In 1 John 5:16-17 we read, “There is sin leading to death” and “there is sin not leading to death.” Are there sins a person can commit that will not earn the penalty of eternal death, and other sins that will? What is the meaning of this perplexing passage?
The apostle John encouraged us to pray for sinning Church members. But he added a distinction that has confused people for hundreds of years, between “a sin unto death” and “a sin not unto death” (King James Version).
1 John 5:16-17: a difficult passage
Here is the passage in the New King James Version: “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. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death” (1 John 5:16-17).
William Barclay in his Daily Study Bible states: “There is no doubt that this is a most difficult and disturbing passage” (comments on 1 John 5:16-17).
The Bible: key to understanding
As we review these scriptures, we will come to understand that the answer is not as difficult as it first appears. We have to go to the Bible to find the answers. Since the Bible was inspired by the Creator, there can be no errors or contradictions in the Scriptures He originally inspired. John 10:35 clearly says, “The Scripture cannot be broken.”
If we recognize the authority of the Bible as being the inspired Word of God, then we can have confidence that seeming contradictions can be sorted out. (Read more about this in our booklet Is the Bible True? and our article “Contradictions in the Bible?”)
What is sin in the Bible?
The Bible states that sin “is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4, KJV). As J.B. Phillips renders this verse, “Everyone who commits sin breaks God’s law, for that is what sin is, by definition—a breaking of God’s law” (emphasis added throughout).
Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Revised Edition) says: “Our status as ‘children of God’ does not change the basic definition of sin, nor does it alleviate our moral responsibility. Sin is always ‘lawlessness,’ whether committed by a child of God or anyone else” (p. 459).
Read more about God’s law in our section on “The 10 Commandments and God’s Way of Life.”
The wages of sin is death
The Bible states that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), so how can there be a sin that does not lead to death?The Bible states that the wages of sin—all sin—is death (Romans 6:23; see “What Is the Meaning of Romans 6:23?”). The Bible does not separate sins into “mortal sins” and “venial sins.” Each time we break God’s law, we earn the death penalty. So, how can there be a sin that does not lead to death?
The essential difference, as explained throughout the Bible, is what happens after we sin. If we repent, we can be forgiven. But if we do not repent, we remain under the penalty of death.
Is there a sin that can be classified as unpardonable and can lead to eternal death? Yes, it is possible for someone who has received the Holy Spirit to deliberately and willfully decide he or she no longer wants to follow God’s way of life. And it is possible for someone to willfully decide to reject God’s way without receiving the Holy Spirit (such as the beast and false prophet of Revelation 19:20).
Willful and deliberate sin leads to death
If, after making a total and unconditional commitment to God, we deliberately choose to return to the ways of the world, showing disregard for God’s ways, then we are in danger of the sin that leads to death.
Hebrews 10:26-29 states: “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment. …
“Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified [set apart] a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?”
If someone deliberately insults God and tramples Christ’s sacrifice underfoot, he or she will receive the punishment that is rightfully deserved—unless he or she repents and has a change of attitude.
Hebrews 6:4-6 issues this warning: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit … if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.”
Anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit is in “danger of eternal damnation” (Mark 3:28-29, KJV). For a deeper examination of these passages about the unpardonable sin, see our article “What Is the Unpardonable Sin?”
William Barclay makes the following observations with reference to 1 John 5:16-17: “If he allows himself again and again to flirt with temptation and to fall, on each occasion the sin becomes easier; and, if he thinks he escapes the consequences, on each occasion the self-disgust and the remorse and the regret become less and less; and in the end he reaches a state when he can sin without a tremor. It is precisely that which is the sin which is leading to death.”
God is a just and merciful Judge of all sinners
Hebrews 10:30 says, “‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’”
It is God who decides what justice and punishment to administer, as only He knows the hearts, motives and intents of men. “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).
God’s administration of justice will always be fair and equitable, as He knows exactly what is in our hearts and minds. And He is abundant in mercy to all who are willing to repent.
When should we pray for a sinner?
We’ve seen that those who commit a “sin leading to death” are those who by a deliberate, self-willed and conscious decision have decided to reject God and His ways. They stubbornly refuse to acknowledge God in their life and become unable to repent or feel remorse or sorrow for sins they committed.
The passage in 1 John 5 is about praying for others, including those who are “sinning a sin which does not lead to death” (1 John 5:16). But referring to “the sin leading to death,” the end of that verse states, “I do not say that he should pray about that.”
What does that mean in practice? Do we have to judge if someone else has committed the unpardonable sin?
Christians are not forbidden to pray and ask God for mercy, but we must recognize that not even our merciful God will take away a person’s freedom to choose how he or she will live. In most cases we won’t know if someone has reached the hardened, unrepentant state or not. Therefore it is okay to pray for the stumbling brother or sister, and then leave it up to God to work with them.
For more about praying for others, see our article “Intercessory Prayer: How Does God Want Us to Pray for Others?”
Praying for brothers—converted Christians
John was specifically writing to Church members about praying for other Church members. There are a few exceptions, but the “sin leading to death”—the unpardonable sin—generally refers to converted Christians, those who through the process of repentance, accepting Christ’s sacrifice, baptism and with the laying on of hands have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
After a period of time in which they walked on the right path—led by the Holy Spirit—they ignore the warnings that they are drifting away and neglecting the precious calling. Often they make a deliberate decision to abandon the road that leads to eternal life. They do not endure to the end (Matthew 24:13) and are guilty of a blatant violation of God’s will.
What about the sin not leading to death?
Even though true Christians strive and struggle to “enter through the narrow gate” (Luke 13:24), endeavoring to please God in their daily lives, they don’t always succeed. From time to time all fall into sin as they learn to walk with Christ. Accidental sin is not a willful violation of God’s laws.
As the apostle John stated: “If we [he included himself] say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). “But if we freely admit [confess] that we have sinned, we find God utterly reliable and straightforward—he forgives our sins and makes us thoroughly clean from all that is evil” (verse 9, J.B. Phillips Translation). In this context read 1 John 1:10 and 2:1-2 as well.
Confession of sins has to do with what the Bible calls repentance. This word represents the difference between the sin that leads to death and the sin that does not lead to death.
What is repentance?
Repentance is a total and complete change of mind, purpose and attitude toward God and His Word.Repentance is a total and complete change of mind, purpose and attitude toward God and His Word. The opposite attitude—the unrepentant mind—is one of rebellion against God, rebellion against His laws, rebellion against the way of His righteousness.
Repentance means to have heartfelt sorrow, not only for what we have done, but what we are as individuals. We then begin to take on a completely different and new nature—that of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
As long as we exhibit a continuously repentant attitude, with God’s Spirit dwelling in us, we are called the children of God, and we will appear in the presence of Jesus Christ at His return (1 John 3:1-3). This is a result of daily striving to live in a way that is pleasing to our Heavenly Father.
We should be ever ready to prayerfully and wholeheartedly ask God for forgiveness when we recognize we have sinned against Him. Our desire should be to continually walk according to Ephesians 5:8: “For you were once darkness [unconverted], but now you are light in the Lord [converted]. Walk [live your lives] as children of light.”
This is the attitude of the “sin not leading to death.” See more in our article “How to Repent” and other related articles.
Summary: sin that leads to death vs. sin that doesn’t lead to death
- The sin that leads to death is what is sometimes called the unpardonable sin. It refers to a person who has willfully and intentionally made a decision to return to his or her old, sinful, corrupt way of life. The apostle Peter states that if those who have “escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, … are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. … It has happened to them according to the true proverb: ‘A dog returns to his own vomit,’ and, ‘a sow, having [been] washed, to her wallowing in the mire” (2 Peter 2:20-22).
This category of individuals refuses to repent and return and obey God, rejecting His offer of eternal life in His Kingdom. Instead they will die the second death, perishing in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14-15).
- The sin that doesn’t lead to death refers to those who have God’s Spirit dwelling in them and who do desire to repent whenever they realize their sins. They are God-centered, keeping His commandments as a way of life. Their major focus is to please their Heavenly Father in every aspect of their lives. From time to time they stumble and sin, but quickly acknowledge their transgressions and humbly ask God for forgiveness.
King David of Israel was just such a person (Psalm 51:1-19). God is well-pleased with an attitude of meekness and a desire to please Him. He will readily forgive such individuals upon genuine and heartfelt repentance (Psalm 103:11-14).
If these individuals continue to grow in grace and knowledge—endure to the end—they will inherit the promises given to those who seek and obey Him, including ultimately eternal life.
Of course, someone who has not yet been baptized certainly has the opportunity to repent. Peter wrote that God “is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
What should 1 John 5:16-17 lead us to do?
Our responsibilities are clear. We should certainly pray for those who have sinned that they will repent, but we also need to make sure we are living in harmony with God’s Word and allowing it to act as a guiding light in our own lives (Psalm 119:105). We must beware of Satan’s devices and avoid the traps of temptation and habitual sin.
For further study about repentance, forgiveness and conversion, read our booklet Change Your Life! May your future be richly blessed as you continue to seek God through the study of His Word!