Sin to Death in I John 5:16~What the Commentaries Say

Recently a parishioner asked me about I John 5:16

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. (ESV)

Here is the verse broken down into parts:

Person A: 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.

Person B: There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.

John has just encouraged his readers to be confident in their prayers (I John 5:14-15). He then applies this exhortation by telling his readers that if they see a brother committing a sin not to death and they pray for that brother God will give the brother life. John goes on to say that if someone is sinning a sin to death we should not pray for him. This is a very difficult verse to interpret and apply. The strangest part is the phrase to “not pray” for the person who has sinned to death. There are two main questions: What is the “sin to death?” and Why shouldn’t we pray for the person?

I have several commentaries on I John. Here is what they say about the passage. I am not going to give all the arguments they put forward, but try to summarize their position.

John Stott
Stott’s viewpoint is that neither person is a Christian. So the first prayer that leads to life is a prayer for salvation. The sin to death is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Therefore we should not pray for this person because they cannot be forgiven (Matthew 12:31).

John Calvin
Calvin does not view the first person as unregenerate, he sees him as a wayward brother.  He argues that the second person is an apostate, which includes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. However, he does not emphasize blasphemy against the Spirit because that is not mentioned in I John. Calvin admits that it can be hard to tell if someone has totally fallen away. He also notes that this is seldom the case, but when it is we should not pray for that man.

I. Howard Marshall
Marshall does not say it explicitly, but he implies that the first man is a Christian who is struggling with sin, while the second man is an apostate. He thinks the second person is someone who refuses to repent and refuses to believe on Christ. He does not mention blasphemy against the Spirit. He extensively qualifies the command to not pray for the second man so that his exegesis almost leaves no room to ever stop praying for someone.

Colin Kruse
Kruse sees the first man as a true brother who sins. He sees the “life” as resurrection life. He sees the second man as someone who has rejected that Jesus came in the flesh and atoned for our sins. The second man is an “antichrist.” His rejection of Christ puts him outside the realm of forgiveness. Kruse does not believe the sin to death refers to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit because no where does John accuse these men of attributing the work of Christ to the Devil, which is a sign of blasphemy against the Spirit (Mark 3:22-30).

F.F. Bruce
He spends very little time on the first person. He does put brother in quotes, which may mean he does not consider him a Christian, but it is hard to tell. He thinks the sin to death is either a sin that leads to physical death, as with Ananias and Saphira or apostasy.  In the first instance, we should not pray for the person because they are dead. In the second place, we should not pray for them because they are past the point of repentance (Hebrews 6:4-6). He views this as an exceptional situation.

Robert Yarbrough
He sees the first person as a fellow believer who is committing some sin. He rejects the idea that the “sin to death” is specifically blasphemy against the Spirit for the same reasons Kruse does. However, he notes that what John is talking about is similar to blasphemy against the Spirit, but a different manifestation since Christ is no longer on earth. He thinks the sin to death is apostasy, specifically the failure to believe, obey, and love that is outlined in I John. Yarbrough believes that John is making a suggestion about not praying, not a command. He is not telling his readers they “must not” pray for this man, but rather that they do not have to. Here are four reasons he gives for why John suggests that we do not have to pray for that man:

1. John did not want to micromanage people’s prayer lives.
2. He understood that actions are often misinterpreted. Yarbrough is not very clear here.
3. To pray for someone means to identify with them therefore we should be careful in praying for an apostate.
4. John’s entire message runs against praying for apostates. They willfully abide in death and therefore are not to be prayed for.

Peter Leithart
Leithart believes the first one is a wayward brother whom we should pray for. He roots the distinction between sins to death and sins not to death in the Old Testament distinction between inadvertent and high-handed sins. He believes the second group is apostate false teachers. He does not think we should pray for these men. He uses Jeremiah to set a precedent for not praying for apostates (Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14, 14:11).

So what do I think…I will put that in the next post.

(Updated 6/12/14 at 9 am.)