1 John 5:16 (ESV) states, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.”
What is the sin leading to death and the one that does not? Part of answering this question means defining the terms “brother” and “life” an “death.” In 1 John, a brother is a fellow believer (cf. 1 John 2:9, 10, 11; 3:10, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17; 4:20, 21), life is eternal life (cf. 1 John 1:1, 2; 2:25; 3:14, 15; 5:11, 12, 13, 20), and death is eternal death (cf. 1 John 3:14; 5:17). In keeping these definitions in 1 John 5:16, we must understand how God gives eternal life to a brother who already possesses eternal life.
A Sin Not Leading to Death
For this sin, notice that is something observable, something “anyone sees.” At the same time, it is unspecified. It is also ongoing, something someone is “committing.” It is committed by a believer, “his brother.” Finally, it will end because the prayer will be answered by God’s giving of life to the sinning brother.
In attempting to understand how God gives life to the brother who already has it, while eternal life is something experienced and present, it is also something future and promised, as said by John himself (cf. 1 John 2:25). This being said, John states that life is something God “will give” (future tense) to the sinning brother. Thus, the believer is praying that God will do what will take place, to give the sinning brother what is coming to him, eternal life in time to come. Assumedly, the sinning brother repents and is thereby assured that this life will indeed be his to enjoy.
Sin That Leads to Death
For this sin, it, too, is observable and thus the believer knows he is not obligated to include the matter in his prayers (though he can if desired). We can assume that is committed by an unbeliever if it leads to death because believers cannot lose their eternal life (cf. John 10:28–29).
Finally, this sin is unspecified. However, we could at least surmise from the passage preceding 1 John 5:16 and the letter as a whole that a sin that leads to death is the sin of rejecting Jesus as the Christ who came in the flesh to die for our sins (1 John 5:12–13; cf. 2:1–2; 4:1–6; 5:6–11). Such a sin was easy to observe because the one committing this sin eventually left the church (cf. 1 John 2:19).
Pastor David Huffstutler
Pastor Huffstutler regularly writes articles for our Sunday bulletin. See his bio on our pastoral bio page.