What Is "A Sin Unto Death"

J. D. Conley
June 11, 2017

The apostle John wrote these inspired words, "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. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death" (1 John 5:16-17). What is the proper understanding of these verses?

This passage needn't be puzzling to us. The subject is praying on behalf of a brother or sister in Christ. In doing so, our prayer may be effective or ineffective, depending on the circumstances. One thing is certain, there is "a sin unto death." But what sin is it, and what is meant by the term "death?" The sin is not classified and should be understood as sin in general, since any sin could be "a sin unto death." Even though any sin could be engaged in impenitently up until the moment of physical death, "death" here refers to spiritual death. It is this sin that is useless to pray for because the sinner will not confess it and repent of it, (cf. Jas. 5:16ff; 1 Jn.l :9; Rev.2:5, etc). His or her persistent sinning has brought about spiritual death, and they will physically die enslaved by sin. Thus the "sin unto death" is an attitude of heart. Any Christian who sins and steadfastly refuses to repent is spiritually dead, (Jn.12:37ff; Eph.4:19; 1Tim.4:2; Heb.3:7ff). Hence, it is futile to pray for such a hardened brother or sister. For this reason John states, "I do not say that he shall pray for it." Although John does not prohibit us from praying for such a person and their sin, we are not commanded to do so. And if we do pray for such a person, there is no assurance that God will hear, much less answer, our prayer.

But, this passage also mentions "a sin not unto death," for this, prayer is useful. Any Christian who confesses sin and repents should be, and needs to be prayed for. A tender hearted brother or sister, who shows contrition for their sin, obviously retains a spiritual pulse. For them there is hope and joyful expectation of forgiveness and ultimately eternal salvation.

To sincerely ask if you have sinned "a sin unto death," is a strong indication you have not. It's those whose "conscience [has been] seared with a hot iron,” (1Tim.4:2), who are "past feeling," (Eph.4:19), that have sinned "a sin unto death." May God help us to always remember that the "wages of sin is death" (Rom.6:23).