Posted in: Theology

“Sin unto death” and “Sin not unto death”

By Bob Passantino

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


  1. The Theme of 1 John
    1. In one sense, the Christian does not sin (1 John 3:9; 5:18).
    2. In another sense, the Christian does sin (1 John 1:8; 2:1; 5:16).
  2. Interpretations Concerning the Relationship of Sin to the Believer (1 John 1:5-2:2; 3:4-10; 5:16-18)
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
  3. The Context of 1 John 5:16-17
    1. 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.
    2. 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 death.
  4. Possible Interpretations of 1 John 5:16-17
    1. 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 repentance.
      4. This interpretation is rejected for three main reasons.
        1. A change in subject does not necessarily prove a change in authorship and origin.
        2. 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.
        3. Scholer’s interpretation (below) correlates this passage with the rest of 1 John.
    2. 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 inadvertence.
      3. This interpretation is rejected for two main reasons.
        1. 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.
        2. 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).
    3. The Old Testament/Intertestamental Jewish use of the term “sin unto death.”
      1. The Septuagint of Number 18:22 uses the terminology labein hamartian thanatephoron.
      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.
        1. All above uses refer to physical death; 1 John refers to separation from God.
        2. This does not relate to the context or theme of 1 John.
    4. 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
  5. The Classic Interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17
    1. First described by Tertullian (De pudicitia 2.14 and 19.27).
    2. Tertullian argued that there is a distinction between remissible and irremissible sins.
    3. A “sin not unto death” is remissible; a “sin unto death” is irremissible.
    4. 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).
    5. 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).
    6. 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).
  6. A New Interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17
    1. Summary reminder of the theme of 1 John
      1. The believer can and does commit sin
        1. 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)
          Hating believers: 1 John 3:10-14; 4:7-8 Denying Jesus: 1 John 2:18-22; 4:3; 5:10
    2. 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.
    3. 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).
    4. 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.
        1. Death is the state out of which one is transferred into life as he becomes a believer (3:14; cf. John 5:24).
        2. 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). becomes a believer (3:14; cf. John 5:24).
      2. 1 John associates the one who is in death with the devil (3:8,10).
        1. 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).
        1. Those who commit the “sin unto death” may pose as believers, but are not (2:18-21).
        2. They may have asserted that they (and all true believers) are beyond sin (cf. 1:8-2:1; 3:4; 5:17).
        3. 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).
        1. This is a matter of serious concern for effective community prayer (5:14-16b).
        2. There are believers’ sins which, although very serious (“all unrighteousness is sin”), are in the category of “sin not unto death” (5:17).
        3. 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.
        4. 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)
    5. 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.
        1. 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.
  7. 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).

Back to Top