1 John 5:16-17 and "Sin Leading to Death"

1 John 5:16-17 (ESV)

16 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. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.

The sin unto death in the passage above has been confused and misunderstood by many commentators and pastor-teachers alike. The confusion possibly stems from how the sentences are structured (the grammar) and the fact that they read so strangely. There is also the issue of wishing to see false doctrine (OSAS). So it is no surprise that these words John received from the Spirit to write are so controversial. There have been a host of interpretations that either do injustice to the text or ignore it altogether. But these two verses must be kept within their context if the correct translation is to be rendered.

The key to correctly discerning the teaching of these verses is to study them in their context while rightly understanding the words “life” and “death” as meant by John (verse eighteen also gives us the interpretation of this passage as we will see later below). One must consider the structure, theme, intent, and context of part or the entire book (depending). Those elements of interpretation are the most critical in deciphering the answer to our passage here.

Verses sixteen and seventeen should not be interpreted in isolation from the rest of chapter five as if a new and random topic has begun. Instead, we should understand these verses in light of the ones that come before (keeping them in their proper context) and in the entire scope of John’s message throughout the book.

The words “life” and “death”

1 John 5:16-17 relates to verses ten to fifteen, which build upon them.

1 John 5:10-15 (ESV)

10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.

To properly grasp verses sixteen and seventeen, we must understand what is meant by the words “life” and “death” mentioned therein. It is clear from the preceding verses (and all other instances where the word appears) that this life is eternal. A good understanding of John’s use of words will clearly indicate that life and death are described as spiritual in almost every single instance. Almost all usages of life and death in 1 John refer to eternal spiritual realities. Much of the apostles’ writing contains contrasting comparisons between eternal life and death to show the reader the truth of belief versus unbelief (the benefits of one and the consequences of the other). He often does this by warning his readers to stay true to the faith.

1 John 5:11-12 (ESV)

11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

The word “life” throughout verses (10-15) is eternal, meaning that the death in verses sixteen and seventeen can only be so as well since the apostle says in verse twelve, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

John wishes to give his readers assurance of eternal life (I write these things so that you may know you have eternal life) and encourages them to pray for those whose outcome may appear gloomy because of their present conduct. To help assure the eternal life of the brother or sister in Christ struggling badly with sin, John encourages his listeners in verse sixteen to pray for those who have fallen into a pattern of sinning. This connects with verses fourteen and fifteen, encouraging us to ask anything in the Lord’s name. How much more should we pray for a sinning brother or sister whose behavior could lead to the complete death of their faith? Continuing in sin will only cloud the believer’s hope, so their eternal life will be less certain (I write these things so that you may know you have eternal life). So John exhorts others within the church to intercede for the sinning brother so their future will be more certain for them (since continuous sin can lead to apostasy).

For this reason, verse sixteen says, He (another brother or sister) shall ask and God will give him life.” The word life is spiritual (restoration to fellowship) and eternal, not physical. The previous verses in our context (10-15) confirm this. Verses sixteen and seventeen are contrasting eternal life with eternal death. Throughout his entire epistle, John has been warning his readers of the dangers of rejecting Jesus Christ and the fate of those who do so. This is why our interpretation of verses sixteen and seventeen must stay within bounds of the structure of this book and the intended theme and purpose of John’s message throughout it.

What sin leading to death is

Those who commit sin leading to death are unbelievers living in a continuous and unrepentant state of sin because they serve it (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 rightly says idolaters will not inherit the kingdom of Heaven). Just as how John contrasts eternal life to eternal death, so now he does the same with believers and unbelievers (here is how you can tell the difference between the two to give you assurance of eternal life—the person must examine themselves to see which they are)). Those living this sinful lifestyle (the sin leading to eternal death) are unbelievers and can refer to those who were always so from the start and/or apostates who may have been believers originally. In the end, however, it makes no difference because unbelief results in condemnation in both cases. John’s point is that we shouldn’t pray for unbelievers who have no intent of repenting. He is not suggesting we don’t pray for any unbelievers whatsoever (since some will and missionaries and all believers do this to some extent with those they minister to). We don’t pray for those whose minds are made up (they go on sinning).

Regarding apostates (those who were actually believers at one point), whatever faith they had disappeared once they made up their mind to indulge in sin for the rest of their lives. If they’ve made their final decision, there is no hope for them in the end. John assumes (in the case of apostates) they have already crossed the line and become unbelievers. The sin leading to death is not referring to sinning believers still possessing faith since as long as at least some faith is present, there is always hope, giving us reason to pray). The sin not leading to death is only a deviation (assuming the believer repents) instead of a continuous lifestyle (there is a big difference between a struggling believer and a person who could care less about indulging in any whatever manner of sinful behavior-believers care while unbelievers don’t). The word “brother” is not present in the phrase “there is sin leading to death” because an unbeliever is not a family member in Christ. Since no one born of God (verse eighteen) goes on sinning (commits apostasy by becoming an idolater) in the manner described by John, that would mean those committing the sin leading to death aren’t born again (whether some of them were at one point would be irrelevant). Only unbelievers can commit sin leading to eternal death.

The word “sin” is in the singular in every instance it is used in verses sixteen and seventeen. But this does not affect the meaning of our two verses. The sin not leading to death can involve all types of multiple sins a believer can commit (this is also the case with the sin leading to death). The key difference is how they are being committed (one is a struggling believer while the other is an unrepentant unbelieving idolater—that is one and the same as a rejection of Jesus Christ which is exactly what the sin leading to death is—choosing to serve king sin is to reject the One true King).

To continue, John clarifies, “All unrighteousness is sin.” The apostle did not want his readers to get the impression that anything shy of unbelief was right in any way. But these sins John had in mind in verse sixteen (sin not leading to death) could be any disobedient behavior that would negatively affect the believer’s walk with the Lord by putting them out of fellowship with Christ. And John was very much aware that continuous sin could lead to apostasy (a departure from the faith resulting in eternal death).

Salvation can only be lost by reverting from believer to unbeliever status. Sin is not the direct cause for this but a highly contributing factor that will contribute to the death of a person’s faith if taken too far (a free will decision to give one’s life over to it). And this is the danger John sees in this type of critical situation. They (those committing the sin not leading to death) haven’t “crossed the line” yet, but could do so if they keep going. Therefore, prayer is crucial to help prevent this from happening before it does (even if the person is nowhere close to apostasy, there is still always a risk). God does not throw us out of His family over sins which He paid for on the cross because salvation is by grace through faith alone and not of works. Only when our wrong behavior results in unbelief (no longer following or serving Jesus Christ but something else we have put in His place) will this happen. And we must remember that it is not God who forced the breakup but the individual in question who chose to leave and spend eternity away from Him.

Prayer and God granting the believer life

For reasons above, John encouraged his believing audience to pray for those caught up in such a pattern of disobedience (whatever sins are involved). It may be a bit confusing when the text says, “ he shall ask, and God will give him life,” since the person in question is still a believer and not an apostate. But John is simply teaching that a sinning brother who repents will continue to receive God’s saving grace to sustain them until they reach eternity (assuring them of their eternal life). The word life in verse sixteen is perfectly consistent with its usage in verses ten to fifteen and refers to spiritual and eternal life. The Lord did not and will not condemn the individual just because they fell into sin for some time because salvation is by grace through faith alone and not of works (Ephesians 2:8-9, 1 John 2:1-2, John 3:18). Since continuous sin can lead/contribute to apostasy, repentance will result in a future eternity spent with Jesus Christ (whoever endures in their faith will be saved — granted eternal life — will not be hurt by the second death). The sinning brother or sister doesn’t lose their salvation just because they fall into a gross pattern of sinning for some time (salvation is by faith through grace only and not of works). But if they don’t repent and choose instead to give their life over to sin entirely (idolatry), then they have (by a free will choice) given up on their faith (stopped following and thus believing in Jesus Christ) and will not enter God’s kingdom.

Thus, repentance brings about two results: the restoration of fellowship for the believer with God (which will result in the person experiencing the full Christian life again negatively affected by their prior sin) and the preservation of eternal life and protection from everlasting condemnation (since the person in question has chosen to remain a faithful follower of Jesus Christ). Whenever Christians fall into a nasty pattern of sin and refuse to get right with God, their fellowship with Him will negatively be impacted. Additionally, their salvation will be threatened if they persist on the wrong course. Thus, others in the church should lovingly intercede through prayer on their behalf for the Lord to bring them back into fellowship. But if the person refuses to repent and comes to reject their Master entirely, then God’s grace can no longer sustain them because we are all saved by grace through faith alone. The Lord never removes Himself from someone unless they leave Him first. It is not for no reason that 2 Timothy 2:12b states, “If we disown Him, He will disown us.”

Verse sixteen does not imply that our prayers (suggesting others believers will come to find out about the person’s behavior) will always result in the individual’s repentance. John did not mean that intercession would override the person’s free will but that prayer could help. The Lord would hear the requests and convict the person (and discipline them as well) of their wrongdoing. The response can be negative or positive depending on the disposition of the believer’s heart. If they refuse to repent and choose to continue sinning, then it is pointless to pray for someone who has made up their mind and already gone over the cliff into apostasy (this assumes the unbeliever was once a believer). If the Lord’s work of discipline won’t work for them (assuming the person was a believer now turned unbeliever), then there is no chance the prayers of any mere man will do any good when God Himself cannot bring the person back to repentance. The likelihood of them coming back to the fold despite all conviction and discipline is slim to none once they have hardened their hearts to such a degree. Their case is now worse than before, and it would have been better if they had never believed the gospel.

2 Peter 2:20-22 (NIV)

20 If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21 It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. 22 Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.”

1 John 5:18

The answer to our two verses continues in verse eighteen to the end of the chapter, where John says, “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning.” It is no accident that this phrase comes right after verse seventeen because truly committed believers (as the phrase shows) continue in the faith. They do not give themselves entirely over to sin because that is idolatry, and idolaters cannot inherit the kingdom of God. No, this isn’t teaching that believers can’t fall away (we have already shown they can). But this represents a model believer who does what is expected of them. But there are believers whose hearts aren’t right with the Lord and thus fall way. We have warning passages against this for a reason.

Hebrews 3:12 (ESV)

12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.

Matthew 13:18-21 (NIV)

18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.

Verse eighteen has the phrase, “We know that no one (or everyone) who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.” This verse (especially the words in bold) tells us that John has a specific type of “death” in mind. Sin can lead to physical death (1 Corinthians 11:28-32), but not in the specific case that John is discussing here (even though sin doesn’t always have to be involved for someone to turn their back on God). The phrase “who has been born of God” reveals this fully (explained further below). In other words, truly committed believers don’t continue down a path of sin that leads to unbelief and eternal death.

However, believers (those who die with faith intact) can be taken home by the Lord prematurely as an act of divine discipline for reckless sin they may have fallen into. 1 Corinthians 11:28-32 below reveals this. Why the Lord does this and how it stays within bounds of His righteous and just character are not the point of this study (that is a different topic). Our specific goal is to explain 1 John 5:16-17. We only mention the passage below to show that God can and does use physical death to discipline His children. Those “asleep” below were those who died for their sinful manner involving the Lord’s supper. Verse thirty-two shows us why this was the case.

1 Corinthians 11:28-32 (NASB)

28 But a person must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For the one who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not properly recognize the body. 30 For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number are asleep. 31 But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.

As for the phrase “no one who has been born of God does not keep on sinning,” this tells us that the death John refers to cannot also be physical (2 Corinthians 5:17) because all those disciplined by the Lord in that manner (as sad and gruesome as the physical death may be) were still believers born of God despite the tragic result of their behavior. If death in the second half of verse sixteen also means physical, then those believers whom the Lord killed (physically) couldn’t have been born of Him, could not have been saved and would not be in Heaven today (since no one who has been born of God goes on sinning to the end of their faith leading to eternal death-the precise negative result John has in mind). Yet they were saved and are now in glory with the Lord (1 John 5:4). A person born of God dies with faith intact.

John 3:1-3 (NASB)

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2 this man came to Jesus at night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus responded and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless someone is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Those born again in the true lasting sense will fight the good fight all the way into eternity. 1 John 5:4 (same chapter as our two verses under discussion) confirms this when it says “for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.” Those born again in the ultimate and meaningful sense are those who endure in their faith. So although a person can believe for a time and be born again positionally for a while before falling away, they will no longer be born again if they come to reject Christ later on so that verse eighteen can no longer apply to them. Regarding verse eighteen, Dr. Luginbill says the following below (quotes taken from a private email between Dr. Luginbill and myself)…

Quote from Luginbill

In the first part of the verse where it says “is born [again]”, what we have here is an attributive participial phrase in the perfect tense, meaning, a bit more literally, “the one who is in the state of having been born again”. Perfect participles are not usually used in this sense, so its occurrence is significant. I take this to mean that while a person is presently a believer, continual gross sin will not be a situation which can continue indefinitely.”

And finally, he writes…

Quote from Luginbill

The second “is born again” is also an attributive participial phrase, but this time it is in the aorist tense with the somewhat literal meaning “the who who is born again once and for all” or “the one who was born again” (n.b., the aorist can be timeless in such situations as in the first translation or have antecedent action as in the second). In either case, the second instance is looking at the believer’s life as a whole, giving the final verdict, so to speak, after the game is over rather than a play-by-play somewhere in the middle where some other result could potentially occur. I think that is why John was led to use of the perfect tense in the first instance, namely, to head off any such wrong impression as we are discussing. These statements are true of believers in any case and are only not true for unbelievers; and if a person reverts through apostasy then he/she is not a believer but an unbeliever, and so these statements would then not apply to them.

Our spiritual rebirth (justification) begins at salvation and ends (is completed) once we see Christ face to face (glorification). Positionally, we believers are saved (and born again in one sense). But those of us alive are not currently experiencing our eternal life yet. We are in the refining process of sanctification meant to test and prove the quality of our faith. That is why we are to make our calling and election sure 2 Peter 1:10 so that we who profess Christ will be counted worthy of eternal life. A person who commits apostasy cannot be said to have been born of God since they will never spend eternity with Him (they believed in vain 1 Corinthians 15:2). Verse eighteen looks back in retrospect and gives us the results of the person who has endured in their faith. No one who ends up in heaven could have gotten there as unbelievers serving sin. Although he was still in the flesh when he wrote these words (words he could speak with confidence), Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:7-8I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Hebrews 10:38-39 (NIV)

38 And, “But my righteous one will live by faith. And I take no pleasure in the one who shrinks back.” 39 But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.

The passage above (albeit indirectly) describes exactly what John means in the phrase, “no one who has been born of God goes on sinning.” Neither John or Paul are saying that believers can’t fall away (those who shrink back are apostates). Verses thirty-five and thirty six give their warnings and exhortations for a reason when they say, “Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36 For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.” Instead, this is what truly committed believers do—they keep believing! Paul knew some within his audience well enough that he could say with confidence that their faith and commitment were strong enough to keep them on the right path. In other words, he is saying something along the lines of, “I don’t believe you guys would do that.” No, he wasn’t suggesting they couldn’t. But he believed they were truly committed and would not continue sinning in any manner as those not truly committed and weaker in the faith (eventual apostates Matthew 13:20).

1 John 5:21 and idols

Finally, verse twenty-one ends with the phrase, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols,” an appeal to guard one’s faith against following any false christ’s or messiahs. To disobey this command and continue on that course would be apostasy resulting in eternal death. This verse too, is an indicator of what the sin unto death is. “Idols” can be anything we put before our relationship with God, such as money and/or just sin in general. John is warning his readers to guard themselves against idolatry.