What is the meaning of 1 John 5:16-17 and the sin that leads to death? Answered by Jimmy Buehler
Hey everybody, this is Jimmy. On today’s episode of ask Theocast, I’m going to seek to answer a question from James, who asks this: “What is the meaning of 1 John 5:16-17 and the sin that leads to death?” It’s a good question.
Allow me just to read that passage for some context. John writes this: “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 a sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.”
This can be a particularly troubling passage, especially for those who I would say have something similar to what I have, which is a sensitive conscience, those who have this keen awareness of their own sinfulness, their own wrongdoings, and the things that they have done to displease God. When we come across passages like this, we need to be careful and sensitive to what John actually meant to whom he was writing, and why he was writing that particular thing. I want us to be ever mindful of how John begins his letter in First John chapter one, where he says that if we confess our sins, that God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
You know, a lot of times I think we can approach these scary texts and we think that the apostles set out to confuse us, to bring us confusion, to cause us to struggle with our own assurance, and to wonder whether or not we are in the good graces of God, but if we look back just a couple of verses in chapter five, verse 13, he says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know him and have eternal life.” Clearly what John is not trying to do is confuse us, to confuse the sheep, and to cause them to look inward to the point of confusion.
I want us to keep in mind the context of the entire letter. What John is really going after is this kind of person who has what I call and what I think scripture calls this high handed approach to the Christian life or the high handed approach to God, where they look at their sin, they look at the wrongdoings that they’re committing, and they look at the holiness of God, and within them, they say, “I just don’t care. I just don’t care what God’s law says. I just don’t care that I am living in sin. I’m going to continually choose my sin.” Ultimately what I think John is talking about here when he talks about a sin that leads to death is he’s talking about this sin, this ultimate rejection of grace, and this ultimate rejection of Christ, that as they look at the things of God, as they look at Jesus and who he is and what he has done for us, they would rather, as the scripture says, be like a dog returning to their own vomit, that they would rather choose their own sin and reject Christ.
So I think when John is talking about this, what he’s not talking about is the person who mourns over their sin, the person that is fearful over their sin, or the person that sees the ways that they displease God and it causes terror and fear within them, because John gives us the solution to that, which is actually not to run from God, but rather to go to Jesus who is gentle and lowly in heart, and confess our sins to him.
As we think about this passage, again, I want us to be mindful of its context, that John’s not trying to confuse us, that John’s certainly not trying to scare us, and that John is not trying to cause us to look inward, but rather, as is the solution to so many of these issues, we have to have this proper understanding of law and gospel, that the person who is struggling with obstinate sin, what they don’t need is this false assurance, but rather, they do need a healthy dose of God’s law. They need to see the ways that they have failed to love God and to love neighbor, and not only do they need to be confronted with God’s law, but then, we also need to rightly understand how the gospel plays into all of this, that after the law of God wrecks us, which it does, we see that God always provides grace for us in the gospel, that what God has demanded of us in his law, he has given freely to us in his gospel.
So, just to be clear, the sin that leads to death, what is it? Well, ultimately it’s a rejection of Christ. It’s not failing to live a holy life because we all fail to live holy lives in so many different ways, but ultimately the sin that leads to death is failing to live a holy life and having this mindset of “I just don’t care and I just don’t need Christ. I just don’t need his grace. I’m just going to go do my own thing.” So yes, these passages can be terrifying, but ultimately I think what John says is he wants us to run to Christ. He wants us to confess our sins. Why? Because God is faithful, and God is just, and God is gracious, and God is kind to forgive us of all of our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, and so I hope and I pray that this answer is helpful to you.
You can find other resources like this at theocast.org, and I hope that this helps bring rest to your weary hearts. Thanks for listening.