What Is Sin Unto Death?

A Scripture Study of 1 John

In 1 John, we read more than once that those in God do not sin.

“We know that everyone who has been born of God does not sin, but the One who is born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.” (1 John 5:18)

“Everyone who has been born of God does not sin, because His seed remains in him; he is not able to sin, because he has been born of God.” (1 John 3:9)

These statements by John are qualified by both grammar and context. Here the relevant verbs are in the Greek present tense which is used to convey an ongoing process. In other words, instead of meaning one born of God simply “does not sin”, the Greek means the one born of God does not go on sinning. Indeed, of course we do not immediately become perfect by conversion. John himself says in 1 John 1:8-10 that we must admit we have sin or we are liars. Moreover he says that if any brother does sin, then a prayer on his behalf can bring him back to life. Many commentators believe John intends to declare habitual and/or intentional sin truly and inherently un-Christian. Other excellent passages that deal with the subject of the righteousness demanded of all, particularly Christians, are Romans 6,7, and Hebrews 6:4-12, and Hebrews 10:26-31.

But when we say John tells us to pray for our brother so they gain life, he warns us there is also sin unto death. I will argue this is not a specific sin but rather a life pattern of sin, the life of an unbeliever, (here one who has fallen away), who dies because of lack of faith and is called antichrist.

“If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.” (1 John 5:16,17)

Here we read there is a sin leading to death and a sin not leading to death; though the wages of sin is death, prayer can bring a brother back from his sin so he gains life. A little grammar is helpful here. The phrases “a sin leading to death” and “a sin not leading to death” do not have indefinite articles in the Greek. Nor do they have a definite article; these phrases are not made specific. Nor is this sin elsewhere named as Gnosticism, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, or idolatry, though all these things could theoretically be involved. Rather John’s stated goal in writing this epistle is that we “may not sin”. (1 John 2:1)  So John may be saying (more simply) there is sin leading to death and there is sin not leading to death.  This may be analogous to us saying, “there is drug addiction leading to death, and there is drug addiction not leading to death – so when there is hope, pray.” Hebrews 6:4-6 does after all indicate a time when it is impossible for a stray brother to come back.  John seems conscious of this situation in saying “if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.” (1 John 2:19)

In practice, if you have strayed, by all means seek the Lord and do not give up.  If you love the Lord, seek the Lord.  he has means to devise a way to bring back His child, and He does love us, amen.

[The following may be indebted to an online article but unfortunately I am not sure where to find it.]

John contrasts Christ and faith in Christ, with the AntiChrist and being an antichrist. For example, John follows his definition of the antichrist with verse 2:24, “[i]f what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the son and in the father.” Faith and being antichrist are in direct contradiction and John makes this very plain. As John closes his letter he begins to tie together some of the thematic language used to characterize the opposition of God and the anti-Christ.

“We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him. We know that we are of God, and that the whole world lies in the power of the evil one. And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.” (1 John 5:18-20)

While those born of God do not sin, (this may mean to the death,) the rest of the world lies in the power of the evil one. While some have eternal life through knowing the truth, many have gone forth from the flock in the denial as antichrists. This contrast of knowing the truth with the antichrist spirit has been made earlier in 1 John as we see in the next two excerpts.

“But they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.” (1 John 2:19,20)

Those of the world do not have this unction, (the core of which is to know Him who is true and thus not be a denier of Christ.

“They are from the world. Therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Anyone who knows God listens to us; anyone who is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of deception.” (1 John 4:5,6)

In faith we cannot deny the Lord and be apostate. If we have faith truly it is reflected in our behavior but more fundamentally it is not possible for us to also not have faith.  Faith is what saves, it may be then that the sin of apostasy is the sin unto death.  Being in unbelief, or being an antichrist, is the sin unto death.  It is reversible for all those cases, happily, of anyone who is saved.  None are born with saving faith.

John says, “whoever abides in Him does not sin…for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” (1 John 3:6, 9) This is to say that when one is in a state of being known of God one cannot fail but know Him too. “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God…he who does not believe God has made Him a liar because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son. And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” (1 John 5:1,10,11) So John is characterizing the apostates as antichrists in a way that precludes their return to the fold. A brother may sin but his sin is profoundly limited because he is in the Lord and knows the Lord and the Lord keeps him, but worldly people do not know the Lord and sin unto death.

I believe many of us have been concerned reading of the possibility of sin unto death but if you are concerned about that, let me ask you: do you bear a contrite heart and a broken spirit? The Lord will accept you. (Psalm 34) Peter, Paul, David, Mary Magdalene, are some of the great heroes of the faith. Let us trust in the great saving Lord – who comes to save sinners. And let us be mindful that the world is filled with Christ deniers too, yet they cannot overcome for He who is with us is stronger than he who is in the world. (1 John 4:4) May Jesus pray for us and keep us, and may you my blessed brothers and sisters be so blessed, amen.


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