What is the sin unto death of 1 John 5: 16?
It should be stated at the outset that the sin unto death is not the same as the unforgivable sin of Matthew 12: 22–32 and other similar Scriptures. Without going into great detail, the unforgivable sin was a dispensational sin which could only be committed during the period the Lord walked on earth (“this age”) or in the millennium after the rapture of the Assembly (“the coming [one]”). It cannot be committed by Christians. By contrast the sin unto death can, sadly, be committed by saints of our day for in the passage John has before him the sins of brethren. As a sin committed by genuine believers it cannot affect the eternal security of the individual in contrast to the sin against the Holy Spirit which was expressly stated to be unforgivable.
1 John 5: 16 ought to be seen in the context of the verses surrounding it. Verses 14 and 15 speak of prayer and are summed up by the end of verse 14: “if we ask him anything according to his will he hears us”. God will respond to our prayers then, if they are in accord with His will. In verse 16 we are told of a sin leading to death for which it would not be according to God’s will for us to ask that the individual be delivered: “There is a sin to death: I do not say of that that he should make a request”. In such a case we cannot expect God to hear our prayers. Verse 17 speaks of the total extent of sin: “Every unrighteousness is sin”, but reminds us that by no means all sin leads to the death spoken of in the previous verse: “and there is a sin not to death”.
Now when we read in our English version of the Scriptures about a sin to death and a sin not unto death, it gives the impression that the apostle was referring to a specific sin. It should be noted, however, that there is no indefinite article in the original Greek, and thus “a sin” could equally be rendered as “sin”. Verse 17 could, for example be “Every unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not to death”. For this reason we should not automatically assume that John had a particular sin in mind when he spoke of “a sin to death”––more than likely he was referring to a class of sins which had this solemn outcome. (In one sense all sin leads to death––“the wages of sin [is] death” (Rom. 6: 23)––but here we are talking about premature death.).
In the passage before us then we have a brother “sinning a sin not unto death”. Under God’s moral government every sin has its consequences. Thus Moses was prevented from entering the Promised Land (Num 20: 12), and David was told that “the sword shall never depart from thy house” (2 Sam. 12: 10). At Corinth many were “weak and infirm, and a good many are fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 11: 30). These Corinthian saints were fit for heaven having been washed, sanctified and justified (see 6: 11), but their scandalous ways made them unfit for Corinth, and so the Lord removed them. God’s chastisement is a real thing (1 Cor. 11: 32; Heb. 12: 5–11; 1 Pet. 1: 17) and it is dealt out according to the severity of the sin and the responsibility of the sinner. God will not have His name brought into disrepute. In this instance, the brother has sinned and is experiencing the governmental consequence of his action––perhaps illness. James speaks of one being “sick” who had “committed sins” (James 5: 14, 15), and without repentance God might even allow the man to die. He is prayed for, however, and God in His mercy grants recovery and “shall raise him up”. This is what John means when he says that a brother is given life (see 1 John 5: 16). When he says it is “a sin not unto death” it does not mean that death might not be the outcome, but that death need not be the outcome. Prayer can prevent his death.
The case of the man who commits “a sin to death” is different. Death is the certain consequence of his action. No amount of prayer on our part can alter the matter: “I do not say of that that he should make a request” (v16). The clearest example is that of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5: 1–10) who fell down dead in the apostle’s presence. No prayer was uttered on their behalf, and when dead they were simply carried out for burial. The will of God, solemn as it was, was bowed to.
A rather similar (though not strictly parallel) passage occurs in 2 Sam. 12. There David was rebuked by Nathan for his heinous sin in the matter of Bathsheba, and told that “the child that is born to thee shall certainly die” (v14). It was thus made very clear that the divine sentence of death was irrevocable. Nonetheless, David “besought God for the child” (v16), thinking “Who knows? [perhaps] Jehovah will be gracious to me, that the child may live” (v22). No amount of prayer or fasting could alter what God had pronounced however, and thus the child eventually died. It is only when we ask God “according to his will” that “he hears us” (1 John 5: 14).