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Enjoying God Blog

“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).

Whenever we hear words like, “There is sin that leads to death,” we instinctively ask, “Have I committed it?” Let’s be honest: statements like this in Scripture are scary and often throw people into the depths of fear, anxiety, and even depression. For such folk, virtually every misstep in life, every wayward thought, every indecisive moment potentially becomes the grounds for their exclusion from the kingdom of God. They experience little if any of that “joy” which Scripture portrays as the essence of Christian living. Often times they become obsessed not simply with the first, more general question: “Can a Christian commit the Sin unto Death?” but with the more specific and personal concern: “Have I committed the Sin unto Death?” As you can well imagine, the problems posed by this passage are innumerable and therefore so are the interpretations placed upon it.

In this article and three more to follow we will examine the more cogent views and my critical interaction with each.

Sin unto Death is Apostasy

This first interpretation of the passage is one proposed by many Arminians, those who believe a Christian can apostatize from the faith (i.e., fall from grace) and lose his/her salvation. I. Howard Marshall represents this position. The principal elements in his explanation of the text are these.

The “brother” about whom John speaks is a genuine, born-again believer, as the usage of the term brother in 1 John would appear to demand (see 1 John 2:9;10,11; 3:10,12[twice],13,14,15,16,17; 4:20[twice],21; 5:16). The kind of “death” John has in mind is spiritual, eternal death, even as the “life” with which it is contrasted is spiritual and eternal.

That “sin” which leads to death or results in death is any sin that is incompatible with being a child of God. What sins qualify? According to 1 John, “Sin that leads to death is deliberate refusal to believe in Jesus Christ, to follow God’s commands, and to love one’s brothers. It leads to death because it includes a deliberate refusal to believe in the One who alone can give life, Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978], 248).

On the other hand, sin or sins that do not lead to death “are those which are committed unwittingly and which do not involve rejection of God and his way of salvation. The sinner is overcome by temptation against his will; he still wants to love God and his neighbor, he still believes in Jesus Christ, he still longs to be freed from sin” (248). Marshall makes this distinction between deliberate apostasy (“sin that leads to death”) and unwitting transgression (“sin that does not lead to death”) on the basis of the Old Testament distinction between “unintentional” or “unwitting” sins, for which atonement was possible, and “deliberate” or “high-handed” sins, for which the Levitical sacrificial system provided no forgiveness (see Lev. 4:2,13,22,27; 5:15,17-18; Num. 15:27-31; Deut. 17:12).

Christians can commit both types of sin. If someone sees a brother committing sin that does not lead to death, one should pray for him and God will use the prayer to give him life. However, if someone sees a Christian brother engaged in open refusal to repent and believe, he is on his way to death. John did not require (but neither does he forbid) that anyone pray for him. Consequently, some Christians may in fact apostatize from the faith by committing sin that leads to their eternal death. The doctrine of eternal security is obviously incompatible with this view.

Several comments should be made about this interpretation. First, the text does not say that the “brother” commits sin that leads to death. John refers to a brother only with regard to sin that is not to death.

Second, if the sin of the Christian brother is not the kind that leads to death, why must we pray that God would give him life? Marshall’s answer is that “there is always the danger that a person who sins unconsciously or unwittingly may move to the point of sinning deliberately and then of turning his back completely on God and the way of forgiveness. Because of this danger, it is essential that Christians pray for one another lest any of their number cross the line that leads to open and deliberate rejection of the way of life. No sin is of such a kind as to prevent forgiveness, provided that we repent of it. We are to pray for our brothers that they will repent of all sin. When we do this, we have God’s promise that he will hear our prayers” (248-49). But John does not say that the brother was about to “cross over” some such line. Indeed, he says just the opposite. It was to the brother who was not committing sin unto death that God promised to give life.

Furthermore, it would be difficult to think of another New Testament author who affirms the doctrine of eternal security with any greater conviction or frequency than the Apostle John (John 6:37-44; 10:11-18,27-30; 17:1-2,7-12; 1 John 5:18). Other texts likewise deny what Marshall affirms (Rom. 8:29-39; 1 Cor. 1:4-9; Phil. 1:6; 1 Thess. 5:23-24; 2 Thess. 2:13-15; 2 Tim. 2:19; 1 Pet. 1:5; Jude 24).

Finally, why would John not require us to pray for an apostate? Marshall says it is because “where a person himself refuses to seek salvation and forgiveness there is not much point in praying for him” (249). But isn’t that a description that applies to everyone in the world who is not a Christian? Are we not to pray for unbelievers at all?

Raymond Brown, a Roman Catholic scholar, seems to argue for a position similar to Marshall's. Those who sin unto death, he says, are “former brothers and sisters who have opted to be children of the devil by going out to the world that prefers darkness to light. Since Jesus refused to pray for such a world (John 17:9), the author's adherents should not pray for those who belong to the world (1 John 4:5). When his readers came to faith and joined the Johannine community of 'brothers,' they passed from death to life (1 John 3:14). By leaving the Community the secessionists have shown that they hate the 'brothers' and have reversed the process by passing from life to death. In that sense theirs is a sin unto death” (Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible, The Epistles of John [Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1982], 636). But then in a footnote Brown balks, saying that it is unclear “whether the author would admit they ever had life, since he says that the secessionists never really belonged to the Community (1 John 2:19)” (636, n. 17).

Stephen Smalley also argues for a position in many ways identical to Marshall. Whereas John “expected his readers to walk in the light as sons of God . . . he did not ignore the possibility that some believing but heretically inclined members of his community might become apostate. . . . We conclude that John attributes the possibility of 'sin which does not lead to death' to believers, but 'mortal sin' to unbelievers who are, or believers who have become, antichristian” (Stephen S. Smalley, Word Biblical Commentary, 1, 2, 3 John [Waco: Word Books, 1984], 299; emphasis mine).

More to follow . . .


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