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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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8 Answers 8

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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Something like the "sin of the high hand" in the Torah, that done willingly and with malice of forethought. –  Frank Luke Apr 29 at 15:28
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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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The Idea in Brief

The “sin leading to death” is any sin committed against any congregation of believers who comprise the Body of Christ. In these cases, believers are not to forgive (loosen on earth = loosen in heaven) but instead to hold believers accountable (bind on earth = bind in heaven). Some examples of such sins include, but are not limited to, deception relating to financial matters; deliberate false teaching; and/or open sexual immorality. These sins lead to death, which means deliverance over to Satan (Hymanaeus and Alexander in Asia Minor); deprivation of physical health (“Jezebel” in Thyatira); and/or immediate physical death (Anianias and Sapphira in Jerusalem). In each case, believers are sinning not just against themselves, but against the respective body of congregants (or fellow believers) in the wider collective sense.

Thus, on the one hand, believers are to forgive their fellow believers “seventy times seven” when these sins are committed by one individual against another (Matt 18:21-22): in this regard we “bear the burdens of others” (Gal 6:1-2), and therefore intercede for one another before the Lord. However, whenever such sins become the immediate concern of the spiritual health of believers (in the plural), then the matter becomes one of accountability. If the errant believers do not repent, the apparent and inevitable result is intense suffering administered by the Lord, which will eventuate in physical death.

Discussion

The context of 1 John 5:16 appears to be parallel to James 5:13-18, which provides more contrasting light and background. That is, James appears to address believers who are (a) suffering, (b) who are cheerful, and finally (c) believers who are not just suffering, but dying of sickness.

James 5:13-18 (NASB)
13 Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; 15 and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. 16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. 17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. 18 Then he prayed again, and the sky poured rain and the earth produced its fruit.

While believers who are dying of sickness are suffering, James appears to be making a distinction between believers who suffer (and therefore he directs them to pray), and believers who are dying of sickness, but who also may need special intervention and forgiveness for recovery. The mention of Elijah makes the suggestion that some (not all) believers dying of sickness may be suffering “the sin that leads to death.”

According to the Hebrew Bible, Elijah had witnessed the apostasy and sexual immorality of King Ahab and Jezebel (1 Ki 16:33), who in turn misled the people of whom all but 7,000 were apostate (1 Ki 19:18). Elijah therefore declared that no rain would fall from heaven, and, accordingly, no rain fell from heaven (1 Ki 17:1). The people then repented after Elijah’s showdown with the priests of Baal (1 Ki 18:36-40), and at that time Elijah prayed for the rain to return, and it rained from heaven. In other words, what sins that were retained on earth were retained in heaven. Elijah prayed that rain should not fall, and no rain fell from heaven. What was loosed on earth then resulted in the loosening of rain from heaven--Elijah prayed as the context of James indicates. The idea thus emerges from the Hebrew Bible into the Christian New Testament.

Matthew 16:19 (NASB)
19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.

In other words, as seen by James's illustration of Elijah, binding and loosening have to do with accountability. For example, when Ananias and Sapphira lied to Peter regarding their financial contribution to the congregation, they dropped dead. Because their sin was open and obvious to all, the sin was against the collective Body of Christ: that is, their sin was “lying against the Holy Spirit” (Acts 5:1-11). On another occasion, when the errant believer in Corinth had an open immoral sexual relationship with his father’s wife, Paul declared that this believer was introducing “leaven” the congregation, and therefore he (Paul) handed this errant believer over to Satan (1 Cor 5:1-8). In Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians, one errant believer (same immoral Christian?) appears to have been forgiven by his fellow believers, and so what was “loosed on earth” was therefore “loosed in heaven.”

2 Cor 2:6-10 (NASB)
6 Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, 7 so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. 8 Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him. 9 For to this end also I wrote, so that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. 10 But one whom you forgive anything, I forgive also; for indeed what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I did it for your sakes in the presence of Christ,

Another example is the “Jezebel” in Thyatira, who like her counterpart in the days of Elijah the Prophet, had misled the people into false teaching and sexual immorality (Rev 2:19-29). The result was that the Lord Jesus threw her “on a bed of sickness” with the intent that she repent of her sins (Rev 2:22). In other words, she and her cohorts were sinning against the collective Body of Christ (as represented in Thyatira), and therefore these sins “were leading to death.”

Finally, there is Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom the Apostle Paul handed over to Satan “that they...be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20). Hymenaeus also appears to have been a false teacher (2 Tim 2:17), and so both he and/or Alexander appear to have been prominent in the local congregation where Timothy served. In other words, these men were sinning against the collective body of believers, and therefore Paul did not release them from accountability (binding on earth = binding in heaven).

Summary

In conclusion, believers are to forgive their fellow believers “seventy times seven” when these sins are committed by one individual against another (Matt 18:21-22): in this regard we “bear the burdens of others” (Gal 6:1-2), and therefore intercede for one another before the Lord. However, whenever such sins become the concern of believers in the plural, the matter then becomes one of accountability.

1 John 5:16-17 (NASB) 16 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. 17All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.

All sins are unfortunate and undesirable, but sins against the Body of Christ “lead to death.” Therefore when sins become the direct concern of more than one believer, then such sins “lead to death” – that is, believers hold other believers accountable before the Lord (for specific New Testament examples, please see Rom 16:17-18; 2 Thess 3:6; 2 Thess 3:14; 2 Jn 1:10). By holding other believers accountable before the Lord (“retaining sins on earth”), the outlook and expectation are that the Lord’s discipline is going to lead them to repent and therefore be healed/restored to the fellowship of believers (2 Cor 7:10).

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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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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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I do believe that the scripture clearly points out that there is a sin leads to death. From my definitional understanding, sin is disobedience to God. The sin that leads to death began with the Devil when he rebelled against God and received eternal judgment into the lake of fire. Adam is the first of the mankind to commit a sin leading to death. God said, "on the day that you shall eat of this tree you shall surely die." By listening or believing or acting on the devil advice Adam worshiped Satan, and that's making God a liar. Yet it's impossible for Him to lie because He is true.

So the sin that leads to death is denying Christ or idolatry because the writer sums up by warning the saints "keep yourself away from idols." Every false worship is idolatry whether satanism or any other religion besides Christ. It is my understanding that this sin is satanism as the writer previously elaborated on coming of antichrist.

Now Revelation 13 talks about the mark of the beast with the number 666 and they will receive their portion in the lake of fire. This is the sin that leads to death because Revelations 2 talks or warns people to keep away from the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, Jezebel, and the doctrine of Balaam who taught the people of God to eat food sacrificed to idols.

In summary he who has Jesus Christ has life, and, by the same token, he who has the Devil (which is the sin leading to death) has death.

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Premise 1: Romans 6:23 - the wages of sin is death [eternally in Hell]

Premise 2: 1 John 5:16 - there is a sin that does not lead to death [ eternally in Hell]

Scriptural support: NONE

Conclusion:

A clear contradiction because there is no scriptural evidence that there is a sin that does not lead to death [eternally in Hell]. It must be another kind of death. In fact, there are three kinds of death in the entire Scriptures: spiritual death [Psalm 51:5] , physical death[James 2:26], and eternal death in hell [Matthew 25:46].Based on the scriptures as a whole, 1 John 5:16 is about physical death.

Premise 1: Romans 6:23 - the wages of sin is death [ in Hell]

Premise 2: 1 John 5:16 - there is a sin that does not lead to death [physically-]

Scriptural support:

1 CORINTHIANS 5:1-5 "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 And you have become arrogant, and have not mourned instead, in order that the one who had done this deed might be removed from your midst. 3 For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for THE DESTRUCTION OF HIS FLESH, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus,"

ACTS 5:1-11 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” 5 When Ananias heard these words, HE FELL DOWN AND BREATHED HIS LAST. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. 7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you[a] sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9 But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.”10 Immediately SHE FELL DOWN AT HIS FEET AND BREATHED HER LAST. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.

JAMES 2:26 For as THE BODY APART FROM THE SPIRIT IS DEAD, so also faith apart from works is dead.

Conclusion:

The sin that leads to death is obvious from the context of John 5 and it is the sin of continuous commission and omission which is a sin of one that cannot be prayed for ( a reality that does not exists in a real believer) and the sin that does not lead to death is the sin that believers can be prayed for and be forgiven ( see James 5:15).

For if we GO ON SINNING DELIBERATELY after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins ( Hebrews 10:26).

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. 18 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.

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What is the “sin that leads to (results in) death”? I think we should start by looking at the actual Greek words John used, next study its counter-part, that is “sin that doesn’t result in death, and finally examine the adjacent and wider contexts of his letter. Once we know what John’s readers knew, then we will know what this death-causing sin is referring to.

The Greek text of the phrase in question, when transliterated is: estin (‘there is’) hamartia (‘sin’ or ‘a sin’) pros (‘to’, ‘towards’, ‘with’, ‘before’ or ‘in view of’) thanaton (‘death’). Here are some renderings, courtesy of Bible Gateway:

“There is a sin leading to death.” (New American Standard Bible)

“But there is a sin that leads to death” (New Living Translation)

“There is sin that does lead to death” (Complete Jewish Bible)

“There is sin[b] that brings death.” [b]or “a sin” (Holman Standard Bible)

“There is sin that leads to death” (English Standard Version)

So we see that some reputable translation teams decided that “sin” was the best rendering for “hamartia”, which implies a category or type of sin; others decided that “a sin” was the best rendering, and this would therefore indicate a specific sin. Greek has no indefinite article, so the context must determine whether to include the “a” or not. But the context has at least two different interpretations, because different teams of Greek scholars are not in agreement on the “a”.

In order to begin to identify the “death causing sin” we first need to settle on whether “hamartia pros thanatos” is “a sin resulting in death” or is “sin resulting in death”. “A sin” would refer to one specific sin ending in death, whereas “sin” would refer to a type of sin ending in death. Here’s why I believe “hamartia” should be rendered “sin”, referring to a type of sin, and not “a sin”, referring to a specific sin. First, let’s examine John’s “sin that doesn’t cause death”. When the Apostle writes in verse 16 “sees a sister or brother sinning” and in verse 17 that “There is (a) sin that doesn’t lead to death”, he is not thinking of a specific sin, otherwise he would have named it. He is thinking about the child of God who slips up and sins, but for whom intercession is urged (1 John 5:16), by whom confession is made (1:7) and for whom forgiveness is granted (1:9; 2:1). So if one of God’s children commits a sin, this sin does not result in death, because, as her spiritual siblings offer intercession on her behalf, and she confesses her sin to God, “the blood of Jesus, His Son, is cleansing her from every sin.” (I John 1:7).

Just as the “sin that doesn’t cause death” is not a specific, named sin, in the same way the “sin that results in death” is not a specific, named sin. Notice what John writes immediately afterwards in 1 John 5:18, “…anyone born from God doesn’t keep sinning.” Why would John begin a whole new idea? That wouldn’t make contextual sense. Rather, John’s “keep sinning” must be referring to the death-causing sin of 1 John 5:16 and 5:17. In other words, as 1 John 3:6 points out, when a person “keeps sinning” (“ho hamartanōn”), or as 1 John 3:7 states, “makes a habit of sinning” (“poiōn tēn hamartian”), it shows that he or she belongs to the devil (1 John 3:7) and stays in death (3:14). That’s why a person “who’s been born from God doesn’t keep sinning.” (1 John 5:18; see 3:9 also) But a person who makes a habit of sinning is not born from God (1 John 3:7). His sin is clearly leading him to death (1 John 3:15).

We conclude that a habitual lifestyle of sin is what John means by “sin that leads to death.” It is embodied in a person who doesn’t know God (1 John 2:3) and who belongs to the devil (3:7), and who therefore lies (2:4), hates (4:20), rejects truth (4:6) and is devoid of moral illumination (2:11). Sooner or later, this person’s lifestyle of sin will result in “death” (1 John 3:14), which is the absence of the eternal life that Jesus gives. (5:12)

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