What Does 1st John 5:16 Mean?

By David J. Stewart

What is the "Sin Unto Death?"

"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."

There is much debate amongst theologians as to what 1st John 5:16 means.  I do not agree with Henry H. Halley, in Halley's Bible Handbook, that John was speaking of the "unpardonable sin" spoken of by Jesus in Matthew 12:31,32.  Rather, I agree with Pastor J. Vernon McGee, that John is not speaking about the unpardonable sin at all.   Isaiah 1:18 makes clear that anyone can be forgiven if they so desire it... "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool."  The only unpardonable sin is rejecting Jesus Christ, i.e., refusing to come to God the Father through God the Son.  1st John 2:22,23 plainly states this Biblical truth.  There can be NO forgiveness of sin apart from the precious blood of Jesus Christ (1st Peter 1:18,19; Hebrews 9:22).  Many people today, such as most Jews (Judaism), want God the Father, but adamantly reject Jesus Christ.  This includes all Islamic Muslims as well, who deny that Jesus died on a cross.  They are liars and antichrists according to 1st John 2:22.  If that upsets you, then get mad at God because He said it!

In 1st John 5:16, the Apostle John is speaking of our duty to pray for wayward brothers and sisters in Christ.  There is no need to pray for the unsaved, accept that they will come to Christ for salvation.  Some unsaved people write to me, asking me to pray for them, but they have no right to the throne of grace.  They want God to bless them while rejecting Christ as their Savior.  This is America today.  We want God to bless our nation, while murdering tens-of-millions of little children through abortion.  When unsaved people ask for my prayers, I tell them that I will pray for their salvation, and that they'll repent of their unbelief, and come to Christ.  This is their greatest need. 

1st John 5:16 reiterates our responsibility to pray for our fellow Christian brethren, especially for those who are backslidden.  God will convict their heart accordingly, and hopefully they will repent; BUT, God will not force a person to do the right thing.  In such situations, a fellow believer may be so far gone into sin that our prayers are futile.  I remember one particular individual, whom I had prayed for often, that they would come back to God.  In time, the Holy Spirit impressed upon my heart, showing me from the Scriptures that God will not force a person to do the right thing.  I realized then that if the other person, for whom I had been praying, was hardened against the Holy Spirit's conviction—there was nothing I could do.  I mean, if you won't listen to God as a believer, then you are truly backslidden.  The Apostle Paul speaks of such believers in 1st Corinthians 5:5... "To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus."

Romans 6:15,16 shed light on 1st John 5:16...

"What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?"

Here again we find the phrase... SIN UNTO DEATH. I believe that the Sin Unto Death spoken of in 1st John 5:16 is the same Sin Unto Death mentioned by Paul in Romans 6:16.  Paul is clearly saying that a life of sin leads down the road of death.  Sin kills, steals, and destroys (John 10:10)!  Come with me to any hospital emergency room and you'll see the consequences of sin.  Come with me to any morgue and you'll see the consequences of sin.  Come with me to any prison and you'll see the consequences of sin.  Go to any orphanage any you'll see the consequences of sin.  Sin destroys!!!  The Devil always pays with counterfeit money.  The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.  Oh! Listen my friend, all sin is unto death, in one form or another.  Romans 8:6 states, "For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace."  The word "death" here is the Greek thanatos, and in the widest sense means, "death comprising all the miseries arising from sin..." (STRONG'S ENHANCED LEXICON).  Hence, there is a Second Death (i.e., the Lake of Fire), there is a Spiritual Death (i.e., the unsaved soul), there is a Physical Death (i.e., of the human body), and then there's a Carnal Death... "But she that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth" (1st Timothy 5:6).  Some believers do live as though they were spiritually dead, even though they have Christ's Spirit living in them.  This is tragic, nevertheless possible and 1st Corinthians 5:5 proves it.

Galatians 5:25 brings forth an important truth to clarify this matter of Carnal Death... "If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit."  To be saved is to LIVE in the Spirit of God; but we may also at the same time refuse to WALK in the Spirit of God.  Many believers today are not WALKING in the Spirit; but they are saved, i.e., they have God's Spirit LIVING within them.  They are living carnally.

The Bible speaks of Fruit Unto Death (i.e., sin)... "For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death" (Romans 7:5).  Thus, a born-again believer who is not in danger of the Second Death, nor is any longer Spiritual Dead, may by their own wickedness bring forth fruits unto death, i.e., a destroyed testimony, family, health, life, and even premature death.  Sin destroys!  Although the believer has Christ living within their body (1st Corinthians 3:16), they may so choose to live in sin, as if they were still unsaved.  Every believer has two-natures: Christ, and the old sin-nature.  We must choose which nature to obey.  The sin-nature cannot be tamed, refined, educated, reformed, or rehabilitated--it is an unruly evil.  Paul stated in Romans 7:25, "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin."

Here is an commentary is from Professor David M. Scholer of the Fuller Theological Seminary...

If any member of the believing community sees a fellow believer committing any one of the "sins of the righteous," i.e. those which do not preclude membership in the believing community, he should pray for him, and God will give to the sinning brother reconfirmation (cf. 1 John 1:6-10) of his transfer from the realm of death to the realm of life (cf. 1 John 3:14). Indeed, this will be done for any and all brothers who sin in this way. There is, of course, sin which does preclude membership in the believing community; it is sin in the realm of death. I do not speak concerning that sin unto death in order that anyone should pray about it. All unrighteousness is sin; however, there is sin which does not preclude membership in the believing community. We know that every one who has been born of God (i.e. believers in the community) does not sin in any way which precludes membership in the believing community. The Son of God keeps each believer, and therefore the devil is not able to hold him.

*This outline summarizes the argument found in David M. Scholer's "Sins Within and Sins Without: An Interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17" in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation (Gerald F. Hawthorne, ed., Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975, 231-146).

Romans 8:10 sheds more light on the matter, "And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness."  Now, it is obvious that the Christian's body is not physically dead after they get saved.  So what does Paul mean when he states that the body is dead because of sin?  It means that we cannot live for the flesh and God at the same time.  To please God, as born-again believers, we are to walk in the Spirit of God, and crucify the old man, i.e., the sinful desires of the flesh.  If we choose to walk in the flesh, then we have chosen death, because we cannot be filled with the Spirit of God while committing sin.

And finally, I think James 5:14,15 best explains the meaning of 1st John 5:16...

"Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him."

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