A Question I Was Asked:

In 1 John 5:16-17, What is Meant by the Sin That Leads to Death?

The Question:

In 1 John 5:16-17, what is meant by the sin that leads to death?

UK Apologetics Reply:

Okay, Let us look at this:

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. (1 John 5:16-17).

The first thing we should point out is that Bible experts have puzzled about the meaning of these verses for many years, but I don't think that should deter us from looking at these verses again.

Now this obviously refers to sins committed by Christians since the context is of a "brother" sinning. All Christians will occasionally slip and stumble as the apostles Paul and John are very clear about. There are several Scriptures one may consult on this including the entirety of Romans 7, Hebrews 12:1 and 1 John 1:8-10. Surely these are the sort of sins 'that do not lead to death' - and why do they not lead to death? Because repentant, Spirit-filled believers are now covered by the grace of God. Surely that much is clear (Psalm 32:2; Romans 4:8; Romans 8:1-4; 1 John 3:9).

But whilst we will all stumble, Christians sometimes go too far and behave in a very unchristian, unworthy and sinful manner. We may think of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10), Paul also warned about the possibly fatal consequences of taking communion too lightly. See 1 Corinthians 11:27-32. Taking Christian communion is a most serious business - we should never partake of it without self-examination!

So 1 John 5:16 asks us to pray for Christians who are sinning/falling short, especially where it is affecting others; these are the sins which 'do not lead to death.' However, there may come a time when God will no longer hear prayers for a sinning believer for whom He has determined that judgment is due. The Lord may even decide to take the life of such a person (though, if a true believer who was going through a 'backsliding' phase, he or she will not be lost).

However (and I think that this is a big 'however'), I think that the phrase, 'there is a sin that leads to death,' more particularly refers to the unpardonable sin, or blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, for which there is no forgiveness 'either in this age or the age to come.' (Matthew 12:31-32). There appears to be no forgiveness for those few, yes, I believe it is the few, who have quite deeply understood the message of the Bible and the Gospel of Jesus Christ but who - in a pretty much full knowledge of the truth - throw it back in God's face. This is not sinning under temptation, this is to sin in full, willing and knowledgeable rejection of what Christ did on the cross. There is no second path of full repentance, or re-sacrifice of Christ available for such persons (Hebrews 6:4-6).

There seems little doubt that certain of the Jewish authorities of Jesus' day were guilty of this, carefully note Jesus' comments in Matthew 12:24-28,31-32. That chapter contains at least a strong implication that certain of the religious authorities who ascribed the works of Jesus to Satan, actually fully knew Who Jesus was, so they were not blaspheming in full ignorance but, rather, in a full knowledge of the facts. If that is so, that would amount to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit for which no forgiveness is possible!

The good news is that the Bible assures us that the truly called and chosen who are God's elect people are not within this category, nor can they ever be.

No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. (1 John 3:9).

Being born again, being truly convicted by the Spirit of God, means that sin no longer has the power to separate us from God because we now become covered by His grace.

And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession - to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians1:13-14).

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4, NIV throughout).

So I think that the strongest explanation for 1 John 5:16-17 is that these verses separate the sin which so easily besets us all (Hebrews 12:1) from the unpardonable sin which it is pointless to pray for.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3).

Robin A. Brace. November 22nd, 2013.