What is the sin that leads to death in 1 John 5:16?

Question:  In 1 John 5 16-17 it says, “If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life.”  Since the word “brother” is used I don’t believe it could mean blasphemy, but maybe apostasy. Could it be the word “brother” is not used as Christian brother but Jewish brother referring back to Hebrew 6:4-6 and thus it would be useless to pray about? 1 John 1:9 says if you confess sin God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. The only sin unforgivable is blasphemy. If it does refer to a Christian could it mean quenching the Spirit? Perhaps the death is physical death not spiritual death? Still I’m troubled that prayer couldn’t help. Or could it be John is saying we should not pray for the sin that leads to death to get an early exit out of this world, like Jonah?

Answer:  Without a doubt this passage ranks as one of the most difficult in all of Scripture to interpret.  So we must be cautious not to land too quickly on one side of the debate over this passage.

The passage follows a discussion in 5:13-15 of the confidence a believer may have in prayer when we pray according to God’s will.  This passage then becomes a concrete example of when you may know a prayer is in God’s will or not.  Here is the passage in full:

If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.

There are several issues to consider in interpreting the passage:

  1. What is the “death” and “life” John refers to here?  Is it physical or eternal?  As we look at evidence in the epistle as a whole, 3:14 is the one other place where death and life are contrasted this way and it is eternal life and death that seems to be in view there, but it uses the adjective “eternal” in that passage and that is not here in this passage.  Strikingly, this exact phrase in 5:16 is found in John 11:4 where Jesus says Lazarus’ sickness will not lead to death.  Did Jesus mean “physical” death?  It could only mean physical death in the final outcome because Lazarus’ illness did initially lead to his physical death.  It is equally possible, however, that Jesus was speaking of “eternal” death, indicating that Lazarus’ illness would not result in him spending eternity apart from God but rather with God in eternal life.  After all, later Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (11:25).
  2. What does John mean by “will give them life”?  If the brother or sister is committing a sin that does not lead to death, why would God need to give them life?  What if the “brother or sister” in this passage was not a Christian, but only attached to the church as a seeker of faith in Christ?  Then this statement about giving them life would make sense.  This would be a promise that prayer for them would lead them to embrace the truth about Christ instead of the false teaching several in the congregation had adopted, the ones who left the congregation because of their new “faith” (2:19).
  3. Can “brother or sister” here refer to an unbeliever?  1 John 3:10,15 mentions those in the congregation who hate their brothers and sisters, who do not do what is right and who are thus children of the devil.  But how could they be children of the devil and hate their “brothers and sisters”?  They are not really brothers and sisters in the spiritual sense but have passed themselves off as such.  Several of these mere “professors” of faith abandoned the church at Ephesus and followed the false teachers.  But what if there were those who were persuaded by the false teachers and are struggling with their views, but who have not left the church and are seeking to love the brothers and sisters?  They are not saved yet, but they are seeking the truth. 

These considerations lead me to interpret John’s words here as referring to a situation in which unbelievers who have been a part of the church but who are caught up in the false teaching, are nonetheless not abandoning the church but are seeking to know what the truth is.  Believers are wondering how to pray for them.  John gives them confidence that these people, because they are not sinning a sin (apostasy from the faith) that leads to death, that is, because they are not denying the truth despite every opportunity to do so, will come to the faith as believers pray for them.  God will “give them life.”

But there are those who have made it clear that they are embracing the sin that leads to death, apostasy from the truth about Jesus, and there is no confidence he can give the believers at Ephesus that they will repent and be saved.  In essence these people have demonstrated a hardness of heart that incurs the judgment from God of never being able to respond to the gospel, like Jesus described in Matthew 12:31 or the author of Hebrews does in chapter 6.

An alternative view is that the sin unto death is some specific act that warrants God’s discipline resulting in physical death (as for example in the case of Moses, Numbers 20:12, and the Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 11:22,30).  The problems with this view are that it does not fit with the general thrust of the letter overall, nor does it provide any clue as to what this particular sin might be.

Randall Johnson

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One thought on “What is the sin that leads to death in 1 John 5:16?

  1. Pingback: Confidence in Our Rescue (Theology for Living from Philippians) « A Thimble-full of Theology for Daily Living

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