Does John say a Christian can enter the Sin unto Death?
A previous article looked at how James wrote how a Christian could be in the Sin unto Death.1 This article addresses John’s first epistle and how John clearly demonstrates that a believer can be in the Sin unto Death.
The Gospel of John was written to the world to explain how a person would believe in Jesus and have life in His name (John 20:30-31). Each of the three epistles of John have a separate purpose. The first epistle was written to believers regarding the credibility of Jesus as the Christ. It was written in a time when Gnosticism had taken hold and was drastically influencing the church. Consequently, John wrote how Jesus was seen, looked upon and touched (1 John 1:1). The Gnostics believed that Jesus just seemed to be a man, but was really just an aeon as a lower level being from God. Gnostics taught that He was neither God, nor fully man, but was some kind of spirit being. If that were the case, He could not be the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29), He could not satisfy the righteous requirements of God (1 John 2:2), nor could He be the mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5).
Because some people approach 1 John with their theology fixed, they do mental gymnastics to make sense of the letter. IF people would take the natural, literal, historical and grammatical approach to understanding the meaning of the epistle, the interpretation becomes quite easy. A key verse in the letter is found in 1 John 2:29. John writes, “If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone who practices righteousness is born of Him.”(1 John 2:29) If the person knows that Jesus is righteous and believers do, because that is part of what makes a person a believer – Jesus is the righteous One- then the one who practices righteousness is born of Him. What about the person who does not practice righteousness, i.e. the one who sins. Whether the sin is one time or lasts for a few days or weeks, at that point the person is not practicing righteousness. When a person is not practicing righteousness, he is not “born of Him.” In other words, he reveals he is not acting like he is a believer. When a person is living a spirit-controlled life, then he reveals He has the spirit living through himself and reveals he is “born of Jesus.”
First John is a book of fellowship, not declaring the difference between a believer and an unbeliever. John makes this clear in the beginning, “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7) The key is fellowship, not salvation.
So when John writes in 1 John 5:16, he is writing about a Christian who is out of fellowship with God. In fact, he is in the last stage of the Downward Spiral called the Sin unto Death. John writes,
- 16 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. (1 John 5:16)
People stumble over this verse for two reasons. First, they cannot comprehend how a believer could continue in sin, but that is primarily because they have been taught a theology that does not allow continuous sin in a believer, so they impose that theology on the text. Secondly, they do not understand the difference between the two words for “ask” and “pray” in the verse.
John writes, like Paul (Gal. 6:1), that if anyone sees a brother sinning a sin, he has some responsibility. First, note that John calls this person a brother. He’s not talking about a physical blood brother or a person from the neighborhood. He is talking about a spiritual believer and is called a brother. Secondly, note that brother is “sinning a sin.” This is not a one time sin, he is “sinning a sin” (present active participle). In other words it is on-going. It may be several days, or weeks, or months. It has to be quite some time, because you observe this is the behavior, not just a one time action. Thirdly, he is sinning a sin, “which does not lead to death.” In this case, he is sinning, but he is not in the final stage of the Downward Spiral. He could be in the first or second step. Or he could be in the fourth or fifth step of the Downward Spiral. The fact is he is not in the stage called the Sin unto Death.2 He may be worried about not paying his bills and is struggling because he wants to provide for his children. He may have “borrowed” some time from his work, because he was late. In either case, even though they are both sins, he is still going to church and is somewhat open to the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit.
If a person is in this case, the observing believer should ask God on behalf of this brother. The word for “ask” (aiteo-) is a Greek word that denotes asking with a humble awareness of authority. The believer is to humbly ask God for mercy for his brother, recognizing that God may or may not grant his petition. The Apostle Paul describes this in his letter to Timothy,
- 24 And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient,
- 25 in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth,
- 26 and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will. (2 Tim. 2:24-26)
God may or may not grant repentance, but John directs the observing believer humbly to approach God and ask. John says that God will give life to the brother. This is not eternal life, this is operational Christian way of life, for fellowship with God. When the person repents, confesses his sin and depends once again on the power of the Holy Spirit, then the sinning brother is restored to fellowship life and can serve the Lord. Again, John clarifies that this is for sin, not leading to death or the Sin unto Death.
However, as John says, “There is a sin leading to death.” This is the Sin unto Death. John is not talking about unbelievers here. John wrote the gospel of John so that the sinning world would respond to the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit and believe in the name of Jesus (John 16:8-11; 20:30-31). John is writing about believers who have descended the Downward Spiral and are in the holding stage called the Sin unto Death. John says, “I do not say that he should pray about that.” The word for “pray” here is the Greek word ero-tao-, which means “to pray or ask between two equals.” This is similar to the first word for pray, but that word aiteo- was pray or ask someone on a different authority level. This word ero-tao- refers to praying or asking a person who is a peer. John says, “DO NOT approach God as a peer.” God may or may not grant the request (2 Tim. 2:24-26). When you approach God, do it with fear and intrepidation on behalf of the sinning brother. Do not add insult to injury by approaching God like He is your buddy. He is holy, righteous and just. He deserves all the honor, respect, reverence and fear a person can muster. Do not approach God casually when you observe a brother who is in the Sin unto Death.
Does John say a Christian can enter the Sin unto Death? Yes. He teaches a believer can be in the Sin unto Death and he should be helped or turned back to the truth, just as James said should happen,
- 19 Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back,
- 20 let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. (Jam. 5:19-20)
What does Paul say about a believer in the Sin unto Death? That is for the next article.