"Sin that does not lead to death"

“Sin that does not lead to death”

1 John 5:16-17

     I hope that the title of this post grabbed your attention. I am taking a brief detour from the “What is Missions?” segment that I began a week ago. I will continue it with the second entry next week. I was asked a few days ago by a fellow believer what I thought about what has become a fairly difficult passage to understand for a large number of Christians. It just so happened that this same passage was in my daily reading today. As I finished out the epistle of 1 John in my quiet time this morning I began to dig a little deeper into this particular passage. To go beyond just raking and to attempt to dig for gold. As I began to do that I began to jot down my thoughts. I decided to type them into a more readable format and share them with all of you. I pray that my analysis and interpretation of this passage of Scripture is clear, concise, and edifying to each of you. Keep in mind that I am human and subject to failure. This analysis is based on my knowledge and understanding of Scripture. I welcome and encourage others thoughts and opinions on the meaning behind this part of John’s first epistle. Join me, as we embark on this journey into 1 John.


     It is so important when analyzing any passage of Scripture to do so in the context of all of Scripture. What do I mean by that? We know and affirm that “All Scripture is breathed out by God…” (2 Timothy 3:16). This means that every word of the original text of Scripture was penned by human authors, using their personalities, experiences, and culture but inspired by the Holy Spirit working through these authors. So, it is important that when analyzing a passage of Scripture that we take in to account the entirety of God’s Word and what we know about him through that because we also affirm that the Word of God is infallible meaning that every part is true and it does not contradict itself. If you are ever to look at a passage of Scripture and it seems to contradict another it is very important to spend some time digging in that location. As is the case here.

     Many people will take John’s wording here and use it to contradict other passages of Scripture. Someone might argue- “Well, John wrote that there is “sin that does not lead to death” (1 John 5:17), that directly contradicts Paul in Romans 6:23 where he writes “For the wages of sin is death…” so the Bible must not be true.” It is VITAL that we look at this passage in the context of John’s letter.

John, Who?

     While we are not 100% sure who wrote these three epistles there is much evidence pointing towards John, the brother of James, the disciple and apostle as the author. What do we know about John? We know that he also wrote the fourth gospel and also the book of Revelation. John had a very deep, intimate relationship with Jesus while being his disciple. He was one of the big three that Jesus seemed to allow into somewhat of a deeper relationship with him. This would’ve included Peter and James. (Matt. 17:1, 26:37) In John’s own gospel he referred to himself many times as the “one whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20) So, when we look at this epistle we are looking at a letter written by one who had a deeper relationship with Jesus than most other believers in history.


     What was John’s purpose behind penning this particular epistle? It is obvious that John was writing to a group of believers who were facing some form of false teaching. He encourages the believers as “little children” (1 John 2:1,18, 28; 5:21) and “beloved” (1 John 2:7, 3:2, 4:1, 7), indicating a personal and almost a pastoral role with them. One of the main purposes of his writing this epistle is so that no one would deceive them. (1 John 2:26; 3:7)

     John took a very different path of refuting false teaching in this epistle than Paul did in many of his. Paul would often address the false teachers directly or point out the areas in which the church had been led astray and address them directly. However, John took the approach of fighting false doctrine by reaffirming sound doctrine in these believers. (1 John 1:1-4) All throughout this text, John teaches these believers what the life of a true believer should look like and what that of an unbeliever would look like. (1 John 2:4-5, 15; 3:6-10, 14, 15; 4:8, 16, 20; 5:2, 18) He is very black and white about this. For John, he did not want to leave any grey area with this group of believers. He wanted to encourage them to “walk in the light” (1 John 1:7) and warn them of those who would claim to be believers but their lives proved their words as false. (1 John 4:20)

Knowing all of this let us take this knowledge into our analyzation of this text.

1 John 5:16-17

“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 a 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.”

     John here is contrasting two different groups of people. Those “committing a sin not leading to death” (1 John 5:16) and those committing “a sin leading to death” (1 John 5:16). What is the difference here? Aren’t all sins punishable by death? Doesn’t all sin separate us from God and damn us to hell? YES. God does not see sin in different levels. James 2:10 tells us that “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” That means that a lie and murder are both sins, resulting in separation from God (Isaiah 59:2), and punishment of eternal death in hell. (Romans 6:23) So what is the difference that John is talking about? To help us understand this let’s look at Matthew 12:31-32.

“Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

     This passage is often referred to as the “unpardonable sin.” This also is one often taken out of context. Jesus had just healed a demon-possessed man and the Pharisees attributed the healing to the work of Satan. (Matthew 12:22-24) So Jesus addressed the Pharisees with the verses we have above. The Pharisees were in deliberate disobedience and denial to the work of the Holy Spirit through Jesus. Their sinful pride was holding them back from belief and faith. This is what Jesus is addressing. There were many who denied Jesus while he was alive here on earth, yet later came to faith. His brother, James is a prime example. He denied Jesus in John 7:5, but we later find him to come to faith, called an apostle, and granted great authority in the church in Jerusalem. (Acts 15:13-21) He was one who had blasphemed against the Son of Man. However, once faced with the undeniable truth that Jesus was the true Son of God after witnessing the resurrection through the power of the Holy Spirit, James could deny no longer and believed. The Pharisees directly denied the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, thereby denying who Jesus was, and disobeying and disregarding the Father. This is the sin that cannot be forgiven…the sin of unbelief. This is the “sin that leads to death”. (1 John 5:16) Belief is required to receive forgiveness from the Father, to receive life. (Ephesians 2:8-9, Galatians 3:6-11, Romans 4:4-5; 10:9-11) This is the same problem that John is addressing in his epistle.

     It should be obvious to us if we read the book of 1 John that there were imposters among these believers. John gives them evidence all throughout the book on how they can identify these deceivers. In this passage here, John is encouraging believers to pray for other TRUE BELIEVERS that are struggling with sin. This would be the “sin not leading to death” (1 John 5:16). This idea is further confirmed in 1 John 5:18 where John talks about the believer being protected from their sin by Christ. This is referencing our positional stance with God. We know that if we follow the Romans 10:9-11 model of confession, repentance, and true belief that we are positionally right with the Father. What does that mean? It means that our eternal position is secure. That the blood of Jesus was enough and that we have been reconciled to the Father through our faith in the Son. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20) Does this mean that in this life we will never sin again after the moment of our justification? NO. Paul talks about this struggle in his own life in Romans 7:15-20. The believer is still going to struggle with sin, John encourages believers that see other believers in sin to pray for them. (1 John 5:16) This model is given to us all throughout Scripture encouraging and instructing believers to intercede for one another. (Ephesians 6:18, 1 Timothy 2:1, Acts 12:5, 2 Corinthians 1:11, James 5:13-16, Philippians 1:19)

     So, what do we do with the instruction from John not to pray for those who commit the “sin that leads to death”? (1 John 5:16) This is not a literal instruction not to pray for the unbelievers. John was instructing these believers not to waste their time with those who were openly and blatantly denying Christ. Much like the Pharisees in the time of Jesus there must have been individuals in these New Testament churches masking themselves as believers but blatantly denying Christ. (Galatians 1:9) Even Jesus instructed his disciples to “shake off the dust from your feet” (Matthew 10:14) when entering a town where they were not received. Does this mean that we are not meant to pray for unbelievers? NO. There are many instances in Scripture where faithful men of God are praying for the repentance and belief of unbelievers. (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:27, Deuteronomy 30:6, 2 Timothy 2:25-26, Acts 16:14, Romans 10:1) Our heart should break for unbelievers! However, our time here on earth is short. We must use it wisely and follow the example given to us by Christ. We did not see examples of Jesus spending the majority of his time debating with those who denied him. He encountered them when needed but that is not where the majority of his time was spent. Our time is to be mostly spent on the spread of the gospel and ministering to fellow believers. We have to have wisdom in spending time with those who have blatantly and openly rejected the gospel. We must refute false doctrine but there is a balance there we must adhere to that can only be accomplished by communing daily with the Father.

Dylan AndersonComment