What is the “sin that leads to death”?

Q. John writes in his first letter, “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.

Would you please explain what John means by “a sin that does not lead to death” and “a sin that leads to death,” and why we’re not supposed to pray about the second kind?

This statement by John is indeed puzzling, because it’s hard to imagine why an apostle of Jesus, writing inspired Scripture, would tell us not to pray for a brother or sister who’s being overcome by sin. Many different explanations have been offered, but let me suggest one that’s based on the circumstances John is writing about and the characteristic language he uses in this first letter.

His letter is addressed to the same community that he earlier wrote the Gospel of John for. That community is now in crisis because some of its members are spreading a false teaching. Influenced by the Greek idea that spiritual things are good but that physical things are bad, they’re arguing that Jesus could not have been the Son of God if he came to earth in a human body. In fact, they’re claiming that they have received a spiritual revelation that Jesus was not the Messiah. They’re leaving the community of his followers, and they’re encouraging others to leave with them. On top of this, they’re creating a scandal by living openly sinful lives, in the belief that what they do in their bodies doesn’t matter—they think that only what happens in a person’s spirit is important. They’ve also stopped caring for the poor and needy, because after all, those people are only suffering in their bodies.

In response to all this, John first offers eyewitness testimony that Jesus was a real human being and the source of salvation for all who trust in him. He begins his letter by saying, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

John also discredits the supposed spiritual revelation. “Dear friends,” he tells those in the community who have remained faithful to the original teaching about Jesus, “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.

In other parts of his letter, John also addresses the way the false teachers are living, and it’s in those parts that some characteristic language emerges. In response to the way they’re living as if what they did in their bodies doesn’t matter, he writes, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.” John critiques the false teachers’ lack of concern for those in need by explaining, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. . . . This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

In light of this overview of the letter, we can see that by “life,” John means membership in and fellowship with the community of Jesus’ followers, and by “death” he means being outside that community. By “sin” he can mean continuing to live in a way that dishonors God in one’s body, in the belief that bodily things simply don’t matter.

So I would conclude that the puzzling statement means something like this: Part of our ongoing concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ, in addition to caring for their physical needs, is to pray for them, and particularly to pray that they will have victory in their struggles against sin. However, if a person is sinning willfully and continually because they think God doesn’t care what they do in their body, there’s no point praying that they’ll be set free from that sin. There’s a deeper problem behind the behavior: a wrong belief about Jesus that is leading the person out of the community of his followers. That would be the “sin that leads to death.” While John doesn’t say this specifically in his letter, I think we could and should pray that such a person would have their eyes opened to the truth about Jesus, so that eventually their problem with sin could be addressed as well. On the other hand, the struggle of a sincere believer would be a “sin that does not lead to death.” We can and should help our brothers and sisters in that kind of struggle right away through our prayers.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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