When life turns viciously against us, we are tempted to think that perhaps we have committed the “unpardonable sin” or, as John puts it, the “sin unto death:
- If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death. (1 John 5:16-17)
Is there a sin that cannot be confessed/repented? Will God turn His back on a repentant sinner because he has sinned a sin that is just beyond forgiveness? This doesn’t seem to be John’s message or even the message of Scripture. Instead, John guarantees:
- If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. (1 John 1:9-10)
John gives the church what seems to be a promise without exception – that if we truly confess whatever sins we might have, God will truly forgive and purify! How then do we understand the “sin that leads to death” – the one that can’t be prayed away?
What is this sin? It seems that 1 John is not concerned about particular sins but instead a deliberate practice of unconfessed/unrepented sin (1 John 3:6-10). In the following verse, John writes:
- We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin. (1 John 5:18)
This seems to be John’s concern – that someone might confess Christ insincerely and think that he is saved merely because of his empty confession, despite his refusal to repent. John protests that this isn’t possible. Anyone born of God will not live like this! This seems to be John’s concern - the unrepentant practice of “sin that leads to death.” No wonder that we should not pray that God forgive without any change of heart!
Without repentance and sincere confession, God will not hear the prayers of such a deluded person. If we are going to pray for a person that we perceive is practicing sin, we must pray, not for forgiveness, but for repentance.
This unrepentant individual does not really want God; He just wants insurance against punishment! After a while, God will give him over to the desires of his heart (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28), and he will receive the very thing he longs for – a guilt-free, shame-free, repentance-free existence. In the process, the things of God become foolishness to him (1 Cor. 2:14), and he will not sincerely confess his sins and find forgiveness.
However, if you are seeking the forgiveness of God, it means that the things of God are not “foolishness” to you. Consequently, the promise of John 1:9 applies to you. You can grasp it with all the assurance in the world.
I will now attempt to restate the difficult verses of 1 John 5:16-17 in accordance with this position:
- If anyone sees his brother commit sin that does not lead to death [not the willful practice of sin, we should encourage him to] pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is [the willful practice of] sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray [without also repenting] about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death. (1 John 5:16-17)