The Sin Unto Death? Seeking Sense In 1 John 5:16

In 1 John Chapter 5 you will find what has to be one of the strangest verses in all of the New Testament. Stranger still are the doctrines which are drawn from this verse which, in English, appears to be barely even coherent.

Before I get into the “positive” case for 1 John 5:16, we should review the traditional understanding so that we see why we need to look for something else. Here’s how the NKJV has it:

“If anyone sees his brother sinning
a sin which does not lead to death,
he will ask, and He will give him life for
those who commit sin not leading to death.
There is sin leading to death.
I do not say that he should pray about that.”

It turns out that Koiné Greek is a little odd in that, apparently, there are ways that pronouns can be attached to verbs, so that it isn’t always necessary to write “he ran from the dog.” There’s a form of “ran” in Koiné Greek that carries that masculine pronoun with it. And so when you look at the Greek text, some of the pronouns you find in the English translation appear to be missing. Here’s how it looks (using English words) without adding those pronouns, and I’ve also left out punctuation, since we know that the Greek text had no punctuation:

“If one sees the brother his sinning sin not to death desire and give him life those sin not unto death not about it say should desire.”

This is interesting, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think that the translators made any mistakes in adding the pronouns that they did… although when I first noticed this I was a bit skeptical. You find this sort of thing with some frequency when comparing Greek with English.

The Frangible Fellowship tradition teaching on 1 John 5:16 can be summarized in the following way: If a believer sins too much or too severely for too long without confessing his sins, then God might bring about the physical death for that person or, as it is often expressed, “take that person home early.”

I think it would be helpful to examine this understanding by setting up a scenario… Suppose that there are two men, Bob and Jim. Suppose Bob sees Jim doing something that Jim shouldn’t do. The traditional “Sin Unto Death” teaching would say that if Bob sees Jim committing a particular kind of sin, Bob is supposed to ask (God, presumably) and God will give Jim life, Jim being the one who committed this “sin not leading to death.”

Right away, this ought to make us scratch our heads because, in this instance, Jim committed the “sin not leading to death.” So why would Bob have to ask God to let Jim keep his physical life when Jim hasn’t committed a sin that would bring about physical death for Jim? Wouldn’t physical life for Jim be something Bob might ask if Jim had committed the sin that does lead to physical death?

There’s a bit of ambiguity about who the pronouns in this verse are referring to. The first occurrence of “he” would seem to refer to Bob, the one who saw his brother (Jim) committing this sin that does not lead to death. The second occurrence appears to be a reference to God. If it’s Bob that should ask God to give Jim life for having committed the sin not leading to death, then it stands to reason that it’s Bob who should not make the same request if the sin Jim committed is the sin that does lead to death. Very strange. Understood this way, it seems that when Jim needs life most, Bob should not ask God for it on Jim’s behalf, but when Jim doesn’t need life, Bob is supposed to ask God to give Jim life. This makes no sense whatsoever, but we’re told it does and that we should believe it.

In addition, if Christians are not supposed to fear death, if we are (without being suicidal) supposed to look forward to death in a certain sense, then why would God use the fear of death to motivate an improvement in our behavior? Should Christians really view “premature” death as punishment?

And by the way, from God’s perspective, just what is “premature” physical death anyway? God has foreknowledge, but this idea of taking someone home “early” or “prematurely” seems to cut across that grain because it implies some target that has been abandoned or changed. It’s as if God is saying “I had planned on letting Jim live until he was 54, but now that he’s gone and done that, I think I’ll cut it short.” This doesn’t seem to be compatible with God’s foreknowledge at all.

One one more thing: Every human has to face physical death anyway. Even if we’re keeping our nose clean and regularly confessing when we don’t, we all know and accept that we might get hit by a truck even tomorrow. What sense does it make to say “You’d better watch your step or you could die tomorrow” when the truth is I could die tomorrow even if I watch my step?

These problems are difficult enough… but there’s another gigantic problem with this, and that is that the sin is undefined. Nobody knows what sins “lead to death” or which sins do not “lead to death.” The Bible doesn’t tell us, except to say (in various ways) that the wages of sin in general is death, meaning eternal separation from God. And yet, John is telling Bob to take a particular course of action which depends on whether he sees Jim committing a sin that does—or does not—lead to death. Isn’t it strange that John doesn’t bother to fill Bob in on just what constitutes a “sin not leading to death” versus a “sin leading to death?” Because the sins are undefined, Bob has no way of knowing which course of action to take in which circumstance.

Some teachers try to explain this away by saying that it’s different for every person. But how does this help Bob to know which course of action to take? He still has no way of knowing whether what Jim has done amounts to a sin leading to death or not. If this is how we are to understand this passage, I’m afraid it turns out to be utterly useless, even incoherent.

Houston, we have a problem. It seems pretty clear that the traditional way of understanding this verse is incoherent nonsense and paints God as capricious, with a variable standard of righteousness which applies differently for different people. This seems quite inconsistent with a perfectly Just and Righteous God. If we are going to make sense of this verse, we’re going to have to re-examine the language used.

What Is “Death?”
The Frangible Fellowship view insists on seeing “death” in 1 John 5:16 as a reference to physical death. I’ve yet to hear a compelling reason to take it that way. The best anyone can do is point out that, well, John was addressing believers and eternal separation isn’t something believers have to worry about… but that hardly forces such a conclusion.

And of course, I agree that believers never have to worry about eternal separation. Some commentators—like Chuck Smith for example—take “death” to mean eternal separation, but they insist that if you commit this sin that leads to death, it proves you were never really a believer in the first place and so you will experience eternal separation after all. And of course this view, which comes more out of a Lordship mentality, makes as little sense as the standard Free Grace view and ends up basing assurance on our avoidance of this undefined, unspecified sin thus making assurance of salvation impossible.

Although the door to such conclusions is opened when you conclude that “death” here is a reference to eternal separation, it turns out not to be the only door. And so we shouldn’t reject the notion so quickly.

It’s quite reasonable to ask whether the Greek word “thanatos,” which is translated “death,” can mean eternal separation. An example of where we do find the word used that way would be Romans 6:23:

“The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Here, Paul is reminding his audience of what they have escaped through faith in Christ. Because of sin, we (humans) are owed eternal separation. That’s the wage we’ve all earned. But, by contrast, God gives us the opposite of that, which is eternal life through faith in Christ. So eternal life is juxtaposed against this idea of “death.” The contrasting reference to eternal life is one cue that tells us that “death” in this verse does not mean physical death. And this seems to put us on the right track, because the phrase “sin leading to death” appears just a few verses prior in Romans 6.

Certainly, “thanatos” can refer to physical death… but context will help us decide whether that’s an appropriate way to understand that word. According to Blue Letter Bible’s “Outline of Biblical Usage” for the word “thanatos,” the following usage is included in its range of meaning:

“The misery of the soul arising from sin, which begins on earth but lasts and increases after the death of the body in hell”

This meaning would fit the context because of the contrast against eternal life. Whatever Paul means by “death,” he sees it as the opposite of eternal life. And we know what the opposite of eternal life is, don’t we? It’s eternal death, or eternal separation.

So it’s not a stretch at all to think that “thanatos” in 1 John 5:16 might be a reference to eternal separation. Let’s look for other clues from the surrounding text and see if we find support for that conclusion.

Just four verses earlier in Chapter 5, John writes “He who has the Son has the life, and he who does not have the Son does not have the life.” Well, what’s John talking about here? Is he talking about physical life? In the very next verse he tells his readers that the reason he wrote this letter was to assure them that they have eternal life (1 John 5:13). And in the verses prior to that, John contrasts between those who believe the Son and those who don’t, (1 John 5:10) and in verse 11 he writes:

“And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.”

In 1 John 5:16, then, both death and life are mentioned. But again, what does John mean by “life?” Does it make any sense, considering the context, to say that John is talking about physical life here? And given John’s widely known affinity for stark contrasts and categorical opposites, this ends up being another pretty powerful reason to conclude that “death” in this verse refers to eternal separation. If the “life” he’s referring to is eternal life, then we would expect “death” to refer to its opposite. This makes physical death look like not a very good option. That John means eternal separation seems to be the better fit.

Oh, Brother!
At this point, it’s likely that someone will say that if we say that “death” means “eternal separation,” we will necessarily conclude what Chuck Smith and other Lordship teachers have concluded; that if a believer fails in a particular way or to a certain extent, it proves they’re not really a believer. But that’s only because of how they understand another word used in this verse, and that’s the word “brother.”

Whether they teach the “Tests of Fellowship” view or Lordship’s “Tests of Life” view of 1 John, it seems that the vast majority of commentators insist that “brother” here is necessarily a reference to a fellow Christian. But again, the support for this is really rather weak. There are good reasons to take “brother” to mean “fellow human” in certain contexts, and so it’s fair to ask ourselves whether this context might be one of them.

In Acts 7:26-27 we find that the Greek word “adelphos” (brother) can be used as a synonym for “plesion” (neighbor,) which we know means “fellow human.”
“(26) And the next day he appeared to two of them as they were fighting, and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brethren; why do you wrong one another?’
(27) But he who did his neighbor wrong pushed him away, saying, ‘Who made
you a ruler and a judge over us?’”

In this passage, Stephen is recounting the history of the Hebrews and is describing an incident that took place the day after Moses had killed an Egyptian man. Moses tried to intercede in a dispute between two other men. According to Stephen, Moses asks the men why they are fighting, since they are brothers. And then Stephen says that one of the men who did his neighbor wrong pushed Moses away. Here, Stephen uses the Greek word “plesion” (neighbor) interchangeably with “adelphos” (brother). This means that the words can be synonymous.

We also see that John’s use of “brother” elsewhere in the epistle appears consistent with “fellow human.” But we should also recognize that just because John uses the word one way in one verse, doesn’t mean he’s necessarily confined to that usage everywhere else in the epistle. The point is that “fellow human” is a possibility; there is no reason to assume and insist that John necessarily means “fellow Christians” when he uses the word “adelphos.”

Sin Leading to Death?
If by “death” John means “eternal separation,” then we can see that sin leading to or resulting in eternal separation would boil down to the sin of unbelief… the sin of rejecting Jesus. And that fits the surrounding context quite well, doesn’t it? All through the epistle we see that same contrast repeated over and over again, a contrast between believing in Jesus and rejecting Jesus. Even so, it makes sense to check out the only other verse in the Bible that uses this phrase. It just so happens to be found just a few verses prior to the verse we just looked at, Romans 6:23. The passage is Romans 6:16-18:

“(16)Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey,
you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?
(17)But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered.
(18)And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”

Notice that Jesus commands all humans to believe the gospel and that when we obey that command, the result is righteousness. The context here works quite well with that understanding, as Paul is expressing thanks to God that, though the folks in his audience were once slaves of sin, they obeyed the teaching they were exposed to and, in so doing, were set free from sin and became instead slaves of righteousness.

Paul seems fond of expressing thanks on behalf of his audience for the gift they have been given, for who they are in Christ contrasted against who they once were. In Ephesians 2 he says of his audience that they once were dead in trespasses and sins, but now they are alive in Christ, and also that they were once far off, but have been brought near by the blood of Christ and elsewhere he expresses the same thing in terms of having once been at enmity with God, but now they are reconciled. And here in Romans 6, he seems to be going over much the same ground. They were once slaves to sin but now they are slaves to righteousness. This is made more clear in Romans 6:20-21:

“(20) For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.
(21) What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.”

The end of those things is death? Yes, indeed… the end result of sin (and unbelief) is eternal separation. But then comes verse 22 to bounce back to the other side of the contrast:

“But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.”

Again, notice the contrast. Everlasting life is juxtaposed against death. And the point comes again, as we already saw, in verse 23 where Paul reminds his readers that the payment owed for sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.

Some would scoff at this and say that “obedience leading to righteousness” is us actually behaving ourselves and becoming more righteous as a result. However, I’m not inclined to think that my obedience makes me any more righteous… Christ has already made me as righteous as I can possibly be in God’s eyes, so I tend to reject that understanding.

What does it mean that we have been “set free from sin?” Does it mean, as many seem to think, that we will be less obedient to our sin nature and “display righteousness” more? I don’t see any good reason to think that. Rather, it seems to me that Paul is simply saying that we were set free from the looming consequences of sin, the results of sin. Why would you describe a mere reduction of sin in terms of being “set free from sin?” The words “set free from sin” seem to imply a complete cessation of sin, do they not? It strikes me that a person who still sins—even if they sin less than they used to—is not a person who has been “set free from sin.” Since we know that nobody this side of physical death actually ceases to sin, we should probably jettison that way of understanding the phrase. But we do know from numerous other verses that believers are set free from the consequences of sin.

So, in Romans 6, the contrast is between “sin leading to death” and “obedience leading to righteousness,” and this seems to be a contrast between rejecting the gospel and accepting the gospel. Rejecting the gospel leads to eternal separation, while obeying the command to believe the gospel leads to the imputation of righteousness. Notice that this is the same contrast that can be seen throughout 1 John: The contrast between belief and unbelief. Interesting.

But 1 John 5:16 puts it a little differently, and that (perhaps) is why things get so tricky. In 1 John, the contrast is between the “sin that leads to death” and the “sin that does not lead to death.” So what can we make of that? You can hardly blame folks for grasping the way they have for something useful to say about this passage. I think it’s safe to say that either way you go with it, there’s no “taking it at face value.”

Again, we should consider that, from start to finish, the epistle of 1 John is chock full of contrasts, and all of them seem to pit belief against unbelief, but using different terms. And so we should—if only for the sake of exploration—posit that whatever John’s doing, he’s remaining consistent in that pattern. And in the verses that follow, we see that pattern does seem to continue. That is to say, on either side of 1 John 5:16 you find verses which relate to those same contrasts.

So, suppose that the “sin leading to death” is merely unbelief; rejecting God’s testimony about His Son (which is talked about just six verses prior and really throughout the letter). (And some commentators do take it that way… Chuck Smith, for example) If that’s how it’s intended, and if we’re right about the contrast, this would mean that “sin not leading to death” would describe believing the gospel. But how would that make sense? Why would John describe faith in Christ as a “sin?”

This is a good place to look at John 6:29. Jesus is talking with the Jewish leaders and they ask, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus replies “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”

But what does this have to do with 1 John 5:16? Well, here Jesus seems to be associating faith in Christ with work. And yet we know that faith in Christ is not “work.” (Romans 4:5) Jesus is simply expressing it in terms that the Jewish leaders would understand… He wasn’t concerned about being theologically precise. “You want work? Here it is, here’s your work… you might even think of putting scare quotes around the word “work.” Jesus says, “Believe in Me, that’s the ‘work’ of God.”

Now, remember the context that’s been proposed for 1 John: False teachers have come (and gone) while John has been away and they have attempted to deceive these people by bringing their confidence in the righteousness that had been imputed to them into doubt. The context strongly suggests that these false teachers may well have been Jewish, and just as we find in other NT epistles, these folks were trying to pull John’s audience away from faith in Christ and back into Judaism. They certainly would have tried to convince them that they really didn’t have fellowship with God (union with God) and that Jesus really wasn’t the Messiah after all, and so these false teachers would have claimed that faith in Christ was misguided and, from the false teachers’ perspective, misplaced and any departure from Judaism was sin.

Indeed, we have many examples that demonstrate that the Jewish leaders at the time had a very low view of anyone who would abandon the Law and accept the gospel. Clearly, they viewed this as a sin. The pharisee in Luke 18 is one example, but look at these passages from the Gospel of John:

John 9:22
His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue.

John 12:42
Nevertheless even among the rulers many believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue

Pharisees clearly did not think Jesus was the messiah, and therefore anyone who thought He was, was out of his mind and was a sinner because they were abandoning the Law and clinging to what the pharisees thought was a false messiah. So from the pharisee’s perspective, accepting the gospel was a sin… but this “sin” leads not to eternal separation, but to eternal life.

So here’s the idea… In 1 John 5:16 John is calling acceptance of the gospel (which leads away from eternal separation and toward eternal life) a “sin” because the false teachers, the anti-Christs, had told John’s audience that’s what it was. John is engaging in some rhetoric here, some sanctified sarcasm, and that if we put scare quotes around the word “sin” in “sin not leading to death,” that might better represent what I’m suggesting about John’s intent here.

Paraphrase of 1 John 5:16-21
16: If someone commits the “sin” (scare quotes) that does not lead to eternal separation (faith in Christ, leads to union with Christ and eternal life) God will give him the life (eternal life) he desires. This is for the person who commits the “sin” not leading to eternal separation, which is faith in Christ.

There is sin that does lead to eternal separation, and no one should ask for that. It’s not anything to be desired.

So John’s equivocating in a manner similar to Jesus’ equivocation in John 6:29. Think it’s a stretch? Sure… I’ll admit, it is. But why would I reject this idea and then accept the tradition, which isn’t even coherent? To do so seems akin to straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel. And besides, this seems to fit the flow of the text. The one who desires life and trusts in Christ commits the “sin” (so-called by the false teachers) that leads away from death and toward life. Look what comes next:

17. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is “sin” that does not lead to death, and that “sin” (so called by
the false teachers) is faith in Christ. Faith in Christ leads not to eternal separation, but rather to
eternal union.
18. We know that whoever is born of God (by believing in Christ) does not sin (is declared righteous); but
he who has been born of God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him.
19. We know that we are of God, but (by contrast) the whole world lies under the influence of the wicked one.
20. And we know that the Son of God came and brought to us the message which we heard at the beginning
so that we know we are united with Him, united with the truth, one with His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and this is eternal life.
21. From now on, stay away from teachers that represent falsehood. (idols)

I can’t say that I’m certain that this is the correct way to take the passage. But it’s the best conclusion I’ve seen thus far. I know it is somewhat speculative and some folks may not be comfortable with this idea of John referring to faith in Christ as a “sin,” even if it is rhetorical. But it’s clear that the false teachers would have seen faith in Christ as a sin, and we know that John is doing some damage control regarding the impact that false teachers have had on his audience, and there’s no reason to think that John is above using language for rhetorical effect. So I think it’s a reasonable solution… far more reasonable than the “God will kill you early if you commit a certain sin that He hasn’t specified.”