If there is a text that has proved complex for Bible readers, both ‘Lay’ and ‘scholarly,’ it is 1 John 5:16-17. I have sought various viewpoints and interpretations. I have read the passage over and again. The text remains complex, and the sin that leads to death seems to stay elusive.
If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death.
What is this sin? And is it possible for a Christian to commit it? And why is it not so plainly defined? Have I already committed it?
Most people consider this sin to be blasphemy against the Holy Spirit mentioned in Mark 3:28-30. The main reason is that John, a disciple of Christ could be recalling Jesus’ teaching. We remember that in this passage, the Pharisees and scribes had witnessed the miraculous restoration to the health of a demon-possessed, blind, and mute person. But instead of giving glory to God and believing in Christ through whom the Spirit of God had demonstrated such power, they suggested that demons were at work in Christ.
In other words, in the face of clear evidence of God’s testimony of Christ, their unbelief leads them to credit the Spirit’s power to Satan. Christ thus warns them that what they are doing is deadly, for it borders blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
This view of interpreting our text I think is appealing, because we have a passage at least that mentions specifically an unforgivable sin. One of the difficulties, however, concerns whether Jesus’ statements meant that the Pharisees had already committed this sin, or that they were in danger of doing it. We will consider the second problem with this view later on.
The other alternative interpretation, offered by John Piper is that the sin that leads to death is any non-repented sin. Piper explains that the absence of the indefinite article ‘a’ before the word ‘sin’ suggests that John did not have a specific sin in mind, but was somewhat concerned with habitual sin.
Piper’s view is quite helpful in keeping us all alert concerning the sin in our lives, with a desire for victory over it. But I also think it risks leaving all of us wondering whether those in any addiction we have committed this sin and are thus beyond redemption. More so, I do not find it entirely accurate that John had no specificity concerning this sin (or sinfulness).
I am inclined to think that the sin that leads to death is Apostasy. And here is why:
The first reason is the fact that John mentions this sin in hindsight without much explanation. This, in my view, shows how he took it for granted that his readers straightforwardly understood it. He assumed that his audience would easily differentiate between the ‘sin that leads to death’ and that that does not.
But this would be so if indeed this sin, that is beyond redemption has been elaborated on within this epistle so that those who have been following his exhortation identify it effortlessly.
This is why the view that this sin is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit although with firm basis may not be (at least directly) in sight. Precisely because not only had John not mentioned it in this Epistle, but also, interestingly only the gospel of John excludes this account. Mark has it (3:20-30), Matthew does (12:22-37), and Luke as well (12:10). John does not.
And remember this is a time when not every church possessed every book of the New Testament Canon. It would not be Johannine to assume that his audience had read all the gospels to decipher for themselves that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the sin he is referring to in passing when it is such a severe and damnable sin.
My second reason for thinking the sin that leads to death is apostasy may be this: John’s first Epistle consistently draws lines between genuine believers and those who he calls the antichrists. The antichrists according to John are not just any nonbeliever. These were people who had ‘seen the goodness of God and His saving power in the church and decided to ‘fall away.’
Although John reliably shows that both the Elect and the Apostates sin, he insists that only believers have forgiveness in Christ (1:7-10, 2:1-2, 12), while the Apostates are damned (2:18-23, 4:1-6). John has been meticulous in distinguishing between those who have been within the body of professing Christians while being ‘antichrists’ and those who are ‘little children.’
It follows therefore that he would expect the reader of the Epistle to easily distinguish the ‘brother’ who sins a sin that does not lead to death (because they are in Christ and have an advocate) from those who were ‘not of us’ (2:19).
I mentioned that the Apostate is not just every unbeliever. If the sin that leads to death merely is unbelief in Christ, and John says we should not pray for anyone who commits it, there would be no need to pray evangelistically. Every unbeliever disbelieves. This might sound like a tautology because it in fact is. And it is unfathomable that John would tell us not to pray for the salvation of unbelievers.
The Added Voice of Hebrews
The book of Hebrews, written to Jewish believers who under persecution contemplated a return to Judaism contains strict warnings for those in their midst who may consider apostasy.
‘For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned’ Heb. 6:4-8
The very next verse (9) reads this: ‘But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner.’
By stating this, the author of Hebrews sets the same contrast as John in his Epistle. The distinction is between those who are ‘Beloved’ and those who ‘fall away’ having tasted ‘the good word of God.’ For the ‘Beloved’ there is confidence ‘of better things’ while for the Apostates ‘it is impossible… to renew them again to repentance.’
Hebrews 10 has these contrasts as well. It talks about those who ‘sin willfully’ after they have received ‘the knowledge of the truth’ whose end is definite perdition (v26-29) and those who ‘are not of those who draw back to perdition, but of those who believe to the saving of the soul’ (v39).
This article should not be expected to be an exhaustive treatment of the text, but an added voice to the ongoing conversation about its meaning.
I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org