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Question
Question:

"Hi, I have come across this passage again and it confuses me.

1 John 5:16-17 - "If you see a Christian brother or sister sinning in a way that does not lead to death, you should pray, and God will give that person life. But there is a sin that leads to death, and I am not saying you should pray for those who commit it. All wicked actions are sin, but not every sin leads to death." (NLT)

Particularly the last part...I thought ALL sin led to death. (Romans 6:16 is an OK verse talking about it.)


Answer:

This is a really interesting and difficult question to answer. It involves one of the more difficult passages to translate. Also because John just didn't give us all the information we would need some 2,000 years later to understand exactly what he was talking about. I've wrestled with this for a few weeks now and haven't gained much ground! I don't believe there is any hidden or secret truth to be revealed or dug out. Which is good because that's why John wrote the letter in the first place. To silence people in the early church who said there was "secret knowledge" (gnosis) beyond what Jesus and the Apostles had taught (a false and heretical teaching called Gnosis or Gnosticism).

Let's start with some known assumptions. Yes, I realize that is something of an oxymoron. But hang in there with me:

1 - You are correct in believing that all sin that is not covered by the blood of Christ leads to death. Both physical and spiritual. These concepts were covered pretty extensively in several other blog answers here so a search using the words "sin" and "death" should bring up plenty of answers. Check out "God, Evil, and Satan," "The Origin of Diseases," and the excellent "What is Salvation" series for a start.

2 - You are also correct that Romans 6:16 is an "OK" verse that talks about it. "Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?" (NASB, underline added for emphasis)

Bible Study
You can also check out:
  • Genesis 2:17
  • Romans 5:12
  • Romans 6:23
  • James 1:15
These should all help support the truth that (unforgiven) sin = death.

3 - There is information left out of this letter that John would assume the original readers would have known. Information that we aren't privy to.

John knew what he was talking about. The original recipients would have known, too. But we who are thousands of years removed are somewhat left in the dark. I believe there is a reason for this. Let me explain by giving another example:

After establishing a church in Thessalonica, Paul had been forced to leave before their instruction was complete. When he sent Timothy back to check up on them there were some things they needed more teaching on. One specific thing that had risen up was a fear that perhaps they had missed the "Second Coming" of Christ. They were also concerned about what might happen to those who had died or who would die before Jesus returned. Paul wrote two letters to the Thessalonians to help further explain the theology of "end times"... among other teachings and encouragements.

In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul is refuting some false information they had received concerning the "Day of the Lord." He's trying to reassure them that it hadn't happened yet. He introduces them to the apostasy and the man of lawlessness and says something very interesting...

2 Thessalonians 2:5-7 - "Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way."

Umm... No Paul. We don't remember. Because we weren't there!

The Holy Spirit didn't inspire Paul to include the information about what he had previously taught them when he was there. Because we don't know what he previously taught, we can't know for certain what or who restrains the lawless one now. This has caused much speculation, controversy, and even division in the church in later centuries. It still does today.

Divided Groups
Churches, denominations, and even friends and families have split up over who is "right" in their assumption of who or what now restrains the Man of Lawlessness, or Antichrist. Lines have been drawn and minds have been closed... over what?

Why didn't the Holy Spirit or Paul include the identity of the restrainer? Because that's not what that passage is about!

The purpose of what Paul wrote was to reassure... Jesus is coming back... He hasn't come back yet. You didn't miss it. And before He does, here are some things that will happen. If they haven't happened yet... and they haven't... you didn't miss the rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

I think that the above is an example of what is happening here in 1 John 5:16-17.

So, what was John trying to say? Was he suggesting that there are different levels or classifications of sin? That some are deadly and some are just "boo boo's"? No way!

Seven Deadly Sins?
Seven Deadly Sins?
John was writing this letter for a specific reason, at a specific time, and to specific people who were being led astray by false teachers and false teachings. These false teachers (primarily Gnostic's) were trying to teach that there was "special" or "secret" knowledge that was known only to them. This was contrary to the truth of Scripture, especially the Gospel of Jesus.

You should take some time to research some of the Gnostic heresies that threatened the early church because they are still around under different names, like Universalism or New Age.

Some of their "special knowledge" taught things like:
  • God is distant and not involved in human creation.
  • Because the material universe is corrupt (evil) it could not have been created by a good God.
  • Jesus could not have been human since flesh and blood is created and is therefore evil... so they didn't believe in the incarnation of the Christ. The reason John starts the letter the way he does, speaking of Jesus as someone who he has heard and seen and touched with his ears, eyes, and hands is to refute this right from the start.
  • Salvation comes through "special" knowledge, not through Christ.
Gnosticism is, of course, much more complicated than this. But you should get the point by now... these were very dangerous false teachings. That's why John wrote purpose statements in his letter like:
  • 1:3 - "...what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ."
  • 1:4 - "These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete."
  • 2:1 - "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;"
  • 2:26 - "These things I have written to you concerning those who are trying to deceive you."
  • 5:13 - "These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life."
Sin
So... what was John saying about sin? I'm not sure that I can give you a definitive answer. I'm not sure that it is the "sin" that is the focus of 1 John 5:16-17.

While the NLT is a decent English version and one of the most modern, it tends to be directed toward readability and helping modern readers catch the concept of what is being said, rather than trying to be a direct word for word translation. It is not technically a translation at all. It is a "paraphrase" -- probably the best paraphrase available (at least, in Pastor Joe's opinion!). But still it is a paraphrase. Not a translation.

The NASB is, in my opinion, one of the better attempts at a word for word English translation... here is what it says:

"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." (1 John 5:16-17)

Notice that there are two words that are italicized: "leading" and "God." These are not found in the original Greek manuscripts but were placed there by the translators because they believed that they were implied by the content and context of the scripture.

What is John actually saying? First, this passage is about your actions... not the one who is sinning!

He is saying that if a believer (Christian) -- remember that he is speaking to believers -- sees another believer committing a sin (one that doesn't "lead to death") he is to pray to God (intercede) on behalf of the sinning brother and God will "give life" to the sinning brother.

Still confused? ... Yep!

Here is what I think is happening...

Salvation is in Christ
1 John 5:11 is important to this. That's why its important to take the whole context into consideration. It says that "God has given us eternal life" and that that life is in Jesus. Because of Jesus (not us!) we (believers) have been set free from the curse of spiritual death associated with sin.
  • Romans 8:2 - "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death."
  • Colossians 2:13-14 - "When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross."
1 John 5:12 reaffirms that "he who has the Son (Jesus) has life (eternal)" ... so I am not sure at all that the death that John mentions in vv. 16-17 is referring to spiritual death. I honestly believe that John could simply mean physical death since he is speaking about a believer who is sinning (perhaps un-aware, or blinded by deception, otherwise they would be convicted and repent... unless they are being openly disobedient, which could lead to apostasy if they don't repent).

Apostasy
He points out that all unrighteousness is sin. But not all sin leads to immediate physical death (1 John 5:17).

John's purpose as stated in 1 John 5:13 is so that believers can know they have eternal life. This also leads me to think that it isn't spiritual death he is speaking of.

He then gives us two verses (14-15) that encourage us to pray... "according to His (God's) will."

Is it God's will that if we see a brother or sister in Christ sinning, that we intercede for them? Is that not an act of Christ-like love? Is it God's will that believers who are sinning repent? I would have to say yes, yes, and yes!

After 1 John 5:16-17, in verse 18 he once again tells us that no true believer (born again, alive in Christ) continues in or practices sin (1 John 3:9) but Jesus "keeps" them. I believe He does this by convicting us of our guilt and need for repentance through the indwelling of His Spirit.

I think that is what the point is here... if we see another Christian sinning, and they don't immediately die as a result of it, we should love them enough to pray that God will convict them to repentance. And, if we do, God hears us because it's according to His will.

Of course... this idea hinges on the presupposition that some sins can cause immediate physical death and some don't... which makes sense to me. If my sin causes me to have a heart attack, or fatal accident, then it's too late for you to intercede for me!

It did to Paul as well. He rebuked the church in Corinth for allowing divisions and factions to exist and for not taking the Lord's supper in the proper manner that reflected Christ's love for us! They were neglecting the poor, getting drunk, and generally being unworthy and unloving!

1 Corinthians 11:29-32 - "For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world."

Some had become ill because of their continued sin. Others had physically died. That's what "a number sleep" means!

Pray
I think John was saying that we need to pray for other believers who are sinning but making sure that he stressed that we should not pray for the dead. They are beyond our intercession.

I'm not sure why John doesn't tell the recipients of 1 John to tell the brother who is sinning (continuing to sin) to stop as well as intercede in prayer for them... except that it comes on the heel of his teaching of why we can pray with confidence that God hears us if we ask according to His will... and it is His will that believers who are sinning... STOP! (1 Corinthians 15:34). And, it is possible that since this letter was written to refute the Gnostics, who adamantly denied the truth of scripture and refused to repent from their immorality... there were many believers who were too stubborn to take loving rebuke from another believer and repent... so prayer for God to intercede was needed.

After all, it is God who is the source or giver of life regardless of who is doing the praying! (1 John 5:11)

Bottom Line:

I just don't have enough information from the text to tell you "this is exactly what it means" or "this is exactly what John meant"... but here is what I believe the main idea or takeaway from 1 John 5:16-17 is:

If you see a fellow Christian sinning, the love of Christ in you should compel you to intercede in prayer for God to cause them to repent by whatever means necessary. Since it is God's will that we do not sin, and that no one who is born of God sins (continues in sin) you can be assured that you are praying according to His will, and He will hear and act.

Whew... let me know what you think! And pray for me... I'm always open to learn!

P. Scott

P.S. I'm thrilled that you continue to read and study your Bible and to keep seeking even when you come across the passages that confuse you... again! Just keep on seeking and you will find! I'm sure I read that somewhere!

* Addition: Be sure to read P. Joe's comment on this post. He gives an excellent example of John as a first-hand witness to the truth he exposes here. Thanks P. Joe!

Comments

Joe K. said…
Excellent analysis, P. Scott!

It's a shame how often the secondary details to a passage (things like the timing of the Rapture, the identification of "the one who restrains" and the exact nature of "the sin leading to death") can cause division instead of the Body of Christ focusing on the main intent and walking in unity with each other.

One thing you didn't mention but came to mind as you were talking about sin leading to physical death, especially as you pointed our God's judgment upon the Corinthian church for their communion practices, was the immediate judgment that fell upon Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5).

John was familiar with a God who may mete out immediate judgment upon believers who sin, so I think he may have in mind that if you see a brother or sister commit a sin -- and God doesn't kill them right away like He did to Ananias and Sapphira -- then pray to God that He will lead them to repentance, since He has given them more time!

I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for wrestling with the Scriptures and sharing your insight!

JRK
P. Scott said…
Thanks for the comments and I love the example from Acts. Wish I had thought of it!

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