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When praying in general, John says, God does indeed hear our prayers “if we ask anything according to His will.” It is obvious that there are many desires of men that are not God’s will to grant. So the apostle takes note of one such example. 1 John 5:16, 17 says,
16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin [“sinning 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.
Much prayer is devoted to praying about the needs of other people. John says that this is both permissible and desirable, unless they have committed “sin leading to death,” that is, sin that leads to the death penalty. But before we comment on the nature of such sins, let us clarify the translation first.
The NASB renders the phrase “committing a sin,” as if to say that John was speaking of a specific sin. There is no definite article (“the”), so the phrase can be rendered either “a sin” or simply “sin.” The Wycliffe Bible Commentary tells us,
“A sin unto death. The translation a sin is too definite. There is sin unto death, which implies not a single act but acts which have the character of sin unto death.”
In other words, as a student of the law, John knew that there were numerous sins in the law which called for the death penalty: pre-meditated murder, bestiality, homosexual relations, kidnapping, adultery, blasphemy, and other acts for which there is no way to make restitution. But even in such cases, the Law of Victims Rights gives victims the right to forgive or to lessen the penalty.
Cain was not executed but was exiled for murdering his brother (Gen. 4:12), Joseph forgave his brothers for kidnapping him (Gen. 50:16-21), David’s children paid the penalty for his own murder (2 Sam. 12:13-15), Hosea forgave his adulterous wife (Hosea 3:1-3), and Jesus forgave those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34).
In the ultimate sense, what sin is so great that it cannot be forgiven? Jesus paid the penalty for the sin of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Are there exceptions to this? Is there a debt so great that even the law of Jubilee cannot cancel or cover by grace alone?
In the overall plan of God, there is no sin so great that the sinner cannot ultimately find reconciliation and restoration as part of creation (Col. 1:20). Never does Paul list any exceptions when he speaks about the reconciliation of all things. But on a lower level that is subject to the limitations of time, many sinners are judged, both here on earth as well as at the Great White Throne in the great Day of Judgment. All such judgment, however, is subject to time, for Scripture speaks often of aionian judgment, or “age-abiding judgment.”
It is on this level that the apostle was referring when he spoke of prayer for those who had committed sin worthy of death. In other words, some must be brought to judgment to receive the death penalty, and it is not necessarily the will of God that we should intercede for such people.
Even so, John remains somewhat indefinite about this. John is very guarded in his words, not forbidding such prayer outright, but saying only, “I do not say that he should make request for this.” John seems to take a “hands off” attitude, while not recommending such intercession. In the end, of course, one of the main purposes of prayer is to discover the will of God, so that one may pray according to His will. When God reveals His will, we will know what to do. Hence, John is reluctant to ban such intercession altogether.
Keep in mind also that John was speaking to believers, not to unbelievers. So we cannot apply “sin unto death” to unbelievers and thus pray for believers only. John says in verse 16, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not unto death.” That is the context of his second point: “There is a sin leading to death.” The implication is that even believers might commit sins leading to death. King David himself gives us such a precedent by his adultery and murder.
In the second century, Clement took over the church and school in Alexandria after its founder (Pantaenus) answered the call of God as a missionary to India. Clement wrote a Commentary on 1 John, but he also wrote a book called The Rich Man Who Finds Salvation. In the fourth century, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea quoted from it in his Ecclesiastical History (III, 23).
It is too long to quote here, so I refer you to my book, Lessons from Church History, Vol. I, chapter 26, “John’s Ministry and Death.”
To summarize the story, after the Emperor Domitian was killed in 96 A.D., John was recalled from the Island of Patmos, where he had been exiled. One day while in Smyrna, John discerned that a certain young man had the call of God upon his life, so he entrusted him to the care of the bishop, and the young man was soon baptized.
After a time, however, the young man went astray at the instigation of his unbelieving friends, first by going with them to “expensive entertainments,” and then by going out with them to commit robbery. Eventually, he became the leader and mastermind of the gang.
Years later, John paid the bishop a visit and inquired about the young man in his care. The bishop told him, “he is dead.”
“How did he die?” John asked.
“He is dead to God; he turned out wicked and profligate, in short, a bandit; and now, instead of the Church, he has taken to the mountain with an armed gang of men like himself.”
The apostle immediately borrowed a horse and galloped away to find him. When he found him, the young man saw him coming and ran away. But John followed him. The young man was ashamed, but John threw his arms around him. The young man was restored to God, as we read, “giving a perfect example of true repentance and a perfect proof of regeneration.”
In this story, the bishop claimed that the young man was “dead… dead to God.” This was the understanding in those days—and in ours, for we too understand the meaning of this. The bishop was assuming that the young bandit had committed a sin unto death.
The fact that John disagreed with that verdict does not change the meaning of the term itself as John used it in his letter. We do not know the extent of the young man’s crimes. We do not know if he committed murder or just robbery. We only know that John interceded for him.
In Matt. 12:31, 32 Jesus spoke about blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
31 Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. 32 And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age [aion] or in the age to come.
The Emphatic Diaglott reads, “it will in no wise be forgiven him, neither in this age nor in the coming age.”
Young’s Literal Translation reads, “it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this age, nor in that which is coming.”
In other words, someone who is guilty of this particular sin will not be forgiven in the present age (in his life time), nor in the Millennial Kingdom in the Age to come. At the Great White Throne judgment, which comes at the close of “the age to come,” every knee will bow and every tongue will profess Christ (Phil. 2:10, 11).
Even those who have spoken against the Holy Spirit will then know the truth and will repent. They may not receive immortal life with the believers at that time, but they will certainly become believers. It may be that they will have to await the Creation Jubilee at the end of time before they will receive full forgiveness for speaking against the Holy Spirit.
The main point to note is that those who speak against the Holy Spirit in this manner will not be raised in the first resurrection, because they will not be among the overcomers.
The KJV of Matt. 12:32 says, “it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.” The Greek word used is aion, which means “age.” Whenever the KJV translators disagreed with what the apostles said, they translated it to suit their own theology.
Poor translations make it appear that Jesus was saying that such a sin was “unforgivable” for all time. This is often used to disprove the restoration of all things. It has also given rise to the term “unpardonable sin,” which is a theological term based upon this misunderstanding. However, Jesus did not say that, for such a statement would have contradicted the law of Jubilee.
Those who do not understand that ages have limits, or that the Creation Jubilee is the final act of the ages, cannot conceive of anything beyond a never-ending judgment. That is why they do not comprehend the restoration of all things.
Nonetheless, blaspheming the Holy Spirit is probably the clearest example of what John had in mind when he spoke of “sin unto death.” It refers to sin that will not be forgiven in this age or in the age to come, but it is not beyond the grace that is found in the law of Jubilee.
Having said that, there are some who misunderstand the nature of such blasphemy. I have known some who say that they wish they could be saved, but since they have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, they mourn throughout life, wishing that they could be Christians, yet believing that they can no longer be saved.
But if someone has truly blasphemed the Holy Spirit, would they even want to be saved? No man can come to the Father, except the Holy Spirit draws him. Such mourning is evidence that the Holy Spirit is still drawing them. If the Holy Spirit is still drawing them, then the Holy Spirit has not given up on them! There is yet hope!
There are many commentators who explain 1 John 5:17 by citing 1 Cor. 11:27-30,
27 Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord… 29 For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly. 30 For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep [i.e., are dead].
It is said that partaking unworthily is “a sin unto death.” I agree. We ought to categorize this among the many sins which call for the death penalty. However, many such sins have already been forgiven by the victims of such crimes, as I have already shown. Partaking of communion unworthily makes God the victim. But God is a forgiver.
Paul said nothing about repentance or intercession for those guilty of this sin. In fact, just as John was reluctant to ban intercession for those guilty of “sin unto death,” so also can it be said that Paul was silent. Hence, we can draw no firm conclusions in this matter.
In my book, The Wars of the Lord, chapter 4, I told the story of Pastor Thomas, who partook of communion unworthily in December of 1985. We were led to intercede for him—and in fact, the Father had already prepared the way ahead of time for this intercession.
The result of this intercession was that the pastor received the baptism of the Holy Spirit a month later on January 27, 1986. A few days later, the word of the Lord came to me, saying, “By your intercession, you have saved his life.”
At the time, it was revealed to us that he had been sentenced to die on April 12, 1986, which was a few months later. Our intercession, however, lessened his sentence. On that appointed day, he burned himself badly in a farm accident, and the doctor told him that he was very lucky to be alive. He lived another 22 years until 2008.
The story is too long to repeat here, but the lesson is clear. Just because Pastor Thomas took communion unworthily did not mean that his death penalty was irreversible. In fact, this experience showed me (and all who interceded for the pastor at that time) that it was possible to reverse the death penalty.
As the Victim, God called us to intercede for him. We only carried out the will of God, and the actual outcome shows that our intercession was effective. I do not insist that every similar situation must have the same outcome, of course. I believe we should be careful to know the will of God before engaging in such prayer.
But then, we should always seek to know the will of God before praying for something, especially in cases where the death penalty is involved.