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1 John 5:16 (NIV) Emphasis Added
If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that.

In that passage, it says that "there is a sin that leads to death." What sin is this text referring to? Is it referring to a specific sin?

Also, is it "a sin" as in "a specific sin that leads to death" or is this a more generic concept of "sin" as in "there is a type/category of sin that leads to death"?

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5 Answers

I agree with much of what Jon Ericson has said but I think we can get even closer to the meaning of the "sin that leads to death" from the context of 1st John.

John is dealing with a division that has occurred in his church (1 John 2:18-19). Some have left, denying that Jesus' had a physical body (1 John 4:1-3). The young men of the congregation (2:12-14) are zealous for righteousness and want no part with the world. They possibly see the older men of the congregation (i.e. the fathers, 2:12-14) as capitulating with the world. John emphatically agrees with the young men; no true Christian ever sins.

"No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God..."

But then John turns his aim at those who claim to be without sin.

"...nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister."

By love, John isn't talking about a feeling or an emotion. He's talking about a concrete action with a material effect.

16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

John stresses the fact that God loved tangibly in Jesus. The life that God gave in Jesus was able to be seen, handled and touched (1 John 1:1-2). The Anitchrists have denied that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:22, 5:1) which is to say they have denied that he is the Son of God (1 John 4:15, 5:5) which is to say they have denied that he came tangibly in the flesh (1 John 4:5). They believed he was water but not blood (1 John 5:6). And thus they practice what they believe, claiming to be spiritual without having to exhibit tangible, material love. And it is against this heretical belief and practice that John lashes out.

John tells his readers the reason why he wrote in 1 John 1:7-11.

7 Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. 8 Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.

9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. 10 Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. 11 But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.

The command they have had since the beginning is that they "love one another" (1 John 3:11). The new command is that anyone who does not tangibly love the children of God is still in darkness. There sins are not forgiven.

John states in 1 John 3:12-15,

Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.

The "sin that leads to death" is thus revealed to be a lack of tangible love for ones brothers and sisters. When we tangibly love those whom God loves the sin in our lives is muted.

John says,

18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.

But when we lack tangible love it proves that we have "not passed from death to life." This is the sin that leads to death.

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Well done. You are a gifted teacher. I learned some great stuff here, and will use it in my own teaching. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 10 '13 at 0:54
Thanks @Jas3.1! And thanks for the edit. –  Matthew Miller Jun 10 '13 at 4:58
I like this idea purely because it's a new one to me. However, when I overlay these ideas with what I'm seeing in 1 John, I don't think they mesh up. It seems that this phrase is almost an off-hand comment, or parenthetical concept that was previously discussed or commonly known. However, you seem to want to tie it back to the rest of the book. Like v. 5:21, though, I don't think it does tie into the rest of the book. So, +1 for the novelty of this idea, but I can't quite connect it with scripture. –  Richard Jun 10 '13 at 13:25
@Richard If Jon Ericson is correct, and if you can also make the theological connection made in 1 John that a true Christian (i.e. with the Holy Spirit indwelling him) will love his brother (e.g. 1 John 4:16, cf. John 13:34-35, Gal. 5:22), then this answer is simply a clarification of Jon Ericson's answer, except that it puts more emphasis on the purpose and language of 1 John. Given that the purpose of 1 John seems to be to make this very clarification (that true Christians love), it seems fitting (to me) to provide the same clarification in this answer. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 10 '13 at 16:36
@Richard In other words, Matthew Miller has said what Jon Ericson said, but in a much more "1st John-ish" way. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 10 '13 at 16:38
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It's possible that John is recalling Mark 3:28-30 (ESV)

“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”

The sense in Mark is a bit hard to understand, but the idea seems to be that if you see the Holy Spirit in operation and call it demonic, you are rejecting God altogether and won't be forgiven. (I also take it to mean that if such a person ever has a radical change of heart, they will accept the Spirit and be forgiven. But that's a separate question.)

Reading on in 1 John 5:17-21 (ESV):

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

We know that 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.

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. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

It seems to me that John is drawing line between those who are in the family of God and those who are not. Those who are in the family will sin, but won't keep on sinning because of their relation to God. Extrapolating a bit, those who are in God will be protected from death but for those outside, sin leads to death. Our prayers aid in the process of protecting believers from death.

There's plenty of confirmation of the idea in the earlier part of the letter, such as 1 John 2:1 (ESV):

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.

If you don't go to the advocate, you can't get the pardon of sin. Also 1 John 1:9-10 (ESV):

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

Does this mean that we shouldn't pray for nonbelievers or against their sin? Well, the letter talks about a special class of unbelievers he labels as "antichrist". 1 John 2:22 (ESV)

Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.

It seems that some people in the community John is writing to pretended to believe, but were spreading lies. The whole letter serves as a warning against these people. (2nd John, which might be a cover letter for 1st John, suggests not even greeting these people.) It seems that John has written them off altogether and doesn't want them to be a distraction even in prayer.

See also, a rather extensive, exegetical commentary by W. Hall Harris III.

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Hey Jon! If I understand correctly, the sin that leads to death only applies to non-Christians. Is that correct? If so, it seems out of place, given that the section (5:13-17) seems to apply entirely to believers. Am I misunderstanding something? (Sorry to dig up a 1.5 year old post!) –  Richard Jun 10 '13 at 16:57
@Richard: Welcome back! (One of the joys of the site is seeing new activity on old posts. It's great to see answers getting refined.) I think the bolded phrase in question is a parenthetical. John is digging into how members of the community should treat each other, but doesn't want the reader to lose the bigger thread of the letter, which deals with false teachers. (But it's been awhile since I've thought about the question, so I might need to rethink my answer.) –  Jon Ericson Jun 10 '13 at 18:21
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There are a whole lot of sins enumerated where the perpetrator was to be put to death. They are all summarized in this verse:

Deuteronomy 30:19
I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live:

The opposite choice would be to sin (any sin) and thereby reject God. That is the sin which leads to death if it is continued in.

Hebrews 4:7
Again, he limiteth a certain day, saying in David, To day, after so long a time; as it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts.

Sins which do not lead to death are those sins of the flesh done by instinct. They are not done by intention. Believers wash in the Word and are 'unclean until the evening'.

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It is doubtful that John is speaking of physical death. The emphasis throughout the New Testament is that sin, which cuts us off from God, is what kills our soul.

Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, who were eternal until God punished them for eating from the Tree of Knowledge by subjecting them to death.

Genesis 3:22-23 Then the LORD God said, 'Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever'-- therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken.

Note Revelation 22:1-3, specifically tying the eternal life we get through Christ the "Second Adam") to the beginning of death in Genesis:

And he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. And on either side of the river was the Tree Of Life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall no longer be any curse.”

More to the issue. There surely is one "eternal" sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. All three Synoptic Gospels contain the teaching. So if you speak of a single sin that John would single out as something so beyond hope that one might not even pray that the person be forgiven, this would seem to be it. Mark 3:28-30; Matthew 12:30-32; Luke 12:8-10.

But I actually have a problem with the translation. If you read Greek:

ἔστιν ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον

Those four words mean "There is sin to death".

Indeed, several respected translations, including the ESV, translate 1 John 5:16:

There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.

There is some ambiguity, because there is no indefinite article in Greek. John literally could not write "there is a sin that leads to death." But there is a word for "one" (which is actually used as the indefinite article in modern Greek!), and if John were speaking of a single specific sin, he could have have written "there is one sin that leads to death".

I don't know if there is a specific hermeneutical term for "what the writer could have said but did not", but we must give some credence to the idea that if the inspired John had meant to refer to a specific sin, he could have done so clearly.

I think the better reading of this, then, is that of the ESV. John is not referring to a specific sin, but simply states that sin which will lead to death, beyond prayers for forgiveness, exists.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. –  Daи Feb 25 at 23:12
Using first person plural language when referencing the audiences of ancient texts moves from describing the text itself to prescribing norms that are expressed as binding on readers and therefore imposes this application upon the reader. Please keep in mind that not all of readers are Christians. I have downvoted for this reason. This also presumes continuity of the Hebrew Bible and other Biblical texts, which are unstated theological assumptions. –  Daи Feb 25 at 23:12
Your analysis of the Greek text is good, and I would gladly upvote it if not intermingled with so many theological assumptions. –  Daи Feb 25 at 23:16
That's not a very good way to encourage knowledgeable scholars to participate here. –  Mason Barge Feb 26 at 13:40
to the contrary, it's a great way to help all feel welcome (you can describe a Christian perspective without prescribing it on your readers), including non-Christian ones who don't identify with the texts in reference. Be sure to read this post about how we're different from other sites that study the Bible. Note that this is not a Christian site. We study the Bible, we don't do Bible study - and there is a difference. Using descriptive (rather than prescriptive) language is pretty common in scholarly interfaith contexts. –  Daи Feb 26 at 15:10
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John is making the same comment at the end of his epistle that James had made at the end of his epistle.

In James, the reference is to Elijah, who did not pray for the people, and therefore there was no rain from heaven. When Elijah subsequently prayed again for the people, who had since repented after the watershed event with the priests of Baal, the rain returned. What John is therefore talking about in 1 John 5:14-17 is parallel to Elijah's intercession (or the lack of intercession), which is parallel to James 5:15-18.

In other words, there are sins for which we can intercede to God (on behalf of others) that God would excuse them and let their sins pass. In this regard, we "bear the burdens of others" as the following two verses command.

Galatians 6:1-2 (NASB)
1 Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.

But there are other sins (idolatry and sexual immorality) for which we cannot and should not intercede for God that he would excuse or let such sins pass. For example, Paul reprimanded the Corinthians for not mourning over the sexual immorality that was tolerated within their midst.

1 Corinthians 5:1-2 (NASB)
1 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. 2 You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.

In the immediate context of 1 Ki 16:19-34, the Israelites had been involved in idolatry to an extent never seen before with the specific emphasis on sexual immorality (1 Ki 16:33). The verse immediately preceding Elijah's prayer of no rain is 1 Ki 16:34 provides an example of open disregard to the Word of God.

When we look back at the Book of Acts, we see that both James and John had renounced any association with idolatry or with sexual immorality (Acts 15:20 and Acts 15:29). When we turn to Paul, the definition of idolatry is immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (Col 3:5).

In other words, sins associated with idolatry and sexual immorality lead to "death." (Please click here for an expanded discussion of "death" in this particular context.) Thus we should ALWAYS pray for one another, and therefore intercede that God forgive and "pass over" the sins of our fellow brethren (Ja 5:16). However, when these sins lead to "death," these prayers should NOT include the request that God excuse or pass over such sins.

In summary, the idea is not that we should ever stop praying for others, but that in cases of idolatry and sexual immorality we should not pray that God excuse or overlook such sins, because they lead to the spiritual inanition ("death") of the believer(s) concerned, and such inanition is infectious to the health of the church of believers (see 1 Cor 5:6 within the same context of sexual immorality). An excellent example in this regard is the "Jezebel" in Revelation 2:20, who instigated and promoted both idolatry and sexual immorality, which was prevalent (and tolerated) to the disappointment of the Lord Jesus Christ. Please note that the resultant sickness that ensued in this context (Rev 2:22-23) hearkens the reader back to James 5:13-18. Please note also that the reference to "Jezebel" also hearkens the reader back to Elijah and his intercession (or lack of intercession), and thus we come full circle in this discussion.

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I don't agree with all of this. But I too was thinking about the interesting connection between the call to prayer at the end of James and this one at the end of 1 John. It seems to me that James and 1 John have a great deal in common. Among them is the emphasis on practical love. –  Matthew Miller Jun 10 '13 at 19:05
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