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Sin that Leads to Death

Posted on February 12, 2021 at 2:45 PM

I believe my Bible says there is one sin that leads to death and we should not even bother to pray about it. I worry I may commit that sin and not be able to be forgiven. Is there a sin that leads to death and cannot be forgiven?

Let us remember that the blood of Jesus forgives us of all sin when we accept that truth and enter into relationship with God. We are told that expressly in several places and God does not lie. If we say God is incapable of forgiving every sin, we deny his power and we negate the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Having said that, we must admit that there are a few places in the Bible which might cause us to question the idea of complete forgiveness. One of them is this: “If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.” (1 John 5:16-17 NIV)

In more than one place in the letter we call 1 John, John plainly says that those of us in Christ do not sin and cannot sin. In other places, he talks of Christians committing sins or the possibility of Christians committing sins. How can that be?

1 John 5 will help us. Translators have muddied the waters, so we must deal with that first. We will pick on the New International Version, a generally reliable translation. Remember that translations are done by people like you and me and they must make choices of words and phrases. This passage has puzzled us. According to the NIV and many other translations, John is referring to some particularly dangerous sin that Christians need to avoid. If there is such a sin, it is unidentified. We do not know what it might be and can only surmise the readers did. The context gives no clue to this mysterious sin. The idea that Christians can commit this unforgivable sin does not fit well with what John said earlier about Christians not being in sin.

Further examination will show this passage is not that hard to understand and, indeed, fits well with what John has been saying all along. Occasionally we must go to the original languages to find the correct meaning. In the Greek, oddly, there are no indefinite articles like “a” or “an”. That oversight worked for the Greek speakers, but we cannot let it go in English. We need our indefinite articles. If a Greek said, “I saw frog” then the listener would know what he or she meant even though there was no “a” before frog. We cannot be that ambiguous in English. We would have to translate the Greek phrase in English as “I saw a frog.” That adding of an “a” or “an” is done thousands of times in the New Testament and it must be done for English readers. Sometimes, though, problems can arise. For example, what if the Greek said, “I saw sheep”? Now a translator cannot just add the indefinite article in English and say, “I saw a sheep” because the Greek speaker may have meant “I saw several sheep.” Translators must consider the context and other factors, but sometimes they must guess. In our chapter 5 passage, the word “sin” is used several times and in the Greek original, there is no indefinite article. The English word “sin” is like the word “sheep.” Both words can be singular or collective. Translators must make a choice. They cannot leave it untranslated. Many translations such as the NIV have chosen in our 1 John 5 case to add the indefinite article before “sin” in verse 16. Some versions even translate it as “one sin” rather than “a sin.” Adding such indefinite articles or adjectives here assumes John refers to a particular sin, despite the fact he does not identify such a sin. Translating by the use of “a” sin or “one” sin still leaves a lot of questions and does not make much sense. It causes versions like the NIV to switch the meaning in verse 17 by leaving off the indefinite article there, which is a strange way to translate. Is it good translating to put the indefinite article in verse 16 and leave it out in the next verse? No! In fact, it is very inconsistent and problematic because it leaves us scratching our heads. Worse, it leads many Christians to live in a constant fear that they might be committing this unidentified sin that irreversibly leads to death and destruction.

In Bible translation, one of the general rules is that the simpler meaning is preferred. Here, leaving off the indefinite article in both verses makes much more sense and is the simpler translation. Notice this translation: “Suppose you see your fellow believer sinning (sin that does not lead to eternal death). You should pray for them. Then God will give them life. I am talking about people whose sin does not lead to eternal death. There is sin that leads to death. I don’t mean that you should pray about that kind of sin. Doing wrong is always sin. But there is sin that does not lead to eternal death.” (1 John 5:16-17 ERV) This is a perfectly valid translation that is simpler, more consistent, and fits in well with what John has been saying in the whole book. Now, the implication is that there is sin that leads to death and sin that does not lead to death, which we know to be true. That fits smoothly into John’s thought and does not force the reader into wondering why John has randomly inserted a particular unforgivable but unknown sin into his discussion.

John has spent a great deal of the book talking about the contrasts between light and darkness as well as life and death. He stays with those themes here. He says that Christians do commit sins, but because of the life that comes from the blood, those sins do not lead to death. In that sense, Christians do not sin. There is sin that does not lead to death because we are alive, and those sins are forgiven. Conversely, sin can lead to death if we choose to leave life for death, either through a direct choice or through a refusal to live in the light. Sin is ultimately a choice we make. Christians can commit a sin (break the law) without being in sin (separated from God). Thus, John can follow up his statement that Christians do not commit sin by affirming again: “We know that whoever is born of God does not sin; but he who has been born of God keeps himself, and the wicked one does not touch him.” (1 John 5:18 NKJV) It is tempting to translate “does not sin” as “does not continue to sin” under the idea that Christians sin but do not do it continuously. That is not really what it says. John uses the phrase “does not sin.” He can say that because Christians who continue to choose God can commit sins that do not lead to separation. Remember that the definition of sin is what leads us from God. When we remain in Jesus Christ we are in the light and in the life and we are not sinners. Sin has no power over us. John often expresses the confidence we have as Christians. Paul can affirm there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. 

Categories: Erased: God's Complete Forgiveness of Sins