Church Write-Up: The Sin Unto Death

Last Sunday, at one of the church services that I attended, the pastor was attempting to explain I John 5:16, which states (in the KJV):

“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.”

What is the sin that is unto death?  The pastor defined that in a variety of ways.  First, he said that it was apostasy, or leaving the Christian faith.  That is interesting, considering that he was defending the eternal security of the believer on the basis of John 10:28-29, where Jesus affirms that nobody shall take his sheep from his or his Father’s hand.  Second, the pastor defined the sin unto death as blasphemy, which is unforgivable.  The pastor said that this is why we should be careful about what we say when we are angry, particularly when we are angry with God: we do not want to blaspheme and commit a sin that is unforgivable.  Third, the pastor conceptualized the sin unto death as willful, defiant unbelief: refusing to believe in Jesus (as the New Testament defines him) or in the existence of an afterlife with rewards and punishments.  The pastor said that we should not waste our time praying for people who have sinned unto death: their mind is made up, and they cannot be helped.  Rather, we should spend time helping and praying for believers who struggle: Christians whose marriage is on the rocks, for example.

I am in between computers right now, so I do not have access to my Word Biblical Commentary.  But, just looking at the verse, I wonder how it can be rehabilitated, or interpreted in a less-than-dire light.  The verse seems to be saying that there are some people for whom we should not pray, presumably for restoration from sin.  That is a difficult saying.  Can we, with our own limited perspectives, judge anyone as beyond hope?

Here are some thoughts—-not necessarily answers, but thoughts:

A.  Last week, I was reading blog posts by a husband and a wife, both of whom are Christians.  The wife was praising her husband on her blog, and the husband then praised his wife on his blog.  The wife said on her blog that there was a time in which she left the faith, but her husband kept praying for her, and she returned.  I think that the husband did the right thing, but does it gel with I John 5:16?  We can say that she obviously had not committed the sin unto death because she returned to the faith: there must have been some desire for or adherence to the Christian faith deep down inside of her, for she did return.  How, though, can we judge anyone as having committed the sin unto death, when we do not know everything that is going on in a person’s mind?  I John 5:16 seems to assume that we can know who has committed the sin that is unto death, and that we should not pray for that person.

B.  There may be some kernel of wisdom in I John 5:16, assuming I am understanding it correctly.  In a Bible study that I attended in college, we were going through the Gospel of Luke.  We were discussing Luke 9-10, in which Jesus offers instructions to his disciples about preaching in towns.  Someone in the group, in response to this passage, asked if Christians should spend their time witnessing to a person who is unreceptive, or if they should move on to another person, as the disciples moved on from town to town and shook the dust off their feet at towns that were unreceptive.  The leader thought that was a valid question: so many people need to hear the Gospel, he reasoned, so perhaps we should not spend a lot of time on people who are not interested.  There may be wisdom to that, yet I have known of Christian wives who have prayed for non-Christian husbands for decades before their husbands finally believed.  They did not give up hope.

C.  The web site where I looked up I John 5:16 also lists Jeremiah 7:17; 11:14; and Jeremiah 14:11, in which God exhorts the prophet Jeremiah not to pray for the people of Judah.  It must either be hopeless at that point, or God does not mean what God says there but is using hyperbole to express how frustrated God really is.  Prophets did intercede for Israel when it was especially bad.  When does one move from being simply bad, to having committed a sin unto death (and I am not asking this in search of a loophole)?  Plus, had Israel committed the sin unto death, since Jeremiah prophesied that God would restore Israel, showing Israel still had a positive future in store?  Or did that specific generation of Israelites—-the one in Jeremiah’s day—-commit the sin unto death?

D.  Paul (or the character of Paul, for liberal scholars) says he used to be a blasphemer in I Timothy 1:13, so, obviously, blasphemy is forgivable.  In Matthew 12:32, Mark 3:28, and Luke 12:10, Jesus says that there are blasphemies, such as speaking against the Son, which can be forgiven, but that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven in this age or the age to come.  That said, like the pastor (I gather), I have been slightly dissatisfied with the typical evangelical claim that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is merely an attitude rather than an act of speech.  There may be something to that, but Jesus, after discussing the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, criticizes careless words and affirms that people will be judged over their words (Matthew 12:36-37).  I definitely do not want to go so far as to say that spurting out careless words against God in a state of rage (even a continuous state of anger) is unforgivable, but I do think that Jesus’ emphasis on words needs to be addressed.

E.  After hearing the sermon, a lady I know, who seems to consider herself a non-believer, was talking about the afterlife.  She expressed dismay that so many people get away with evil in this life, and she hoped that there was karma in the afterlife.  Shortly thereafter, she saw the movie Hacksaw Ridge, and she respected and admired the humility and love for others (even his persecutors) of the movie’s Christian protagonist, Desmond Doss.  I do not want to write myself into a pit, trying to qualify everything that I say, but there are non-believers who are open to ideas that Christians claim as their own, or as from God in origin.  (There are non-believers, of course, who would dispute that those ideas are distinctly or uniquely Christian.)  But some are not open to those ideas (or some of them).  Should we really maintain that God gives up on them, and that it is hopeless to pray for them?

I’ll stop here.  Remember, if you choose to respond (here or by e-mail), I am in between computers, so it may take me a while to read what you have to say.  Thanks!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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