1 John 5:16-17 is a passage that many people have a difficult time understanding, and recently someone reached out asking if I could help them understand this passage.
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Here’s the passage:
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.1 John 5:16-17
The question this person asked was: “If there is a sin leading to death, why are we told not to pray for it?”
Physical Death or Spiritual Death?
Different interpretations of this passage center on the issue of whether the “death” John speaks about is physical or spiritual in nature.
Interpretation #1: Physical Death
If John is speaking about physical death, then the interpretation goes like this: Not all sins lead to physical death. If you see someone doing something that will hurt them physically, then pray for them. But if someone sins, and as a result of their sin they die, then there is no need to continue praying for them after they are physically deceased.
However, I find this interpretation lacking, because it does not take into account the broader context of what John has been talking about throughout his letter.
Interpretation #2: Spiritual Death
This is the interpretation that I find most convincing, because it is a conclusion based on what John has been saying throughout this epistle.
In this way, the sin that does not lead to death (that is, eternal death or damnation) is any sin that we commit that we are, by grace, capable of truly confessing and repenting from.
John Piper, in his article: What Is the Sin Not Leading to Death? says that in Vs 16 there is no indefinite article in the original Greek text – in other wards, it is talking about “sin” in general, not “a” particular sin specifically.
He goes on to explain:
We need to make sure that we see these two verses as part of the larger balancing act that John is doing in this letter. On the one hand, there’s a strong emphasis in 1 John that those who are truly born of God don’t go on sinning. On the other hand, John warns against misunderstanding that in a perfectionistic way as though Christians don’t sin anymore.
On the one side, you don’t keep on sinning if you’re born again. On the other side, you don’t ever stop sinning in this world. In other words, John is trying to strike a balance between the absolute necessity of the new birth, which necessarily gives a significant measure of victory over sin. That’s the one side. On the other hand, there’s the reality that we do in fact as Christians commit sins and can find forgiveness as we confess them.
John is striking the note firmly that we should not take anything he has said in a perfectionistic way that implies Christians don’t sin or that all sin leads to damnation. It doesn’t.
Christians do sin, and not all sin leads to damnation. But right there in the middle, verse 16, near the end of the verse, he puts in a disclaimer. He says, “When I tell you to pray for sinners I recognize that Jesus taught about unforgivable sin, and I recognize that Hebrews taught about Esau, and I do acknowledge that there is sin that does lead to death and damnation. It puts you beyond repentance. And I’m not talking about that.” That’s the point of that verse. “I’m not talking about that when I tell you to pray for those who have sinned.” He doesn’t tell us not to pray for such sin, he simply says, “That’s not what I’m talking about when I tell you to pray for sinners that God will give them life.”
I hope this explanation helps! It’s the one that makes the most sense given the context of what John writes about throughout the letter.
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