By Stan Brown
I John 5:16-17 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.
If you come this morning looking for a clear, concise answer about what these two verses mean you came to the wrong place. I briefly surveyed the commentaries looking for a clear concise answer and did not find one. One went on for four pages and didn’t get anywhere. The problem with understanding these verses is that John never defines a sin leading to death. If it were not for that little item it would be easy to understand. Very simply, John says (1) there are sins not unto death and when you see a brother committing one of these pray for Him. (2) there are sins unto death and when you see a brother sinning one of these you are not required to pray for him although it is not forbidden to pray for him. (3) All sins do not lead to death although All unrighteousness is sin.
So, what do we know for sure? (1) I start with the obvious. All sin is bad. (2) We know he is talking about sinning believers because he speaks of them as brothers. (3) The death he describes is physical death for at least two reasons. First, he is speaking about believers who are secure in their salvation. Second, he says there is a sin not leading to death while Paul writes the wages of sin is (spiritual) death. (4) We need to pray for each other when we observe sins not unto death. (5) John never tells us what a sin unto death is. Clearly, Ananias and Sapphira are an example but it does not clarify this passage. Paul gives an example centered on misuse of the Lord’s Supper, 1Cor. 11:28-30 But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. Neither example really clarifies what John means.
Having said all that, what is the practical take away from this verse? It should cause us to take each and every sin very seriously. Given that John emphasizes love for one another and forgiveness is part of love we should think hard and long before refusing to pray for a believer immersed in sin and I do believe John is referencing believers seriously immersed in sin. So, given that John never defines a sin leading to death I am going to pray for each and every brother and sister that is choosing darkness rather than light. It also ought to cause me to examine my own life. I will end here without giving a clear and concise understanding of this verse. I will only say that we must still take extremely seriously both sin and John’s emphasis on loving our sisters and brothers. Remember God will give life to those (brothers and sisters) who commit sin not leading to death as we pray for them.