Question: Will you please explain and discuss I John 5:16-17?
Answer: I John 5:16-17 reads, “If any man see his brother sin a sin which is 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. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.”
First let us notice the phrase in verse 17 which says “All unrighteousness is sin.” Since God’s Word says this, we must accept it as so and conclude that every unrighteous act is sin from God’s viewpoint. God’s Word also says, “…The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4.) But it also says in verse 17, “…There is a sin not unto death.” There surely must be some harmonizing grounds for these apparently contradictory scriptures.
In James 4:17 we read, “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” The key words in this text for this discussion are “knoweth” and “to him.” We conclude on this basis that if the individual had no knowledge of God’s will in the matter, it would not be sin to him and would not be charged against the individual as sin by God. Therefore he would not be cut off from God (spiritual death) on account of it even though it is sin in God’s sight according to the definition of sin given in I John 5:17. Romans 4:15 says, “…For where no law is, there is no transgression.” It must also be true that where there is no knowledge of the law on any given point, no transgression would be charged against an individual who violated the law on that point. Paul confirms this also in Romans 7:9 where he says, “For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.” But what does this mean? It seems to me to mean that even though Paul was doing things that violated the law, he was free from the condemnation of it until he came to knowledge of the law on the points he was violating. But when the knowledge of the commandment came to him, he fell under condemnation and sin revived and he died.
Therefore, I conclude that light and knowledge enter into the consideration to determine whether a certain thing would be classified as a “sin unto death” or a sin “not unto death.” If we see a brother doing something that we know to be contrary to God’s will, though he does not know it and therefore is not being charged with it, and his connection with God is not being severed on account of it (death); yet God cannot bless him with it in his life like He could bless him without it, then we are instructed to pray for God to reveal the light and truth to him on that point so he can be freed from it. When God answers prayer and deals with the individual about that unrighteous thing in his life and makes him know that it is an unrighteous thing, contrary to the will of God; and he continues right on in it knowing it is a violation of God’s will, then through the knowledge of the commandment, “Sin revives and he dies.” (Romans 7:9.) It then becomes a sin unto death to him and I John 5:16 says we need not pray about that matter any further. The text didn’t say not to pray for the individual’s recovery to repentance and salvation, but just not to pray about that particular sin in his life it has already been dealt with.
Even though the text under scrutiny says “There is a sin unto death,” I do not understand it to be identified with the one and only unpardonable sin the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 12:32.) I John 5:17 also says there is “a” sin not unto death. Would we suppose by this that there are only two sins in the world available unto mankind; one unto death and one not unto death? Of course not. The best understanding that I have at this time is that there is a kind or class of sin unto death and a kind or class of sin which is not unto death, and it is determined by the light and knowledge of the individual.