Amazing Grace: On the “Sin Unto Death,” Jeremiah, and Intercessory Prayer; Part 1

Long before I started this blog, I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace, which was published and is now available as a free download here. There I lay out my understanding of how a Christian might fall from grace.

At the time of publication in 1995, there were details I’d not yet worked through. For example, I came to understand Galatians and the falling away described there in much greater detail later. And every once in a while, a reader asks a question that prompts me to rethink some of my earlier work.

Recently, a reader has pushed me to better explain my views regarding 1 John 5:16-17, which presents a challenging interpretation for every school of thought.

(1Jo 5:16 ESV) If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life — to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.

John speaks of a “sin that leads to death” or, more literally, a “sin unto death,” as though the reader is supposed to understand what that means. Commentators have routinely struggled to define the term.

Some suggest that it’s blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, which leads to a discussion regarding Jesus’ words on that subject and very far afield for 1 John. Plus it’s less than clear just what blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is. That is, this theory merely replaces one riddle with another.

More commonly, it’s suggested that John is referring to a hardened heart — one so hard that it can no longer repent —

(Heb 6:4-6 ESV)  4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit,  5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,  6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

(1Ti 4:2 NIV) Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron.

Neither passage is saying that God is ever unwilling to forgive someone who comes to him with faith and penitence! No, the message is that we can become so sinful that we lose the ability to repent.

(Obviously, if someone does ultimately repent, he was never in that state.)

This same sin is referred to in Hebrews 3 as rebellion —

(Heb 3:7-13 ESV) 7 Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear his voice,  8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness,  9 where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years.  10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’  11 As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.'”  12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.  13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

The sin of rebellion or hard-heartedness is a major theme of Hebrews, which oscillates between assurances of God’s salvation and warnings against taking God’s grace as an excuse for license or laziness — an attitude that can lead to a hard heart and damnation.

(Heb 10:26-27 ESV) 26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,  27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.

It’s not any deliberate sin or any continuing to sin, but a deliberate continuation in sin that damns those who were once saved.

Now, 1 John deals extensively with the fact that Christians do not sin (as characterizing how we live), but yet we do sin. That is, we’re on the path out of sin, we don’t condone sin, and we don’t wallow in sin — but we remain sinful, broken creatures.

(1Jo 1:8-2:1 ESV)  8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 2:1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.

It would be very consistent with John’s theology to present rebellion or hard-heartedness as a “sin unto death.” It is.

Here’s the challenge: John told us not to engage in intercessory prayer for those engaged in such sin.

 (1Jo 5:16 ESV) If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life — to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.

That is, we should pray for those engaged in non-rebellious sin and God will forgiven their sins (“give him life”) but not for a rebellious sin. Why not?

Now, before answering the question, I have to make a distinction. John is not saying that we should not pray for those caught up in sin. Rather, he is saying that it’s futile to pray for their forgiveness. After all, what they need is not forgiveness but repentance.

Forgiveness won’t keep their hearts from getting even harder — perhaps so hard they can no longer be reached for Jesus. Only repentance will do that.

1 John and Jeremiah

Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225 AD), in Part Fourth: On Modesty, takes John to be referring to a passage in Jeremiah. And Jeremiah is a fascinating parallel.

In chapters 7 – 9, Jeremiah announces God’s curse on Jerusalem, ultimately resulting in the destruction of the city and Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. He tells Jeremiah not to intercede for the people!

(Jer 7:16-18 ESV) 16 “As for you, do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you.  17 Do you not see what they are doing in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem?  18 The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven. And they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger.

Why not? Not because God didn’t want Judah to repent — the three chapters are a desperate plea for repentance.  Rather, it’s because the sin is too great for anything but repentance. No third party could effectively intercede to obtain forgiveness where the sin is so intentional.

And the parallel fits in that Jeremiah soon predicts that the sin of Jerusalem will lead to death —

(Jer 7:33 ESV) And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away.

(Jer 9:20-22 ESV)  20 Hear, O women, the word of the LORD, and let your ear receive the word of his mouth; teach to your daughters a lament, and each to her neighbor a dirge.  21 For death has come up into our windows; it has entered our palaces, cutting off the children from the streets and the young men from the squares.  22 Speak: “Thus declares the LORD, ‘The dead bodies of men shall fall like dung upon the open field, like sheaves after the reaper, and none shall gather them.'”

It’s graphic language (and came true quite literally). Jeremiah is indeed speaking of sin that leads to death.

So what was going on in John’s epistle that would recall the sins of Judah leading to the destruction of the temple? What sin was in the nature of idolatry?

If we look for the most intensely negative language in 1 John, we quickly come across references to the “antichrist.”

(1Jo 2:18-19 ESV)  18 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.  19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.

(1Jo 2:22-23 ESV)  22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.  23 No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.

(1Jo 4:2-3 ESV)  2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,  3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

Teaching a false Jesus is to teach idolatry. All of which helps explains why John suddenly starts talking about idols at the end of the epistle.

(1Jo 5:20-21 ESV)  20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.  21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

Commentators routinely conclude that John is changing the subject in v. 21, but if we see John’s theme as being the true faith in the incarnate Son versus a false faith, the antichrist — a form of idolatry — then John’s language becomes a potent warning. If you let these false teachers deceive you into worshiping a false Jesus, you become idolaters and will suffer the fate of idolaters!

Hence, I take the ultimate example of “sin unto death” to be rejection of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God. But that is not a uniquely defined reference. It’s any sin that is equivalent to the sins of Jerusalem.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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12 Responses to Amazing Grace: On the “Sin Unto Death,” Jeremiah, and Intercessory Prayer; Part 1

  1. Alan says:

    I’ve taken 1 John 5:16 as instructing us not to ask God to forgive someone who has not repented. Their sin “leads to death” and the only way to avoid that death is to stop doing the thing that leads to death… in other words, to repent. That’s very much in line with the Jeremiah passage.

  2. Alan says:

    To be more precise… 1 John 5:16 instructs us not to forgive someone who has *decided* not to repent.

  3. Todd Collier says:

    Wait a bit Alan, this passage doesn’t deal with who we should forgive, but for whom we should intercede before God, or even more who we can expect God to withold wrath from.
    We have been dealing with forgiveness a lot around here lately and the bottom line is forgive, always, be a doormat, be hurt, take the hit. God will balance the scales in His own way and in His own time. Jesus provided a process for reconciliation which might lead to a breach in relationship (if the other does not respond as he or she should) but whether I can continue to walk with you is a radically different question from whether I can forgive you.

  4. Jerry says:

    For us to wait for an apology before we forgive is for us to put ourselves in the place of God.

  5. Alan says:

    Wait a bit Alan, this passage doesn’t deal with who we should forgive, but for whom we should intercede before God, or even more who we can expect God to withold wrath from.

    Yes that’s what I meant. I shouldn’t comment before my morning coffee.

  6. Chris Pierson says:

    Very good blog. Thanks for your clear thinking and description.
    The challenge I have personally is when can I judge whether a person is too far gone, too hard, totally unrepentant so that I don’t pray for them anymore. I have no doubt scripture describes people who get to that point.
    I suppose the Holy Spirit would have to make clear the level of that person’s hard heart – that it is truly beyond redemption.

  7. Todd Collier says:

    There is no way to know what you need to know without getting close and loving them. Sadly then you will know when it is time, on the other hand you might be exactly the right tool at the right time to make the difference in their lives. In all but two of the situations in my ministry they made that decision for me.

    The worst feeling in the world is to be sitting there sharing coffee, sharing their struggle and be looking in their eyes at the exact moment the last calculation has been done and the light goes out. But if you’ve been there at least you walk away knowing what Paul meant by “innocent of the blood of all men.” Sometimes that’s the best you can hope for in a poor sinner’s struggle.

  8. Jeff B. says:


    I, too, was wrestling a lot with that same question. Since only God knows the heart, if follows that only God knows with certainty when that heart has become hardened beyond repentance. Yet this verse seems to be saying that I have to make that judgment so that I know whether or not to continue praying for that person!

    However, a couple of considerations have helped me to understand this passage in a way that satisfies me (although this understanding still falls far short of certainty). First, Jay’s view that it is referring specifically to praying for the wayward Christian’s forgiveness helps. I still must make a judgment as to when this change in the content of my prayers must occur, but it has somewhat less finality when I can continue to pray for his/her repentance, even when I fear that he/she MAY be beyond the point of being able to repent.

    Secondly, John implies that we are capable of determining when someone is caught up in a sin leading to death. This does not, however, imply that we are then capable of determining when the “death” has actually occurred. I can discern when someone is living in rebellion, and is therefore in danger of “losing salvation”/experiencing spiritual death/committing sin leading to death. I cannot, however, discern when that death has occurred.

  9. Jeff B. says:

    Oops. HTML code isn’t my friend. Sorry about the excessive bold type above.

  10. Charles McLean says:

    Jeff notes the implication correctly, John implies that we can know when it is time to cease to intercede. As this reflects a state of the heart of another person, such revelation must come from One who can discern the intents of the heart. Once the Holy Spirit tells you to stop interceding, you can do so in good conscience. I find no ground for developing a new judicial code which we can apply in rendering such a judgment ourselves.

    Personally, I think to tear us away from interceding for another ought to be a pretty traumatic event, if our hearts are right. It should be met with tears, not with relief.

  11. Jeff B. says:

    @Charles, I agree with you generally. However, I would be more precise in the way I explain what (I think) we are both saying. If Jay’s interpretation is correct (and I think it is — or at least its the only one I’ve seen that make sense of this passage), then we don’t “cease to intercede” altogether. Rather, we cease to intercede for their FORGIVENESS while continuing to intercede for their REPENTANCE. This is not done because of some “new judicial code,” but because it simply makes no sense to pray for someone’s forgiveness when they are living in rebellion, and may have moved beyond the “point of no return” (Heb. 6:4-6). In other words, I don’t think John is saying “Thou shalt not pray for a person when he meets the following criteria …” statement. I think he is saying “Why would you waste your breath and energy praying for a person’s forgiveness from rebellion when (a)repentance is that person’s most urgent and immediate need, (b) if that person HAS quenched the Spirit, then neither repentance nor forgiveness will happen, and (c) if that person HAS NOT quenched the Spirit, he/she is still under grace (albeit tenuously) and already has God’s forgiveness.”

    @Jay, am I “getting it?”

    @Chris, did you grow up in Buda, TX? I know someone with your name.

  12. Charles McLean says:

    Jeff, you may well be correct. But I don’t hold that ceasing to intercede is somehow so drastic a measure and to require some modification in order to line up with God’s expectation of us. There is a time when God ceases to strive with man, or when God gives someone over to a reprobate mind. I think it is not unreasonable to think such a limit might also apply to us. As long as it does not spring from our own judgment.

    Hard to think of myself as more long-suffering than God in some cases.

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