What is “Sin that Leads to Death” in 1 John 5:16-17?

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I would like to hear your insightful comment on 1 John 5:16 – 17 regarding sin that does not bring death and sin that does bring death. I welcome your perspective and clarification.

“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. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.” (1 John 5:16-17, ESV)

Context is King
As always, the best way to interpret Scripture is through understanding the context where the confusing passage occurs.

General Context: Faithfulness in the life of the Believer
Throughout the entire book of 1 John there is a strong emphasis on sin, confession, and faithfulness of believers. Over and over again Christians are described as those who do not sin. It’s important to realize in original languages, these verses use a grammatical structure which clearly implies a continual, ongoing habit of sinning. Some of these passages emphasizing the faithful Christian life are listed below.

If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. (1:5)

Everyone who make a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness…. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. (3:4 & 6)

If anyone says, ‘I love god,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. (4:20)

We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. (5:18)

Upon reading through 1 John it should be clear that it was written to a church who enduring conflict and division. The members are wandering away and arguing with each other. The fellowship is broken. John is encouraging the believers to walk in the truth by loving one another as an expression of their love for God. True Christians endure – they don’t walk in habitual sinfulness, and they don’t abandon the family of God. This is a clear and consistent call throughout the book of 1 John, and this sets the context for 1 John 5:16-17.

A photo by Cristian Newman. unsplash.com/photos/zFnk_bTLApo

Specific Context: Prayer
The question of “sin that leads to death” and “sin that does not lead to death” is all within the context of who deserves our prayers. It may sound odd to hear Scripture encourage us to withhold prayer from anyone, but we need to realize that these prayers are a word of grace and forgiveness to our “brothers” in faith. Imagine someone coming before the priest for assurance of salvation. As Christians, we are a “priesthood of believers” who pray for one another and encourage our brothers and sisters in the Lord. This is the context. It only makes sense to consider someone’s life when discerning whether or not to give assurance that their sin has been forgiven. These appear to be prayers that confirm someone’s genuine faith and status as as a child of God. Thus, praying for someone who has committed “sin that leads to death” would be giving them a false assurance of salvation.

Three Major Interpretations
Literal Death as Result of Sin
Perhaps their sin literally led to their death. In that case, you obviously cannot pray for their repentance and restoration. The context of these verses requires that repentance and restoration are legitimate outcomes of our prayer for the person, so this interpretations should not be given much preference.

There were a number of sins under the Old Testament law which carried the death penalty. These sins might be in view. Even today, where someone’s sin brings capital punishment, we may pray for their spiritual state, but only while affirming the appropriate legal consequence of their sin. This perspective, however, doesn’t seem to account for prayer legitimately giving life to the brother.

Degrees of Sin
In this view, there are differing degrees of sin. Some of which are forgivable, others which are not. This is one of the primary passages the Roman Catholic Church uses in their understanding of Mortal and Venial Sins. Under this perspective, there are specific sins too serious to be forgiven through prayer. Sin that leads to death may not lead to physical death, but to spiritual death.

Apostacy & Blasphemy
If sin that leads to death is apostacy, then the person has intentionally and clearly sinned by rejecting faith in Christ. Under this view, sin that leads to death is an embrace of sinfulness rather than a repentance which leads to godliness. This might be intentional rejection of the faith (apostasy) or an unintentional wandering (blasphemy) – but the result is the same: a demonstration that this person is not “a brother.” In this way, their sin leads to death and should not be prayed for.

Where I’ve Landed
Since verses 16-17 refer to “sin that leads unto death” rather than “the sin…” it seems highly unlikely that a particular sin is in mind. Instead, the Greek is a general way of talking about sin in a broad sense. It is also significant that the “brother” Christian is someone who committed a sin not leading unto death, but the person who entered the sin leading to death is not labeled as a brother. These provide important keys to understanding what John means.

I am persuaded by the Apostasy & Blasphemy view: that this passage is speaking of prayer in a way that we affirm one another in faithfulness by speaking a word of grace to one another. Christians who fall into sin confess their sin, repent of their sin, and are affirmed by one another of their forgiveness and salvation. In light of the general themes of 1 John mentioned above, this third view sets a difficult passage into the broader context with the best clarity and continuity. These is a call to faithfulness and counsel regarding the division within the church.

Why This Matters: Don’t Give False Assurance
We are called to pray: to pray for the salvation of the lost (those who are not “your brother”), and to pray for our brothers and sisters of faith, that they would confess and repent of their sin and continue in faithfulness to the Lord. But we must not offer assurance where conviction is necessary. For those who believe themselves to be Christians but are not, we must resist the temptation to tell them their sin has been forgiven despite their lack of repentance. Instead, we pray for “brothers” and we call the unrepentant to faith.

To pray for someone who has committed sin leading unto death is to confirm them in their sinful rebellion against God rather than calling them to repentance and faithful submission to God’s commands.

For More:

  • Word Matters podcast: What is the Sin that Leads to Death? This was a very helpful podcast in laying out the different views, and is only 18 minutes. The hosts come to different conclusions from mine. I recently found this podcast – if you like this blog, you’ll like this podcast. 
  • Sam Storms: Can a Christian Commit the Sin Unto Death?  When Sam Storms writes about something, you know it will be good. His article presents a really good summary and analysis of four views on this passage. If my one-paragraph summaries of the views wasn’t enough for you, then read this article

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