16 If any man see his brother sin a sin not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death, I do not say that he shall pray for it. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not unto death. 18 We know that whosoever is born of God does not continue in sin; but He that is the Begotten of God guards him, and the wicked one touches him not. 19 And we know that we are of God, and the whole world lies in wickedness.1 John 5:16-19
Think of the sense of joy you experienced when all the documents are signed and the realtor hands you the keys to your first home. That’s a pale shadow to the joy which should come from the knowledge which John has been imparting: if you have Jesus, as proclaimed by John & the other Apostles, you have life. The warnings which follow aren’t intended to spoil the joy of the central message of this book. This passage about the “sin unto death” has become the source of great confusion in the souls of certain saints. Some tender souls convince themselves they’ve committed this sin, and wonder if all hope of salvation is lost for them. But to think that way is to miss the whole point of this letter. John just reiterated his purpose statement in verse 13: he wrote so that you would know you have life eternal.
Notice as well, that John has just exhorted believers to pray with a certainty that your “prayer is always heard, and never unanswered.”1 This passage is a continuation of that thought. He continues by using (one last time) his familiar “if/then” argument, which he’s repeatedly used throughout his letter. If you see a brother caught in sin, pray, and trust that God will answer that prayer for restoring the wayward brother. Until repentance is out of reach, do not fail to pray for restoration. This reality is brought out in greater clarity in verse 18, reminding us that those born of God leave off their habitual pattern of sin. Those born again will not persist in unrepentant sin, so pray boldly for their restoration.
The “sin unto death” shouldn’t be a cause of trepidation, as if you’ll accidentally commit it while pruning your rose bushes one spring morning. Rather, remember that John tells us to pray for the brother who has fallen into sin, trusting for God to restore him; if you can see that there is hope of restoration pray for him. If there is no hope of reformation, don’t pray for him. I take this to mean a few things. First, we ought not to pray for the departed who we suspect were not believers. No purgatory, sorry Rome.
Secondly, remember that the presenting problem which John is addressing is the rampant message of the Rival Christs; their formal renunciation of Jesus Christ should be received with the church’s “amen, so be it.” As Calvin remarks on this tricky verse, “we ought not contend with the just judgement of God, or seek to be more merciful than He is.”2 If someone begins to hold to a false Christ, and will not recant, this should be met with a sorrowful but certain “so be it” from the church. Cerinthus, Arius, the modern progressive views of Jesus, and other false teachers have made their Christological bed, and should be made to sleep in it. This isn’t describing the Coal Miner, who reads his bible at 4am each morning, prays for his wayward cousins, but misunderstands the finer points of the hypostatic union.
Just because you sinned, even grievously, does not mean that you’ve “sinned unto death.” This is the point of verse 17, all our unrighteousness is sin. This is why we must be born of God. The twice-born see their sin, grieve their sin, and confess it (Cf. 1 Jn. 1:9). This is the case because the “Begotten of God” guards you, and the wicked one can’t touch you. I take the phrase “begotten of God” here as a reference to Christ, and not to the believer. The Father keeps you, because He has answered Christ’s prayer that you would be kept (Jn. 17:11-12).
The “touching” here (v.18) has allusions of the Levitical duty to refrain from touching unclean things. But in this sense, while the saint must refrain from touching the unclean thing, the orientation has been reversed. The OT mindset was to keep at bay the death & uncleanness of the world. But in Christ, the world is made clean, and the devil scrambles to try to find some foothold, and just keeps losing ground. United to God and guarded by His Spirit, we despoil the wicked one, and his efforts to defile us are like a sailboat without a sail. If you are born of God, the Begotten Son of God keeps you, and preserves you––despite your sin––because you are of God.
And although the whole world lies in wickedness, the devil’s war machines are rendered useless (1 Jn. 3:8b). If you believe that Jesus is the Christ of God, you can proceed through the whole earth unafraid, for you are kept. Let the nations rage and rebel, the victory is not theirs but Christ’s and His people. Which was how John began this section of his letter (5:4-5). This whole letter is a letter of triumphal assurance which comes through the clear knowledge of Christ as proclaimed in the Gospel, not grave and mysterious doubt which arises from the mystical knowledge of Antichrists.
1 Smith, David. The Expositors Greek Testament. Edited by W. Robertson Nicoll. Vol. Five. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979. Pg. 198.
2 Calvin, Jean. Calvins Commentaries. Vol. XXII. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999. Pg. 270.
- 1 John 5:20-21 | We Know
- 1 John 5:16-19 | The Sin Unto Death
- 1 John 5:13-15 | Big Prayers
- 1 John 5:9-12 | God on the Stand
- 1 John 5:6-8 | The Threefold Witness
- 1 John 5:1-5 | Swept Up Into Victory
- 1 John 4:17-21 | Bold Sons & Fearful Slaves
- 1 John 4:11-16 | The Offensive Love of God
- 1 John 4:7-10 | God is Love
- 1 John 4:4-6 | Overcoming Swarms of Devils
- 1 John 4:1-3 | Stranger Danger
- 1 John 3:23-24 | The Nail in Timidity’s Coffin
- 1 John 3:19-22 | God is Greater than Our Hearts
- 1 John 3:13-18 | The World Hates You
- 1 John 3:10-12 | Children of God, Children of the Devil
- 1 John 3:7-9 | To Destroy the Works of the Devil
- 1 John 3:4-6 | Sin is Lawlessness
- 1 John 3:1-3 | What Unearthly Love
- 1 John 2:28-29 | A Trumpet Blast for Feeble Saints
- 1 John 2:24-27 | The Pastoral Prerogative for Run-on Sentences
- 1 John 2:20-23 | Knowing All Things
- 1 John 2:18-19 | Rival Christs
- 1 John 2:15-17 | The Imperative to Not Love
- 1 John 2:12-14 | Pastoral Poetry
- 1 John 2:9-11 | The Gospel Scandal
- 1 John 2:7-8 | Nothing New, But All is New
- 1 John 2:3-6 | Knowing that You Know
- 1 John 2:1-2 – Christ Our Advocate
- 1 John 1:9-10 – Forgiven & Not Guilty
- 1 John 1:8 – Deluded or Delivered
- 1 John 1:7 – Fellowship in the Light
- 1 John 1:6 â€“ Do the Truth
- 1 John 1:5 â€“ God is Light
- 1 John 1:4 – Silos Full of Joy
- 1 John 1:3 – Invitation to Fellowship
- 1 John 1:2 – Life Manifested
- 1 John 1:1 – A Cosmic Epistle