Dear Brother Beebe: - As the sin undo death mentioned in I John 5:16,17, has been referred to in the late discussion in the "Signs" on the "blasphemy against the Holy Ghost," and as I have had some reflections and views recently on the text, I will give them to you for what they are worth.
It has been a prevalent idea that the sin unto death here spoken of was some extra-ordinary sin, and hence the notion has been general that it is the peculiar sin spoken of by our Lord, Matt.12:31,32. But really, as I now look at the passage in John, the most remarkable part of it seems to be his saying, "There is a sin not unto death," seeing he has told us in this epistle, 3:4, that "Sin is the transgression of the law," and that the law saith, "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them;" and again, "The soul that sinneth it shall die;" and so that death passeth upon all men, for that all have sinned. Sin, therefore, must reign unto death in all that are under the law. How is it, then, that there is a sin unto death? Paul told the saints at Rome, Rom.6:14, "Sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law, but under grace." This text has, no doubt, puzzled many of the children of God, sin having such a control in them and over them, they have concluded that they could not be subjects of grace, or its power over them would have been killed. What is dominion, but the power of sin? And what is the reign of sin, but unto death? (See Rom.5:21.) Break then, the dominion of sin, and its power of reigning unto death is destroyed. How is this dominion destroyed? By a redemption from under the law; for the strength of sin is the law I Cor.15:56. The word here rendered strength signifies power and dominion as well as strength. As Christ came to redeem His people from under the law, He was manifested to destroy the works of the devil, I John 3:8.
If we were to understand the devil here, and also in Heb.2:14, as personating sin in its reign or dominion, I think we should be sustained by the connection of those texts. In redeeming His people from under the law, Christ also brought them under the reign of grace, which is unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord, and which secures that God will forgive their iniquities and remember their sins no more, Jer.31:34. Those, therefore, who are born again, born into the kingdom or under the reign of grace, cannot commit sin unto death, or sin as a transgression of the law, for his seed, that is, the seed of his new birth, remaineth in him, and he cannot become unborn, or sink back under the law, or the dominion of sin. Therefore, though sin dwells in him and sows itself in outward acts, it is not unto death, for its dominion is destroyed. Whilst those who are not born again, existing personally only as the seed of Adam, remain under the law of sin and death, and their depravity and actual transgressions are unto death, and must be so while they remain under the law. Here, brother Beebe, permit me to remark that the views you expressed on the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost are fully applicable to the sin unto death, which John here speaks of; but that blasphemy, as before expressed, I consider a different thing.
But it may be asked, how can the children of God, seeing that sin is a transgression of the law, and they being not under the law, but under grace, commit sin? I will give as an answer this: 1st. John informs us in the text, that "All unrighteousness is sin." 2nd. That the law, whilst it comes with its penal demands only against the posterity of Adam as such, is the eternal standard of righteousness in the spirit of its precepts. All unrighteousness is, therefore, sin in that it is a departure from the law as the standard of righteousness. Hence, by the law is the knowledge of sin.
We will not come to the apostle's remarks concerning praying, &c. "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." John, in the two preceding verses, had spoken of the prayer of faith. He said, "And this is the confidence that we have in Him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, He heareth us," &c. Nothing short of faith could give us to feel this confidence, and nothing short of faith could assure us that we were asking in accordance with His, God's will. The children of God, in seeing a brother sin in whom he has confidence as a believer in Christ, knows that it is not unto death; for says Christ concerning His sheep, I give unto them eternal life and they shall never perish. And he has the assurance that his sin shall be forgiven, for God has promised in covenant that He will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more. Here, therefore, is full room for his praying in faith his brother's sin may be forgiven, and he be restored to the enjoyment of spiritual life. In thus praying for his brother, he manifests his brotherly love and sympathy for him, as well as his regard for the honor of Christ's cause. If we would more observe the apostle's injunction, in this case, and pray for our brethren when we see them sin, instead of reporting their failings abroad, it would be much more for the peace of the churches and for our own comfort.
The other case, "There is a sin unto death; I do not say that he shall pray for it." In the first place, it is to noted here that John gives no intimation that a brother may commit this sin. Secondly, That he does not say the child of grace shall not, in any sense, pray for it. That would be to set aside the example of Christ, when He prayed, concerning those who put Him to death, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do;" as also, contrary to the injuction of Christ, that we "should pray for them which do despitefully use us and persecute us." It is proper that we should pray for such as an expression of a forgiving spirit toward them; and to pray for our fellow men, for kings and for all that are in authority, thereby expressing our love and good will toward them. But these are not prayers of faith, and in truth cannot be, for there is in the Scriptures no promises to the unregenerate, no assurance that God will forgive their sins, and faith must have the word or promise of God to rest upon. But John, as we have showed, was speaking of the prayer of faith; and he, in speaking of sin unto death, and saying, I do not say he shall pray for it, that is, with the prayer of faith – must have had in view the practice which would spring up in the professed church, that of inviting or encouraging persons to come to the church, or to the preacher, to be prayed for, under the idea that thereby they will obtain forgiveness and salvation, thus holding forth that they can pray the prayer of faith in their case. But John gives no encouragement for such praying. It is, in fact, an awful presumption for men to encourage poor ignorant sinners to look to their prayers for that salvation which can come only through the atonement and intercession of Jesus Christ.
This view of this passage of Scripture may be new to many, and it may not be correct in all points, though it seems so to me. You and other brethren can examine it, an dif you find it not consistent with the word of truth, please to point out the error. Yours, I hope in love,
P.S. - The sin unto death, which the apostle does not direct to pray for, may have reference to a sin you see committed by one who has a place in the church as a brother, but who you have strong reason to fear is not born again, but is either a hypocrite or a legalist. In this case, you cannot pray in faith for him, having, according to your views of him, no assurance from the word of God that his sin shall be forgiven. Therefore John does not say that you shall pray for it.
Centreville, Fairfax County, Virginia,
From: SIGNS of the TIMES: Vol. 26 (1858)
Select Works of Elder Samuel Trott
pgs. 447 - 450