1 John 5 contains two difficult portions of scripture that are not easily interpreted. The first of these portions I addressed in my last post. This week, I hope to try to explain what John means when he refers to "sin that leads to death." 1 John 5.16-17 says: "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." The question that arises from these verses is, "What in the world is a sin that leads to death?" As with other difficult passage from 1 John 5 (verses 6-8), John's readers no doubt knew exactly what he was talking about. But because we are separated from John and his readers by 2000 years or so, the meaning is less apparent to us, so we need to work a little harder to know what he's talking about. There are a few different ways of interpreting 1 John 5.16-17, and they are as follows:
1. These verses have been interpreted by the Roman Catholic church as describing what are called "mortal sins." Roman Catholics believe that mortal sins are those that are committed intentionally, and with full knowledge. Additionally, mortal sins are said to be of a more heinous and serious nature than venial sins (sins of a less serious nature). Roman Catholic theology teaches that mortal sins cut off the transgressor from God's saving grace and the result will be the condemnation of a person to hell unless a special act of reconciliation and repentance is granted to the one who has committed the mortal sin. For this reason, Catholics believe that John instructs us not to pray for those who have committed mortal sins, because they have been cut off from God's grace.
Protestants reject this interpretation, however, and insist that all sin is "mortal" in that any sin is enough to condemn a person to hell. Indeed, James says that breaking the law at just one point is akin to breaking all of the laws (James 2.10). And just one so-called "white lie" is enough to condemn a person to hell forever (Revelation 21.8). Additionally, we do not believe that a person can be "cut off" from the grace of God, for "I am sure of this: that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1.6). For these reasons, the Roman Catholic interpretation of 1 John 5.16-17 as referring to "mortal sins" is flawed.
2. Although we reject the Roman Catholic idea of mortal sins, there are indeed some sins that we see in the Bible whose consequences are immediate, and often times end in physical death. Generally speaking, all sin is damaging to our physical bodies in ways that we are more or less aware of. But other sins seem to have more immediate and deadly consequences. For example, when Aaron's sons offered "unauthorized fire" before the Lord, they were killed for their sin instantly (Leviticus 10.1-2). Similarly, Ananias and Sapphira "lied to the Holy Spirit" and were killed immediately when their sin was exposed (Acts 5.1-11). Finally, Paul warns the Corinthians that observing communion in an unworthy manner is a sin that leads to physical illness and even death (1 Corinthians 11.27-30).
Could it be that when John talks about "sin that leads to death" he has these instances in mind? Possibly, but probably not. Based on the language John uses here, it seems unlikely that John is referring to specific sins such as those committed by Ananias and Sapphira, or believers who unworthily took communion. Plus, if there are sins whose immediate consequence is physical death, we are not aware of a comprehensive list in the Bible (which, practically speaking, would be nice to have if such sins existed!)
3. A third interpretation of this idea is possible, and it is the one I believe to be accurate. In this interpretation, "sin that does not lead to death" refers to those sins committed by Christians. Their sin does not lead to death because their sins have been covered by the blood of Christ. All of their sins - past, present, and future - have been paid and atoned for. Their sins will not lead them to (spiritual) death. Sin that does lead to death would then refer to those sins committed by unbelievers, whose sins have not been atoned for. The sin of unbelievers will lead to their physical and spiritual death because it has not been atoned for through Christ.
This interpretation, I would argue, makes the best sense of John's instructions of how to pray for those who have committed sins that do not lead to death: pray that they might have life. In other words, pray that God would give them victory over the besetting sins that still plague their mortal bodies. It also makes sense that John would instruct us to not pray for the forgiveness of sins for those outside of Christ, because their sin can only be forgiven in and through Christ. To pray that they would be forgiven outside of Christ would be, to me at least, akin to blasphemy. Thus, John's instructions of how to pray for people who are sinning make the best sense when the sins he's talking about are differentiated between believers and unbelievers.
Furthermore, this latter interpretation makes the most sense with the general message of the book of 1 John. Throughout this letter, John has been giving instructions about how to differentiate between true believers and false believers. This notion that believers are granted forgiveness through Christ but unbelievers are not, certainly jibes well with the overarching message of the letter. Furthermore, if Christians are found to be in sin, they will naturally want to repent of it and gain victory over it. Those who are not believers, however, won't really care about the effects of their sins. Thus, the type of prayer offered for those who are found to be in sin will serve to further differentiate between the true and the false.
If this interpretation is correct, then far from being a discouraging notion about having to worry about committing "mortal sins" or worrying about sins whose ultimate and immediate consequence is physical death, these verses describe the wonderful, life-giving truth of the gospel: Jesus Christ died to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. And I still struggle with sin. But there is life to be had in the midst of my sin, given to me from God. Praise God that his mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3.22-23), and that, though prayer, he will give us help in our time of need (Hebrews 4.16).