"Sin unto death" and "Sin not unto death" in I John [1]

By Bob Passantino

Copyright 1994 by Bob Passantino.
1 John 5:16-17
"Sin unto death" and Sin not unto death"

I.   The Theme of 1 John
     A.   In one sense, the Christian does not sin (1 John 3:9; 5:18).
     B.   In another sense, the Christian does sin (1 John 1:8; 2:1; 5:16).
II.  Interpretations Concerning the Relationship of Sin to the Believer (1 John 1:5-2:2; 3:4-10;
     A.   The inability to sin is the conduct of the "new nature" (= sperma, 3:9) and the fact
          of sinning as that of the "old nature."
          1.   This is rejected because it is the person who is born of God, not the sperma,
               who does not sin.
          2.   It is also rejected because neither the "old nature/new nature" terminology
               nor concept is expressed or implied in 1 John.
     B.   The present tense of hamartanein in 3:9 and 5:18 means that the believer does not
          habitually sin, while the aorist tense in 2:1 shows that the sin of the believer is to be
          understood as an occasional sin.
          1.   This is rejected because the present tense of hamartanein is used in 5:16 with
               reference to the sinning of a believer.
          2.   It is also rejected because the present tense is also used in 1:8.
     C.   The two aspects of the believer's sinning and not sinning as two levels in the
          Christian life, in which the second (not sinning) is the actualization of perfection.
          1.   This is rejected because no such "progression" of the believer is indicated
               anywhere in 1 John.
          2.   It is also rejected because both the believers' sinning and the believers' not
               sinning are asserted equally and at all times.
     D.   Another interpretation recognizes the polemical nature of 1 John.
          1.   The statements that believers do sin are directed against the false believers,
               the opponents who dared to claim that believers never (or are beyond) sin.
          2.   Nevertheless, to the believing community 1 John stresses the ideal of a life
               without sin for one who is a child of God.
          3.   This interpretation is persuasive, and fits with Scholer's interpretation of 1
               John 5:16-17.
III. The Context of 1 John 5:16-17
     A.   The immediate context is concerned with confident, effective prayer within the
          believing community (5:14-15), which is then focused on the very serious problem of
          what to do when a sinning brother is observed.
     B.   The terms in question are "sin not unto death" (hamartia ou pros thanaton); "sin unto
          death" (hamartia pros thanaton); and "prayer" (erotan) forbidden for the sin unto
IV.  Possible Interpretations of 1 John 5:16-17
     A.   The Neo-orthodox interpretation (Bultmann)
          1.   This passage is an appendix added to the original letter by a later
               ecclesiastical redactor.
          2.   This passage abandons the dialectical understanding of Christian existence
               reflected in 1:5-2:2 and 3:4-10.
          3.   This passage reflects the later church's interest in regulations concerning
          4.   This interpretation is rejected for three main reasons.
               a.   A change in subject does not necessarily prove a change in authorship
                    and origin.
               b.   W. Nauk (Die Tradition und der Charakter des ersten
                    Johannesbriefes) gives comprehensive linguistic and structural analysis
                    supporting this passage's integral relationship to 1 John.
               c.   Scholer's interpretation (below) correlates this passage with the rest
                    of 1 John.
     B.   The Old Testament/Intertestamental Jewish distinctions regarding sin.
          1.   Numbers 15:27-31 draws a line between sins committed unwittingly, which can
               be forgiven by a priest's atonement; and sins done with an open disregard for
               God's will, which bring complete exclusion from God's people.
          2.   This same distinction, using the same terminology, is in the Qumran Manual
               of Discipline (1QS 8:21-9:2), although with a stiffer penalty for a sin of
          3.   This interpretation is rejected for two main reasons.
               a.   Nowhere in 1 John (unlike Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:26-31, which is probably
                    parallel) is it expressed or implied that the two types of sin in 5:16-17
                    are to be understood as inadvertent and deliberate.
               b.   Second, an implicit assumption of this view is that the "sin unto
                    death" is one committed by believers (apostasy).  This is not stated in
                    1 John 5:16-17 and is in fact not the case (see below).
     C.   The Old Testament/Intertestamental Jewish use of the term "sin unto death."
          1.   The Septuagint of Number 18:22 uses the terminology labein hamartian
          2.   T Issa 7:1 uses hamartia eis thanaton.
          3.   Jub 21:22; 26:34; 33:18; cf. 33:13 use a "sin unto death" phrase.
          4.   This interpretation is rejected for two reasons.
               a.   All above uses refer to physical death; 1 John refers to separation
                    from God.
               b.   This does not relate to the context or theme of 1 John.
     D.   Minor interpretations
          1.   Literal physical death (don't pray for dead people).
          2.   Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit
          3.   Blasphemy against the Name of God
V.   The Classic Interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17
     A.   First described by Tertullian (De pudicitia 2.14 and 19.27).
     B.   Tertullian argued that there is a distinction between remissible and irremissible sins.
     C.   A "sin not unto death" is remissible; a "sin unto death" is irremissible.
     D.   Tertullian reconciles John's statements that believers sin and that believers do not sin:
          1.   Believers sin "not unto death" according to 1 John 5:16.
          2.   Believers do not sin "unto death," meaning commit graver and deadlier sins
               such as murder, idolatry, injustice, apostasy, adultery and fornication, sins for
               which there is no pardon:  "He who has been born of God will not commit
               them at all; if he should commit them, he will not be a child of God's"
               (Tertullian, De pudicitia, 19.26).
     E.   Tertullian explained the passage:  "Thus an explanation of the apparent contradiction
          in John will be found in the fact that he is making a distinction between classes of
          sins when he asserts, in one place, that sons of God do sin, and in another, that they
          do not.  For he was looking forward to the close of his epistle and, with this in mind,
          he first composes these passages, intending to say very clearly in his conclusion [here
          he quotes 1 John 5:15] . . . (19.26-27).
     F.   Tertullian's explanation is inadequate
          1.   It ignores the context of 1 John, which is on general states of sin, rather than
               specific kinds of sin.
          2.   It assumes that believers can "sin unto death," which is unsupported by the
               context and use of the term "death" (see below).
VI.  A New Interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17
     A.   Summary reminder of the theme of 1 John
          1.   The believer can and does commit sin
               a.   1 John 1:8; 2:1; 5:16-17
          2.   The believer does not commit sin associated with allegiance to the devil (i.e.,
               hatred = murder and denying Jesus = lying)
               a.   Hating believers:  1 John 3:10-14; 4:7-8
               b.   Denying Jesus:  1 John 2:18-22; 4:3; 5:10
     B.   New Interpretation:  The "sin not unto death" refers to the sins of believers, and the
          "sin unto death" refers to the sins of nonbelievers.  The primary focus of 1 John 5:16-
          17 is on the believer, not on the nonbeliever.
          1.   The "sin not unto death" is one which a believer can and does commit.
          2.   The "sin unto death" is one which a believer does not and cannot commit.
     C.   Believers sins are a community phenomenon.
          1.   Any believer who observes a brother committing a "sin not unto death"
               should pray for him.
          2.   This kind of believer's prayer (5:15) will result in "giving life," or renewing the
               covenant of life with the sinner (cf. 1:6-10), through the power of God (5:14).
     D.   The "sin unto death" (5:16c) is brief and not developed.  It is tangential.
          1.   Death is associated with both types of sin in 5:16-17.
               a.   Death is the state out of which one is transferred into life as he
                    becomes a believer (3:14; cf. John 5:24).
               b.   Death is the state in which one remains if he does not love the
                    brothers (3:14; 3:9-10; 4:7-8).  He is not of God (3:10), is in darkness
                    (2:11; cf. 1:5), and does not know God (4:8; cf. 4:7).
          2.   1 John associates the one who is in death with the devil (3:8,10).
               a.   The devil is the prototype of such persons because he has been
                    sinning from the beginning (3:8; John 8:44), along two lines.
                    (1)  Murder = brother hater (3:15)
                    (2)  Lying = denying Jesus (2:18-22; 4:3; 5:10; cf. John 8:24)
          3.   "Sin unto death" in 1 John is composed of hating the believers (murder) and
               not confessing Jesus (lying).  The "sin unto death" therefore is not a sin
               committed by a believer in the believing community (2:18-21).
               a.   Those who commit the "sin unto death" may pose as believers, but are
                    not (2:18-21).
               b.   They may have asserted that they (and all true believers) are beyond
                    sin (cf. 1:8-2:1; 3:4; 5:17).
               c.   Because the theme of the passage is effective prayer on behalf of
                    believers, any prayer for these heretics is not going to be discussed,
                    and by the nature of its subject (nonbelievers), would be of a different
                    kind of prayer anyway.
                    (1)  Some (cf. P. Trudinger) argue that "prayer" (erotan) should be
                         translated "ask a question" rather than "prayer," since that is
                         its primary meaning.
                    (2)  Scholer rejects this since John elsewhere (John 13-17) uses
                         erotan as prayer and would be unlikely to use it in a different
                         sense in a passage about prayer without clearly saying so.
          4.   "Sin not unto death" represents the sins of believers (cf. 1 John 1:5-2:2).
               a.   This is a matter of serious concern for effective community prayer
               b.   There are believers' sins which, although very serious ("all
                    unrighteousness is sin"), are in the category of "sin not unto death"
               c.   Believers do not sin in the same category as those who "sin unto
                    death" (5:18; cf. 3:4-10).  This is why John can say that believers both
                    sin (1:5-2:2) and do not (and cannot) sin (3:4-10).  Two different
                    concepts of sin are in view.
               d.   The believer's relationship to God
                    (1)  Out of death and into life (3:14)
                    (2)  Has overcome the Evil One (2:13-14)
                    (3)  Is born of God (5:1)
                    (4)  Is beyond the grasp of the Evil One (5:18)
     E.   This is one of several texts that deal with the problem of the "sins of the righteous"
          ("sins within"), but which notes the fact of the "sins of the unrighteous" ("sins
          without") as well.
          1.   Not like Matthew 12:31-32, which discusses sins for which there is absolutely
               no repentance.
          2.   Similar to Matthew 18:15-22; John 13:1-18; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; 2 Corinthians
               2:6-11; Galatians 6:1-2; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15; and 1 Timothy 1:20 in that
               it deals with the problem of sins within the Christian community.
               a.   But it differs from them
                    (1)  By the way in which the sin problem is handled (in 1 John
                         5:16-17 by effective prayer)
                    (2)  By reference to two types of sin, one of which believers do
                         not commit.
          3.   Closest parallel is James 5:15-20, relating community sins to prayer, but
               different context. 
VII. 1 John 5:16-17 Paraphrased According to Scholer
          If any member of the believing community sees a fellow believer committing
     any one of the "sins of the righteous," i.e. those which do not preclude membership
     in the believing community, he should pray for him, and God will give to the sinning
     brother reconfirmation (cf. 1 John 1:6-10) of his transfer from the realm of death to
     the realm of life (cf. 1 John 3:14).  Indeed, this will be done for any and all brothers
     who sin in this way.  There is, of course, sin which does preclude membership in the
     believing community (i.e. murder = hatred of believers and lying = denial of Jesus);
     it is sin in the realm of death.  I do not speak concerning that sin unto death in order
     that anyone should pray about it.  All unrighteousness is sin; however, there is sin
     which does not preclude membership in the believing community.  We know that
     every one who has been born of God (i.e. believers in the community) does not sin
     in any way which precludes membership in the believing community.  The Son of
     God keeps each believer, and therefore the devil is not able to hold him.

[1.]   This outline summarizes the argument found in David M. Scholer's "Sins Within and Sins Without: An Interpreation of 1 John 5:16-17" in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation (Gerald F. Hawthorne, ed., Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975, 231-146).

Answers In Action
P.O. Box 2067
Costa Mesa, California 92628
(949) 646-9042
Answers In Action c/o aia@answers.org

The Lord's Servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will give them a change of heart leading to a knowledge of the truth
II Timothy 2:24-26