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Sin Leading to Death

It’s hard to imagine God telling us not to pray about something.

“There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that” (1 John 5:16, NKJV). 

John continues to lead us in prayer but his instruction takes a surprising twist. He has just assured us that, “And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him” (1 John 5:15). He has opened wide the gates of prayer but now goes on to say: “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. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death” (1 John 5:16–17).

How can something be off-limits for our prayer? If it is on our minds and burdens our hearts, should it not find a place on our lips? Aren’t we to cast our burdens on the Lord, all our burdens? What are we to make of this exception to our prayer list?

The place to start is to identify what this sin is that leads to death that prohibits our prayer. John distinguishes between sin leading to death and sin not leading to death. The latter sin he links to unrighteousness. That sort of sin is fair game for our prayer. If we see someone engaging in unrighteousness, lawlessness, and transgression, we can cry out to our God for mercy. We can plead with Him as the Good Shepherd to rescue them from their folly, to bring back those who are straying, to strengthen those who are weak, to deliver those ensnared in sin, to lead them in the way of righteousness.

What could possibly be beyond the reach of prayer? The answer is clear and it follows closely on what John has been driving home to us. He has just been emphasizing that God’s sole provision for life is in His Son. Apart from Him, there is no remedy for sin and no hope of eternal life. What that means is that if a brother rejects Jesus Christ, there is no recourse for him. There is no plan B. John is simply bringing to bear the words he heard from Jesus: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

John is not prohibiting us from praying for the salvation of our lost family and friends. Rather, he is saying that we cannot pray for salvation apart from Jesus Christ. That would be the unanswerable prayer in the face of the unforgivable sin. Rejection of Jesus is unforgivable because God has given no other name under heaven by which one can be saved. Just as the bronze serpent was the remedy of God for those bitten in the days of Moses (John 3:15), so His Son raised up on the cross is God's exclusive remedy for those afflicted by sin (John 3:16).

Prayer carries great power, by the design of God. God can and will accomplish great things as we pray. But He will not answer prayer for life other than the answer He has already given. “And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son” (1 John 5:11).

John’s teaching about prayer here reinforces the truth of his message, and it all points us to Jesus. We might think that a loving God will necessarily spare sinners because that’s what love does, or that God will surely honor sincerity and efforts through other religions. But the love of God is manifest in the giving of His Son. Faith in any other leads to death. 

How does the unforgiveable sin lead to an unanswerable prayer?

Stan Gale

Stanley D. Gale (MDiv Westminster, DMin Covenant) has pastored churches in Maryland and Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He is the author of several books, including A Vine-Ripened Life: Spiritual Fruitfulness through Abiding in Christ and The Christian’s Creed: Embracing the Apostolic Faith. He has been married to his wife, Linda, since 1975. They have four children and ten grandchildren. He lives in West Chester, Pa.
Books by Stan Gale

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