1 John 5:16 – What is the Sin that Leads to Death?

Many readers assume John is referring to the so-called deadly sins (murder, adultery, etc.) One problem with this is that there is no list of deadly sins in the Bible. In the Law there are several examples of sin which is committed with the full intention of breaking the law as “unforgivable.” Leviticus 4:2 for example, the one who sins with a “high hand.” Even someone like Paul who caused the death of Stephen found forgiveness from that murder.

Jobes points out that Jesus taught anger is as bad as murder, and lust as bad as adultery (Matt 5:21–22, 27–28; Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John, 238). The gospels blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28–30), but this is a particular rejection of the Messiah by the Pharisees when they attributed the work of Jesus to the devil.

Cemetary GateIt is possible John has recanting one’s faith in the face of persecution in mind, as in Hebrews 6:4-6. Persecution is not obviously in view, unless the reference to idolatry in the last line of the letter refers to the imperial cult.

Some have considered the “unforgivable sin “to be the act of suicide. Aside from the fact suicide is not addressed as an unpardonable sin anywhere in scripture, it seems highly unlikely John would say “don’t bother praying for someone who has committed suicide.” But John cannot have in mind physical death, because all people die whether their sins are forgiven or not.

Colin Kruse suggests John “very likely that he has the sin of the secessionists in mind” (Kruse, Epistles of John, 192; Jobes agrees, 236). Although it seems extremely strange to say, “don’t pray for those unrepentant sinners,” Kruse points out the prophet Jeremiah was told not to pray for Israel “because her sins were so repugnant (Jer 7:16-18; 11:14; 14:11).”

The one who has been born of God does not “keep on sinning” (5:18-20). This final paragraph returns to a theme found throughout the letter that the one who has been born of God does not continue in their sin. As we have observed at other times in the letter, John does not say that the Christian never sins, but they don’t persist in a continual state of sin.

John has already mentioned the power of the devil several times in the letter, but here he promises that God will protect his children for the power of the evil one (vv. 10-20). This is extremely important since John’s congregation is living in the city of Ephesus where the power of Rome was on display for all to see. It is possible John’s congregation feared the power of Rome as Christianity grew.

Taking the book of Revelation into consideration, this is not a promise the Christian will never suffer, but rather a promise that God will overcome the power of the devil. Even though the church is persecuted, and some may even die for their faith, they still do not fall into the power of the devil.

I think this “sin that leads to death” has something to do with the enigmatic final line of the book, “keep yourself from idols.” Perhaps John’s opponents are teaching their followers they can perform some kind worship of the Emperor or veneration of Rome to avoid persecution. This would be analogous to an American Christian pledging allegiance to the flag. Just as most Christians do not see this pledge as an act of idolatry, so too John’s opponents may have interpreted Imperial worship as an oath of loyalty and not actual worship of gods. They may have considered eating meat sacrificed to idols or attending meals or banquets held at local temples to be “not a sin.”

If this is on the right track, then the “sin that leads to death” is putting oneself in a place where they may not be sinning (yet), but there is a real danger of returning to the worship of idols. This is a very real problem for Christians living in cultures where gods are worshiped regularly. For Christians living in places which venerate ancestors, there is a very real struggle for the Christian to return to those practices in order to keep the pace within a family. The willful choice to return to idolatry is, for John, a sin that is so dangerous is “leads to death.”

4 thoughts on “1 John 5:16 – What is the Sin that Leads to Death?

  1. What about recognition of “those before you” either being aware of the doings of the living or being asleep until the Day? Is it idolatry to remember the dead and their honor, their wisdom imparted and our need to hold on to loved ones? Would it be acceptable (like your mention of eating meat sacrificed to pagan gods) to hold memory and respect (Memorial Day) for our deceased loved ones but without worship as if they became gods? I’d say so.
    I prefer to understand how my ancestors viewed spiritual matters, including Christianity, to become my view on such things. To honor the dead but not to venerate them.

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    • Memorial Day is an interesting analogy (I am stealing it, thanks!) I do not think any Christian I know would consider remembering those died in their military service to be like honoring dead ancestors (as is practices in China, for example), but there may be some Americanism implicit in that remembrance which makes it illegitimate for a church worship service.

      Not sure where you live, but in most of the West (Europe and America) we struggle to find good application for the idolatry passages like this. but this is a very real issue in China or other Far East cultures, how can a Christian legitimately honor their ancestors without engaging in idolatry.

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  2. A remember attending a missionary conference a couple of years ago and your suggestion for the sin that leads to death is exactly what a lot of people deal with in the Congo. He explained that due to the heavy integration of witchcraft and minor gods within their culture based around every life event makes it really hard for new converts to Christianity to persevere. Particularly with other family members. When childbirths, weddings, sickness and things of the sort all center around the possible effect that curses or spirits are having on everyone’s lives, it gets difficult to operate on a different wavelength. Especially if someone is experiencing separation from their family or support system because of their newfound faith. Considering this text, and the experiences that people can have when proclaiming the Gospel I would say it makes sense that this would be the sin forefront in John’s mind.

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