October 13, 2014
Sin that Leads to Death
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)
[intro]What is “the sin that leads to death?”[/intro]
This is a big question from 1 John with no easy answer. Theologians and pastors have debated this one for eons and I don’t presume to be able to give the definitive response in a blog post. In fact, I have gone back and forth on this over the last several years and even more so over the last several weeks. Here are some of the tricky spots:
Who is the “brother” in this passage? – If he is a Christian, then this death must not be eternal death, because all legitimate followers of Jesus have eternal life (1 John 1:2, 2:25; 5:11,13). It’s possible that these “brothers” are not true followers of Jesus, but why would he use the word?
What is “death” in this passage? – If John is not talking about a Christian, this could mean eternal death (hell), but if he is talking to Christians, this must mean physical death. We have examples of Christians dying because of disobedience (Acts 5:1-10; 1 Corinthians 11:30), so this is a possibility.
Why would Christians be commanded to not pray for someone who is sinning? – This would seem to contradict commands to pray for and come alongside those who are struggling with sin, both unbelievers and believers (Galatians 6:1; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Timothy 2:1; James 5:16).
OK…so what is “the sin that leads to death”? In my mind, there are three plausible answers, each with pros and cons.
ANSWER #1:The sin that leads to death is continual unrepentant sin by a Christian and God gets more glory out of their physical death than their ongoing disobedience. This position allows for “brother” to mean a Christian, but seems to contradict the thesis of 1 John that true followers of Christ will not be overcome by patterns of unrepentant sin their whole life. (1 John 5:18) Eventually, Christians will get some victory (it may be ever so slight, but it will be there).
ANSWER #2:The sin that leads to death is unbelief in Jesus that leads to eternal death. This position requires “brother” to mean a person who claims to follow Jesus but is not really a Christian; they are a “false brother.” This would be consistent with John’s message about salvation (1 John 5:1), but inconsistent with his use of the word “brother” throughout his letter (1 John 2:13-14).
ANSWER #3:The sin that leads to death is a sin that actually kills you. This position carries logical consistency (i.e. – if someone has sinned in a way that kills them, there is no use in praying for them anymore, the rest of the time we should pray for them and help them) but it seems like a rather weird thing for John to bring up in the middle of the rest of his train of thought and doesn’t jive with his main point of “knowing you know Jesus in a saving way”.
So there you have it. Which position do I hold to? Honestly, I waffle between #2 and #3 but I can’t say I know for sure. That’s why I’m encouraged that John didn’t end his book here. He closed by telling us what we can know for sure:
We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
(1 John 5:19–20)
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