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Can a Christian Commit the Sin unto Death? Part Three

“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).

Thus far we’ve looked at two views of this passage. The first argued that the “sin” in question is apostasy, or the loss of salvation. The second view argued that the “sin” is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Today we examine a third option, one that I find quite persuasive.

Sins Within and Sins Without

This third view is difficult to label. It is somewhat of a mediating position between the views of Marshall and Stott. David M. Scholer is its most convincing defender. Scholer agrees with Marshall that the “brother” is a Christian man and that “death” is spiritual and eternal in nature. He also agrees with Marshall that “sin that leads to death” must be identified and defined from within the epistle of 1 John itself. It consists primarily of hating the brethren and denying that Jesus is the Christ.

However, unlike Marshall he insists that believers do not commit sin that leads to death. Nowhere in the passage, Scholer strenuously claims, is it ever said that a true believer, a “brother,” commits sin that leads to death. Believers do commit sin that does not lead to death (1 John 1:8; 2:1), and the Christian community is to intercede for them. Prayer for such sinning Christians will be used by God to renew and reconfirm the “life” they already have in Christ (1 John 3:14).

John is not primarily concerned with the sins of unbelieving outsiders, such sins that lead to death, and therefore does not speak in order that anyone should pray about it. “Prayer,” says Scholer, “is not absolutely forbidden concerning the matter, nor is it said that one who commits the ‘sin unto death’ is forever beyond the hope of becoming a member of the believing community. But throughout 1 John there is a radical separation between the believing community and the unbelieving world so that prayer for the unbelieving world would not be a ‘normal’ or ‘effective’ practice” (David Scholer, "Sins Within and Sins Without: An Interpretation of 1 John 5:16-18," in Current Issues in Biblical and Patristic Interpretation, ed. Gerald Hawthorne [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1975], 243).

Scholer proceeds to interpret 1 John 3:6, 9 and 5:18 in the light of 5:16-17. Simply put, the “sin” that Christians cannot commit is not a reference to the practice of sin in general or persistence in sin. Rather, the sin the believer can't commit is “sin that leads to death,” namely, hatred of believers and denial of Jesus.

Essential to this view is a rephrasing of the closing statement in verse 16. The New American Standard Bible translates this phrase, “I do not say that he should make request for this.” The New International Version renders it, “I am not saying that he should pray about that.” Both of these translations make it appear that John was recommending we not pray about the sin unto death or for the one who commits it.

Scholer would translate this phrase in another way: “I am not speaking concerning that (i.e., sin unto death), in order that you should pray.” In other words, John’s purpose is not to enlist prayer concerning sin unto death and those who commit it, although in another context and at another time it may be legitimate to do so. Rather, it is the sin of believers, sin that is not unto death, that he is speaking about and for which he asks that his readers pray.

To sum up, “sin that leads to death” consists principally of hating believers (what John called “murder”) and not confessing Jesus (what John called “lying”). This sin cannot be committed by believers for the simple reason that, by definition, this is the sin that makes one an unbeliever. Believers are guilty of sin that does not lead to death, that is, “they do break fellowship with God (1:6-2:1), but without participating in hating the brothers or denying Jesus” (242). Sin unto death is a sin of those who are “disruptive, heretical outsiders” (242). Consequently, John is not here concerned with them or their sin. His concern is with the sin of “insiders,” that is, believers within the community of faith.

This view has much to commend it. First, it looks for the meaning of “sin that leads to death” within 1 John itself and interprets “brother” and “death” in keeping with their usage in this epistle.

Second, this view has the advantage of restricting sin unto death to unbelievers. Similar to Stott’s interpretation, the “death” into which the sin of these unbelievers leads them is the second, eternal death.

Third, Scholer’s interpretation supplies us with a cogent solution to other problem texts in 1 John, namely, those that assert that the one born of God cannot or is not able to sin. When 1 John 5:18 (literally, “no one who is born of God sins”) is read in the light of 5:16-17, one can see the sense in taking verse 18 to mean, “no one who is born of God sins sin that leads to death.”

The only problem one might have with this view is the phrase “God will give him life.” To say this means “he will renew and reconfirm the life he already has” lacks explicit parallel in 1 John and is not, so far as I can tell, stated in precisely these terms elsewhere in the New Testament. But given the number of difficulties the other interpretations face, this one problem is slight by comparison.

[A helpful discussion of this passage that takes a view quite similar to that of Scholer is found in Robert W. Yarbrough, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 1-3 John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 305-314. According to Yarbrough, “sin unto death” would refer to “doctrinal convictions, ethical patterns, and relational tendencies – or any combination of these three – which belie one’s claim to know the God of light (1:5)” (310). Thus “sin unto death” is “simply violation of the fundamental terms of relationship with God that Jesus Christ mediates” (310).]

More to follow . . .

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