Sin that does not lead to death, vs. sin that does.

 

14 Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him. (1John 5:14-15, NKJV)

This passage provides the context for the discussion to follow. These two verses reemphasize our “First Amendment Rights” when it comes to God. We have a God we can approach with confidence, and a God who can multitask—while maintaining the universe he will hear our prayers.

16 If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death. (1John 5:16-17, NKJV)

With the context and principle provided by verses 15 and 16, we have in the next two verses an application: pray for a fellow believer who is in spiritual distress due to sinning. This presumably means a believer who has, for a season, descended into a lifestyle besotted with sin. (I’ve lived in that zip code).

However, this passage (which could be so simple!) also makes a seemingly mysterious distinction between sin that does vs. sin that does not lead unto death. To me, an unexpected and unwelcome complication.
Our Catholic friends might readily find in this the difference between venial and mortal sin, but in truth that dogma would not be developed for centuries. Even more to the point, there is no prohibition (in fact, quite the contrary) in Catholicism regarding praying for someone who has committed a mortal sin. Abortion is a mortal sin according to Roman Catholicism, yet the Catholic Church does not instruct its adherents to avoid praying for the women involved.
Nor does “unto death” versus “not unto death” seem to refer to sin that leads to actual and immediate physical death, a la Ananias and Sapphira. It would be rather pointless to tell us not to pray for someone who just dropped dead after committing a sin. I think we’d intuitively “get it” if, while watching an ISIS terrorist about to behead an innocent person, a consuming fire rained down from the sky and took him out. Nor would it be worth mentioning such a rare (if ever) occurrence, one that (even in less spectacular form) virtually no believer will never have to be equipped to handle.
At the (always real) risk of pulling verses out of context,  let us add two others to the discussion:

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, (Heb 6:4, NKJV)

But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. (Matt 18:17b, NKJV)

Adding these along with our difficult passage from 1 John, I personally arrive at somewhat unsatisfying (as in, I’m not confident I’m right, but it’s the best I got) view that “sin leading to death” refers to someone who, after our best intentions and fervent prayer over an extended period, appears to be absolutely unmovable, unrepentant, and unashamed in regard to their sin. In other words, we are literally instructed to (in extreme cases) give up on some, in regard to our finite prayer budget.

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