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Can a Christian Commit the Sin unto Death? Part Four

“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” (1 John 5:16-17).

Physical Death

The interpretation of Benjamin B. Warfield is one deserving of careful attention. Warfield agrees with Marshall on two points. The “brother” is a Christian, and it is possible for him/her to commit “sin that leads to death.” Where Warfield disagrees with Marshall (in addition to his affirmation of eternal security, which Marshall denied), is in his belief that the death in view is physical, not spiritual. The New Testament does refer to believers suffering illness and occasionally physical death because of persistent and unrepentant sin (see Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 5:5(?); 11:29-30; James 5:14-15,19-20).

According to Warfield’s interpretation, this brother is not sinning in such a way that his physical life is in jeopardy, and since he is a Christian, he already has spiritual life. What, then, could John have meant when he said that God would give him “life” in response to our prayers? Warfield writes:

“We may suppose that by giving life there is meant rather the maintaining or perfecting than the initiating of life. He who lives below his privileges, in whom the life which he has received is languid or weak in its manifestations, is made by our prayers the recipient of fresh vital impulses, or powers, that he may live as the Christian should live. Hitherto living on a plane which can be spoken of only as sinful – though not mortally sinful – he will through our prayers receive newness of life” (Benjamin B. Warfield, “Praying for the Erring,” Expository Times XXX [Summer 1919], 537).

In saying that some sin leads to death and other sin does not, John is not giving us a criterion by which we may examine the lives of other believers in order to determine whether or not we should pray for them. He differentiates between these two kinds of sin simply to tell us why it is that some of our prayers are answered and others are not. Warfield explains:

“He is merely saying that of those whom we observe to be sinning in the community, some are, in point of fact, sinning to death, and others not; and that, in point of fact, our prayers will be of benefit to the one and not to the other. Who they are who are sinning to death, we do not in any case know. John does not suppose us to know. Only, in urging us to pray for our sinful brethren, and promising us an answer to our prayers, the gift of life to them, he warns us that there are some for whom our petitions will not thus avail. But he warns us of this, not that we may avoid praying for these unhappy ones, but that we may be prepared for the failure of our prayers in their case” (539).

That no sinner is to be excluded from our prayers is proved, says Warfield, by noting the difference between two Greek words John uses in verse 16 (the NIV translation renders both of these words by the single English term, “pray”; whereas the ESV renders the first “ask” and the second “pray”). The word in verse 16a translated “he should pray” (aiteo) refers to genuine Christian prayer. But the word in verse 16b (erotao), likewise translated “he should pray,” does not refer to intercessory prayer. Rather it denotes the asking of questions, the seeking of information, perhaps for the purpose of debate or discussion. If this understanding of the two words is correct,

“the passage would no longer have even the surface appearance of excluding one kind of sinners from our prayers. . . . It would, on the contrary, expressly require us to pray for all sinners, intimating that though there is a sin to death, that is a matter about which we are not to make anxious inquiry before we pray, but, leaving it to God, we are for ourselves to pray for all our brethren whom we observe to be living sinful lives” (539).

The purpose of this passage, therefore, is not to set us upon the task of determining what the sin unto death is or who may or may not have committed it. The message of the apostle is that sin is deadly, and that if we would have life, we must avoid it. Let us therefore come to the aid of our brethren by praying for one another. If the sin of the brother for whom we pray is, in point of fact, sin unto death, our prayers will not be answered. His sin has taken him beyond the point at which our prayers will restore him. However, that his sin is unto death is not something we can know before we pray. On the other hand, if the sin of the brother for whom we pray is not, in point of fact, sufficiently severe and persistent to put his physical life in jeopardy, God will answer our prayer and restore this brother to the fullness of joy and spiritual energy in his daily life with Christ. But again, that his sin is not the kind that leads to death is not something we can know before we pray.

Although Warfield’s interpretation is intriguing, like the others it is subject to several objections.

In the first place, it is unlikely that “death” means physical death, that is to say, the chastisement by God of an errant believer. Scholer reminds us that in 1 John “death is the state in which one is before he becomes a believer and out of which he is transferred unto life (3:14; see John 5:24). The one who does not love the brothers (that is, believers) remains in death (3:14). Those who do not love (unbelievers; see 3:9-10; 4:7-8) are not of God (3:10), are in darkness (2:11; see 1:5) and do not know God (4:8; see 4:7). Thus it is clear that a 'sin unto death' is one which signifies the complete absence of any fellowship with God” (240). Of course, this is not to say that it was impossible for John to shift his emphasis from spiritual to physical death, but only that it seems improbable for him to have done so.

Second, Warfield says that John did not mean to tell us that before we pray we could actually know whether a brother’s sin is unto death or not unto death. We are to pray, and if his sin is not to death God will answer our prayer. If it is to death, our prayer will fail. But this seems overly subtle of John, if not downright obscure. A straightforward reading of verse 16 appears to indicate that the brother for whom we are to pray is the brother whom we see sinning the sort of sin that is not to death. If John did not expect us to be able to know whether his sin was to death, he surely chose an odd way of saying so.

Finally, there is some doubt to the validity of drawing a sharp distinction between the Greek words aiteo (used in verse 16a) and erotao (used in verse 16b). There are several verses in John's gospel (John 14:14; and 16:19,23) in which the distinction most likely does apply. In 1 John 5, however, most modern commentators insist that the words are synonymous and that the apostle’s shift from one to the other is purely stylistic. Note well, though, that even should one accept the distinction between these two terms as a valid one, it doesn’t necessarily follow that “death” is physical. It is conceivable that all the views we have examined are compatible with this distinction.

Conclusion

I find myself a bit reluctant to conclude anything about this passage! But if push comes to shove, and I suspect many of you are waiting for my answer, I would have to endorse the view of Scholer and Yarbrough (among others who advocate this position). Therefore, my answer to the question posed in the title is No, a Christian cannot commit the sin unto death because such a sin(s) is precisely what identifies and defines a non-Christian. In any case, this text will probably persist in its (in)famous claim to be one of the most perplexing in all the NT until Christ returns and sets us all straight. In the meantime, hermeneutical humility is the wise course to pursue.

 

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