The Threefold Secret of Life

Study Guide to 1,2,3 John
by Francis Foulkes ©


'If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is a sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal' (5:16-17).

Verses 14, 15 have spoken of the 'confidence' that we can have in coming to God in prayer. We can ask anything that is God's will and we are assured that our prayer is heard and answered. We can pray for other people and in particular verse 16 tells us that we can pray that men and women may be turned from their sin to God and God will give them life. There are those whose ears may not be open to our words, but God's ears are open to our prayers, and 'more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of' (Tennyson). We have to think carefully, however, about what verses 16, 17 say of sin that is 'mortal' and sin that is 'not mortal', or more literally 'sin unto death' and 'sin that is not unto death'.

a. Different kinds of sin.

All down the ages people have tried to divide sins into two groups, one worse than the other. The Old Testament speaks of the sins that were done by a person 'unwittingly' or as Today's English Version puts it 'without intending to' (Leviticus 4:2 and Numbers 15:22-30). Then it speaks of other sins that were deliberate, committed 'with a high hand'. The sacrifices provided by the Law were understood to cover the sins of the first kind but not the second. Thank God that we know that the sacrifice of Christ covers even the sins that we have deliberately committed. Whatever our sin, if we turn from it and ask God's forgiveness, we do receive pardon and cleansing. It has been made clear in this epistle that 'the blood of Jesus... cleanses us from all sin' (1:7).

Sometimes in the history of the Church people have spoken of the sin of apostasy or denying Christ as the unforgivable sin. Sometimes sins have been divided into 'deadly' or 'mortal' sins and other sins have not been regarded as so serious. In the Middle Ages people spoke of the 'seven deadly sins'. The New Testament does not give us any reason for thinking in this way.

Today people often think of some sins as worse than others. In different lands and in different cultures different sins are thought of as the worst of sins - to some sexual sins, to others anger, to others pride, to others deceit. Verse 17 says 'all wrongdoing is sin'. We should treat no sin lightly. Yet if a person says, 'I have committed the unforgiveable sin', then we can assure him or her, that God forgives every sin from which we turn and of which we ask His forgiveness. What then is 'mortal sin' or 'sin unto death'?

b. Sin unto death.

We can understand best what is said in verse 16 if we link with it some other similar passages in the New Testament which give similar teaching. In Mark 3:28-29 (see also Matthew 12:32 and Luke 12:10) we read that Jesus said 'all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin'. What was that terrible sin that could not be forgiven? The context suggests the answer. People were saying of the One who had come to be the Saviour of the world, 'He has an unclean spirit'. His life and the things that He said and did, show His truth. In the hearts of people who saw and heard Him, the Holy Spirit spoke of Him as the very truth of God.

If people rejected, purposely and persistently, the Holy Spirit's witness to the Christ, the Son of God who had come to be Saviour, where else could salvation be found? Hebrews 10:26-31 is similar in its meaning. There is described the situation of those who had come to see the light of the truth of the gospel (Hebrews 6:1-6), but had rejected the Christ of the gospel. Such people had to be told that there was no other sacrifice for sin if His sacrifice was rejected (Hebrews 10:26). Or it may be put another way, as Hebrews 12:15-17 expresses it, giving a warning from Esau's life. If the way of repentance and the need for forgiveness is rejected then God's forgiveness is itself rejected. That is the condition of 'sin unto death'. That is the situation to be feared and avoided more than any other.

For ourselves there is, above all things, one lesson of the greatest seriousness here. Never treat sin lightly. Never refuse the way of repentance. Whatever sin we turn from, however terrible, God will forgive. Our danger is when we love some sin so much that we refuse to turn from it.

c. Prayer and sin.

When we see a person going wrong in whatever way, the natural human thing to do is to criticize. The Christian thing to do is to pray. God delights to hear and to answer such prayer. The answer to such prayer may be the saving of a person from death. Sometimes a word of warning may go with the prayer (see Matthew 18:15). Sometimes it is by prayer alone that a person is turned back to God. William Barclay puts it this way: 'It may be that there is nothing greater that we can do for the man who is straying away, and who is in peril of making shipwreck of life, than to commit him to the grace of God'. James 5:19-20 says, 'if any among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins' (see also Galatians 6:1).

But here is a mystery of unanswered prayer. There cannot be confidence in praying for one who sins 'unto death', for that person has rejected the way of repentance and God's way of forgiveness. Behind the mystery of unanswered prayer is the fact that God has given freedom to us all. We have that freedom in small things, to do right or wrong, to do God's will or to refuse. Moreover, in the ultimate choices of life - to accept the truth of God or to reject it, to receive His salvation or to refuse it - we also have freedom.

When the prophet Jeremiah had prayed for his people and preached to them for many years, God told him no longer to pray for them (Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14, and 14:11). They had refused and refused the way of repentance and life until it was no longer possible for them to do anything else but refuse. So it may be with men and women now. This passage - as it teaches us lessons about prayer and about God's answering prayer - reminds us that this is so. It says to us that there is a prayer that cannot be answered, because God has given us freedom, freedom finally to choose life or death. Of course, it may not be given to us to know if one for whom we pray has finally rejected God or not. Christian history is full of the stories of those who after a long life of rebellion against God and even persecuting His servants have turned back to God and found mercy. So we should pray for the conversion of sinners, but remembering that in this way God has limited Himself in answering such prayer, by the freedom that He has given to every man and woman, to choose life or death.


God, in Your mercy keep me from all that is sinful and that leads me away from the life that You have planned for Your children; and may I, by word and action, and above all by prayer, be used in Your purposes of grace to save others and keep them in the security of Your everlasting Kingdom, through Jesus Christ my only Lord and Saviour. AMEN.

For further thought and study.

What can we learn from the prayers of Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33), Moses (Exodus 32:7-14), Samuel (1 Samuel 12:19-25) and Amos (7:1-6) in the Old Testament and the longing of Paul for the conversion of his people (Romans 9:1-5 and 10:1) about what should be our concern and prayer for others?