CLAIM: John writes, “There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this” (1 Jn. 5:16). What is this sin, and why should we not pray for it?
RESPONSE: This is a very unclear passage. We agree with most commentators that this is a very unclear passage. While Roman Catholic scholars appeal to this passage to support the concept of venial and mortal sins (see “Sin: Venial and Mortal”), we would be wise not to base any serious doctrines upon such an unclear passage. While we aren’t certain of its meaning, several options are possible.
OPTION #1: This is referring to PHYSICAL death.
The Bible speaks about God judging believers physically for serious sin (1 Cor. 11:27-30). This was true in the OT (Num. 3:4), as well as the NT (Acts 5:1ff). For this reason, it’s likely that John is speaking of believers being physically judged, rather than spiritually judged for serious sin. If this is the case, fellow Christians shouldn’t pray for these believers to be healed (“…I do not say that he should make request for this…”), because God is divinely judging them (c.f. Jer. 7:16; Isa. 1:15). The concept of following God’s wisdom is closely connected with extending physical life in the Proverbs (Prov. 10:2; 11:4, 19; 12:28).
The difficulty with this interpretation is the fact that John uses “death” (thanatos) to refer to spiritual death in this book—not physical death (1 Jn. 3:14; cf. Jn. 5:24; 8:51-52). At the same time, John does use this term to refer to ordinary physical death (12:33; 18:32; 21:19; Rev. 2:10; 2:23; 9:6; 12:11; 13:3), so this isn’t that unlikely.
OPTION #2: This is referring to SPIRITUAL death
Others hold that John is referring to spiritual death here. John writes that “all unrighteousness is sin” (v.17), so he doesn’t believe anyone can sin their way out of salvation, which is a past tense and completed event (cf. 1 Jn. 3:14; 5:24). Instead, the “sin leading to death” refers to the one sin of rejecting Christ. Jesus taught all sins would be forgiven, but “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mk. 3:29; cf. Mt. 12:32). To blaspheme the Holy Spirit would be to reject the drawing ministry of the Holy Spirit to lead us to Christ (Jn. 12:32; 16:8-11).
Note that John never states that a Christian brother could commit this sort of a sin (i.e. blaspheming the Holy Spirit). He states that we should pray for a “brother committing a sin not leading to death.” But he never calls the person who commits a sin leading to death a “brother.” Whatever this sin is, this isn’t referring to a Christian. Earlier in the book, John regarded these people as having never actually received Christ’s forgiveness: “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 Jn. 2:19). Later in his second epistle, John writes, “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son” (2 Jn. 9). There is a big difference in losing your salvation and forgiveness, and never having salvation and forgiveness in the first place.
Moreover, we should note that John refers to the practice of habitual and unrepentant sin in the following verse: “We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him” (1 Jn. 5:18). Earlier in 3:6-9, he uses the same expression, presumably referring to the libertine, Gnostic false teachers of his day. This sin of rejecting Christ habitually is not aimed at the Christian—but the false teachers of John’s day (see comments on 1 Jn. 3:6-9).
The difficulty with this view is that John tells us not to pray for this person. Why wouldn’t we pray for someone who is still lost and hasn’t received Christ? Proponents of this view note that John doesn’t forbid us from praying for the person, but rather praying for this specific sin (i.e. blaspheming the Holy Spirit). People are given freewill, and we shouldn’t pray that God would remove that freedom of the will. As Thompson writes, “What one may not ask for with respect to those whose ‘sin is unto death’ is that they be given life apart from their repentance, confession and returning to following Christ… One can pray that unbelievers may repent and come to fellowship with God. But if God were to forgive them as they persist in their sin, that would not be forgiveness: it would be denial of human sinfulness which, in the Elder’s view, is an abhorrent lie.”
OPTION #3: This is referring to praying for someone who is ALREADY DEAD
Under this view, John wrote to stop Christians from praying for those who were spiritually dead and also physically dead. If someone died rejecting Christ, we shouldn’t continue to pray for them. As Johnson writes, “The issue of when the death occurs is not resolved in the phrase itself, but [John’s] refusal to authorize prayer for those whose sin is unto death (v. 16) suggests that he thinks of the death as having already occurred.”
OPTION #4: This is referring to church discipline
In this view, the person experiences “death” by being handed over to the world-system. While we would certainly pray for the person, we wouldn’t pray that God would protect them from all of the breaking that they need. As Paul writes in a similar passage, “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). In cases of church discipline, we do pray that the person would be restored to an authentic relationship with God, but we also pray for the necessary breaking that is needed as well.
Not everything in Scripture is equally clear. Peter said that some of Paul’s writings were “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16). Thus we should discern what is clear in Scripture before building doctrines on unclear passages. In the Bible, the main things will no doubt be the plain things. Therefore, however we interpret this passage, we should make sure to interpret the unclear in light of the clear. Since the “sin leading to death” only occurs in this one passage, and it is very unclear to interpret, we should not build a major doctrine on this one passage.
 Hodges, Z. C. (1999). The Epistle of John: Walking in the Light of God’s Love (p. 233). Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society.
 Thompson, M. M. (1992). 1–3 John (1 Jn 5:16). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Johnson, T. F. (2011). 1, 2, and 3 John (p. 136). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.