Sin That Leads to Death- 1 John 5:16-17
We will recall, from our previous post, that this portion of 1 John is written to believers. In this verse, John writes of “sin that does not lead to death”, and “sin that leads to death”. What sin is John referring to here, and can believers commit “sin that leads to death” if their sins have been forgiven in Christ? This particular verse highlights the importance of context, and context here regarding the use of language. As we study Scripture, we must be mindful of who has written what we are studying, and how that writer uses certain words. For example, John uses the word “flesh” in a very different way than Paul does. For John, flesh refers primarily to the physical body, while in Paul flesh refers primarily to our human fallenness. John uses flesh concretely, while Paul uses it more abstractly. So, in order to understand what John is saying here, we must first seek to understand what John means by “sin” in this particular letter. To do so, we return to chapter one, specifically in verses 1-9. In this passage, John is dealing with the primary threat to the church at this point in time, which comes in the form of Gnosticism, a Greek philosophy which was prevalent in the world at the time, and had been brought by some into the church, who attempted to combine Gnostic teaching and Christian doctrine. Gnosticism basically teaches that human beings consist of two parts, body and soul, The body is evil and the soul is good, for all that is material is inherently evil, and all that is soul is inherently good. Salvation then consists of freeing the good soul from the confines of the evil body, which is achieved by the acquisition of special knowledge (the Greek word gnosis). So when this philosophy is brought into Christianity, we find two immediate and obvious problems. The first is the incarnation, the fact that Jesus is God in a physical body, for if Gnostic teaching is held to, this produces the conclusion that Jesus was evil, and you can’t have an evil Jesus and Christianity at the same time. So what was done was a denial of the fact of Jesus’ bodily existence, replaced with the assertion that Jesus was not a real, flesh and blood human being, but just “seemed” like one, that He was actually a phantom or ghost. This is the false teaching which John deals with in verses 1-3, in which John ( who spent three years with Him) clearly tells us that Jesus was a real, flesh and blood human being, not a phantom. The second issue which arises when Gnosticism is combined with Christianity is the denial of original sin. If human beings are fundamentally soul, and the soul is good, then Gnostic teaching is that human beings are fundamentally good by nature, and so Gnostics denied the fundamental Christian doctrine of original sin, that human beings are sinners by nature. If human beings are not sinners by nature, then there is no need to look for a savior, for salvation comes from within. This is the issue with which John deals in verses 5-9, telling us that those who “claim to be without sin” (Gnostics), deceive themselves and the truth (Jesus) is not in them”. This is the “sin” which leads to death to which John refers in chapter five. The Gnostic denial of the fact of original sin, the denial of the fact that they came into the world with a sin nature, prevented them from realizing their need for a savior, and kept them from coming to Jesus for salvation. John then tells us, in verse nine, that if these Gnostics ever would confess to (agree with) the reality of their sin nature and turn to the savior, God would forgive them of all their sins and make them righteous, or justify them. So, it is this “sin”, this failure to admit the fact that we are sinners and turn to the savior for salvation, which is the “sin that leads to death” in 1 John 5:16. So as we return to the passage at hand, we find John there instructing believers to pray for their brothers and sisters whom they see falling into sinful ways of behaving, and that God will work through their prayers to bring the brothers and sisters back from a path which leads them away from God and back onto a path which brings them nearer to God. John is not instructing them here to pray for unbelievers, which he will address elsewhere, but to pray for their brothers and sisters whom they see being caught in the clutches of sin, for this is the most powerful and effective way in which they can help them be free from the “sin which so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1).