Saturday, May 29, 2021

Sin that does not lead to death, vs. sin that does.

14 Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him. (1John 5:14-15, NKJV)
This passage provides the context for the discussion to follow. These two verses reemphasize our “First Amendment Rights” when it comes to God. We have a God we can approach with confidence, and a God who can multitask—while maintaining the universe he will hear our prayers.
16 If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death. (1John 5:16-17, NKJV)
With the context and principle provided by verses 15 and 16, we have in the next two verses an application: pray for a fellow believer who is in spiritual distress due to sinning. This presumably means a believer who has, for a season, descended into a lifestyle besotted with sin. (I’ve lived in that zip code). 

However, this passage (which could be so simple!) also makes a seemingly mysterious distinction between sin that does vs. sin that does not lead unto death. To me, an unexpected and unwelcome complication. 

Our Catholic friends might readily find in this the difference between venial and mortal sin, but in truth that dogma would not be developed for centuries. Even more to the point, there is no prohibition (in fact, quite the contrary) in Catholicism regarding praying for someone who has committed a mortal sin. Abortion is a mortal sin according to Roman Catholicism, yet the Catholic Church does not instruct its adherents to avoid praying for the women involved. 

Nor does “unto death” versus “not unto death” seem to refer to sin that leads to actual and immediate physical death, a la Ananias and Sapphira. It would be rather pointless to tell us not to pray for someone who just dropped dead after committing a sin. I think we'd intuitively "get it" if, while watching an ISIS terrorist about to behead an innocent person, a consuming fire rained down from the sky and took him out. Nor would it be worth mentioning such a rare (if ever) occurrence, one that (even in less spectacular form) virtually no believer will never have to be equipped to handle. 

At the (always real) risk of pulling verses out of context,  let us add two others to the discussion:
For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, (Heb 6:4, NKJV)
But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. (Matt 18:17b, NKJV)
Adding these along with our difficult passage from 1 John, I personally arrive at somewhat unsatisfying (as in, I’m not confident I’m right, but it’s the best I got) view that “sin leading to death” refers to someone who, after our best intentions and fervent prayer over an extended period, appears to be absolutely unmovable, unrepentant, and unashamed in regard to their sin. In other words, we are literally instructed to (in extreme cases) give up on some, in regard to our finite prayer budget. 

In simpler terms, “sin leading unto death” is synonymous with the condition leading not to reconciliation, but excommunication, at which point we stop praying for the person. (It sounds wrong, but I think it just might be right.) 

This does not mean that we do not give them food, water, clothing, shelter, etc. if they have the need. I think it means what excommunication means, that they are not entitled to the benefits of members of the body including prayer. In crude terms, they had their chance, in fact many, many chances, and they blew it. (We would not withhold prayer regarding those for whom we have reason to hope may some day join. They have not been excommunicated.) 

It is a judgment call, as excommunication always is, and we may get it wrong, but it is nevertheless a difficult duty we are instructed to perform and a frightening assessment we are called to perform. Of course, such a person, though dead to us, can be resurrected by God without our help and in spite of our failings. And we can take comfort that God will present such a person to be welcomed back to the body.

But for the love of all that is holy, the conscious decision to withhold prayer and its cousin (excommunication) are to be done ever so sparingly.         


  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this challenging topic.

  2. Anonymous8:44 AM

    Interesting passage. What have the Church Fathers said about it?