“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 Jn 5:16-17).
I’ve been asked to comment on this passage. The passage is controversial and widely discussed, in part because John’s language is rather enigmatic, and in part because the passage is rather disturbing or unnerving.
1.John’s language may be enigmatic because his audience already knew what he was alluding to, or because the “sin” in question was not entirely clear-cut. He may also be a bit ambiguous because, in situations like this, there is no one right answer in every case. Indeed, these are not mutually exclusive explanations.
2.One preliminary question is whether this “mortal” sin denotes physical or spiritual death.
i) In favor of the literal interpretation, there is some evidence, albeit slight, that God occasionally uses terminal illness as either remedial punishment or retributive punishment in dealing with errant church-members (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor 5:3-5; 11:30).
There are, however, some problems with that identification.
ii) In 1 John, life and death are consistently used as metaphors to signify a spiritual condition rather than a physical condition.
iii) Apropos (ii), it’s best, where possible, to interpret a writer’s usage on his own terms rather than in reference to extraneous material. We have no way of knowing that he had that extraneous material in mind. So stick with his own linguistic habits.
iv) If it refers to physical death, then how would John’s audience be in a position to know who committed this mortal sin? Short of death, how could they tell if someone was dying? And the issue would be moot after they died.
v) In the ancient world, before the advent of modern medical science, death was common–even for those in the prime of life. Surely John wouldn’t suggest that we refrain from praying for someone who’s deathly ill. If someone is apparently on his deathbed, it could certainly be for reasons other than sinning unto death. And, of course, prayers for healing sometimes make a difference.
vi) It seems more likely, then, that John is using “death” in a figurative sense to denote a spiritual condition (i.e. damnation).
3.So what is this mortal sin, and what are its symptoms? I think the best way to approach the answer is to consider the historical context of 1 John.
He was writing to members of his church or churches (in Asia Minor). They had gone through a traumatic schism after some false teachers and their followers seceded from John’s church.
So the immediate referent for the “sin unto death” would single out the kind of sin which John’s opponents exemplified.
To judge by what we can reconstruct from the letter, they were guilty of the following misdeeds:
i) Their views on the person and work of Christ were grossly deficient.
ii) They subscribed to a form of perfectionism, which was probably interchangeable with antinomianism. After all, if you think you’re sinless, than you can act with impunity.
iii) In their opposition to John, they defied apostolic authority.
iv) By shunning or disfellowshipping the members of John’s congregation, as well as trying to undermine their faith, they displayed their hatred for the brethren.
v) They may have also had pretensions to superior spiritual enlightenment.
Assuming that this is the right way to go about defining the “sin unto death,” then it’s not a discrete, self-contained, one-time event.
Rather, it involves a persistent pattern of thought and deed with certain specific, roughly identifiable features.
4.John doesn’t prohibit his audience for praying for individuals who commit this sin. Rather, he indicates that they’re under no obligation to do so. He apparently leaves that up to the discretion of the Christian.
5.We might ask why that’s the case? Two possibilities come to mind:
i) If someone is sufficiently hardened in a state of spiritual rebellion, then this may indicate that God has hardened him. Prayer is futile if it goes against the will of God (e.g. Jer 7:16; 11:14; 14:11).
ii) It may also have something to do with spiritual priorities. After all, when you are praying for one person, you’re not praying for another. Although you can pray for a number of different people over time, you can only pray for one at a time–and there are more people in need of prayer than you have hours in the day. So you have to make choices.
Once again, this isn’t a prohibition. John isn’t forbidding his audience to intercede for the individual who commits this sin. Rather, he treats it as something discretionary.
Whether or not they do so might depend on their relationship with the individual or individuals in question. Our social obligations vary.
6.This passage is sometimes cited to challenge the perseverance of the saints. However, the Johannine corpus distinguishes between true believers and nominal believers (e.g. Jn 6:66ff.; 1 Jn 2:19f.). So this phenomenon is consistent with God’s preservation of his own.
7.Finally, it’s important to keep this in perspective. When John talks about the assurance of salvation, he’s not saying that Christians should ordinarily doubt their salvation. Radical self-doubt is not their default position. That is not a presumption which they must overcome.
Rather, he talks about the assurance of salvation in the context of false teachers and their schismatic followers. They were actively undermining the faith of the faithful.
That’s why John administers a spiritual exam. To restore the shattered confidence of the faithful.