There is a sin unto death: I do not say he shall pray for it… and there is a sin not unto death (1 John 5:16b, 17b).

In 1 John 5:16-17, the apostle John encourages intercessory prayer for a brother who has fallen into sin. He also makes a distinction, however, affirming prayer for those who have sinned “a sin not unto death,” but suggesting no prayer be made for those who have sinned “a sin unto death.”

What are these two categories? Various answers have been suggested.

In the Roman Catholic system a distinction is made between various “mortal” sins (more serious individual sins: a sin unto death) and “venial” sins (less serious sins: a sin not unto death). Calvin in his commentary on this passage points out, however, that the apostle makes here no such distinction and does not use these terms. He further notes that the Roman system tended to downplay the serious of some of the so-called venial sins in reliance upon an unbiblical confidence in baptism itself to remove them.

The MacArthur Study Bible suggests that the sin unto death indicates that, “Such a sin could be any premeditated and unconfessed sin that causes the Lord to determine to end a believer’s life. It is not one particular sin, like homosexuality or lying, but whatever sin is the final one in the tolerance of God.” It cites as an example the sudden death of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 when they lied to the Holy Spirit. It adds, “No intercessory prayer will be effective for those who have committed such deliberate high-handed sin….” So, it suggests a distinction between sins that lead to immediate death and those that do not.

The Reformation Heritage Study Bible, however, seems to say that prayer for those who have sinned the sin not unto death refers to prayer for fellow believers in whom the brethren have observed “a pattern of disobedience (present tense sin),” while “John gives no encouragement to pray for false teachers who, after experiencing the gospel and the church (2:19), become enemies of Christ, cutting themselves off from life (sin unto death; Gal 1:9; Heb 6:4-6).”

In his commentary on this passage, Matthew Poole says that while prayer is commended for those “that appear not obstinate and incurable,” the apostle does not commend prayer for those “that have apostatized from a former specious profession into heresy and debauchery, and continue obstinate therein, against all methods of recovery.”

Poole’s interpretation calls to mind the teaching of our Lord concerning “the unpardonable sin,” rejecting the witness of the Spirit to the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God (Matthew 12:31-32).

Matthew Henry concurred in his commentary on this passage, writing, “In case it should appear that any have committed the irremissible blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, and the total apostasy from the illuminating corrective powers of the Christian religion, it should seem that they are not to be prayed for at all.”

John Calvin makes a similar point, concluding, “It may be gathered from the context, that [the sin unto death] is not, as they say, a partial fall, or the transgression of a single commandment, but apostasy by which men alienate themselves from God.”

I John 5:16 is cited as proof text in Chapter 22 (Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day), paragraph 4, of the Second London Confession (1689) in its teaching on prayer. It says that prayer should be made only “for things lawful” “but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death.” It gives no further explanation. In Dr. Renihan’s exposition of the 1689 Confession, he interprets this teaching as meaning, “Prayer should not be made for a convinced apostate” (Renihan, To the Judicious and Impartial Reader, 428).

So, the classic Reformed interpretation of “the sin unto death” is that it refers to hardened,  intransigent, and apostate rejection of Christ, especially by one who had at one time made a false profession of faith in him. We are encouraged to pray for our brethren, but for such a one who sets himself as a hard apostate against Christ, there is no need to pray except that God’s will be done.

Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle

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