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1 John 5:16-17 – What is the ‘sin unto death’?

December 26, 2008

1 John 5:16-17 is a hotly debated passage. Many different interpretations have been given to try to clarify its meaning. Understanding why John writes his letter should give a strong indication as to the meaning of the passage. He writes in order that “you may know that you have eternal life.”(1 John 5:13) The main idea discussed by John is how believers are to have confidence before God in their prayers concerning sin in the lives of others. He then tells believers of the confidence that they have before God in prayer. Their prayers will be heard as long as they pray according to “God’s will” and the person’s sin is not “unto death.”
TEXTUAL COMMENTS
Although they play no significant role in the verses, there are two textual variants in the selected passage. Both are concerned with the same word at the end of verse seventeen. The first variant has to do with the absence of the negative particle ‘ou’ in some of the manuscripts. The particle can mean either ‘no’ or ‘not’. No significant difference is made in the text due to the absence or presence of the particle.
If it is genuine, then John is saying that there is [a] sin that does not lead to death. If the particle is a later addition, as some manuscripts would suggest, then John is only reiterating the statement that there is [a] sin that leads to death. It does not seem likely that John is restating his former assertion. Like other places in his letter, John seems to be using a compare/contrast structure to get his point across. The argument would be as follows: “There is [a] sin that leads to death, and there is also [a] sin that does not lead to death.”
John follows the same compare/contrast logic in other places too. 1 John 1:8, 9 contrasts two ways people can respond to sin. One can acknowledge his sin and find forgiveness, or he can deny his sin and deceive himself. John can also sometimes compare two ideas and not necessarily just repeat what he has said before. In 1 John 4:7-11, he shows the comparative relationship between God’s love and the believer’s love. The Christian’s love should model God’s love. John may repeat a line of thought but his tendency is to make a strong effect by often stating the opposite of what he has previously said.
The second variant has ‘mn’ in place of ‘ou.’ This seems to be a scribal error due to the fact the ‘ou’ is often used with the indicative mood. The last part of verse seventeen is in the indicative. In either case, the negation of the statement is retained. Despite the difficulties with the statement “the sin unto death”, there are no manuscripts that lack these verses.
DIVERGENT VIEWS
The main trouble with the passage lies in the latter half of verse sixteen. Its meaning will greatly affect how a believer prays for another individual involved in sin. Several interpretations have been given as to the meaning of the controversial passage. Determining which is the correct view is not easy. Popular options concerning the “sin unto death” are that the sin is a specific sin that results in physical death, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit resulting in spiritual death, or  total rejection of the Christian message (often termed apostasy).
The first view states that “sinning [a] sin unto death” is a specific sin that results in death. No one today knows what this sin was but John’s audience apparently understood the reference. Either way, “it is clearly a sin persisted in until it culminates in death.” It does not seem to matter if it is a specific sin or lifestyle of sinful acts that brings about the death. In either case when a certain sin is committed, though it is the unidentifiable sin or the case where the sinner has filled up his number of sins allowed him by God, the end result is death.
Several weaknesses are apparent with this view. By relegating this view to physical death, the Catholic doctrinal system whereby they distinguish between venial and mortal sins is upheld. Venial sins are transgressions that do not result in death or spiritual separation from God. Mortal sins endanger not only a person’s physical life but their soul as well.
Certain Scripture passages are put forth as proof that some sins do elicit God’s punishment of the sinner by physical death. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is speaking about the sacredness of the Lord’s supper and the necessity for believers to come to the table of fellowship with pure hearts. He reminds them of some who had not done so and as a result “many among you are sick and sleep”. Paul does not mean they are taking a nap. Sleep in scripture is often a reference to the death of believers. (Cf. also 1 Thess. 4:13-16) Ananias’ and Saphira’s lives were taken because they had lied to God. (Acts 5)
It is hard to build a systematic doctrine about sins that will cause your death and which ones God will let you get by with. In the aforementioned passages, the people were shocked to learn of the individuals death. These sins have been committed since the time of the apostles and yet there seems to be no consistent dealings from God on who dies and who gets to live. God in His wisdom and providence decides which sin and when it will bring about physical death. God’s dealings about ‘sin unto death’ cannot so easily be categorized.
Another apparent weakness is that the passage assumes believers can distinguish between sin that leads to death and sin that does not lead to death. No one today seems to be able to makes such a distinction. Perhaps it may be argued that this sin unto death is only known by illumination of the Holy Spirit to the believers. This idea is certainly possible but again it seems John’s audience already knows what the sin unto death is because they “see” him commit it. As mentioned before, previous deaths because of sin almost have a randomness appearance to them on the surface.
The second view regards the “sin unto death” as being the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 12:31) The result is spiritual death because there is no forgiveness for the individual once he commits this sin. This view would not seem to contradict John’s thought about death. In the passage, he seems to be speaking of spiritual death not physical. Throughout his letter his references to life and death are always spiritually related. He also warns them not inquire about this sin perhaps because to pray for someone’s salvation after they commit this sin is useless because God’s wrath is settled against them.
Several weaknesses attend this view. First, John seems to be writing about a “brother” that sins. A true believer can never ultimately fall from grace. (Cf. John 6:37, 39/Romans 8:38, 39/ 2 Timothy 2:13) Secondly, as has been noted, the sin seems to be observable by other believers. Is blashpheming the Holy Spirit observable, or is it a sin of the heart? It seems to be an issue of the heart. Only Jesus recognized that the Pharisees had come close to, or had, blasphemed the Holy Spirit in His encounter with them. The rest of the people seemed unaware. (Cf. Mark 3:20ff) Thirdly, no other sin is closely connected with blaspheming the Holy Spirit. John seems to be making a distinction between two kinds of sin. He makes a distinction because apparently there is some confusion over the blending of the two. If they were not similar in some aspects, why would John need to make a distinction between  “sin unto death” and “sin not unto death”? Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is a sin that is in a class by itself without any close associations to it.
Another problem with the interpretation is that when John uses “sin” he seems to be speaking of a category rather than a specific sin. The context of verse 17 would seem to lend support to this idea. Would John say all unrighteousness is a sin or sin? Most likely he would treat “sin” as a category because he is talking about unrighteousness as a category. If “sin” is treated in verse seventeen as a category then it would seem that “sin” in verse sixteen would need to be treated in the same way and not translated as “a sin”. Although John uses ‘sin’ elsewhere in his letter to speak about a specific sin, immediate context would seem to carry a stronger weight to see ‘sin’ as a category.
The third view sees those that “sin unto death” as having apostasized from the faith. They once were in the covenant because John refers to them as brethren but now they have sinned the sin unto death. Context shows he is talking about spiritual death and due to their sin these people have lost their salvation. Hebrews 6:4-6 would be given as further proof that believers can fall away in an ultimate sense.
This view too has an objectionable conclusion. Scripture overall does not teach that a believer can fall from grace. They are “kept by the power of God” because “they are in the Father’s hand, and no one can snatch them out of His hand.” “Nothing can separate them from the love of Christ.” (See 1 Peter 1:5/John 10:28,29/Romans 8:35) Nor does Hebrews 6 teach apostasy in the ultimate sense. It is a hypothetical situation. (Cf. vs.9)
EVALUATION
What does the passage teach then? Is there any way of knowing for sure? It is hard to be dogmatic about such a controversial passage but a careful look at its parts should help one arrive at a conclusion as to its meaning. The most logical place to start is with context. John is talking about a believer’s confidence he has before God. More specifically, he is talking about their assurance that when they pray God hears and answers. Verses sixteen and seventeen are a specific application about a believer’s confidence they can have before God. Two qualifiers are put upon this confidence: the prayer must be “according to God’s will” (vs. 14) and the person prayed for must not have “sinned the sin unto death.”
How does this information help the passage? Whatever it may mean, a certain type of prayer is prohibited. Zodhiates understands “I do not say that he should make request for this” to mean a person should not question God about His divine right to impose physical death upon an individual. The same word ‘erotao’ is used in John 1:21 when some are “asking” Jesus a question. 1 John 5:16b would then read “I do not say that he should question about that.” This translation would seem to have some legitimacy if John’s overall context about spiritual life were not so strong. John most certainly is not advocating that God imposes spiritual death on someone who was formerly alive. Also, if this was the right translation, it could also be taken to mean that believers are not to inquire about the sin unto death. This forbidding of an inquiry would be strange since John just pointed out that they are able to recognize and know the “sin unto death” in another person’s life.
The overall context is how a person can know they have spiritual life. This knowing most likely includes the evaluation of other’s spiritual condition also. True believers can and are encouraged to recognize false teachers. (Cf. 4:1) This knowledge does not mean it is fool-proof, or else John would not have had to write to them about how to recognize false teachers. (4:2,3) They are known by what they teach. In light of the passage then a believer is forbidden in some fashion from praying about a specific action.
In verse sixteen, John’s focus seems to be on a continual act(s) of sin. It literally could be translated “sinning a sin” because it is a present active participle. It is a lifestyle that manifests sin on a constant basis. It is observable because they “see” it. The aorist may indicate a specific act observed. John uses “if” (eav) to introduce the sentence. “The subjunctive with “eav” simply states the possibility.” Whatever may be said about it, the “sin unto death” is possible.
John supposes that the person who sees their brother sin will pray for them by his use of the future active indicative form “aiteo”. The difficulty lies in the second half of the verse. “He will give” could be either a future active indicative or aorist active imperative verb. The former is most likely since it is ideally related to “he will ask”. Another problem lies in identifying who the “he” is referring to in “he will give”. It has no antecedent. Most translations supply “God” assuming that He is the only one that can give life. Another option is to suppose that God grants life through the believer that prays for the one sinning. James 5:14-16 may shed light on how God works through people and means to accomplish His purposes in the lives of others.
But, does this life go to the one faltering or the one praying? Again, no clear antecedent is available. One writer feels that “life is given to the one who asks for his brother.” This assertion may assume too much. Why does he need life if he is already a believer? It is not really an answer to his request for his brother. If this were the case, then God dismisses his specific prayer for his brother and grants him the blessing instead. In light of the context of praying for others and seemingly improbability of the believer receiving the blessing, it is best to see that the one sinning receives the benefit of life.
Even the meaning of “life” is open to debate. Is it physical or spiritual, or a spiritual uplifting? It does not seem to be physical life as shown by the previous discussion of context. As regards it being a spiritual uplifting, John nowhere else in his epistle uses this concept. Again, the theme of the letter and passage is about how a person knows they have eternal life. The life given seems to be eternal life.
How can it be said that a believer, who supposedly already has life, is given eternal life? Perhaps a view that holds the tension of man’s responsibility and God’s sovereignty can resolve the tension. John is writing to people who need to know if they have eternal life. He is not elucidating the doctrine of predestination but is rather focusing on man’s responsibility. With this concept in mind, it does not seem illogical why John would say that a brother will (future active indicative) receive life. This reception of life can be seen in an eschatological light of the ‘already, not yet’. In one sense the believer still does not have the life God has planned for him. In other words, the believer has not entered into the eternal state and taken possession of what is already his in Christ. Is John saying that by praying for those “sinning sin not unto [spiritual] death” God will end their physical life and take them to heaven so that they can be “given” the fullest possession of their inheritance? This conclusion seems absurd.
The prayer is a way one believer helps secure the ‘not yet’ dimension of a believer’s salvation in this life for the life to come. John may be acting like Paul does by showing that God works through means. Paul believes fully in God’s ability to save completely those who put their faith in Christ apart from any works a person does. (Ephesians 2:8-10). However, he also warns that a person must persevere in faith in order to finally be saved. (Cf. Col. 1:23) John seems to be writing in much the same way. He encourages believers to pray for other believers so that they may live spiritually. A prayer for one already saved does not undermine God’s sovereignty or abdicate man and his  responsibility to work through the means God has ordained in order to secure his and even others salvation in this lifetime.
It is again to be kept in mind that John is speaking in the context of a redeemed community of various individuals who belonged to and were involved in it. His letter is to believers, not false teachers he is warning about. The member’s true salvation will be shown by the things they do. If they do leave, “it is because they were not of us.” John’s audience was a mixed group. Believers and unbelievers were together.
Eternal security does not appear non-sensical when one understands “the sin unto death.”. To be specific, John does not even refer to those who commit the “sin unto death” as brethren. They are left unnamed. Those who are unnamed, not the brethren, are the ones who commit the “sin unto death”. If he is referring to them as “brethren”, it should also that John is writing to a mixed congregation of believers and unbelievers. Neither does John use the term brother so tightly to refer exclusivley to Christian believers. (2:9)
As regards the forbidden prayer, it could be that John is saying that believers should not pray for someone to keep sinning sin until they are eternally lost. But, why would anyone ever pray that? Or, it could be that John is warning against praying for those whoses sins are often met with “a second warning” because their sins in denying Christ leads them to “continue to wrest the scriptures to their own destruction.“ ( Titus 3:10/2 Peter 3:16) These are the ones “who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation” (Jude 4). The believers are able to recognize “sin unto death” by the repeated action and teachings of the person in question. The supposed believer has been warned according to scripture guidelines but refuses to turn. He continues in his false teaching that “turns the grace of our God into licentiousness and denies our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Jude 4). This seems to be the “sin unto death”. Another strength of this last assertion is that John’s letter deals specifically with the problem of false teachers being in the church. (Cf. 4:1-6)

CONCLUSION
In conclusion, John is writing to stress the confidence believers can have before God in prayer. Specifically, they are to pray according to God’s will. This may mean that they are to pray for some and not for others in a certain way. Believers are not to pray that God will grant life to the one who denies Jesus as the Christ. God will not accept them on any other terms than the truth about Jesus.
The focus, however, is on the positive aspect. Verses sixteen and seventeen, despite the highly debated section of the “sin unto death”, are about the believers’ responsibility to pray for another one involved in sin. Everyone sins, and so all need the prayers of each other. (1:8-10) The apostle’s stress is on the act of intercession. The prayers of the redeemed are one of God’s ordained ways that he will safely bring his elect into His kingdom. Even now those who do not “sin unto death” will receive life only after God has worked through others to pray for their brethren to accomplish His purpose in their lives. Believers can not pray for God to comprise His will as regards the sin unto death. If God accepted them although they denied the truth about Jesus, God would be denying Himself. This is something God cannot and will not do. (2 Timothy 2:13)

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