The Sin that Leads to Death

This is part of a series of posts looking at your questions about theology.

Question: What is the sin that leads to death?

Jeremy Jernigan – Executive Pastor

If you attended services last weekend you heard John write about the “sin that leads to death” at the end of the letter of 1 John. If you missed it you can watch the message here. Sounds pretty ominous huh? More importantly, how do you know if you’ve committed this sin?

Here’s the text in question:

“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. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.” 1 John 5:16-17

So not only is there a sin that leads to death, but we aren’t supposed to pray for people that have committed this sin? What in the world is John saying? Like most theology questions there are multiple ways to make sense out of it. Due to John’s vagueness in referencing this sin it is likely the original audience would have understood what he was talking about. In our context today it isn’t as clear. In light of this, here are three common explanations for understanding what John says in this passage:

  1. He’s talking about a literal death. This would be something like Ananias and Sapphira, the couple who lied to the early church and ended up dying as a result of it (see: Acts 5:1-11). This sounds like a harsh punishment and probably doesn’t apply to many people. More generically, it could refer to a ‘worse sin’ than other sins. Either way, this seems like an unlikely explanation. If there were a variety of sins that lead to death my guess is that a lot more of us would drop dead before we reached old age. And that’s assuming we made it out of puberty! Another reason this interpretation is unlikely is that death is contrasted to eternal life instead of physical life in this passage.
  2. He’s talking about blasphemy of the Spirit. This is something Jesus referenced that often messes people up when they first read it. That’s because Jesus says this sin cannot be forgiven (see: Matthew 12:30-32). In a nutshell, it’s when a person attributes God’s power to Satan or gives credit to Satan for things God does. While in this state of mind it is impossible to receive forgiveness from God because you aren’t in a place where you think that’s even possible. Were a person to repent of this and stop continuing in this view it would be possible to be forgiven of it as you would no longer be committing it. While this view could help to explain this section it doesn’t fit well within the context of the entire book of 1 John.
  3. He’s talking about people who have left the faith. Said differently, it refers to people who have chosen a total rejection of the Gospel. This is the most likely explanation since elsewhere in the book John warns people not to be led astray by false teaching (see: 1 John 2:19; 1 John 3:7). In this view, we should focus our prayers on brothers and sisters in the faith who are struggling above those who have completely walked away from it. It’s important to note that this does not mean you cannot pray for such a person, rather that John is saying not to focus your prayers on this type of person. It would be like saying that the couple who is struggling with their marriage in my life group should be more on the forefront of my mind in prayer than that the noted atheist Richard Dawkins would suddenly change his mind. Passages such as Hebrews 6:4–6; and Hebrews 10:26–27 also seem to support this.

If we go with option number three we can then begin to apply John’s teaching. Who are those believers in your community who are struggling in sin? They should get your primary focus in prayer. With that in place, we are free to “supplement” those prayers by praying for a family member or noted friend who decides not to have anything to do with God. As mentioned in the message this past weekend, it’s similar to the concept of triage. All people are worthy of our prayers but we have a finite ability in how we personally advocate for others with God. John’s point is that your prayers are most effective on behalf of those who choose to walk with Christ, not those who don’t. While most of this discussion gravitates toward deciphering this special sin and in who we shouldn’t pray for, John’s primary focus is on those fellow believers who we should be praying for.

Disclaimer: I’m providing you with my answer to these questions and what makes the most sense to me Biblically. There are numerous other Christians who would provide different answers. If you disagree with me, there’s no need to email me or any other staff member. I’m not making sweeping statements that define all views of Central and its leadership. The point is to create a dialogue where we go deeper in our understanding and experience with God. At the very least I invite you to consider thoughtfully the answers I give, even if they differ from your views. If you would like to talk through this post with someone please email us at blog@centralaz.com.

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The Sin that Leads to Death

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