by Sam Storms
A Study on 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” (1 John 5:16). The problems posed by this passage are innumerable, and therefore so are the interpretations placed upon it. Following are the more cogent views and my critical interaction with each.
SIN UNTO DEATH IS APOSTASY
This first interpretation of 1 John 5:16–17 is one proposed by many Arminians who believe a Christian can apostatize from the faith (i.e., fall from grace) and lose salvation. I. Howard Marshall represents this position.
He argues that the “brother” about whom John speaks is a born-again believer, as the usage of the term “brother” in 1 John would appear to demand (see 1 John 2:9, 10, 11; 3:10, 12 [twice], 13, 14, 15, 16, 17; 4:20 [twice], 21; 5:16). The kind of death John has in mind is spiritual, eternal death, even as the life with which it is contrasted is spiritual and eternal.
That sin that leads to death is any that is incompatible with being a child of God. What sins qualify? According to 1 John, says Marshall, “sin that leads to death is deliberate refusal to believe in Jesus Christ, to follow God’s commands, and to love one’s brothers. It leads to death because it includes a deliberate refusal to believe in the One who alone can give life, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”1
Conversely, sins that do not lead to death “are those which are committed unwittingly and which do not involve rejection of God and his way of salvation. The sinner is overcome by temptation against his will; he still wants to love God and his neighbor, he still believes in Jesus Christ, he still longs to be freed from sin.”2 Marshall makes this distinction between deliberate apostasy (“sin that leads to death”) and unwitting transgression (“sin that does not lead to death”) on the basis of the Old Testament distinction between unintentional sins, for which atonement was possible, and deliberate sins, for which the Levitical sacrificial system provided no forgiveness (see Lev. 4:2, 13, 22, 27; 5:15, 17–18; Num. 15:27–31; Deut. 17:12).
Christians can commit both types of sin. If someone sees a brother committing sin that does not lead to death, one should pray for him, and God will use the prayer to give him life. However, if someone sees a Christian brother engaged in open refusal to repent and believe, he is on his way to death. John did not require (but neither does he forbid) that anyone pray for him. Consequently, some Christians may in fact apostatize from the faith by committing sin that leads to their eternal death. The doctrine of eternal security is obviously incompatible with this view.
Several comments should be made about this interpretation. First, the text does not say that the brother commits sin that leads to death. John refers to a brother only with regard to sin that is not unto death. Second, if the sin of the Christian brother is not the kind that leads to death, why must we pray that God would give him life? Marshall answers:
There is always the danger that a person who sins unconsciously or unwittingly may move to the point of sinning deliberately and then of turning his back completely on God and the way of forgiveness. Because of this danger, it is essential that Christians pray for one another lest any of their number cross the line that leads to open and deliberate rejection of the way of life. No sin is of such a kind as to prevent forgiveness, provided that we repent of it. We are to pray for our brothers that they will repent of all sin. When we do this, we have God’s promise that he will hear our prayers.3
But John does not say that the brother was about to cross over some such line. Indeed, he says just the opposite. It was to the brother who was not committing sin unto death whom God promised to give life.
Furthermore, it would be difficult to think of another New Testament author who affirms the doctrine of eternal security with any greater conviction or frequency than the apostle John (John 6:37–44; 10:11–18, 27–30; 17:1–2, 7–12; 1 John 5:18). Texts we examined in earlier chapters likewise deny what Marshall affirms (Rom. 8:29–39; 1 Cor. 1:4–9; Phil. 1:6; 1 Thess. 5:23–24; 2 Thess. 2:13–15; 2 Tim. 2:19; 1 Pet. 1:5; Jude 24). Finally, why would John not require us to pray for an apostate? Marshall says it is because “where a person himself refuses to seek salvation and forgiveness there is not much point in praying for him.”4 But isn’t that a description that applies to everyone who is not a Christian? Are we not to pray for unbelievers at all?
Raymond Brown, a Roman Catholic scholar, seems to argue for a position similar to Marshall’s. Those who sin unto death, he says, are
former brothers and sisters who have opted to be children of the devil by going out to the world that prefers darkness to light. Since Jesus refused to pray for such a world (John 17:9), the author’s adherents should not pray for those who belong to the world (1 John 4:5). When his readers came to faith and joined the Johannine community of “brothers,” they passed from death to life (1 John 3:14). By leaving the Community the secessionists have shown that they hate the “brothers” and have reversed the process by passing from life to death. In that sense theirs is a sin unto death.5
But then in a footnote Brown balks, saying that it is unclear “whether the author would admit they ever had life, since he says that the secessionists never really belonged to the Community (1 John 2:19).”6 Stephen Smalley also argues for a position in many ways identical to Marshall’s. Whereas John “expected his readers to walk in the light as sons of God . . . he did not ignore the possibility that some believing but heretically inclined members of his community might become apostate. . . . We conclude that John attributes the possibility of ‘sin which does not lead to death’ to believers, but ‘mortal sin’ to unbelievers who are, or believers who have become, antichristian.”7
BLASPHEMY AGAINST THE HOLY SPIRIT
Others say the sin unto death is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This view finds its most able proponent in John Stott.
Stott argues that the brother about whom John speaks in 1 John 5:16–17 is not a Christian man. The term “brother” is being used in “the broader sense of a ‘neighbor’ or of a nominal Christian, a church member who professes to be a ‘brother’” but who in reality is a counterfeit.8 He appeals to 1 John 2:9–11 as an example of this broad use of the term. Also, how can a Christian with eternal life (1 John 3:14) be given life as John affirms? “How can you give life to one who is already alive? This man is not a Christian, for Christians do not fall into death when they fall into sin.”9 Stott agrees with Marshall that both the life and the death of which John speaks are spiritual and eternal in nature.
However, neither individual in 1 John 5:16 is a Christian. The individual in verse 16b, who commits sin that leads to death, is no more a believer than the brother of verse 16a. He is, most likely, one of the false teachers about whom John has been warning his readers, a counterfeit Christian exposed by his eventual departure from the church (1 John 2:19). The sin that leads to death is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 12:22–32), that is to say, deliberate and persistent rejection of Jesus Christ. Sin that leads to death, therefore, is not some solitary sin but a settled state of sin. It is the obstinate repudiation of the claims of Christ as made known in the gospel. Although John did not forbid us to pray for someone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit, he did not recommend it because he could not be certain that God would answer it.
First, although it is possible, I think it highly unlikely that John would here refer to a non-Christian as a “brother.” Most commentators agree on this point. Second, if both men in verse 16 are nonbelievers, men who reject and disbelieve the gospel of Jesus Christ, how are we to know which one has committed sin that does not lead to death and which one has committed sin that does lead to death? How are we supposed to differentiate between an unbeliever and a so-called hardened unbeliever in order that we might pray for the former but not the latter? If John was giving us guidance for knowing when and when not to pray, he was uncharacteristically fuzzy about it.
Third, Stott’s view contains a problem that plagues every interpretation, which is context. When we read verse 16 in the light of its preceding context (vv. 14–15), one gets the impression that John was describing a particular kind of prayer that will always be answered. In other words, prayer for a brother whose sin is not unto death is always according to God’s will. Consequently, John assures us that in response to such prayer God will give life to the errant brother. If that is correct, the implications are astounding, for it would mean that any non-Christian for whom we pray, assuming that he has not sinned unto death, will be given eternal life. Even were we to interpret “brother” as referring to a Christian, the problem remains. In the latter case, it would imply that any sinning Christian for whom we pray will be restored and renewed. This, however, ascribes more to the power of prayer than the rest of Scripture allows. And although it is not a final authority, experience itself teaches us that not every believer for whom we intercede responds and repents.
Also, what about the man who commits sin that leads to death? In Stott’s view, John was saying that he does not recommend we pray for him because it is doubtful if that prayer will be answered. If “sin that leads to death” is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, as Stott argues, then whoever commits this sin will never be saved. But if it is never God’s will to give life to a man who commits sin unto death, why doesn’t John explicitly forbid prayer for him? The fact is, John does not require that we pray for such a man, but neither does he prohibit it. But why doesn’t he forbid it if by definition (Stott’s view) the sin he has committed is unforgivable?
Donald Burdick, although not agreeing in every particular with Stott (Burdick says the “brother” is a believer), suggests that one reason why God may not answer prayer for the man sinning unto death is that “the stubborn will of the sinner may not bend. God,” says Burdick, “though sovereign, chooses not to coerce the will and thus violate the integrity of the personality he created in his own image.”10
But God’s effectual grace in converting the sinner is persuasive, not coercive. More important still, if Burdick’s point is valid, why would it not also apply to the brother who commits sin not unto death? Why should we think that God’s activity with regard to the brother not sinning unto death is any less coercive or any less a violation of the integrity of his personality than God’s activity with regard to the man whose sin is unto death? Sin is a stubborn, rebellious act of one’s will, both in the believer and the unbeliever, regardless of who commits it. The alleged coercion or violation that concerns Burdick, irrespective of its degree or intensity, is coercion and violation nonetheless.
Perhaps a way to avoid this problem is to understand John to be saying that giving life to brothers who do not sin unto death is something that God often desires to do. Therefore, we should pray to that end. There is no guarantee that it is always God’s will to answer such prayers, even though the language of verse 16a is seemingly unconditional. But even this does not explain why John does not forbid prayer for those who, by definition (Stott’s view), can never be forgiven of their sins.
Finally, if the man who commits sin unto death is a non-Christian, he is already dead. What, then, could John have meant by saying that if he sins deliberately and persistently, that is, if he blasphemes the Holy Spirit, he will die? Stott agrees that the man is already dead, but by persisting in unbelief he will die the “second death” (Rev. 20:11–15). “Spiritually dead already, he will die eternally.”11
SINS WITHIN AND SINS WITHOUT
The third view is difficult to label. It is somewhat of a mediating position between the views of Marshall and Stott. David M. Scholer is its most convincing defender. Scholer agrees with Marshall that the “brother” is a Christian man and that “death” is spiritual and eternal in nature. He also agrees with Marshall that “sin that leads to death” must be identified and defined from within the epistle of 1 John itself. It consists primarily of hating the brothers and denying that Jesus is the Christ.
However, unlike Marshall he insists that believers do not commit sin that leads to death. Nowhere in the passage, Scholer strenuously claims, is it ever said that a true believer, a “brother,” commits sin that leads to death. Believers do commit sin that does not lead to death (1 John 1:8; 2:1), and the Christian community is to intercede for them. Prayer for such sinning Christians will be used by God to reconfirm the life they already have in Christ (1 John 3:14).
John is concerned not primarily with the sins of unbelievers. “Prayer,” says Scholer, “is not absolutely forbidden concerning the matter, nor is it said that one who commits the ‘sin unto death’ is forever beyond the hope of becoming a member of the believing community. But throughout 1 John there is a radical separation between the believing community and the unbelieving world so that prayer for the unbelieving world would not be a ‘normal’ or ‘effective’ practice.”12 Scholer interprets 1 John 3:6, 9 and 5:18 in the light of 5:16–17. Simply put, the sin that Christians cannot commit is not a reference to the practice of sin in general or persistence in sin. Rather, the sin the believer can’t commit is “sin that leads to death,” namely, hatred of believers and denial of Jesus.
Essential to this view is a rephrasing of the closing statement in verse 16, which reads “I do not say that one should pray for that.” Similarly, the New International Version renders, “I am not saying that he should pray about that.” Both translations make it appear that John was recommending we not pray about the sin unto death or for the one who commits it. Scholer would translate this phrase in another way: “I am not speaking concerning that (i.e., sin unto death), in order that you should pray.” In other words, John’s purpose is not to enlist prayer for those who commit sin unto death, although in another context and time it may be legitimate to do so. Rather, it is the sin of believers, sin that is not unto death, that he is speaking about and for which he asks that his readers pray.
To sum up, “sin that leads to death” consists principally of hating believers (what John called “murder”) and not confessing Jesus (what John called “lying”). This sin cannot be committed by believers for the simple reason that, by definition, it is the sin that makes one an unbeliever. Believers are guilty of sin that does not lead to death, that is, “they do break fellowship with God (1:6–2:1), but without participating in hating the brothers or denying Jesus.”13 Sin unto death is a sin of those who are “disruptive, heretical outsiders.”14 Consequently, John is not here concerned with them or their sin. His concern is with the sin of insiders, that is, believers within the community of faith.
This view has much to commend it. First, it looks for the meaning of sin that leads to death within 1 John itself and interprets “brother” and “death” in keeping with their usage in this epistle. Second, this view has the advantage of restricting sin unto death to unbelievers. Similar to Stott’s interpretation, the “death” into which the sin of these unbelievers leads them is the second, eternal death. Third, Scholer’s interpretation supplies us with a cogent solution to other problem texts in 1 John, namely, those that assert that the one born of God cannot or is not able to sin. When 1 John 5:18 (literally, “no one who is born of God sins”) is read in the light of 5:16–17, one can see the sense in taking verse 18 to mean, “No one who is born of God sins sin that leads to death.”
The only problem one might have with this view is the phrase “God will give him life.” To say that this means “he will renew and reconfirm the life he already has” lacks explicit parallel in 1 John and is not, so far as I can tell, stated in precisely these terms elsewhere in the New Testament. But given the number of difficulties the other interpretations face, this one problem is slight by comparison.15
The interpretation of Benjamin B. Warfield is one deserving of careful attention. Warfield agrees with Marshall on two points. The “brother” is a Christian, and it is possible for him to commit “sin that leads to death.” Warfield disagrees with Marshall in that he affirms eternal security and in his belief that the death in view is physical, not spiritual. As we noted earlier, the New Testament does refer to believers suffering illness and occasionally physical death because of persistent and unrepentant sin (see Acts 5:1–11; 1 Cor. 5:5(?); 11:29–30; James 5:14–15, 19–20).
According to Warfield’s interpretation, this brother is not sinning in such a way that his physical life is in jeopardy, and since he is a Christian, he already has spiritual life. What, then, could John have meant when he said that God would give him “life” in response to our prayers? Warfield writes:
We may suppose that by giving life there is meant rather the maintaining or perfecting than the initiating of life. He who lives below his privileges, in whom the life which he has received is languid or weak in its manifestations, is made by our prayers the recipient of fresh vital impulses, or powers, that he may live as the Christian should live. Hitherto living on a plane which can be spoken of only as sinful—though not mortally sinful—he will through our prayers receive newness of life.16
In saying that some sin leads to death and other sin does not, John is not giving us a criterion by which we may examine the lives of other believers in order to determine whether we should pray for them. He differentiates between these two kinds of sin simply to tell us why it is that some of our prayers are answered and others are not. Warfield explains:
He is merely saying that of those whom we observe to be sinning in the community, some are, in point of fact, sinning to death, and others not; and that, in point of fact, our prayers will be of benefit to the one and not to the other. Who they are who are sinning to death, we do not in any case know. John does not suppose us to know. Only, in urging us to pray for our sinful brethren, and promising us an answer to our prayers, the gift of life to them, he warns us that there are some for whom our petitions will not thus avail. But he warns us of this, not that we may avoid praying for these unhappy ones, but that we may be prepared for the failure of our prayers in their case.17
That no sinner is to be excluded from our prayers is proved, says Warfield, by noting the difference between two Greek words John uses in verse 16 (the NIV renders both these words by the English term, “pray,” whereas the ESV renders the first “ask” and the second “pray”). The word in verse 16a translated “he should pray” (aiteo) refers to genuine Christian prayer. But the word in verse 16b (erotao), likewise translated “he should pray,” does not refer to intercessory prayer. Rather, it denotes the asking of questions, the seeking of information, perhaps for the purpose of debate or discussion. If this understanding of the two words is correct,
the passage would no longer have even the surface appearance of excluding one kind of sinners from our prayers. . . . It would, on the contrary, expressly require us to pray for all sinners, intimating that though there is a sin to death, that is a matter about which we are not to make anxious inquiry before we pray, but, leaving it to God, we are for ourselves to pray for all our brethren whom we observe to be living sinful lives.18
The purpose of this passage, therefore, is not to set us upon the task of determining what the sin unto death is or who may or may not have committed it. The message of the apostle is that sin is deadly and that if we would have life, we must avoid it. Let us therefore come to the aid of our brothers by praying for one another. If the sin of the brother for whom we pray is sin unto death, our prayers will not be answered. His sin has taken him beyond the point at which our prayers will restore him. However, that his sin is unto death is something we cannot know before we pray. On the other hand, if the sin of the brother for whom we pray is not sufficiently severe so as to put his physical life in jeopardy, God will answer our prayer and restore this brother to the fullness of joy and spiritual energy in his daily life with Christ.
Although Warfield’s interpretation is intriguing, like the others it is subject to several objections. In the first place, it is unlikely that “death” means physical death as God’s chastisement of an errant believer. Scholer reminds us that in 1 John “death is the state in which one is before he becomes a believer and out of which he is transferred unto life (3:14; see John 5:24). The one who does not love the brothers (that is, believers) remains in death (3:14). Those who do not love (unbelievers; see 3:9–10; 4:7–8) are not of God (3:10), are in darkness (2:11; see 1:5) and do not know God (4:8; see 4:7). Thus it is clear that a ‘sin unto death’ is one which signifies the complete absence of any fellowship with God.”19 Of course, this is not to say that it was impossible for John to shift his emphasis from spiritual to physical death, but only that it seems improbable.
Second, Warfield agrees that John did not mean to tell us that we can actually know whether a brother’s sin is unto death. We are to pray, and if his sin is not unto death, God will answer our prayer. If it is unto death, our prayer will fail. But this seems overly subtle of John, if not downright obscure. A straightforward reading of verse 16 appears to indicate that we are to pray for the brother whom we see sinning the sort of sin that is not to death. If John did not expect us to be able to know whether his sin was unto death, he surely chose an odd way of saying so.
Finally, there is some doubt as to the validity of drawing a sharp distinction between the Greek words aiteo (used in v. 16a) and erotao (used in v. 16b). There are several verses in John’s Gospel (John 14:14; 16:19, 23) in which the distinction most likely does apply. In 1 John 5, however, most modern commentators insist that the words are synonymous and that the apostle’s shift from one to the other is purely stylistic. Note well, though, that even should one accept the distinction between these two terms as valid, it doesn’t necessarily follow that death is physical. It is conceivable that all the views we have examined are compatible with this distinction.
I find myself a bit reluctant to conclude anything about this passage. But if push comes to shove, and I suspect many of you are waiting for my answer, I would have to endorse the view of Scholer and Yarbrough (among others who advocate this position). A Christian cannot commit the sin unto death because such a sin is precisely what identifies and defines a non-Christian. In any case, this text will probably persist in its (in)famous claim to be one of the most perplexing in all the New Testament until Christ returns and sets us all straight. In the meantime, hermeneutical humility is the wise course to pursue.
1 I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 248.
3 Ibid., 248–49.
4 Ibid., 249.
5 Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982), 636.
6 Ibid., 636n17.
7 Stephen S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3 John, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1984), 299 (emphasis added).
8 John R. W. Stott, The Epistles of John: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976), 190.
9 Ibid., 189.
10 Donald W. Burdick, The Letters of John the Apostle: An In-Depth Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1985), 408.
11 Stott, Epistles of John, 190.
12 David Scholer, “Sins Within and Sins Without: An Interpretation of 1 John 5:16–18,” in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation, ed. Gerald Hawthorne (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), 243.
13 Ibid., 242.
15 A helpful discussion of this passage that takes a view quite similar to that of Scholer is found in Robert W. Yarbrough, 1–3 John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 305–14. According to Yarbrough, “sin unto death” refers to “doctrinal convictions, ethical patterns, and relational tendencies—or any combination of these three—which belie one’s claim to know the God of light (1:5)” (p. 310). Thus “sin unto death” is “simply violation of the fundamental terms of relationship with God that Jesus Christ mediates” (p. 310).
16 Benjamin B. Warfield, “Praying for the Erring,” Expository Times 30 (Summer 1919), 537.
17 Ibid., 539.
19 Scholer, “Sins Within and Sins Without,” 240.