The sin unto death is the extreme sin the Apostle John warns against in 1 John 5:16–17. There are four major interpretations of this passage.
There are four major views on who commits the sin not leading to death and who commits the sin that leads to death: (1) a believer commits both sins, and the second believer apostatizes; (2) an unbeliever commits both sins; (3) a believer commits both sins, and God may discipline the second believer with physical death; and (4) a believer commits a sin not leading to death, and an unbeliever commits sin that leads to death. The fourth view seems most likely.
The sin unto death is the extreme sin the Apostle John warns against in 1 John 5:16–17:
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. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.
This passage has four interpretational challenges that we can unpack as four pairs of questions. (I have bolded the answers that seem most likely to me.)
|Interpretational Challenges||“sin not leading to death”||“sin that leads to death”|
|1. Identify the sinners.||Who is the “brother” committing it?
(1) a believer
(2) an unbeliever
|Who is the sinner committing it?
(1) a believer
(2) an unbeliever
(3) an apostate (a specific kind of unbeliever)
(4) an unbeliever—especially an apostate
|2. Identify life and death.||What is the “life” God will give those who commit it?
(1) continued physical life
(2) eternal life (when an unbeliever becomes a believer)
(3) eternal life—that is, the future resurrection life God promises to sinful believers who repent (cf. 2:25)
(4) confirmation that one has and will experience eternal life
|What is the “death” God will give those who commit it?
(1) physical death
(2) eternal death
|3. Identify the sin.||What is it?
(1) an unintentional sin—like an OT sin for which a person could offer a sacrifice (e.g., Lev 4:1–3; Num 15:22–29)
(2) a forgivable sin—e.g., a “venial” sin (relatively minor)
(3) any sin a believer may commit
|What is it?
(1) a deliberate sin—committed “with a high hand” (e.g., Num 15:30–31)
(2) an unforgivable sin—e.g., a “mortal” sin (specific sins such as adultery or murder)
(3) the unforgivable sin (i.e., blasphemy against the Spirit)
(4) any sin an unbeliever may commit––especially apostasy
|4. Explain the advice on how to pray.||How do you pray for the brother committing it?
(1) that God would enable the believer to repent
(2) that God would enable the believer to repent and that God would not discipline the believer with physical death
(3) that the unbeliever would repent and trust Jesus the Messiah and thus have eternal life
|Why doesn’t John say that one should pray for the sinner committing it?
(1) That’s not John’s main point as he illustrates what it means to pray according to God’s will (5:14–15). Sin that leads to death is an aside. John doesn’t forbid believers to pray for such sinners, but believers cannot pray for them with the same level of confidence as for believers who commit a sin not leading to death.
(2) It is hopeless to pray for an apostate. Compare how the Lord commanded Jeremiah not to pray for Israel (Jer 7:16–18; 11:14; 14:11) and how Jesus did not pray for the world (John 17:9).
(3) Believers should not pray for the dead.
What follows briefly presents and evaluates four major views on who commits the sin not leading to death and who commits the sin that leads to death in 1 John 5:16–17 (and focuses on the first three interpretational challenges in the above table).
View 1. A believer commits both sins, and the second believer apostatizes.
God may restore the first sinning believer and thus confirm that they have eternal life, but the second sinning believer––who was a genuine believer––apostatizes by decisively rejecting Jesus and thus will experience eternal death. So “a sin not leading to death” is any sin except apostasy, and the “sin that leads to death” is apostasy.1 This view defines apostasy as a sin that a genuine believer can commit.
Evaluation: This view is incorrect because it rejects eternal security. That is, it does not affirm that God sovereignly preserves all genuine Christians through faith as eternally saved and safe. In the very letter of 1 John, John explains how to theologically view people who were formerly part of the Christian community but then rejected Christ and left the community: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1Jn 2:19). Thus, someone may claim to be a believer, but if they don’t persevere in the faith, they demonstrate that they never were a genuine believer. (See the articles “What Is Apostasy? Can a Christian Become Apostate?” and “The Unpardonable Sin.”)
View 2. An unbeliever commits both sins.
God may give the first unbeliever eternal life, but the second unbeliever will experience eternal death. So “a sin not leading to death” is any sin except “sin that leads to death,” and the “sin that leads to death” is apostasy—like the false teachers in 1 John who had decisively rejected true teaching about who Christ is and what Christ did.2 John Stott argues that the “brother” who commits a sin not leading to death is a non-Christian:
John must here be using the word [i.e., brother] in a broader sense either of a ‘neighbour’ or of a nominal Christian, a church member who professes to be a ‘brother’. Certainly in 2:9, 11 the word ‘brother’ is not used strictly, for he who hates him is not a Christian at all but ‘in the darkness’. In 3:16–17 also the word seems to have this wider connotation, where we are bidden to lay down our lives ‘for our brothers’ and to supply the material necessities of a ‘brother in need’. Since Christ died for the ungodly and for his enemies, we can scarcely suppose that we are to limit our self-sacrifice and service exclusively to our Christian brothers and sisters, and to have compassion only upon them. Such a wider connotation of the word brother, implied also in the teaching of Jesus (Matt 5:22–24; 7:3–5), ‘arises not so much out of the character and standing of him whom you call your brother, as out of the nature of the affection with which you regard him’ (Candlish). This suggestion is supported by the somewhat similar passage in the letter of James (5:19–20).3
Evaluation: This view is possible. But it is highly unlikely for at least two reasons: (1) John explicitly identifies the first sinner as a “brother” (1Jn 5:16)—a term that elsewhere in the letter refers to genuine Christians (e.g., 3:13–17). (2) View 2 must say that the only sin that leads to eternal death is decisively rejecting Christ and his atonement, but the Bible teaches that any sin leads to eternal death (Rom 6:23).
View 3. A believer commits both sins, and God may discipline the second believer with physical death.
Unlike view 1, this view affirms eternal security. Unlike the other three views, the “life” and “death” are physical and temporal (not eternal).4 So “a sin not leading to death” is a sin for which God will not discipline a believer with physical death, and the “sin that leads to death” is a sin for which God may discipline a believer with physical death (as in 1Cor 11:30). The phrase “leading to death” translates πρὸς θάνατον (pros thanaton), and the only other place that phrase occurs in the New Testament is John 11:4, which refers to physical death. When Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill, he said, “This illness does not lead to death [πρὸς θάνατον, pros thanaton]” (John 11:4).
Evaluation: This view is possible but unlikely for at least three reasons: (1) John pairs “life” and “death” in 1 John 5:16–17, and every other time this letter mentions “life” or “death” refers to eternal life and eternal death. (For life, see 1:1, 2; 2:25; 3:14, 15; 5:11, 12, 13, 16; for death, see 3:14—“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.”) Regarding the pros thanaton parallel in John 11:4 and 1 John 5:16–17, the literary context of the two passages differs significantly: John 11 is about physical life and death, and 1 John is about eternal life and death. (3) John explicitly identifies the first sinner as a “brother,” but he does not identify the second sinner that way.
View 4. A believer commits a sin not leading to death, and an unbeliever commits sin that leads to death.
According to this view,5 God reassuringly promises that he will give eternal life (i.e., the future resurrection life) to sinful believers who repent (2:25).6 But the second unbeliever will experience eternal death. So “a sin not leading to death” is any sin a believer may commit (e.g., 1:8–2:1), and the “sin that leads to death” is any sin an unbeliever may commit––especially, in the context of 1 John, the apostasy of the false teachers. An unbeliever by definition is not repenting and thus is sinning in a way that leads to eternal death. More specifically, 1 John repeatedly warns believers about people who had previously claimed to be believers but who had departed the Christian community (e.g., 2:19). They decisively rejected true teaching about Christ and were disobeying God’s commands and not loving believers. They were sinning in a way that inevitably leads to eternal death.
Evaluation: This view seems more likely than the others since it (1) identifies the “brother” as a genuine believer; (2) identifies the life and death as eternal; and (3) identifies the sins in the context of the letter.
I conclude the following regarding the four major views on 1 John 5:16–17:
- View 1 (a believer commits both sins, and the second believer apostatizes) is incorrect.
- Views 2–4 may be correct.
- View 2 (an unbeliever commits both sins) seems less likely than views 3 and 4.
- View 3 (a believer commits both sins, and God may discipline the second believer with physical death) seems more likely than view 2.
- View 4 (a believer commits a sin not leading to death, and an unbeliever commits sin that leads to death) seems most likely.
Believers still sin, but sin does not characterize believers. What characterizes believers is that they confess their sins to the one who is faithful and just to forgive them their sins and to cleans them from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). Believers “have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (2:1). They do not sin leading to eternal death.
Unbelievers sin in a way that leads to eternal death. In particular, this is tragically the case for unbelievers who have decisively turned away from the faith; they are apostates—people who once claimed to be Christians but who irreversibly abandoned and renounced orthodox Christianity.
- Akin, Daniel L. 1, 2, 3 John.
- Brown, Raymond E. The Epistles of John: Translated, with Introduction, Notes, and Commentary.
- Busenitz, Irvin A. “The Sin unto Death.”
- Compton, R. Bruce. “Can a Christian Sin unto Death? Perseverance and 1 John 5:16.”
- Jobes, Karen H. 1, 2, 3 John.
- Kruse, Colin G. The Letters of John.
- Marshall, I. Howard. The Epistles of John.
- Scholer, David M. “Sins Within and Sins Without: An Interpretation of I John 5: 16–17.” Pages 230–46 in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation: Studies in Honor of Merrill C. Tenney.
- Smalley, Stephen S. 1, 2, 3 John.
- Smilie, Bruce Durelle. “‘Sin unto Death’: A Structural and Exegetical Study of 1 John 5:16–7.” PhD diss., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1999.
- Storms, Sam. Kept for Jesus: What the New Testament Really Teaches about Assurance of Salvation and Eternal Security.
- Stott, John R. W. The Letters of John: An Introduction and Commentary.
- Tan, Randall K. J. “Should We Pray for Straying Brethren? John’s Confidence in 1 John 5:16–17.”
- Ward, Tim. “Sin ‘Not unto Death’ and Sin ‘Unto Death’ in 1 John 5:16.”
- Warfield, B. B. “Praying for the Erring.” ExpTim12 (1919): 536–40.
- Yarbrough, Robert W. 1–3 John.