on 1-john 5 :16
A sin which is not unto death - This is an extremely difficult passage, and has been variously interpreted. What is the sin not unto death, for which we should ask, and life shall be given to him that commits it? And what is the sin unto death, for which we should not pray?
I shall note three of the chief opinions on this subject: -
1. It is supposed that there is here an allusion to a distinction in the Jewish law, where there was חטאה למיתה chattaah lemithah, "a sin unto death;" and חטאה לא למיתה chattaah lo lemithah, "a sin not unto death;" that is,
1. A sin, or transgression, to which the law had assigned the punishment of death; such as idolatry, incest, blasphemy, breach of the Sabbath, and the like. And
2. A sin not unto death, i.e. transgressions of ignorance, inadvertence, etc., and such is, in their own nature, appear to be comparatively light and trivial. That such distinctions did exist in the Jewish synagogue both Schoettgen and Carpzovius have proved.
2. By the sin not unto death, for which intercession might be made, and unto death, for which prayer might not be made, we are to understand transgressions of the civil law of a particular place, some of which must be punished with death, according to the statutes, the crime admitting of no pardon: others might be punished with death, but the magistrate had the power of commuting the punishments, i.e. of changing death into banishment, etc., for reasons that might appear to him satisfactory, or at the intercession of powerful friends. To intercede in the former case would be useless, because the law would not relax, therefore they need not pray for it; but intercession in the latter case might be prevalent, therefore they might pray; and if they did not, the person might suffer the punishment of death. This opinion, which has been advanced by Rosenmuller, intimates that men should feel for each other's distresses, and use their influence in behalf of the wretched, nor ever abandon the unfortunate but where the case is utterly hopeless.
3. The sin unto death means a case of transgression, particularly of grievous backsliding from the life and power of godliness, which God determines to punish with temporal death, while at the same time he extends mercy to the penitent soul. The disobedient prophet, 1 Kings 13:1-32, is, on this interpretation, a case in point: many others occur in the history of the Church, and of every religious community. The sin not unto death is any sin which God does not choose thus to punish. This view of the subject is that taken by the late Rev. J. Wesley, in a sermon entitled, A Call to Backsliders. - Works, vol ii. page 239.
I do not think the passage has any thing to do with what is termed the sin against the Holy Ghost; much less with the popish doctrine of purgatory; nor with sins committed before and after baptism, the former pardonable, the latter unpardonable, according to some of the fathers. Either of the last opinions (viz., 2 and 3) make a good sense; and the first (1) is not unlikely: the apostle may allude to some maxim or custom in the Jewish Church which is not now distinctly known. However, this we know, that any penitent may find mercy through Christ Jesus; for through him every kind of sin may be forgiven to man, except the sin against the Holy Ghost; which I have proved no man can now commit. See the note on Matthew 12:31, Matthew 12:39 (note).
on 1-john 5 :16
If a man see his brother sin a sin ... - From the general assurance that God hears prayer, the apostle turns to a particular case in which it may be benevolently and effectually employed, in rescuing a brother from death. There has been great diversity of opinion in regard to the meaning of this passage, and the views of expositors of the New Testament are by no means settled as to its true sense. It does not comport with the design of these notes to examine the opinions which have been held in detail. A bare reference, however, to some of them will show the difficulty of determining with certainty what the passage means, and the impropriety of any very great confidence in one's own judgment in the case. Among these opinions are the following. Some have supposed that the sin against the Holy Spirit is intended; some that the phrase denotes any great and enormous sin, as murder, idolatry, adultery; some that it denotes some sin that was punishable by death by the laws of Moses; some that it denotes a sin that subjected the offender to excommunication from the synagogue or the church; some that it refers to sins which brought fatal disease upon the offender, as in the case of those who abused the Lord's Supper at Corinth, (see the notes at 1 Corinthians 11:30); some that it refers to crimes committed against the laws, for which the offender was sentenced to death, meaning that when the charge alleged was false, and the condemnation unjust, they ought to pray for the one who was condemned to death, and that he would be spared; but that when the offence was one which had been really committed, and the offender deserved to die, they ought not to pray for him, or, in other words, that by "the sin unto death," offences against the civil law are referred to, which the magistrate had no power to pardon, and the punishment of which he could not commute; and by the "sin not unto death," offences are referred to which might be pardoned, and when the punishment might be commuted; some that it refers to sins "before" and "after" baptism, the former of which might be pardoned, but the latter of which might not be; and some, and perhaps this is the common opinion among the Roman Catholics, that it refers to sins that might or might not be pardoned after death, thus referring to the doctrine of purgatory.
These various opinions may be seen stated more at length in Rosenmuller, Lucke, Pool (Synopsis,) and Clarke, "in loc." To go into an examination of all these opinions would require a volume by itself, and all that can be done here is to furnish what seems to me to be the fair exposition of the passage. The word "brother" may refer either to a member of the church, whether of the particular church to which one was attached or to another, or it may be used in the larger sense which is common as denoting a fellow-man, a member of the great family of mankind. There is nothing in the word which necessarily limits it to one in the church; there is nothing in the connection, or in the reason assigned, why what is said should be limited to such an one. The "duty" here enjoined would be the same whether the person referred to was in the church or not; for it is our duty to pray for those who sin, and to seek the salvation of those whom we see to be going astray, and to be in danger of ruin, wherever they are, or whoever they may be. At the same time, the correct interpretation of the passage does not depend on determining whether the word "brother" refers to one who is a professed Christian or not.
A sin which is not unto death - The great question in the interpretation of the whole passage is, what is meant by the "sin unto death." The Greek (ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον hamartia pros thanaton) would mean properly a sin which "tends" to death; which would "terminate" in death; of which death was the penalty, or would be the result, unless it were arrested; a sin which, if it had its own course, would terminate thus, as we should speak of a disease "unto death." Compare the notes at John 11:4. The word "death" is used in three significations in the New Testament, and as employed here might, so far as the word is concerned, be applied in any one of those senses. It is used to denote:
(a) literally, the death of the body;
(b) spiritual death, or death "in trespasses and sin," Ephesians 2:1;
(c) the "second death," death in the world of woe and despair.
If the sin here mentioned refers to "temporal" death, it means such a sin that temporal death must inevitably follow, either by the disease which it has produced, or by a judicial sentence where there was no hope of pardon or of a commutation of the punishment; if it refers to death in the future world, the second death, then it means such a sin as is unpardonable. That this last is the reference here seems to me to be probable, if not clear, from the following considerations:
(1) There is such a sin referred to in the New Testament, a sin for which there is forgiveness "neither in this life nor the life to come." See the notes at Matthew 12:31-32. Compare Mark 3:29. If there is such a sin, there is no impropriety in supposing that John would refer to it here.
(2) this is the "obvious" interpretation. It is that which would occur to the mass of the readers of the New Testament, and which it is presumed they do adopt; and this, in general, is one of the best means of ascertaining the sense of a passage in the Bible.
(3) the other significations attached to the word "death," would be quite inappropriate here.
(a) It cannot mean "unto spiritual death," that is, to a continuance in sin, for how could that be known? and if such a case occurred, why would it be improper to pray for it? Besides, the phrase "a sin unto spiritual death," or "unto continuance in sin," is one that is unmeaning.
(b) It cannot be shown to refer to a disease that should be unto death, miraculously inflicted on account of sin, because, if such cases occurred, they were very rare, and even if a disease came upon a man miraculously in consequence of sin, it could not be certainly known whether it was, or was not, unto death. All who were visited in this way did not certainly die. Compare 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, with 2 Corinthians 2:6-7. See also 1 Corinthians 11:30.
(c) It cannot be shown that it refers to the case of those who were condenmed by the civil magistrate to death, and for whom there was no hope of reprieve or pardon, for it is not certain that there were such cases; and if there were, and the person condemned were innocent, there was every reason to pray that God would interpose and save them, even when there was no hope from man; and if they were guilty, and deserved to die, there was no reason why they should not pray that the sin might be forgiven, and that they might be prepared to die, unless it were a case where the sin was unpardonable. It seems probable, therefore, to me, that the reference here is to the sin against the Holy Spirit, and that John means here to illustrate the duty and the power of prayer, by showing that for any sin short of that, however aggravated, it was their duty to pray that a brother might be forgiven. Though it might not be easy to determine what was the unpardonable sin, and John does not say that those to whom he wrote could determine that with certainty, yet there were many sins which were manifestly not of that aggravated character, and for those sins it was proper to pray.
There was clearly but one sin that was unpardonable - "there is a sin unto death;" there might be many which were not of this description, and in relation to them there was ample scope for the exercise of the prayer of faith. The same thing is true now. It is not easy to define the unpardonable sin, and it is impossible for us to determine in any case with absolute certainty that a man has committed it. But there are multitudes of sins which people commit, which upon no proper interpretation of the passages respecting the sin which "hath never forgiveness," can come under the description of that sin, and for which it is proper, therefore, to pray that they may be pardoned. We know of cases enough where sin "may" be forgiven; and, without allowing the mind to be disturbed about the question respecting the unpardonable sin, it is our duty to bear such cases on our hearts before God, and to plead with him that our erring brethren may be saved.
on 1-john 5 :16
5:16 This extends to things of the greatest importance. If any one see his brother - That is. any man. Sin a sin which is not unto death - That is, any sin but total apostasy from both the power and form of godliness. Let him ask, and God will give him life - Pardon and spiritual life, for that sinner. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for that - That is, let him not pray for it. A sin unto death may likewise mean, one which God has determined to punish with death.