14 And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.
15 And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.
16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this.
17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.
(1 John 5:14-17, NASB).
Well, if anyone knows that you have a commentary on 1 John, they are going to flip here to find out what you have to say about this verse. So, welcome, tire-kicking reader! You’ve come to the right place!
There are sins that lead to death, and sins that do not lead to death. There are sins that we can pray for, and sins that we should not pray for. The two clear questions are, what does he mean by death, and, what is the line between a death-dealing sin and a non-death-dealing sin?
The sin that leads to death
I think from the context of 1 John 1:7,8,9, and 1 John 2:1,2, and virtually the whole book, that there is tremendous power in confession and in the blood of Jesus which cleanses us of all sin. We also know from 1 John 3:23 that when he finally gets specific about what His commandment is, it is belief and love. We looked at the fact that these are not two commandments, but one commandment, so that belief in Christ for your brother or sister is love for them. Lack of faith in the power of Christ’s blood is the one thing that puts judgment and wrath back at the center of the relationship, and so strips love from the picture.
So I am going to make a very reasonable statement based on the context and general message of 1 John: a lack of belief in Christ is the sin leading to death. It is difficult to pray for one who actively refuses belief, because the one thing they need, rescue from judgment, is the one thing they reject. I believe there is a difference between someone who isn’t a believer but hasn’t really been exposed to the teaching of grace yet, and someone who has been exposed and actively refuses grace.
The death that faithlessness leads to
Clearly the kind of death that John is talking about is the lack of eternal life. He doesn’t really mention anything about physical death in the book that I see or remember, but he mentions eternal life numerous times:
1Jo 1:2 and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us–
1Jo 2:25 And this is the promise which He Himself made to us: eternal life.
1Jo 3:15 Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
1Jo 5:11 And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.
1Jo 5:13 These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life.
1Jo 5:20 And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.
The idea of belief, love for others, and eternal life are all branches of the same tree. Love from God means perfect love, persistent love, love that doesn’t end. It means sacrificial propitiatory love, love that redeems. If it is love that persists and doesn’t end, persisting beyond the imperfection of sin, that means it is actually eternal love. Christian community is the community of those who believe in this reckless one-way perfectly persistent love from God for each other.
So the converse is true. The active rejection of Christ means the rejection of the very basis of persistent and perfect love. It means hatred and judgment of others, finding them constantly wanting and unworthy of Christ’s sacrifice. It means a lack of eternal love because it means you mean to persist in the universe where a threat of ending remains. So, lack of belief leads to a lack of love and a lack of eternal life. This would obviously be the sin that leads to death.
The blessed community of faith is comprised of those who have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. There are those who have not come to know the love which God has for us. I believe there is no reason not to pray for them. Many people have gone to church for years and have never really heard the clear message of one-way love in Christ. They have only heard a moralistic therapeutic deism. So they have not even come to know the love which God has for us. I don’t think these are the people who have sinned in a way that precludes eternal life – we can pray for them. However, there are people who either refuse to come to know the one-way love, or who have come to know but refuse to believe it. These are the ones I would say have rejected eternal life, and so have committed a sin unto death.
Praying for sinners
Therefore, just as we see in Romans 7:15 – Romans 8:1, and many other places, there is provision for successful faith which resides in a morally unsuccessful person. It is in fact a lie to say that anyone has no sin (1 John 1:8). The only people we have to pray for are sinners. Because we believe in the power of Christ’s propitiatory blood for one another, and for ourselves, we can go to the Father for each other’s concerns and ask with confidence! This is in fact the very heartbeat and life of the community of faith. Walking in the light means confession, transparency, acknowledgment of needs, and belief in the power of Christ over one another. This naturally leads to confidence in compassionate prayer for one another. Even when someone has a particularly damaging or shocking sin, it should be no shock. The division between the sin leading to ending and the sin which receives persistent and perfect love is faith in Christ. His blood is sufficient for all to anyone who believes.