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What is the "sin leading to death" in 1 John 5:16?

Posted by Matt Postiff November 20, 2009 on Matt Postiff's Blog under Interpretation 
The verse about sin leading to death in 1 John 5:16 is one of those knotty passages that has really bothered people. The idea is this:

  1. The sin is not a specific one that is the same for every person. It could be sin A or sin B, but it is God's determination whether it is punishable by death. Notice that it says "a sin," not "the sin."
  2. The death spoken about is physical death, not spiritual death. The person in question is a "brother" and because he is a Christian, he cannot lose his salvation. So the passage has to be talking about the physical end of one's life.
  3. There are examples of various sins in the Bible that led God to discipline his children with the ultimate physical punishment. In the NT, Acts 5 records the death of Ananias and Sapphira because they lied. 1 Corinthians 11 records the folks who had "fallen asleep" (a euphemism for death) because of abuse of the Lord's Table. These are two totally different sins, but God in his infinite wisdom chose to punish them with death.
  4. Why such strong punishment? God is concerned about the purity of His church. He doesn't want people running around sinning and always getting away with it. Sometimes he lets people go on sinning for a long time. Other believers are to confront those folks about their sin. When it gets to a certain point, however, God calls these folks out of this life and into the next so that His reputation will not be tarnished any further.
  5. What is the character of such a sin? It is a high-handed, premeditated, rebellious sin. This is why John says don't pray for that kind of sin--if you can discern that this is a sin that God will punish with death, no prayer is going to change God's mind. It's tough for us to know for sure, however, in our limited human knowledge. The right response on the part of the sinner is to repent and confess that sin and not do it again. If the sin is evidently not a sin leading to death, then we ought to pray for that person so that they will get straightened out.
  6. This is not the unpardonable sin of Matthew 12. That sin has to do with a repeated rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ and the work of His Spirit. It is only committed by those who are unbelievers. In fact, it is the very essence of hardened unbelief. The type of sin mentioned in 1 John is committed by a Christian brother or sister.
  7. It is also not a "mortal" sin as opposed to a venial sin. These terms come from Roman Catholicism. The mortal sin is supposedly one that causes the soul to suffer eternal damnation unless it is confessed to a priest. The venial sin can be atoned for through good works. There are not two such categories of sin listed in the Bible.

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