1 John 5:16
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he should ask God, who will give life to those who commit this kind of sin. There is a sin that leads to death; I am not saying he should ask regarding that sin.
A Call to BackslidersJohn Wesley 1 John 5:16
AssuranceR. Finlayson 1 John 5:13-17
The Christian's Prayer for His BrethrenW. Jones 1 John 5:16, 17
The Mortal SinJ. N. Pearson, M. A.1 John 5:16-17
The Sin unto DeathH. Bonar, D. D.1 John 5:16-17
The Sin unto DeathJ. M. Gibbon.1 John 5:16-17
The Sin unto DeathBp. Harvey Goodwin.1 John 5:16-17
If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, etc. Having expressed his assurance as to the efficacy of the prayers of Christians generally (verses 14, 15), the apostle here brings forward a special case in which prayer may be beneficently exercised, viz. on behalf of an erring brother, Notice -

I. THE OCCASION OF PRAYER FOR THE BRETHREN. We do not mean that St. John would restrict our prayers to any one occasion, but he mentions one in which they may be profitably exercised. "If any man see his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask," etc.

1. The liability of a brother to sin. Whether we limit the term "brother" to those who are believers in Christ - Christian brethren, or take it in its broadest signification of our fellow-men, it is true that they are liable to sin. Genuine Christians are so (cf. 1 John 1:8, 10). The grave fact of temptation to sin, the proneness of man to sin, the moral weakness in some respects of even good men, the history of the godly, the teachings of tile Bible, and our own experience, - these show our liability to sin.

2. The knowledge of a brother's sin. "If any man see his brother sinning a sin." The sin spoken of is not a secret one. The knowledge of it is not derived either from irresponsible rumour or from malignant slander. To these we should pay no heed. We should discredit them, and seek to extinguish them. But it is immediate, direct, and certain.

3. Prayer for a brother because of his sin. "If any man see his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask," etc. Without entering at present upon the inquiry of what is the "sin unto death," we may say, with Ebrard, that taking the statements and directions of the text as to "sin not unto death" "in their simple meaning, the only thing laid down and presupposed is this - that a sin which is not unto death may be surely known as such. That any particular sin which another may commit, as also the general state in which he may be found, is not unto death - that he may still repent and be converted - this may be easily and with the utmost confidence known. And where this is known with certainty, where there is no necessity for thinking another to be hardened and past salvation, there must prayer be offered." We know a great many sins which men commit for which there is forgiveness with God, and in all such cases, unhindered by any question as to the "sin unto death," we should pray to God for the sinner. But more than this, is not Barnes right in saying, "It may be said now with truth, that as we can never be certain respecting any one that he has committed the unpardonable sin, there is no one for whom we may not with propriety pray"? Let us, then, learn from our text what our conduct should be towards a sinning brother. We are not to sit in judgment on him and condemn him, not to spread abroad the fact of his sin, not to turn away from him as if he were unclean and we holy, not, on the other hand, to make light of his sin. Such, alas! is the treatment very often dealt to a brother who has sinned. But so should not we do. As Christians, our duty is to pray for him. Such prayer is not optional, but obligatory; it is not a thing which we may do, but which we ought to do. "He shall ask." In this spirit St. Paul exhorted the Galatian Christians, "Brethren, even if a man be overtaken in any trespass, ye which are spiritual, restore such a one," etc. (Galatians 6:1).

II. THE ENCOURAGEMENT TO PRAY FOR THE BROTHER WHO HAS SINNED, "He shall ask, and God will give him life for them that sin not unto death." How unspeakably great and precious is the blessing which by our prayers we may secure for our erring brother! As a result of our petitions on his behalf, God will grant him forgiveness of his sins and confer upon him spiritual life. How exalted and glorious a boon is this! The knowledge that we may obtain such a blessing for him should prove a powerful stimulus to us to pray for the brother who has sinned. How can we do other than pray for him when our prayers may have such a glorious issue? "My brethren, if any among you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins" (James 5:19, 20).

III. THE LIMITATION TO OUR PRAYERS FOR THE BROTHER WHO HAS SINNED. "There is a sin unto death: not concerning this do I say that he should make request." What are we to understand by the "sin unto death"? With a view of ascertaining this, let us endeavour to fix upon the meaning of "death" here. There are three distinct uses of the word in the sacred Scriptures.

(1) The death of the body.

(2) That death of the spirit which is common to all men apart from the renewing grace of God. "Dead by reason of trespasses and sins."

(3) The eternal death, which is the antithesis of the "eternal life" which God gives through Jesus Christ (verses 11-13). Now, "death" in the text cannot mean either

(1) the death of the body, for that is the lot of all men; or

(2) the spiritual death above mentioned, for every sin tends to such death. If we are right thus far, and in this also that the death must be the antithesis of the life, we conclude that it must be that death which is the just retribution of those who have deliberately and resolutely rejected the Christ. Such a sin involves the abiding loss of the life which is derived through him (verse 12). The rejection of the Christ necessarily involves the renunciation of the life. If a man deliberately and decidedly rejects the only Being through whom he can obtain eternal life, what remains for him but to abide in the dark night of death? For such persons St. John does not encourage us to pray. He neither prohibits nor commands us to pray for them. The negation belongs to the "I say," not to the "he should make request." "Not concerning this do I say that he should make request." The encouragement to offer prayer for those whose sin is not unto death is withheld in respect to prayer for those who have committed the sin unto death.


1. Let the fact that it is possible to commit a sin which is unto death lead us to watchfulness and prayer against every sin and all sin. Beware of beginnings in evil.

2. Let this gracious assurance as to the result of prayer for those who have sinned lead us to he often at the throne of grace on behalf of our brethren. - W.J.

There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it
The sin mentioned here is not the same as the "sin against the Holy Ghost." The persons spoken of as respectively guilty are very different from each other. In the latter sin it is the Scribes and Pharisees, the malignant enemies of Christ; in the case before us it is a Christian brother that is the offender: "If any man see 'his brother' sin." This clears the way so far, or at least it narrows the ground, and so facilitates our inquiry. Much depends on the meaning of the expression, "a sin unto death." Death may mean either temporal or eternal death; either the death of the soul or that of the body. In the passage before us it seems to mean such a sin as God would chastise with disease and death, though He would not exclude the doer of it from His kingdom. In the case of Moses, we have this paternal chastisement involving death. The most remarkable instance of the kind is in the Corinthian Church (1 Corinthians 11:30). Weakness, sickliness, and death were the three forms of chastisement with which the Corinthian Church was visited. These passages show the true meaning of our text. The sin unto death is a sin such as God chastises by the infliction of disease and death. What this sin is we do not know. It was not the same sin in all, but different in each. In the case of the Corinthian Church unworthy communicating was "the sin unto death"; but what it was in others is not recorded. But then the question would arise, How are we to know when a sin is unto death, and when it is not unto death, so that we may pray in faith? The last clause of the 16th verse answers this question. It admits that there is a sin unto death: which admission is thus put in the 17th verse: "All unrighteousness is sin; but all sin is not unto death." But what does the apostle mean by saying, in the end of the 16th verse, "I do not say that he shall pray for it"? If we cannot know when a sin is unto death, and when not, what is the use of saying, "I do not say that he shall pray for it"? The word translated "pray" means also "inquire," and is elsewhere translated so (John 1:19). (See also John 1:21, 25; John 5:12; John 9:2; John 19:21) If thus rendered the meaning would be, "I say he is to ask no questions about that." That is to say, if he sees a brother sick and ready to die, he is not to say, Has he committed a sin unto death, or has he not? He is just to pray, letting alone all such inquiries, and leaving the matter in the hands of God, who, in answer to prayer, will raise him up, if he have not committed the sin unto death. Let us now come to the lessons of our text.

1. Don't puzzle yourself with hard questions about the particular kind of sins committed. Be satisfied that it is sin, and deal with it as such. It is not the nature or the measure of its punishment that you have to consider, but its own exceeding sinfulness.

2. Be concerned about a brother's welfare.

3. Don't trifle with sin. Count no sin trivial, either in yourself or another. Do not extenuate guilt.

4. Take it at once to God.

(H. Bonar, D. D.)

Noble men and women have gone mad over this sentence. In the shadows of this mystery the gentle spirit of William Cowper wandered many a weary month, wounding itself with bitterest accusations — the noble intellect distraught, "like sweet bells jangled out of tune," weaving the phantasies of despair — the burden of its sad song being, "There is a sin unto death."

I. There are DEGREES in sin. Guilt has its gradations. There are sins of ignorance and of deliberation — of weakness and of wickedness: sins which show a lack of goodwill, and others that express intense malignity of will. There are the sins of a Peter, and there are the sins of a Judas.

II. EVERY ONE SIN TENDS TO OTHERS MORE GUILTY THAN ITSELF. It gives the will a wrong bias. It breaks the prestige of virtue. Fact tries to become precedent. Acts become habits. Choice hardens into destiny. Sin becomes master and the sinner a slave.

III. THIS SAD DEVELOPMENT REACHES ITS CLIMAX IN THE SIN UNTO DEATH. Beyond this it cannot go. What then can it be? It is evidently not any one act or word. It .is a condition, a settled state of heart and mind — a state of opposition to and hatred of good as good, and God as God. The sin unto death is unbelief of heart and mind: rejection of the holy as holy.

IV. THIS IS SIN UNTO DEATH. It hath no forgiveness under law or gospel. Why? How so? Because God will not? No. The way of return to God is closed against no one who does not close it against himself. The unholy cannot be saved.

V. LET US LOOK AT OUR RELATION TO THE SIN UNTO DEATH. With regard to ourselves let us not yield to morbid fears, nor sleep in over security. The door is never closed till we close it, and yet all sin tends to the sin unto death. Let us then beware of all sin.

(J. M. Gibbon.)

The leading thought which St. John had in his mind was not the distinction between different kinds of sin, but the efficacy of a Christian's prayers. He shows it to be an immediate consequence of our faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, that we should offer up our prayers in full confidence that those prayers will be heard, and that they will be answered, provided only that the petition is in accordance with God's holy will; and then he applies it to the question of intercession one for another; he would have us to remember, that if we have the privilege of coming to God's mercy seat, we ought not to use the privilege merely on our own behalf, but that we ought to pray for our brethren as well; and we may even pray for the forgiveness of their sins. But does this direction extend to all kinds of sins? Is there no limit to the power of intercession to obtain forgiveness of sin? St. John asserts that there is a limitation; he says that a Christian may obtain forgiveness for his brother by intercession, provided that the sin for which he prays has not been a deadly sin, a sin unto death. And though it may be very difficult to draw an exact line between the two kinds of sin of which the apostle speaks, yet we may sufficiently illustrate his meaning by taking two extreme cases. On the one hand, take the faults and failings which beset the very best amongst Christ's disciples; or again, taking the great question of steadfastness in the faith, which in St. John's day was a question of overwhelming importance to every Christian, one Christian might see his "brother sinning a sin not unto death" in this respect; then the faults of a weak brother such as this would be, as I conceive, a proper subject for the intercession of his brethren. But take the other extreme, suppose a man who has known what is right to have turned his back upon his convictions and to have wallowed in the filth of sin, or suppose you knew him to have committed any atrocious sin, would you have any reasonable ground to intercede for such a person at the throne of grace, and to expect to obtain forgiveness for him? Or suppose a person not merely to have shown some faltering and weakness concerning the faith, but to have openly and expressly denied the faith (which may have been the case that St. John had chiefly in his mind), then would a Christian have any right to ask for the forgiveness of this sin? It seems to me that in this case the very nature of the sin cuts off all possibility of intercession; for to intercede for pardon would be to plead those merits of Christ the virtue of which the apostate has himself expressly renounced.

(Bp. Harvey Goodwin.)

In very deed there is no sin that is not unto death, in a momentous sense of the words, although the inspired penman, when viewing the subject under another aspect, affirms that "there is a sin which is not unto death." Alienation from God is the essence of sin; and since God is life, the slightest estrangement from Him is a tendency to death.

1. The sin unto death appears sometimes to be a single deed of extraordinary wickedness. It seems to extinguish conscience at a blast, and to rob the moral sense of all its energy and discernment. It breaks down the barriers which had hitherto restrained the vicious tendencies of nature; and forth they flow in a vast irrepressible torrent. In a moment it produces an impassable gulf between God and the soul. It turns the man into a bravo: it makes him desperate and reckless. He has taken the leap; he has made the plunge; and on he goes, wherever unbridled concupiscence or malignity may urge him, "as a horse rusheth into the battle."

2. Still more common is that ruin of the soul which grows out of the long indulgence of comparatively small sins. When people go on sipping sin, although abstaining from a large draught; when, in spite of a reproving conscience, they persist in practices to which the lust of gain, or of pleasure, incites them, not pretending that these practices are altogether right, but only that they are not extremely wrong; when the protest of the inward monitor against this or the other misdeed is put aside with the base apology, But, "is it not a little one"; it may well be feared that the Holy Ghost, disgusted with such double dealing, will leave the heart a prey to its own deceitfulness.

3. Habitual carelessness in matters of religion is also a sin against the Holy Ghost, which, after a certain continuance, "bringeth forth death." If absolute, irretrievable ruin is no rare fruit of careless indolence, in the business of this world, or, I should rather say, is its natural consequence, why should we deem it unlikely that everlasting ruin, in another world, will prove the consequence of having neglected in our lifetime religion and the interests of the soul? To slight the message, and hardly give it a thought, seems to me an outrage even more atrocious than that of rejecting it after examination.

4. Unprofitableness under means of grace, there is reason to suspect, becomes in numerous instances the sin unto death. A dull insensibility steals over the soul that has repeatedly been plied in vain with spiritual incentives, till at length a lethargy possesses it, invincible to human urgency, from which it will not awake till the day of judgment.

(J. N. Pearson, M. A.)

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