1 John 5:16
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.
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1 John 5:16-17. If any man, &c. — As if he had said, Yea, he hears us not only for ourselves, but others also; see his brother — That is, any child of man; sin a sin which is not unto death — That is, any sin but that which is marked out in the awful words of our Lord Jesus Christ as unpardonable, namely, the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, of which see on Matthew 12:31; Mark 3:29. Or, which may rather be intended, the sin of total apostacy from both the power and form of godliness; he shall ask, and God shall give him life — Repentance unto life, and, in consequence thereof, pardon and salvation for that sinner. There is a sin unto death; I do not say that he shall pray for it — That is, let him not pray for it. A sin unto death may likewise mean one which God has determined to punish with temporal death. All unrighteousness is sin — Every deviation from perfect holiness is sin; but all sin is not unpardonable, nor does God determine to punish every sin with temporal death.

5:13-17 Upon all this evidence, it is but right that we believe on the name of the Son of God. Believers have eternal life in the covenant of the gospel. Then let us thankfully receive the record of Scripture. Always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that our labour is not in vain in the Lord. The Lord Christ invites us to come to him in all circumstances, with our supplications and requests, notwithstanding the sin that besets us. Our prayers must always be offered in submission to the will of God. In some things they are speedily answered; in others they are granted in the best manner, though not as requested. We ought to pray for others, as well as for ourselves. There are sins that war against spiritual life in the soul, and the life above. We cannot pray that the sins of the impenitent and unbelieving should, while they are such, be forgiven them; or that mercy, which supposes the forgiveness of sins, should be granted to them, while they wilfully continue such. But we may pray for their repentance, for their being enriched with faith in Christ, and thereupon for all other saving mercies. We should pray for others, as well as for ourselves, beseeching the Lord to pardon and recover the fallen, as well as to relieve the tempted and afflicted. And let us be truly thankful that no sin, of which any one truly repents, is unto death.If a man see his brother sin a sin ... - From the general assurance that God hears prayer, the apostle turns to a particular case in which it may be benevolently and effectually employed, in rescuing a brother from death. There has been great diversity of opinion in regard to the meaning of this passage, and the views of expositors of the New Testament are by no means settled as to its true sense. It does not comport with the design of these notes to examine the opinions which have been held in detail. A bare reference, however, to some of them will show the difficulty of determining with certainty what the passage means, and the impropriety of any very great confidence in one's own judgment in the case. Among these opinions are the following. Some have supposed that the sin against the Holy Spirit is intended; some that the phrase denotes any great and enormous sin, as murder, idolatry, adultery; some that it denotes some sin that was punishable by death by the laws of Moses; some that it denotes a sin that subjected the offender to excommunication from the synagogue or the church; some that it refers to sins which brought fatal disease upon the offender, as in the case of those who abused the Lord's Supper at Corinth, (see the notes at 1 Corinthians 11:30); some that it refers to crimes committed against the laws, for which the offender was sentenced to death, meaning that when the charge alleged was false, and the condemnation unjust, they ought to pray for the one who was condemned to death, and that he would be spared; but that when the offence was one which had been really committed, and the offender deserved to die, they ought not to pray for him, or, in other words, that by "the sin unto death," offences against the civil law are referred to, which the magistrate had no power to pardon, and the punishment of which he could not commute; and by the "sin not unto death," offences are referred to which might be pardoned, and when the punishment might be commuted; some that it refers to sins "before" and "after" baptism, the former of which might be pardoned, but the latter of which might not be; and some, and perhaps this is the common opinion among the Roman Catholics, that it refers to sins that might or might not be pardoned after death, thus referring to the doctrine of purgatory.

These various opinions may be seen stated more at length in Rosenmuller, Lucke, Pool (Synopsis,) and Clarke, "in loc." To go into an examination of all these opinions would require a volume by itself, and all that can be done here is to furnish what seems to me to be the fair exposition of the passage. The word "brother" may refer either to a member of the church, whether of the particular church to which one was attached or to another, or it may be used in the larger sense which is common as denoting a fellow-man, a member of the great family of mankind. There is nothing in the word which necessarily limits it to one in the church; there is nothing in the connection, or in the reason assigned, why what is said should be limited to such an one. The "duty" here enjoined would be the same whether the person referred to was in the church or not; for it is our duty to pray for those who sin, and to seek the salvation of those whom we see to be going astray, and to be in danger of ruin, wherever they are, or whoever they may be. At the same time, the correct interpretation of the passage does not depend on determining whether the word "brother" refers to one who is a professed Christian or not.

A sin which is not unto death - The great question in the interpretation of the whole passage is, what is meant by the "sin unto death." The Greek (ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον hamartia pros thanaton) would mean properly a sin which "tends" to death; which would "terminate" in death; of which death was the penalty, or would be the result, unless it were arrested; a sin which, if it had its own course, would terminate thus, as we should speak of a disease "unto death." Compare the notes at John 11:4. The word "death" is used in three significations in the New Testament, and as employed here might, so far as the word is concerned, be applied in any one of those senses. It is used to denote:

(a) literally, the death of the body;

(b) spiritual death, or death "in trespasses and sin," Ephesians 2:1;

(c) the "second death," death in the world of woe and despair.

If the sin here mentioned refers to "temporal" death, it means such a sin that temporal death must inevitably follow, either by the disease which it has produced, or by a judicial sentence where there was no hope of pardon or of a commutation of the punishment; if it refers to death in the future world, the second death, then it means such a sin as is unpardonable. That this last is the reference here seems to me to be probable, if not clear, from the following considerations:

(1) There is such a sin referred to in the New Testament, a sin for which there is forgiveness "neither in this life nor the life to come." See the notes at Matthew 12:31-32. Compare Mark 3:29. If there is such a sin, there is no impropriety in supposing that John would refer to it here.

(2) this is the "obvious" interpretation. It is that which would occur to the mass of the readers of the New Testament, and which it is presumed they do adopt; and this, in general, is one of the best means of ascertaining the sense of a passage in the Bible.

(3) the other significations attached to the word "death," would be quite inappropriate here.

(a) It cannot mean "unto spiritual death," that is, to a continuance in sin, for how could that be known? and if such a case occurred, why would it be improper to pray for it? Besides, the phrase "a sin unto spiritual death," or "unto continuance in sin," is one that is unmeaning.

(b) It cannot be shown to refer to a disease that should be unto death, miraculously inflicted on account of sin, because, if such cases occurred, they were very rare, and even if a disease came upon a man miraculously in consequence of sin, it could not be certainly known whether it was, or was not, unto death. All who were visited in this way did not certainly die. Compare 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, with 2 Corinthians 2:6-7. See also 1 Corinthians 11:30.

(c) It cannot be shown that it refers to the case of those who were condenmed by the civil magistrate to death, and for whom there was no hope of reprieve or pardon, for it is not certain that there were such cases; and if there were, and the person condemned were innocent, there was every reason to pray that God would interpose and save them, even when there was no hope from man; and if they were guilty, and deserved to die, there was no reason why they should not pray that the sin might be forgiven, and that they might be prepared to die, unless it were a case where the sin was unpardonable. It seems probable, therefore, to me, that the reference here is to the sin against the Holy Spirit, and that John means here to illustrate the duty and the power of prayer, by showing that for any sin short of that, however aggravated, it was their duty to pray that a brother might be forgiven. Though it might not be easy to determine what was the unpardonable sin, and John does not say that those to whom he wrote could determine that with certainty, yet there were many sins which were manifestly not of that aggravated character, and for those sins it was proper to pray.

There was clearly but one sin that was unpardonable - "there is a sin unto death;" there might be many which were not of this description, and in relation to them there was ample scope for the exercise of the prayer of faith. The same thing is true now. It is not easy to define the unpardonable sin, and it is impossible for us to determine in any case with absolute certainty that a man has committed it. But there are multitudes of sins which people commit, which upon no proper interpretation of the passages respecting the sin which "hath never forgiveness," can come under the description of that sin, and for which it is proper, therefore, to pray that they may be pardoned. We know of cases enough where sin "may" be forgiven; and, without allowing the mind to be disturbed about the question respecting the unpardonable sin, it is our duty to bear such cases on our hearts before God, and to plead with him that our erring brethren may be saved.


16. If any … see—on any particular occasion; Greek aorist.

his brother—a fellow Christian.

sin a sin—in the act of sinning, and continuing in the sin: present.

not unto death—provided that it is not unto death.

he shall give—The asker shall be the means, by his intercessory prayer, of God giving life to the sinning brother. Kindly reproof ought to accompany his intercessions. Life was in process of being forfeited by the sinning brother when the believer's intercession obtained its restoration.

for them—resuming the proviso put forth in the beginning of the verse. "Provided that the sin is not unto death." "Shall give life," I say, to, that is, obtain life "for (in the case of) them that sin not unto death."

I do not say that he shall pray for it—The Greek for "pray" means a REQUEST as of one on an equality, or at least on terms of familiarity, with him from whom the favor is sought. "The Christian intercessor for his brethren, John declares, shall not assume the authority which would be implied in making request for a sinner who has sinned the sin unto death (1Sa 15:35; 16:1; Mr 3:29), that it might be forgiven him" [Trench, Greek Synonyms of the New Testament]. Compare De 3:26. Greek "ask" implies the humble petition of an inferior; so that our Lord never uses it, but always uses (Greek) "request." Martha, from ignorance, once uses "ask" in His case (Joh 11:22). "Asking" for a brother sinning not unto death, is a humble petition in consonance with God's will. To "request" for a sin unto death [intercede, as it were, authoritatively for it, as though we were more merciful than God] would savor of presumption; prescribing to God in a matter which lies out of the bounds of our brotherly yearning (because one sinning unto death would thereby be demonstrated not to be, nor ever to have been, truly a brother, 1Jo 2:19), how He shall inflict and withhold His righteous judgments. Jesus Himself intercedes, not for the world which hardens itself in unbelief, but for those given to Him out of the world.

If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death; viz. that appears not obstinate and incurable;

he shall ask, i.e. with confidence, as 1Jo 5:14. But

there is a sin unto death, i.e. which doth not barely deserve death, as all sin doth, nor which argues a person to be probably in a present state of death or unregeneracy, which the sinful ways may do of many that never made profession; but of such as have apostatized from a former specious profession into heresy and debauchery, and continue obstinate therein, against all methods of recovery; that are, as Judges 1:12, even twice dead, & c.

I do not say that he shall pray for it; i.e. I do not give that encouragement to pray for such, with that hope and expectation of success, as for others; though he doth not simply forbid praying for them neither.

If anyone see his brother sin,.... Those who have such an interest at the throne of grace, and such boldness and freedom there, should make use of it for others, as well as themselves, and particularly for fallen believers; for a "brother"; not in a natural or civil sense, but in a spiritual sense, one that is judged to be born again, and belongs to the family and household of God, and is a member of a Gospel church; and so is under the watch, inspection, and care of the saints; and is observed to sin, as the best of men are not without it, nor the commission of it, in thought, word, or deed: and this sin of his is

a sin which is not unto death; every sin, even the least sin, is in its own nature mortal, or deserving of death; the proper wages of sin is death, yea, death eternal; yet none of the sins of God's elect are unto death, or issue in death, in fact; which is owing not to any different nature there is in their sins, or to their good works which counterbalance them; but to the grace of God, and to the blood and righteousness of Christ, by which they are pardoned and justified, and freed from obligation to punishment, or eternal death, the just demerits of them: but how should another man know that a brother's sin is not unto death, when it is of the same nature and kind with another man's? it is known by this, that he does not continue in it; he does not live in the constant commission of it; his life is not a course of iniquity; that sin he sins is not a governing one in him; though he falls into it, he rises up out of it through divine grace, and abides not in it; and he has a sense of it, and is sorry for it, after a godly sort, loaths it, and himself for it; is ashamed of it, ingenuously confesses it, and mourns over it and forsakes it: now when any strong believer or spiritual man sees or knows that a brother has sinned, and this is his case,

he shall ask; he shall pray to God for him, that he would administer comfort to him, discover his love, and apply his pardoning grace to him, and indulge him with his presence and the light of his countenance:

and he shall give him life; that is, God shall give the sinning brother life; by which may be meant comfort, that which will revive his drooping spirits, and cause him to live cheerfully and comfortably, that so he may not be swallowed up with over much sorrow; or he shall grant a discovery of the pardon of his sin unto him, which will be as life from the dead, and will give him a comfortable hope of eternal life, of his right unto it, and meetness for it:

for them, or "to them"

that sin not unto death, as the Syriac and Arabic versions render it; for this phrase is only descriptive of the persons to whom life is given by God, upon the prayers of saints for them, and not that this life is given to him that prays, and by him to be given to the sinning person. The Vulgate Latin version renders the whole thus, "and life shall be given to him that sins not unto death"; which leaves the words without any difficulty: the Ethiopic version indeed renders it, "and he that prays shall quicken him that sins a sin not unto death"; and this sense some interpreters incline to, and would have with this text compared 1 Timothy 4:16.

There is a sin unto death; which is not only deserving of death, as every other sin is, but which certainly and inevitably issues in death in all that commit it, without exception; and that is the sin against the Holy Ghost, which is neither forgiven in this world nor in that to come, and therefore must be unto death; it is a sinning wilfully, not in a practical, but doctrinal way, after a man has received the knowledge of the truth; it is a wilful denial of the truth of the Gospel, particularly that peace, pardon, righteousness, eternal life, and salvation, are by Jesus Christ, contrary to the light of his mind, and this joined with malice and obstinacy; so that there is no more or other sacrifice for such a sin; there is nothing but a fearful looking for of wrath and fury to fall on such opposers of the way of life; and as the presumptuous sinners under Moses's law died without mercy, so must these despiteful ones under the Gospel; see Matthew 12:31. Some think there is an allusion to one of the kinds of excommunication among the Jews, called "shammatha", the etymology of which, according to some Jewish writers, is , "there is death" (t).

I do not say that he shall pray for it; the apostle does not expressly forbid to pray for the forgiveness of this sin, yet what he says amounts unto it; he gives no encouragement to it, or any hopes of succeeding, but rather the reverse; and indeed where this sin is known, or can be known, it is not to be prayed for, because it is irremissible; but as it is a most difficult point to know when a man has sinned it, the apostle expresses himself with great caution.

(t) T. Bab. Moed Katon, fol. 17. 1.

{15} If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, {l} 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.

(15) We have to make prayers not only for ourselves, but also for our brothers who sin, that their sins be not to death: and yet he excepts that sin which is never forgiven, or the sin against the Holy Spirit, that is to say, a universal and wilful falling away from the known truth of the gospel.

(l) This is as if he said, let him ask the Lord to forgive him, and he will forgive him being so asked.

1 John 5:16. The apostle applies the general thought expressed in 1 John 5:15 to a particular case, namely, to a prayer for one’s brother when one sees him committing sin.

ἐάν τις ἴδῃ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὑτοῦ] By ἐάν with the subjunctive the possibility is simply stated. By ἀδελφός we are to understand, according to the usus loquendi of the Epistle, not the neighbour in general (Calovius), but the Christian brother (αὑτοῦ), not exactly the “regenerate” (Düsterdieck); Ebrard erroneously: “first of all members of the Christian Church, yet without excluding those who are not Christians.”

ἁμαρτάνοντα ἁμαρτίαν μὴ πρὸς θάνατον] The phrase ἁμαρτάνειν ἁμαρτίαν is stronger and more expressive than ποιεῖν ἁμαρτίαν.

The sort of ἁμαρτία is more particularly defined by the addition μὴ πρὸς θάνατον. The negative μή (instead of which οὐ is used in 1 John 5:17) is explained by the fact that the idea is regarded as dependent on ἐάν τις ἴδῃ (comp. Winer, p. 421). The apostle distinguishes between the ἁμαρτία οὐ πρὸς θάνατον and the ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον. What sin is to be understood by the latter? The idea חֵטְא לָמוּת, LXX.: ἁμαρτία θανατηφόρος, is found already in the O. T. Numbers 18:22, whence the Rabbis distinguish between חטאח למיתה and חטאה לא למיתה (Schoettgen, Hor. hebr.); in accordance with this, as Schoettgen also interprets, the ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον would be that sin to which the Mosaic law assigned the punishment of death, as idolatry, adultery, etc.; but even if that Old Testament definition is the basis of John’s expression, yet it does not follow that he used the idea in the same sense; θάνατος may here, as distinguished from ζωή (καὶ δώσει αὐτῷ ζωήν), not mean bodily death. For this reason alone, therefore, the explanation of Morus and S. G. Lange is to be rejected, according to which that sort of sin is meant which is punished by the authorities with death or with other severe punishments (!), even apart from the fact that it makes the prayer of the Christian dependent on the penal decrees of civil law. But the opinion of Zachariae, Michaelis, and Linder (in the Zeitschrift für d. luth. Theol. of Rudelbach and Guericke, vol. IV. 1862), that here, as in Jam 5:14 ff., it is those who are in bodily sickness that are spoken of, and that such sin is meant as God punishes with deadly sickness or sudden death, is for the same reason unfounded.[319]

If θάνατος is not bodily death, then by πρὸς θάνατον the period to which the sin lasts cannot either be meant.

With reference to the ecclesiastical discipline exercised in the Church, the older Catholic theologians especially understood by the ἁμ. πρ. θάν., without further comment, all those sins which were punished by the punishment of excommunication. But even if the Church had always punished in that way the sin which John here has in view, yet that expression could not be explained by that practice.

As θάνατος is not bodily death, it is only spiritual death or damnation that can be meant by it; ἁμ. πρὸς θάνατον is therefore the sin which leads to damnation. But what sin is this? It is much too general to regard every grievous transgression as such. As Christ Himself refuses forgiveness absolutely only to one sin, the commentators who assent to the above view find themselves driven to an arbitrary weakening of πρὸς θάνατον; so Ambrosius (lib. de poenit.), when he says: quodvis peccatum gravissimum, quod vix remittitur; and still more strangely a Lapide: peccatum quodvis gravissimum, quod … juxta legem communem per gratiam, quam Deus ordinarie dare solet, est quasi immedicabile, incorrigibile et insanabile. It is more correct, indeed, to regard it as sin which is not repented of, and to find the characteristic of the ἁμ. πρ. θάν. in the impenitence of the sinner who will give heed to no exhortation (Grotius, Socinus, etc.); but even this cannot be the feature which John here has specially in view, because at the time of the commitment of a sin it cannot be decided whether it will be repented of or not. John must mean a ἁμαρτία, which in itself is characterized as a ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον. Many commentators accordingly fix the meaning of it on a single particular sin; thus Tertullian, who understands by it, moechia post baptismum commissa; Bede, who, following the precedent of Augustine,[320] understands by it the peccatum invidentiae, quo quis invidet fratri gratiam, virtutem et salutem; but then we do not see why John did not specifically and definitely mention this particular sin. We might therefore agree with those who take ἁμαρτία here as the description of a state, as Bengel, who thus interprets: talis status, in quo fides et amor et spes, in summa, vita nova exstincta est; but this is opposed by the apostle’s mode of expression, which plainly refers to a sinful deed, and not to a state. Though, on the one hand, a single sin cannot be meant (Calvin: non est partialis lapsus, nec praecepti unius transgressio), yet we must only think of a whole species of sins, or better, of such sinning as is characterized not by the object with which it is connected, but by the disposition from which it proceeds. For the further definition it is to be observed, as Lücke with justice points out, that it can “only be a class of sins of Christians, and not of those who are not Christians,” that is spoken of, and that “the distinction between the sin unto death and sin that is not unto death must be capable of being known.” It is true, every sin can be called a ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον, inasmuch as it tends in the direction of θάνατος, but every sin does not infallibly lead to θάνατος; so long as along with the ἁμαρτία there still exists an ἔχειν τὸν υἱόν (1 John 5:11-12), the sinning Christian is still in fellowship with the αἷμα Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ which cleanses him ἀπὸ πάσης ἁμαρτίας (chap. 1 John 1:7), and so long as he has a παράκλητος πρὸς τὸν πατέρα, namely, Jesus Christ the righteous (chap, 1 John 2:1), sin does not deprive him of the ζωὴ αἰώνιος, and is not therefore ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον; this it only is when it involves an actual falling away from Christ; de Wette and Lücke therefore rightly say that the sin unto death is the sin by which the Christian falls back again from the Christian’s ζωή into the θάνατος (comp. also Hofmann, Schriftbew. II. 2, p. 340), only it is not exactly the falling away itself that is to be understood, for this is an internal act which, as such, is invisible,[321] but rather the sinful conduct by which the internal loss of life with Christ externally operates and reveals itself (so also Braune).[322] It is incorrect of Düsterdieck (and similarly Ebrard) to understand by the sin unto death the antichristian denial that Jesus is the Christ; for if John had meant this, he would have expressed it definitely, so much the more as in the Epistle he is carrying on a polemic against that antichristianity. Just as little has Myrberg arrived at the correct explanation when on ἜΣΤΙΝ ἉΜΑΡΤΊΑ ΠΡῸς ΘΆΝΑΤΟΝ he remarks: varia genera peccatorum, quae mortem in sensu loci nostri adferant, vide enumerata, Galatians 5:18-21; for although Paul says: ὍΤΙ ΤᾺ ΤΟΙΑῦΤΑ ΠΡΆΣΣΟΝΤΕς ΒΑΣΙΛΕΊΑΝ ΘΕΟῦ Οὐ ΚΛΗΡΟΝΟΜΉΣΟΥΣΙΝ, yet it does not follow from this that no return is possible from such sins.

In the face of the apostle’s words the possibility of knowing the ἉΜΑΡΤΆΝΕΙΝ ΠΡΟς ΘΆΝ. cannot be denied, yet it is difficult to distinguish amongst the particular concrete manifestations; but, on the one hand, the Christian mind which is fitted for the ΚΡΊΣΙς will not decide without scrupulous examination; and, on the other hand, John himself shows by the ΜΉ that the decision can at any time be only a subjective one. The meaning of the sentence accordingly is: If any man see his brother sin in such a way that the sin which he commits does not involve absolute renunciation of Christ, and therefore does not necessarily bring condemnation with it, he shall pray for him.[323]

αἰτήσει is not to be understood of the united prayer of the Church as such (so Neander; Ewald also says: “Christian prayer, especially in the consecrated bosom of the Church”), but of every prayer of one for another. The future is not exactly used instead of the imperative; it rather expresses the certainty that, in the case stated, the Christian will pray, but in this there is certainly involved the injunction actually to do it. The substance of the prayer is indicated by the following.

καὶ δώσει αὐτῷ ζωήν] denotes the result of the prayer; very many, perhaps most commentators (Socinus, a Lapide, Lorinus, Grotius, Spener, Lücke, Sander, Erdmann, etc.), supply with δώσει as subject ὁ Θεός or ὁ αἰτούμενος (so also Winer, p. 463; VII. p. 487; Al. Buttm. p. 116, Anm.); a similar change of subject occurs in Acts 8:6; but considering the close connection of αἰτήσει and δώσει, along with which the similarity of the verbal form is also to be noticed, it is preferable, with Jerome, Sander, de Wette-Brückner,[324] Baumgarten-Crusius, Frommann (p. 674), Düsterdieck, Myrberg, Braune, etc., to assume the same subject with ΔΏΣΕΙ as with ΑἸΤΉΣΕΙ; then the sense is: he that prays gives the ΖΩΉ, inasmuch as God grants him his prayer. The idea finds its explanation in the fact that every sin brings with it a weakening of the ΖΩΉ; in order that he that sins may not remain in tins want, he requires a new infusion of life, and this is procured for him by the prayer of his believing brother. In addition to this, of course, the confession of his sin, with trust in the cleansing power of the blood of Christ (comp. chap. 1 John 1:7), is necessary on his part; but it is just in this that the blessing of the prayer consists, that he receives as the result of it the needful inclination for this.[325]

τοῖς ἁμαρτάνουσι μὴ πρὸς θάνατον] apposition to αὐτῷ; the plural serves only for generalization (de Wette, Winer, etc.); Bornemann (Bibl. Studien der süchs. Geistlichen, I. p. 71; and Alex. Buttm. p. 156) erroneously explains τοῖς ἁμαρτάνουσι as the dative commodi, referring αὐτῷ to the person that prays himself. By the following words: ἔστιν ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον, the apostle brings out that there is really a sin unto death, with which he connects the observation: οὐ περὶ ἐκείνης λέγω ἵνα ἐρωτήσῃ. Most commentators find in this a prohibition, even though mildly expressed, of prayer in reference to the sin unto death; but this is not contained here, as Grotius, Hornejus, Besser, Myrberg, Ebrard, Brückner, etc., rightly observe; for the negative οὐ does not belong to ἐρωτήσῃ, but to λέγω; if the negative was to be referred to the former, it would have had to be μή. The sense is: My injunction does not mean (οὐ λέγω) that a man is to offer prayer (ἵνα ἐρωτήσῃ) in reference to (περί) the sin πρὸς θάνατον.[326]

The words do not express more than this, although it is admitted that in the emphasizing of Οὐ ΛΈΓΩ a warning is indicated (similarly Braune); John does not want to make a duty of a prayer, to which the certain assurance of being granted is wanting; he therefore adds this limitation to his exhortation to prayer (so also Besser): a formal prohibition would only he appropriate if the ἁμαρτάνειν πρ. θάν. was always cognizable as such. It is observable that John does not say here ΑἸΤΉΣῌ, but ἘΡΩΤΉΣῌ; ἘΡΩΤᾷΝ (lit. “to ask”) is a milder idea than ΑἸΤΕῖΝ (lit. “to demand”); the apostle warns against the ἘΡΩΤᾷΝ, and, of course, much more against the more urgent ΑἸΤΕῖΝ.[327]

[319] Linder, it is true, remarks against this that a new section begins with ver. 13, but even in that verse ζωή is used in the spiritual sense. The above view is also opposed by the fact that it assumes in John the opinion that deadly sickness or sudden death is always divine punishment for a special sin, which can neither be justified by Acts 5 nor by 1 Corinthians 11:30. The appeal to Jam 5:14 ff. is so much the more inappropriate, as John hero in no way suggests that he is speaking of those who are in bodily sickness. It is therefore quite arbitrary for Linder to interpret καὶ δώσει αὐτῷ ζωήν: “God will grant to him pardon and recovery.

[320] Augustine (de serm. Dei in monte Matt. lib. l. c. 22, § 73) says: Peccatum fratris ad mortem puto esse, cum post agnitionem Dei per gratiam.… Jesu Christi quisque oppugnat fraternitatem et adversus ipsam gratiam … invidentiae facibus agitatur. Yet Augustine is not consistent in his interpretation; in the Retractations he adds further: si in hac perversitate finierit vitam; in his work, de corrept. et gratia, c. 12, § 35, he explains the idea by: fidem, quae per dilectionem operatur, deserere usque ad mortem.

This also contradicts Ebrard’s interpretation, according to which the ἁμ. πρ. θάν. is “the act of inward rejection;” although Ebrard is correct when he says: “πρὸς θάν. is that sort of sinning which has resulted in a corruption of the soul, from which the return to πίστις and ζωή is no longer possible to him.”

[322] Several commentators, as Calvin, Beza, Calovius, Heumann, Sander, etc., identify this sin with the sin against the Holy Ghost in Matthew 12:31 ff.; certainly the ἁμαρτία meant here is not imaginable without a βλασφημία τοῦ πνεύματος; and the βλασφημία τ. τν. has θάνατος as its reward; but the ideas do not quite coincide, for (1) the βλασφημία τ. πν. may occur even on the part of non-Christians, but it is the sin of the Christian that is spoken of here; and (2) the former is completed in words (εἰπεῖν κατὰ τοῦ πνεόματος τ. ἁγ.), but the ἁμ. πρ. θάν. can only consist in further action.

[323] When Linder (as above quoted) remarks against this explanation that “the decision whether a sin is a ἁμ. πρ. θ. or not is objectively made by God Himself, and must be cognizable in some outward manifestation,” we may reply that even the occurrence of bodily death cannot be regarded as a certain proof; for even though God sometimes ordains it as a punishment of the sinner, yet it occurs also when it is not to be concluded that there is special guilt.

[324] Brückner seems, however, to be doubtful, as he remarks: “if there were only an αὐτός, or a similar indication!”

[325] It is to weaken the thought of the apostle if, with Rickli, we find the blessing of the prayer only in this, that he who prays is himself led thereby to a right relation toward his brother. According to the apostle’s view, the prayer rather brings blessing directly to the brother, for as James (1 John 5:16) says: πολὺ ἰσχύει δέησις δικαίου ἐνεργουμένη.

[326] As Neander thinks that it is only Church prayer that is spoken of here, he interprets: “one who sins πρὸς θάνατον is not to be included in the united prayer of the Church for sinners in general, so that he may not be confirmed in his sin and be led to a false trust in the prayer of others;” but John in no way indicates that he is speaking only of Church prayer.

[327] Braune unsuitably says that “αἰτεῖν implies conversation; ἐρωτᾷν, on the other hand, equalization of him who prays with him whom he addresses.”

1 John 5:16. After the grand assurance that prayer is always heard, never unanswered, the Apostle specifies one kind of prayer, viz., Intercession, in the particular case of a “brother,” i.e. a fellow-believer, who has sinned. Prayer will avail for his restoration, with one reservation—that his sin be “not unto death”. The reference is to those who had been led astray by the heresy, moral and intellectual, which had invaded the churches of Asia Minor (see Introd. pp. 156 f.) They had closed their ears to the voice of Conscience and their eyes to the light of the Truth, and they were exposed to the operation of that law of Degeneration which obtains in the physical, moral, intellectual, and spiritual domains. E.g., a bodily faculty, if neglected, atrophis (cf. note on 1 John 2:11). So in the moral domain disregard of truth destroys veracity. Acts make habits, habits character. So also in the intellectual domain. Cf. Darwin to Sir J. D. Hooker, June 17, 1868: “I am glad you were at the Messiah, it is the one thing that I should like to hear again, but I daresay I should find my soul too dried up to appreciate it as in old days; and then I should feel very flat, for it is a horrid bore to feel as I constantly do, that I am a withered leaf for every subject except Science”. And so in the spiritual domain. There are two ways of killing the soul: (1) The benumbing and hardening practice of disregarding spiritual appeals and stifling spiritual impulses. Cf. Reliq. Baxter, I. i. 29 “Bridgnorth had made me resolve that I would never go among a People that had been hardened in unprofitableness under an awakening Ministry; but either to such as had never had any convincing Preacher, or to such as had profited by him”. (2) A decisive apostasy, a deliberate rejection. This was the case of those heretics. They had abcured Christ and followed Antichrist. This is what Jesus calls ἡ τοῦ Πνεύματος βλασφημία (Matthew 12:31-32 = Mark 3:28-30). It inflicts a mortal wound on the man’s spiritual nature. He can never be forgiven because he can never repent. He is “in the grip of an eternal sin (ἔνοχος αἰωνίου ἁμαρτήματος)”. Cf. Hebrews 4:4-6. This is “sin unto death”. Observe how tenderly St. John speaks: There is a fearful possibility of a man putting himself beyond the hope of restoration; but we can never tell when he has crossed the boundary. If we were sure that it was a case of “sin unto death,” then we should forbear praying; but, since we can never be sure, we should always keep on praying. So long as a man is capable of repentance, he has not sinned unto death. “Quamdiu enim veniæ relinquitur locus, mors prorsus imperium nondum occupat” (Calv.). δώσει, either (1) “he (the intercessor) will give to him (the brother),” τοῖς ἁμαρτ. being in apposition to αὐτῷ, “to him, i.e. to them that, etc.”; or (2) “He (God) will give to him (the intercessor) life for them that, etc.” The former avoids an abrupt change of subject, and the attribution to the intercessor of what God does through him is paralleled by Jam 5:20.

16. ‘The prayer of faith’ is all-prevailing when it is in accordance with God’s will. This is the sole limit as regards prayer on our own behalf. Is there any other limit in the case of prayer on behalf of another? Yes, there is that other’s own will: this will prove a further limitation. Man’s will has been endowed by God with such royal freedom, that not even His will coerces it. Still less, therefore, can a brother’s prayer coerce it. If a human will has deliberately and obstinately resisted God, and persists in doing so, we are debarred from our usual certitude. Against a rebel will even the prayer of faith in accordance with God’s will (for of course God desires the submission of the rebel) may be offered in vain.—For exhortations to intercession elsewhere in N. T. see 1 Thessalonians 5:25; Hebrews 13:18-19; James 5:14-20; comp. Php 1:4.

If any man see his brother] Here it is obvious that ‘brother’ must mean ‘fellow-Christian’, not any one whether Christian or not.

sin a sin] More accurately, as R.V., sinning a sin: the supposed case is one in which the sinner is seen in the very act. The phrase ‘to sin a sin’ occurs nowhere else in N.T. Comp. Leviticus 5:6; Leviticus 5:10; Leviticus 5:13; Ezekiel 18:24.

he shall ask] Future for imperative; or, he will ask, i.e. a Christian in such a case is sure to pray for his erring brother. The latter seems preferable.

and he shall give him life] The Greek is ambiguous. ‘He’ may mean either God or the intercessor, and ‘him’ may mean either the intercessor or the sinner for whom he intercedes. If the latter alternatives be taken, we may compare ‘he shall save a soul from death’ (James 5:20). Commentators are much divided. On the one hand it is urged that throughout Scripture asking is man’s part and giving God’s: but, on the other hand, when two verbs are connected so closely as these, ‘will ask and will give’ (αἰτήσει καὶ δώσει), it seems rather violent to give them different nominatives; ‘he will ask and God will give’. It seems better to translate; he will ask and will give him life,—them that sin not unto death. ‘Them’ is in apposition to ‘him’, the clause being an explanation rather awkwardly added, similar to that at the end of 1 John 5:13. If ‘God’ be inserted, ‘them’ is the dativus commodi; ‘God will grant the intercessor life for those who sin’. The change to the plural makes the statement more general: ‘sinning not unto death’ is not likely to be an isolated case. The Vulgate is here exceedingly free; petat, et dabitur ei vita peccanti non ad mortem. Tertullian also ignores the change of number; postulabit, et dabit ei vitam dominus qui non ad mortem delinquit.

There is a sin unto death] Or, There is sin unto death; we have no τις or μία in the Greek, a fact which is against the supposition that any act of sin is intended. In that case would not S. John have named it, that the faithful might avoid it, and also know when it had been committed? The following explanations of ‘sin unto death’ may be safely rejected. 1. Sin punished by the law with death. 2. Sin punished by Divine visitation with death or sickness. 3. Sin punished by the Church with excommunication. As a help to a right explanation we may get rid of the idea which some commentators assume, that ‘sin unto death’ is a sin which can be recognised by those among whom the one who commits it lives. S. John’s very guarded language points the other way. He implies that some sins may be known to be ‘not unto death’: he neither says nor implies that all ‘sin unto death’ can be known as such. As a further help we may remember that no sin, if repented of, can be too great for God’s mercy. Hence S. John does not speak even of this sin as ‘fatal’ or ‘mortal’, but as ‘unto death’ (πρὸς θάνατον). Death is its natural, but not its absolutely inevitable consequence. It is possible to close the heart against the influences of God’s Spirit so obstinately and persistently that repentance becomes a moral impossibility. Just as the body may starve itself to such an extent as to make the digestion, or even the reception, of food impossible; so the soul may go on refusing offers of grace until the very power to receive grace perishes. Such a condition is necessarily sin, and ‘sin unto death’. No passing over out of death into life (1 John 3:14) is any longer (without a miracle of grace) possible. ‘Sin unto death’, therefore, is not any act of sin, however heinous, but a state or habit of sin wilfully chosen and persisted in: it is constant and consummate opposition to God. In the phraseology of this Epistle we might say that it is the deliberate preference of darkness to light, of falsehood to truth, of sin to righteousness, of the world to the Father, of spiritual death to eternal life.

I do not say that he shall pray for it] More accurately, not concerning that do I say that he should make request. This reproduces the telling order of the Greek; it avoids the ambiguity which lurks in ‘pray for it’; it preserves the emphatic ‘that’; and marks better the difference between the verb (αἰτεῖν) previously rendered ‘ask’ (1 John 5:14-16) and the one (ἐρωτᾷν) here rendered ‘pray’. Of the two verbs the latter is the less suppliant (see on John 14:16), whereas ‘pray’ is more suppliant than ‘ask’. Two explanations of the change of verb are suggested. 1. The Apostle does not advise request, much less does he advise urgent supplication in such a case. 2. He uses the less humble word to express a request which seems to savour of presumption. See on 2 John 1:5.

(1) Note carefully that S. John, even in this extreme case, does not forbid intercession: all he says is that he does not command it. For one who sins an ordinary sin we may intercede in faith with certainty that a prayer so fully in harmony with God’s will is heard. The sinner will receive grace to repent. But where the sinner has made repentance morally impossible S. John does not encourage us to intercede. Comp. Jeremiah 7:16; Jeremiah 14:11.

(2) Note also that, while distinguishing between deadly and not deadly sin, he gives us no criterion by which we may distinguish the one from the other. He thus condemns rather than sanctions those attempts which casuists have made to tabulate sins under the heads of ‘mortal’ and ‘venial’. Sins differ indefinitely in their intensity and effect on the soul, ending at one end of the scale in ‘sin unto death’; and the gradations depend not merely or chiefly on the sinful act, but on the motive which prompted it, and the feeling (whether of sorrow or delight) which the recollection of it evokes. Further than this it is not safe to define or dogmatize. This seems to be intimated by what is told us in the next verse. Two facts are to be borne in mind, and beyond them we need not pry.

1 John 5:16. Ἐάν τις, if any one) The most important of all cases is added, that you are able to pray even for another, in a most serious matter: comp. ch. 1 John 2:1.—ἴδῃ, shall see) This sin can therefore be known by the regenerate.—ἁμαρτάνοντα ἁμαρτίαν, μὴ πρὸς θάνατον, sinning a sin, not unto death) A sin of any kind, provided that it is not unto death.—μὴ, not) a form of excepting (Matthew 19:9), has greater force than οὐ, not, 1 John 5:17. As long as it is not evident that it is a sin unto death, it is lawful to pray.—θάνατον, death) Respecting the disease of which Lazarus died, but shortly afterwards was raised from the dead, it is said, It is not unto death, John 11:4, note: but Hezekiah was sick למות, unto death, Isaiah 38:1, had he not recovered by a miracle. But John is here speaking of death and life, as ch. 1 John 3:14. Moreover what is meant by a sin unto death, is declared from the opposite, in 1 John 5:17, where the subject is, all unrighteousness; the predicate consists of two members, sin, and that coming short of death. Therefore any unrighteousness, which is committed in common life, is a sin not unto death. But sin unto death is not an ordinary or sudden sin, but a state of the soul, in which faith, and love, and hope, in short, the new life, is extinguished: when any one knowingly and willingly embraces death, not from the allurements of the flesh, but from the love of sin, as sin. It is a deliberate rejection of grace. A man puts from him life, while he commits this sin: how then can others procure for him life? Yet there is also set forth [there is such a thing as] a sin that is to the death of the body; for instance, in the case of the people, for whom the prophet thrice made entreaty, he is forbidden to make entreaty: Jeremiah 7:16; Jeremiah 11:14; Jeremiah 14:11; Jeremiah 15:1-2. Yea, even Moses himself committed a sin unto death, of this nature; unto death, not to be made the subject of entreaty: Deuteronomy 3:26; comp. 1 Samuel 2:25; 1 Samuel 3:14, respecting the house of Eli; and, on the other hand, respecting the averting of sins and diseases by means of prayer, Jam 5:14-18.—αἰτήσει, he shall ask) namely, ὁ παῤῥησιαστής, he who has confidence.—δώσει.” He will give) namely, God, when entreated.—αὐτῷ, to him) the brother.—ζωὴν, life) Therefore he who sins unto death is in a state of death, and yet he sins further unto death.—τοῖς) ל, that is, as far as relates to those who sin not unto death.—ἔστιν ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον, there is a sin unto death) The chief commandment is faith and love. Therefore the chief sin is that by which faith and love are destroyed. In the former case is life; in the latter, death. The sin, however, which is here pointed out, is not such as we call mortal, as are all the sins of the unregenerate, ch. 1 John 3:14, and some sins of the brethren who relapse: and these alone properly need that life should be given to them.—οὐλέγω, I do not—say) for I say—not. An expression full of character, and Attie. God does not wish that the righteous should pray in vain: Deuteronomy 3:26. If, therefore, he who has committed sin unto death is brought back to life, that proceeds entirely from the mercy [the mere prerogative] of God.—ἐκείνης, for it) The word here has the force of removing.—ἐρωτήσῃ) He just before used the word αἰτήσει. There is a difference between the two words:[25] John 11:22, note. Here we are enjoined not only not αἰτεῖν, but not even ἐρωτᾷν. Ἐρωτήσῃ is as it were the generic word: αἰτεῖν is the species, as it were, of a more humble kind. Not only αἰτεῖν is removed, but also the genus. This species, αἰτεῖν, does not occur in the prayers of Christ. Αἰτεῖν is suitable to the case of one who is as it were conquered, and a criminal.

[25] Αἰτέω, like ‘peto,’ is more submissive and suppliant, and expresses the seeking of the inferior from the superior. But ἐρωτάω, like ‘rogo,’ implies a certain equality or familiarity in the asker, with him from whom the favour is sought: therefore nowhere in the New Testament does it express the prayer of mere man to God; but is appropriated to Christ, who, on the other hand, never uses αἰτοῦμαι. Here 1 John 5:16 may seem an exception; but its change from αἰτήσει of the earlier clause to ἐρωτήσῃ is a strong confirmation of it: “If any man see his brother sin a sin not unto death, he shall ask or beg, αἰτήσει, and He (God) shall give him (the petitioner) life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death. I do not say that he shall request or intercede (authoritatively), ἐρωτήσῃ, for it.” The Christian is not to assume the authority which would be implied in making request for a sinner who has sinned the sin unto death; Mark 3:29; 1 Samuel 15:35; 1 Samuel 16:1. See Trench, Syn. N. T.—E.

Verse 16. - How does this position respecting God's hearing our prayers affect the question of intercession for the salvation of others, and especially of an erring brother? If any prayer can be made with confidence of success, surely it is this. It is an unselfish prayer; a prayer of love. It is also a prayer in harmony with God's will; a prayer for the extension of his kingdom. St. John points out that this reasonable expectation has limits. The prayer of one human being can never cancel another's free-will. If God's will does not override man's will, neither can a fellow-man's prayer. When a human will has been firmly and persistently set in opposition to the Divine will, our intercession will be of no avail. And this seems to be the meaning of "sin unto death; "willful and obstinate rejection of God's grace and persistence in unrepented sin. "Death" corresponds to the life spoken of above; and if the one is eternal (verse 13), so is the other. Sins punished with loss of life in this world, whether by human law or by Divine retribution, cannot be meant. Christians have before now suffered agonies of mind, fearing that they have committed what they suppose to be the "sin unto death." Their fear is evidence that they have not committed any such sin. But if they despair of pardon, they may come near to it. There are certain statements made respecting this mysterious passage against which we must be on our guard. It is laid down as a canon of interpretation that the sin unto death is one which can be known, which can be recognized as such by the intercessor. St. John neither says nor implies this. He implies that some sins may be known to be not unto death. Again, it is asserted that he forbids us to pray concerning sin which is unto death. The apostle is much more reserved. lie encourages us to intercede for a sinning brother with full confidence of success. But there is a limit to this. The sinner may be sinning unto death; and in that case St. John cannot encourage us to pray. Casuistical classifications of sins under the heads of mortal and venial have been based upon this passage. It lends no authority to such attempts; and they have worked untold mischief in the Church. The apostle tells us that the distinction between mortal and venial exists; but he supplies us with no test by which one man can judge another in this respect. By pointedly abstaining from making any classification of sins into mortal and venial, he virtually condemns the making. What neither he nor St. Paul ventured to do we may well shrink from doing. The same overt act may be mortal sin in one case and not in another. It is the attitude of mind with which the sinner contemplates his act before and after commission that makes all the difference; and how seldom can this be known to his fellow-men! The change from αἰτεῖν to ἐρωτᾷν is noteworthy. The former is used in verses 14, 15, and the beginning of verse 16; the latter at the end of verse 16. The latter is the less humble word of the two, being often used of equals or superiors requesting compliance with their wishes. Perhaps St. John uses it here to indicate that a prayer of this kind is not a humble one. 1 John 5:16If any man see (ἐάν τις ἴδῃ)

A supposed case.

His brother

Christian brother.

Sin a sin (ἁμαρτάνοντα ἁμαρτίαν)

Lit., as Rev., sinning a sin. There is no exact parallel to the phrase in the New Testament. Compare the promise which He promised, 1 John 2:25.

Not unto death (μὴ πρὸς θάνατον)

Describing the nature of the sin. The preposition unto, signifies tendency toward, not necessarily involving death. See on 1 John 5:17.

He shall ask (αἰτήσει)

In prayer. The future tense expresses not merely permission (it shall be permitted him to ask), but the certainty that, as a Christian brother, he will ask. An injunction to that effect is implied.

He shall give

He may refer either to God or to the petitioner, as being the means of bestowing life through his intercession, as in James 5:20. The former explanation is the more natural. So Rev.

Him (αὐτῷ)

The brother for whom intercession is made.


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