The Sin Leading To Death
“If anyone sees his brother committing 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. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.” (1 John 5:16-17)
This is one of those passages that leaves a lot of readers puzzled. What exactly is the apostle saying here? What would be the application today? How do we know what the sin that leads to death is?
For context, it would be good to go back a few verses (vv. 13-15) and see that John has already laid out some encouragement that is very similar to what Jesus had previously said about the power of prayer (John 14:12-14). The Lord also told parables (Luke 11:5-13, for example) that pointed to God’s goodness as a source of great confidence when it comes to prayer. We believe that because of His loving character, God will hear us when we call out to Him. While none of these verses are meant to say we can have anything we want from God, as if He is a genie granting whatever outlandish wishes come to mind, they are meant to inspire confidence in Him.
Now, getting back to the original question surrounding 1 John 5, the apostle states that because of the power of prayer we can make petition for people we know who are living in sin. God, in part for our sakes (v. 16), will mercifully grant time to those people. Hopefully, they use that time to learn, soften in their attitude, and repent.
But there are sins that result in immediate mortal consequences; as an extreme example, someone who gets killed while attempting to rob a bank. In cases like that, there is no more time. There is no more chance to repent. As Ecclesiastes 9:4-6 points out, once we are dead we have no more share in this world. Our deeds are done and we are under punishment if we are unrighteous (2 Peter 2:9). There is no “praying that person out of hell.”
To sum up, as long as someone is alive, there is hope. Pray for sinners. Plead with God for more time, so that their eyes will be opened and they will “escape the snare of the devil” (2 Timothy 2:25-26). But for someone whose sin has led to death, they are in God’s hands -- and it’s a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the Living God (Hebrews 10:31).