A reader asks:
Please explain 1John 5:16-17. What is a “sin that leads to death?” I thought all sin led to death. Can you explain?
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All sin does lead to death. That’s clear from Genesis through Revelation. So what is this passage talking about? What is a sin that “does not lead to death?” Let’s take a look….
To start, you need to back up a couple of verses. In verses 14-15, we find John telling us about the certainty of answered prayer IF we ask according to His will. We know His will by learning it from the Bible and being led by the Holy Spirit. We are told in no uncertain terms that IF we pray according to God’s will, then He WILL hear us and WILL grant us what we ask.
We know that this is not a blanket “purchase order” for Christians, because we all know from reality that God does not give us everything we pray for… in fact, most Christians would argue God RARELY gives us what we ask for (which should be a clear indication of some needed introspection).
What could be the obvious reason for not getting what we ask for from God? Answer: we aren’t praying according to His will. For some reason, we either don’t know it, have it wrong, or don’t understand it, but one thing is certain – it isn’t God’s will, or He would give it. That is a clear promise.
Given that background, we move to verses 16-17:
- 1 John 5:16-17 – 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. (NKJV)
Remember, you can’t jerk verses off the page and treat them as “stand alone” (known as “prooftexting”). You have to take them in context.
In context, we move from hearing about the certainty of answered prayer – conditional on asking according to God’s will – to a specific example of praying according to God’s will – in this case concerning “a sin leading to death” – and NOT getting your request. That leads us to need to find out “WHY?”
It concerns one specific type of prayer request relating to prayer for someone who has committed “a sin leading to death.”
What kind of sin is that? We aren’t specifically told, but the context and the way it is written make it apparent the passage is talking literally about a sin that will lead to physical death in this life. Sometimes we “spiritualize” Scripture and miss the plain meaning. We think of “leading to death” more of a symbolic way of saying “a sin that keeps you from being saved.” In this verse and context, the more obvious interpretation is that physical death is the meaning.
It is not referring to one specific sin or a certain list of sins but rather the types of premeditated, willful, unconfessed sin that causes God to finally decide to take that person’s life. It is a sin that finally reaches the end of God’s tolerance for reasons known only to God. There are some verses that touch on this:
- 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 (the sin of sexual immorality in the church) – In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (NKJV)
- 1 Corinthians 11:30 (irreverence concerning the Lord’s Supper) – For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. (NKJV)
- Acts 5:5 (lying to God) – Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. (NKJV)
Verses 16 & 17 seem to be saying – keeping verses 14-15 in mind – that “God will give you whatever you ask according to His will but not if you are praying for a sinner whom God has already determined will lose his life because of some sin that has been committed.”
In this case, the intercessory prayer – which is promised to be granted in verses 14-15 – will not be answered… and God is telling us why it won’t be answered so that His promise is not untruthful in verses 14-15. Once God has decided that physical death is inevitable, for reasons only He knows, then prayer on that person’s behalf is no longer effective.
John shows the obvious by contrasting the opposites: there IS a sin leading to death, and there IS NOT a sin leading to death. Since we know all sin leads to spiritual death, and can only be atoned for by the blood of Christ, it becomes obvious that physical death is the meaning in these verses.
We are also indirectly comforted knowing that not all sin (and obviously not most) leads to God’s decision to take away someone’s life. God is patient and merciful. It seems obvious that you really have to push God to get Him to decide that your physical life has been forfeited.
However, we should not ignore or neglect the opposite truth: sometimes a person can sin in such a way that God may choose to end their physical life because of it. Very sobering.
This appears to be true for Christians as well as the unsaved. In 1 Corinthians, Paul is addressing a worldly, struggling church, but still addresses them as true Christians. In 1Cor 11:30 he points out that some of them had died because of taking the Lord’s supper in an “unworthy manner.”
Can we categorically say that they must not have been truly saved? That would be pretty presumptuous – just as presumptuous as assuming the warning and consequences in those verses don’t apply to us today. Something to think about next time you partake of Communion.
In summary, this verse is stating that God will not grant a prayer request when it concerns someone whom God has already judged worthy of physical death because of a particular sin – but this does not invalidate God’s promise to grant us our requests when they are made “according to His will.”
As a secondary lesson, use this lesson as a demonstration of how to interpret the Bible IN CONTEXT. Far too often, Christians attempt to USE and INTERPRET verses as if those verses existed in a vacuum all by themselves. It is the sole reason we have so much confusion and error in Christianity.
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