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.

Do the Scriptures teach that sin is innate to us?

Q. Do you understand the Scriptures to teach that sin is innate to us? Is sin or the sinful nature more than an old “pattern” that we slip back into under the influence of spiritual forces external to us? Thank you.

I think that according to Scriptural teaching, the concept of sin needs to be understood in two senses. We might refer to “sin” and to “sins.” Sins are specific actions that are contrary to what we know to be God’s wishes and intentions for our lives. In that sense they incur guilt and we need to forsake them (stop doing them) and ask and receive God’s forgiveness for them.

“Sin,” on the other hand, is a power that influences us to commit “sins.” Much of its hold over us comes from the fact that it works to blind us, i.e. we aren’t aware of its presence because it leads us to rationalize wrong actions, telling ourselves we’re doing them for some good reason that justifies them.

A person who has not yet been made a new creation through saving faith in Jesus is under the power of sin in this sense. But I would not say strictly that sin is a power within them. It’s something that they’ve admitted into their life and allowed to operate from the inside. It’s “innate” in the sense that they are born under the power of sin (and so they likely begin to allow it to operate from within before they’re even aware of doing this). But it’s not innate in the sense that it doesn’t reflect the image of God in them, which they still bear because they’ve been created in God’s image.

A person who has been made a new creation, on the other hand, is no longer under the power of sin. This is the triumphant proclamation that Paul works his way forward to in the first part of Romans: After declaring that “Jews and Gentiles alike are all under the power of sin,” he ultimately explains that “sin will not have dominion over” those who have become “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

So I would say that for followers of Jesus, sin is an external force, working in connection with the patterning of this present age, to try to make us continue conforming to its ways. This is the sense in which I understand the “sinful nature”; for more on that, please see this post. From the discussion there, you’ll see that I don’t believe sin remains an innate force in the believer.

 

What is the “sinful nature”?

Q. Could you please define “sinful nature”? I am becoming more and more aware of my shortcomings and character flaws and am attempting to correct these behaviors. (I didn’t realize I was so sassy.) Are these flaws (bitterness, selfishness, directed by self-will, etc.) and defects a part of my “sinful nature”? Thank you.

First, let me say that you should actually be very encouraged by the way  you’re realizing that you’re sassy, bitter, selfish, etc. (along with the rest of us who need God’s grace and mercy each day). If we have a growing awareness of the sin in our lives, this is actually one evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work within us to make us more like Christ, and so this is also one grounds for our assurance of salvation. So be encouraged (even if paradoxically)!

As for your specific question, in recent years Bible scholars and translators have been reaching a new perspective about what the “sinful nature” actually is. Previously it was held that when a person trusted Christ for salvation, this gave them a “new nature” or “redeemed nature,” but at the same time, they still had a “sinful nature.” This was considered to be a part of them that could continue to lead them into sin.

In other words, the believer was considered to have a double nature, and so growth in Christ-likeness was considered to be a matter of strengthening the redeemed nature so that its influence would be greater than that of the sinful nature. The example was used of the Inuit man who’d become a follower of Christ and said that there were “two sled dogs” fighting with him. When he was asked, “Which one wins?” he replied, “The one that I feed.”

But more recently, especially through comprehensive studies of Paul’s teaching on the Holy Spirit such as Gordon Fee’s massive volume God’s Empowering Presence, a new view has been coming into favor. The phrase “sinful nature” was formerly used in versions such as the NIV to translate the word sarx in Paul’s writings.* But that word simply means “flesh.” Many times it’s used to describe the human body, for example, when Paul says that Jesus “appeared in the flesh” (that is, he became human). But sarx can also refer to a spiritual force or influence. However, it’s now being recognized that this is not a force inside of us that’s part of us, but rather a force outside of us that tries to make us conform to a certain way of life.

Specifically, the “flesh” tries to make us conform to the way of life that corresponds to this “present evil age,” when God’s authority is not acknowledged and so people are “directed by self-will,” as you aptly put it. To live by the Spirit rather than by the flesh is instead to follow the way of life that corresponds to the “age to come,” when God’s authority will be universally acknowledged and honored, so that people will act as Christ did, in a way that’s loving and considerate towards others, not thinking of themselves first. There’s actually an overlap between the two ages, and we’re living in that overlap now, which is why we can choose to conform our behavior either to the present age or to the coming age (which has already started to arrive).

A good way to illustrate this is to think of what happens when we as adults go back and spend several days with the family we grew up in. Many of us find that we revert unconsciously to the way we related to them while we were growing up, perhaps even taking on the “family role” we had then, even though we don’t play it any more in our own household or among our friends. This is not because there’s an active force within us that’s causing us to behave this way again. Rather, there’s an external patterning that takes effect once we get back into that context. The challenge is to recognize that this is happening and choose to behave as the person we have become, even though the social interactions may be influencing us to behave as the person we used to be.

In the same way, the “flesh” as a spiritual force is the patterning of this present age that influences us to act in sinful ways. We need to welcome the influence of the Holy Spirit in our lives to create new patterns that will enable us to live instead as the persons we have become in Christ. This is what Paul means when he talks about putting off your old self with its practices and putting on the new self, “which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” (The language here is not that of sarx vs. Spirit, but of the old self vs. the new self, but it’s expressing the same concept.)

For me, one very encouraging aspect of this new perspective is that it shows there’s no significant part of me that will always resist God. I can surrender my entire being to God in devotion, trusting that all of me will become more and more like Christ through the Spirit’s influence. See how this difference is expressed when we translate the word sarx in a key passage in Galatians using first the old, and then the new, understandings of this term:

The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want [because part of you is always going to resist God].

The present way of life desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the present way of life. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want [because you’re still being influenced by the old patterning].

So I would encourage you to recognize that the Holy Spirit is at work within you to help you develop new patterns of life. The first step, from what you say in your question, seems to be that the Holy Spirit is helping you recognize that there are still some old patterns there that are hurtful to others and not honoring to God. But the Holy Spirit will also give you the power to adopt new patterns and not be held back by the old ones, as you choose on a daily basis to “put off the old and put on the new.” Don’t be discouraged if progress feels slow and intermittent at first; every choice you make will have a cumulative effect and you will see solid and lasting change over time. May God bless you as you seek to “walk by the Spirit and not carry out the desire of the flesh.


*For the record, in the latest update to the NIV (2011), the translators have changed almost all of the places—nearly 30 of them—where sarx was previously rendered by “sinful nature.” Here’s their explanation for those changes:

“Especially in Paul, sarx can mean either part or all of the human body, or, the human being under the power of sin. In an effort to capture this latter sense of the word, the original NIV often rendered sarx as ‘sinful nature.’ But this expression can mislead readers into thinking the human person is made up of various compartments, one of which is sarx, whereas the biblical writers’ point is that humans can choose to yield themselves to a variety of influences or powers, one of which is the sin-producing sarx.”

You see the difference here between the older view, in which human beings, even after they have trusted Christ, have a component within them that’s known as the “sinful nature,” and the newer view, in which it’s recognized that sarx is instead an external power or influence and that we can choose whether to yield ourselves to it.

The NIV has retained the reading “sinful nature” in only two places, and in each case there’s a footnote saying, “Or flesh.” These are the two places where Paul says “my sarx,” rather than “the sarx,” which could be taken as a reference to something within him, though I think the way he uses the term sarx everywhere else in his writings suggests that he’s talking about something outside of himself in these cases as well.

Have I committed the unpardonable sin?

Q. Curses against God crossed my mind and this made me think I’d committed the unpardonable sin. I decided to look at the passage in the Bible about that. As I was reading it, curses once again swarmed my mind. An absolute feeling of despair came over me.  Was that the Holy Spirit leaving me?

I met with a minister and he said that the unpardonable sin was attributing the work of Jesus to Satan. I felt relieved by his words but the worry was not all gone. To this day I have not found genuine lasting peace. I don’t remember the vast majority of my thoughts, but I’m almost certain that one of those evil thoughts was me committing the unpardonable sin. I do not agree with those thoughts, but I’m afraid I allowed them to enter my mind.

I spoke with another pastor and he believes I have not committed the unpardonable sin simply because I’m worried about it. He is also convinced that God has a big plan for me. But I’m afraid God has given up on me.

It sounds to me as if you have already been getting some very good pastoral counsel, and I encourage you to take it to heart. But let me add some reassurance of my own, as a biblical scholar and a pastor myself for 20 years.

If you’re concerned that you’ve committed the unpardonable sin, you haven’t.

The “unpardonable sin” that Jesus talks about (as recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) is indeed the act of attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan. The reason this sin “can’t be forgiven” is not because the person has done something so bad that it’s beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. The Bible stresses that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient for the forgiveness of any and all sins that any human being might commit.

Rather, if we attribute the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan, then this will make us resist the work of the Holy Spirit, and His gracious influences will not be able to bring us to repentance and salvation. In other words, Jesus isn’t saying that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. He’s saying that it can not be forgiven, because it separates us from the very influence that’s meant to lead us to forgiveness.

God does not hold us morally responsible for every thought that pops into our heads.

As human beings, we think all kinds of things, for all kinds of reasons. Thoughts are suggested to us by our surroundings; by things we read, hear, and watch; by things that other people say; and, I truly believe, by spiritual forces that are trying to lead us either towards God or away from God. (More about this shortly.)

It is actually not within our power to keep thoughts from popping into our heads. So you should not consider yourself guilty of anything for “allowing” particular thoughts to enter your mind.

What truly matters is what we do with the thoughts that occur to us. And you have said yourself, “I do not agree with those thoughts” (i.e. the curses against God). To the extent that you had any moral culpability at all for those thoughts—and I don’t think you do—this constitutes repentance, and you can believe and trust God’s promise that “whoever confesses and forsakes his sins will find mercy.”

We are in the midst of a spiritual battle, and one of the main battlefields is the human mind.

From the story you’ve shared with me (which I’ve edited down here for length and confidentiality), I agree with the pastor who said that God has a big plan for your life. One reason I say this is that it appears to me that you have been under fierce spiritual attack.

Now I know we’re not supposed to see the devil under every sofa cushion. I’m very careful about what I attribute to evil spiritual forces. Anxiety can have emotional and psychological causes, and I encourage you to pursue those as appropriate. But the fact that the onslaught of dark thoughts you’ve described has deprived you of peace and the assurance of your salvation, and caused you such great anguish and trouble, says to me thatsomething additional is going on here. I’m convinced that spiritual forces are real and still operating in our world, and this appears from your description to be a case where they are having an influence.

By their fruits you will know them,” Jesus said. The “fruits” of these thoughts are so destructive, I don’t see them coming from your own mind and will. I recognize you as a person who sincerely wants to serve and please God. So I believe the thoughts are coming instead from the spiritual enemies of God, who want you to be paralyzed by false guilt and worry instead of serving God eagerly and energetically with all of the gifts and zeal that God has given you.

You need to fight back.

The best way to do that is to believe, once and for all, the Bible’s promises that Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (that would be all the sin, of every kind) and that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” And in that confidence, discover your gifting and your calling and serve God with boldness, as a beloved son who has been freely forgiven and accepted in Christ.

Get out there and cause some trouble for the devil. You’ve let him cause enough trouble for you.

 

Does anyone has been born of God really not sin?

Q. John writes in his first epistle, “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” Does this imply that if I fail to be perfect in every way after having passed through the waters of baptism, I am therefore fooling myself about my salvation?  Does that mean I have not really been born of God?  I understand that we are called to “be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect,” but where does one draw the line insofar as recognizing that, once saved, my propensity to sin has transformed into a propensity to actively, daily, turning from my sin nature and identifying with Christ’s righteousness?

I think it’s important to recognize the context of John’s statement. His first epistle was written to counteract the influence of false teachers who were causing divisions within the community of Jesus’ followers. As I explain in the introduction I drafted for the Messiah volume of the Immerse Bible (a new edition that presents the New Living Translation in a reading format without chapters and verses):

These false teachers were denying that “Jesus Christ came in a real body.” Like many people in New Testament times who were influenced by Greek philosophy, they thought that spiritual things were good but physical things were bad. And so if Jesus really had been the Son of God, they felt, he wouldn’t have come to earth in a physical body. But John offers eyewitness testimony that Jesus was both genuinely human and the Savior that God sent into the world: “We proclaim to you the one who existed from the beginning . . . We saw him with our own eyes and touched him with our own hands. He is the Word of life. . . . He was with the Father, and then he was revealed to us.”

In addition to this compelling testimony against their claims about Jesus, John adds, the people who are leaving the community are also discredited by the way they live. For one thing, they are living impure lives. (This was probably in the belief that what they did in their physical bodies didn’t affect their spiritual condition.) “Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did,” John insists. “If someone claims, ‘I know God,’ but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar.”

So what John is saying, in essence, is that we shouldn’t live as if what we did in our bodies didn’t matter. We will not continue to live that way if we have been truly born of God.

And so I think your summary is quite accurate: The idea is that our propensity to sin is transformed into a propensity to turning away from sin and leading a Christ-like life of holiness. Many English translations now reflect the understanding that John is talking about a process, not an instant result. For example: “No one who is born of God will continue to sin” (New International Version); “God’s children cannot keep on being sinful” (Contemporary English Version); “Those who have been born into God’s family do not make a practice of sinning” (New Living Translation).

So, you are not fooling yourself about truly being a Christian if you’re not perfect in every way. Look at the trajectory: Are you moving steadily forward into “living your life as Jesus did,” by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit within you? If so, rejoice, and set your mind at ease.