Continuing with his brief interlude on the doctrine of prayer, John instructs us about praying for brethren who have sinned.  He assures us that God will hear our prayers for those “that sin not unto death,” which ought to provide us with sweet encouragement as we plead for brethren who seem to be falling by the wayside.  Of course, it could prove that such an individual is manifesting that he was never genuinely saved at all, in which case our prayers are not in reality for “a brother,” but rather for a false professor.  But if we are indeed praying for a genuine brother in Christ (and the Lord knows who they are), then our gracious God will hear our entreaties, and will deliver that brother from the snare into which he has fallen, and give him life.

But there is also the very drastic case of the man who has committed a sin unto death.  This man also is certainly one who was never truly saved to begin with, for we know of a certainty that none can pluck one of Christ’s sheep out of His omnipotent hand.  But this seems to be a case much worse than that of a man who, for instance, in a period of religious excitement was induced to make a false profession.  This is an individual, I think, like unto the horrible cases of Hebrews 6 and Hebrews 10, who has tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come, has been made a partaker of the Holy Ghost, and tasted of the heavenly gift.  He has received an extraordinary measure of spiritual enlightenment, and has actually attained to many of the spiritual experiences which God’s true children enjoy.  But in spite of all the strivings of the Spirit within him, in spite of the light which he has received, in the hour of temptation he falls away.

What precisely this “sin unto death” is, it would be difficult to say with precision, and would take a lengthier study than the present purpose will permit.  It would not be illogical to conclude that it is the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which sin our Lord declared will never be forgiven, neither in this world nor in that which is to come.  I rather think that it is a willful act of renouncing the Gospel, committed by a person who previously had professed to dedicate himself to the service of Christ.  This would not, then, cover every person who defects from the Christian church.  Many simply slide back into worldliness, without ever openly renouncing the faith.  Some are deluded by false doctrine, frightened by persecution, or shamed into deserting the army of Christ by the mockery of the world.  These are horrible things to witness, and yet I do not think these have committed the “sin unto death” spoken of here.  Rather, I believe that this indicates a person who, with eyes wide open, intentionally renounces the Gospel of Christ, rejects Him as the sole means of salvation, and turns his back on the faith to pursue worldly pleasure, or perhaps goes after another religion.  John tells us that he does not command us to pray for such an individual.  I notice that he does not forbid us to pray for him, doubtless because, with our fallible judgment, we may determine not to pray for some individual who has not actually committed this sin unto death.  But, even in my own experience, I have encountered those who have willfully renounced and rejected the Gospel, after apparently walking in it for many years, and I can find but little heart to pray for such.  They very much appear to be cases who have rejected God, and thus God has rejected them, and turned them over to a reprobate mind.

It is well for us to know, particularly for our own comfort, that while all unrighteousness is sin, not all sin is unto death.  John certainly makes no excuses for the sin of any believer.  But, at the same time, he would not wish for us, every time we sin, to fall into the slough of despond, terrified that we have committed the sin unto death, and can never be recovered.  For believers who do sin, we may always return to the remedy described in 1:9: confession of sin to a God who is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

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