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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Sin unto Death, Sin not unto Death (5:16-17)
Sin unto Death, Sin not unto Death (5:16-17)

As a parenthetical aside, John adds the note, There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. This statement implies that there are situations in which one is prohibited from praying, a prohibition that seems difficult to comprehend. But it actually fits well with John's under standing of judgment and with the specific kind of prayer to which he is referring, as we shall see.

First, John draws a distinction in this passage between "sin unto death" and "sin not unto death." This seems, at first glance, to suggest that some sins are more serious than others, that in fact they are so severe that they cannot be forgiven but rather lead one into eternal death. According to 5:16, one may see a fellow Christian commit a sin that does not lead to death. But the passage does not explicitly say that it is a fellow believer committing the sin that does lead to death. Indeed, by definition this seems impossible in the Johannine epistles and particularly in the present context. Sin unto death is sin that carries a person into death's clutches, into the grip of the evil one (v. 19). And a child of God does not sin in that way, because one who is truly born of God will rather manifest that in confession of sin and dependence for forgiveness upon the atoning work of Christ. But "sin unto death" is already evidence that one lives in the realm of death, in the world, under the control of the evil one, and not in the sphere of life and righteousness granted by God to those who trust in Christ's work on their behalf.

The distinction between kinds of sin is not, therefore, a ranking of the seriousness of sins that believers commit. Instead, we have here an implicit distinction between kinds of sinners and sinning. "Sinning not unto death" is, paradoxically, sin in the realm of life, committed by one who has eternal life. Some of the epistle's statements (3:4-10; 5:18) could be taken to mean that sinning is evidence that one does not have life. Yet when sins are dealt with in accordance with God's plan to forgive sins—through the prayer for forgiveness and the "atoning sacrifice" of Jesus Christ (1:9; 2:2)—God hears the prayer of one believer for another and so forgives the repentant sinner. The sinner remains in the realm of life. Yet in no way is John sanctioning cheap grace or a licentious lifestyle, for all wrongdoing is sin. Indeed, this is why the sins of all— even those who believe in the name of the Son of God and have eternal life—must be confessed and forgiven. But where there is no confession, there is "sinning unto death," sin committed in the realm of death, sin that comes from and leads to death for the one who is guilty of it.

But how does one "see" (5:16) another Christian committing a sin? Does this mean that it is a public or visible sin? Is the Elder referring only to kinds of sins that one can witness, such as actions, rather than thoughts? As is typical of the Johannine literature, "seeing" probably means "perceiving" or "understanding." If one has perceived—and John does not explain how one "perceives" this—that a fellow Christian is sinning, the proper response is to pray for that person. Presumably, that person has also repented and asked for forgiveness, for if the person who is sinning and is to be prayed for is indeed a brother or sister, a fellow Christian, then on John's view they would also be characterized by con fession of sin and petition for pardon. Those who do not acknowledge their sins to God are not children of God.

And this gives us a clue why John prohibits prayers for those "whose sin is unto death" (5:16). This prohibition initially seems both hard-hearted and wrong-headed: surely these are precisely the people who most need prayer! The crucial question here is, For what is one forbid den to ask? Verse 16 implies that one asks for life for the brother or sister who sins, just as Jesus asks for the life of Lazarus (Jn 11:41-43) and for forgiveness for the repentant sinner (1 Jn 2:1). Here, one asks for the confessing sinner to be held steadfast in eternal life (compare 5:18; Jn 17:11-15). Such a prayer can be made because this person (a) continues to be a faithful member of the community ("brother" or "sister"), which implies (b) that this person holds the Johannine confession of Christ and (c) acknowledges the sin to God (1:8—2:2). They have life, and prayer is made that they continue to receive life.

What one may not ask for with respect to those whose "sin is unto death" is that they be given life apart from their repentance, confession and returning to following Christ. Prohibition of prayer in the Old Tes tament and Jewish literature roughly contemporaneous with 1 John is a sign of God's judgment on unrepentant sinners (compare Jer 7:16-17; 11:14-15). One can pray that unbelievers may repent and come to fel lowship with God. But if God were to forgive them as they persist in their sin, that would not be forgiveness: it would be denial of human sinful ness which, in the Elder's view, is an abhorrent lie.

This passage then reflects the other side of John's belief that eternal life is received now: if there is life for believers even now, there is also judgment for unbelievers (Jn 3:16-17). And if the community serves as a vehicle for administering God's life to its members, then it also func tions to pronounce judgment. That the Johannine community under stood itself to function in just this way is suggested by the words with which the risen Jesus commissioned his disciples: "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. . . . If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven" (Jn 20:21, 23). In any case, the primary will of God is to bring people to life (Jn 3:16), and this is the will of God that Jesus lives out. So too, our wills and purposes are to be one with God in this commission, to be agents of bringing God's forgiveness and eternal life to others. Needless to say, this commission can only be carried out with great humility, with the full recognition that the God who extends forgiveness through the church is a God who is "faithful and just and will forgive us our sins" (1 Jn 1:9), and with caution and pastoral discernment in situations that might be covered by the admonitions here.

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