Here's John Wesley's sermon referred to in my last post:3. "But does not St. John cut us off from this hope, by what he says of the `sin unto death?' Is not, `I do not say that he shall pray for it,' equivalent with, `I say he shall not pray for it?' And does not this imply, that God has determined not to hear that prayer? that he will not give life to such a sinner, no, not through the prayer of a righteous man?"
4. I answer: "I do not say that he shall pray for it," certainly means, he shall not pray for it. And it doubtless implies that God will not give life unto them that have sinned this sin; that their sentence is passed, and God has determined it shall not be revoked. It cannot be altered even by that "effectual fervent prayer" which, in other cases, "availeth much."
5. But I ask, First, What is the sin unto death? And, Secondly, What is the death which is annexed to it?
(1) And, First, what is the sin unto death? It is now many years since, being among a people the most experienced in the things of God of any I had ever seen, I asked some of them, What do you understand by the "sin unto death," mentioned in the First Epistle of St. John? They answered, "If anyone is sick among us, he sends for the elders of the Church; and they pray over him, and the prayer of faith saves the sick, and the Lord raises him up. And if he hath committed sins, which God was punishing by that sickness, they are forgiven him. But sometimes none of us can pray that God would raise him up. And we are constrained to tell him, We are afraid that you have sinned a sin unto death;' a sin that God has determined to punish with death; we cannot pray for your recovery. And we have never yet known an instance of such a person recovering."
(2.) I see no absurdity at all in this interpretation of the word. It seems to be one meaning (at least) of the expression, "a sin unto death;" a sin which God has determined to punish by the death of the sinner. If, therefore, you have sinned a sin of this kind, and your sin has overtaken you; if God is chastising you by some severe disease, it will not avail to pray for your life; you are irrevocably sentenced to die. But observe! This has no reference to eternal death. It does by no means imply that you are condemned to die the second death. No; it rather implies the contrary: The body is destroyed, that the soul may escape destruction. I have myself, during the course of many years, seen numerous instances of this. I have known many sinners (chiefly notorious backsliders from high degrees of holiness, and such as had given great occasion to the enemies of religion to blaspheme) whom God has cut short in the midst of their journey; yea, before they had lived out half their days: These, I apprehend, had sinned "a sin unto death;" in consequence of which they were cut off, sometimes more swiftly, sometimes more slowly, by an unexpected stroke. But in most of these cases it has been observed that "mercy rejoiced over judgment." And the persons themselves were fully convinced of the goodness as well as justice of God. They acknowledged that he destroyed the body in order to save the soul. Before they went hence, he healed their backsliding. So they died that they might live for ever.
(3.) A very remarkable instance of this occurred many years ago. young collier [coal miner] in Kingswood, near Bristol, was an eminent sinner, and afterwards an eminent saint. But, by little and little, he renewed his acquaintance with his old companions, who by degrees wrought upon him, till he dropped all his religion, and was two-fold more a child of hell than before. One day he was working in the pit with a serious young man, who suddenly stopped and cried out, "O Tommy, what a man was you once! How did your words and example provoke many to love and to good works! And what are you now? What would become of you, if you were to die as you are?" "Nay, God forbid," said Thomas, "for then I should fall into hell headlong! O let us cry to God!" They did so for a considerable time, first the one, and then the other. They called upon God with strong cries and tears, wrestling with him in mighty prayer. After some time, Thomas broke out, "Now I know God hath healed my backsliding. I know again, that my Redeemer liveth, and that he hath washed me from my sins with his own blood. I am willing to go to him." Instantly part of the pit calved in, and crushed him to death in a moment. Whoever thou art that hast sinned "a sin unto death," lay this to heart! It may be, God will require thy soul of thee in an hour when thou lookest not for it! But if he doth, there is mercy in the midst of judgment: Thou shalt not die eternally.