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The Sin Unto Death

As pastors we frequently are asked questions about life, the bible and theology.

At first this can be a bit intimidating but as time goes on you begin to notice that there are usually just a few questions that are asked over and over by people.

Theology questions are usually very personal like whether a person can lose their salvation or what does it mean to be baptised by the Spirit.

When it comes to the bible the questions are usually about the unforgivable sin, not judging one another, baptism for the dead or the passage we are going to give some time to, the sin leading to death.

“Sin unto death” (1 John 5:16-17)

"If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death."

An incredibly hard passage to work through. As you ask questions on various parts of this passage the answer you come to necessarily takes you down one path or another.  And that is what we are going to do, ask questions of the passage:

Note, the phrase “his brother.” The question is what is intended here. 

Four options exist:

- A literal brother.

- A genuine believer.

- A brother in the general sense of a neighbor.

- A professing believer who may or may not be truly saved.

Right away you may see how by asking questions of the passages it really does help you slow down and think. What and who is in view here?

We think that the fourth view is the best. Why?  Because throughout the epistle of 1 John the term “brother” is used in this manner.

"The one who says he is in the light and yet hates his brother is in the darkness until now. The one who loves his brother abides in the light and there is no cause for stumbling in him. But the one who hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes.  (1 Jn. 2:9-11)

Note that the whole context of 1 John 2 is that to abide in the light is to be a true believer.

"By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother.

(1 Jn. 3:10)

"If someone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also." (1 Jn. 4:20-21)

So this is already helping us understand the passage and notice that we haven’t even dealt with the words that cause people so much wonder and worry (sin unto death). We are quite confident that John is dealing with a specific issue of a professing believer who may or may not be actually a believer.

Next question is what is meant by “committing a sin?”

Literally says, “sinning a sin.” And again this becomes quite helpful.  We are beginning to focus now on the sin itself and we learn a few things.

This is not an occasional sin, nor a sin of a specific type.

In fact it is not identifying a specific sin at all; rather, it is emphasizing the quality of the action. So it is not “committing THE sin.”

It is also indicating a continuous action so we are dealing with a habitual sinning.

So now we can see that it is dealing with a professing believer who is in the habit of committing sin.  That is his norm.

Now we can ask the question, what is meant by  “leading to death. . . .” Here it is helpful to break it down to more detail.

“Leading” gives the reader the sense of verb, or at least participle but this is not what is actually there. The word is actually a preposition, πρὸς (pros) which means near or towards.

This is key because it is not saying that the goal (here death) is actually a given but that it is a potential.

In other words, it is sin that will ultimately end in death when left alone.

“death” What is meant by this?

Obviously this is central to the meaning and so we want to be careful and note what is and is not there.

It is contrasted with “life” so whatever the meaning is for “death” will, in turn, affect the term “life” as well.

There are really only two choices: physical death and spiritual death.

It is probably easier if we consider “life” first.  It is used 13 times in 1 John and in every other occurrence it is referencing eternal, spiritual life.

The closest two usages are 5:13 and 20 and our passage is clearly within the context of those two passages.

"These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, in order that you may know that you have eternal life." (1 Jn. 5:13)

"And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life." (1 Jn. 5:20)

So, since the contrast is made between life and death and life likely is referring to spiritual life. Then the best understanding of both terms appears to be spiritual rather than physical.  So we are probably not looking at a physical death like that of Ananias and Saphira.

One other observation before we tie this all up and give a sense of the passage.

“ask” is a term that describes the asking from an inferior to his superior.

This is why in many translations it says “ask God” even though the word for God is not actually there. Most likely it does refer to God.

So what does this whole thing mean?

It is obvious from the construction that the readers of John were assumed to know what the term “leading to death” meant.  However it is not clear for us.

There are at least 6 main views from a Protestant perspective, add the Catholic perspective that it is referring to mortal sins and you can see the challenge.

Perhaps the most common Protestant view is that it relates to the rejection of Jesus as the Christ which would include the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.

This is entirely possible and certainly John speaks to the divinity and person of Jesus in this epistle. And if this is the case then you understand how defining the person of Jesus Christ is in all of this.

However, it is emphasizing the character or quality of sinning more than the identity of a specific sin.

Therefore this appears to be a person who professes to be a believer, but is in an unrepentant state of holding onto his sin.

At the same time vs 17 comes into play and seems then to emphasize that though all unrighteousness is sin, not all sin is equal. The sinning that is in view here is such that it leads to spiritual death.

Therefore we would conclude that it is the choice to continue to reject Jesus as He is actually revealed in the scripture, yet profess faith in Him nonetheless.

It is the idea of thinking that your theology is not that important, just believe.  It is a severe warning that you must get it right regarding who is Jesus. It is not something up for debate and endless discussion.  He is revealed in the Scripture for us to rightly know.


This sort of passage is a challenge and that makes it a good passage to work through, even if the answer is not satisfying to everyone. There are a few lessons to learn when you study passages like this.

The first is that there are passages that are simply hard to understand. So when you have someone who handles them casually and flippantly you should be wary of putting too much weight on what is said.

Second, these types of passages are often what bring about division in churches and you should be cautious around them. This is not something to camp on and make the center-piece of your life and theology.

I (MH) remember a man who decided that Revelation 4:5 meant that the Trinity was false; rather, the Godhead was made up of 9 persons, seven of them the Spirits of God. His pastoral ministry did not end well.

Understand that these sort of passages can become cul-de-sacs for your spiritual growth as the answer is often so hard or so subtle that you can’t come to a satisfactory conclusion and so you find yourself frozen.

Paul reminds us in Eph 4 that even as we grow with respect to our theology we are commanded to maintain the unity all believers have in the Spirit. So don’t decide this is your special theology drum to beat in your local church.  At best it is annoying and at worst it is destructive.

Third, in a similar way you should never develop your theology on anything as these sort of passages as your foundation.

A doctrine of salvation based off of this passage is likely going to be very poor.

Perhaps you think you don’t do this but it is often more common than you might think.

Here is a typical scenario, you hear about the truth of forgiveness in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  You are burdened with sin and you are weak in your faith and with this you have much sorrow. But when you hear that in Jesus Christ there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God you immediately insert this passage. And with it goes your hope for all you can do is wonder, maybe I’ve committed the sin that leads to death.  And you won’t even ask for prayer because verse 16 says not to bother.

You might claim that the death and resurrection of Jesus is foundational to you.  You may think that the promise that all who come to Him in faith is saved. But in reality this is the passage that is your real foundation and as a result you are frozen in fear and despair.

If you are in a church where theology is vague at best it is a dangerous place to be. The whole of 1 John makes it clear that theology matters and you need to get certain things right, like the person and work of Jesus.


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