By Dr. Robert R. Seyda


CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson CXVI) 04/20/23

5:17 Doing wrong is always a sin. But there is a sin that does not lead to eternal death.

If anyone sees a spiritual brother or sister involved in forgivable sin: already, the exception is stated, the solemnity of which requires enlargement upon it afterward. A forgivable sin should be seen as an ongoing sinful act by a spiritual brother or sister. It is the future and implies more than is expressed, the warning and repentance by the offender and joining them in prayer; these are omitted because the point here is the power of one in close fellowship with God, who is supposed in this beautiful sentence to be the very administrator of the Divine will.[1] [2]

With precise spiritual discernment, William Alexander (1824-1911) puts verses sixteen and seventeen together as one verse that reads: “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 a sin. But there is an unforgivable sin that does not lead to eternal death.”

The thing that concerns Alexander is the misunderstanding some people have of John’s use of the word “death.” Some scholars understand it as “physical death.” But that would lead to even more misinterpreting because it means when a person commits such a sin, they quickly die.

Therefore, most Bible scholars accept it as “spiritual death.” We can glean four tests from this passage. (a) It does not seem to be any single sin but a particular kind of wrongdoing. (b) It could only occur among Christians from the emphatic way we use the term “brother” or “sister” [fellow Christian]. Sinners cannot commit these sins because they are spiritually dead. (c) It would seem to be such a sin perceptible and visible to the observer. Not a corruption of the mind or heart but of the body. (d) According to John’s interpretation, the death spoken of cannot be bodily by God’s judgment or the mere deserved ex-communication.

Therefore, it refers to spiritual death. John mentioned this earlier when he said, “We know that we have left death and come into life. We know this because we love each other as spiritual brothers and sisters. Anyone who does not love is still in death.”[3]

With holiness doctrine expertise, Daniel Steele (1824-1914) mentions that the Apostle John’s statement in verse seventeen serves as a farewell declaration against the Gnostic doctrine that an enlightened Christian declining to follow God’s law of righteousness does not sin because sin only exists in actual actions, which always keeps the human spirit sinless. However, John’s broader scope in defining sin includes proactive transgression of the law and failures to fulfill our duty to God and one another. This is appropriately determined to be unrighteousness John already declared ample provision in the atonement to forgive actual sins and cleanse from all wrongdoing.[4] Here is a vast field for a Christian’s intercession. John adds that there is an unforgivable sin [sin deadly] as a safeguard against despair.

For some commentators, the fact that in this verse, John asserts that there is a sin that does not destroy the spiritual life seems to be a contradiction with what he said earlier “No one who is born of God will continue to sin.”[5] However, the perplexity disappears or is alleviated by carefully reading the Greek tenses. The perfect tense “has been born of God” implies that the regenerating efficiency of divine grace continues. Their likeness to God remains undimmed to the present moment.

In that case, while love for God rules the conduct, the person cannot be sinning or in recurring rebellion against God, which is spiritual death ending in eternal death. In this sense, there is “a forgivable sin.” But if instant repentance is not made, and a second and a third sin is committed, the law of habit comes in and strangles the spiritual life to eternal death. They have ceased to be God’s children because they discontinued being godly. Hence, the “unforgivable sin” has been committed.[6]

After sufficient examination of the Greek text, Brooke Foss Wescott (1825-1901) concludes that the Apostle John’s words in verse seventeen are added to show the broad scope given for the exercise of Christian sympathy and intercession. Apart from such sins as are open manifestations of a character alien from God, other sins flow from human imperfection and spiritual weakness that put a Christian’s intercession to work. 

Such unrighteousness is the failure to fulfill our duty one to another, and there is abundant opportunity for the exercise of prayer in this vast field.[7] A fellow believer’s petition may remove the consequences of this forgivable sin. John’s statement that “all unrighteousness is sin” must be compared with the comprehensive definition he gives in chapter three.[8] Lawlessness is sin, and conversely, sin is lawlessness.

We find that sin is the general term used regarding God’s will for mankind. Whatever act, internal or external, that falls short of God’s will is spiritually considered a “sin.” God’s perfect will may be conceived of as embodied in the constitution of God’s Law. As such, it violates the law as “sinning.” Not only that, but unrighteousness is one manifestation of sin.[9] It proves the certainty of spiritual knowledge.[10]  The thought of sin among believers and unforgivable sin forces John to recall the assurance of faith once more. Despite the sad lessons of daily experience, John reaffirms the truths the Christian knows: the privileges of the divine birth,[11] the fact of the divine kinsmanship,[12] and the advance in understanding issuing from sacred fellowship.[13] [14]

The author of the first scientific commentary on the Old Testament and an ordained minister in the Free Church of Scotland,[15] Andrew Bruce Davidson (1831-1902), says that the First Covenant distinguishes between sins done out of inattentiveness and those done intentionally. The Torah comprehended that all sins do not in a spirit of rebellion against the law and ordinance of Yahweh – sins committed through human imperfection, ignorance, or human passion. These included wrongdoings due to human weakness or frailty but not formally opposed to the authority of the lawgiver.

The distinction was thus primarily a distinction regarding the state of mind of the transgressor. However, it was convenient to specify in general the offenses which belonged to the class of sins done with a high hand, and overall, they were the sins forbidden by moral law. No doubt, in certain circumstances, even these sins, if committed involuntarily, were treated as sins of error. Therefore, the penalty due to them was averted by specific extraordinary arrangements. Otherwise, the consequence of his deed would overtake him in the ordinary penalty attached to such an offense, which was death.[16] [17]

Like a spiritual farmer planting the seed of God’s Word, Henry A. Sawtelle (1832-1913) says that the Apostle John talks about definite acts being deemed sinful, noticed by the intercessor, and pardonable in verse seventeen. Because when offenses against the law are forgivable, the person committing it may be prayed for with the hope of repentance and restoration. Therefore, it must not be concluded that it is incorrect to call it violating God’s law, and offensive to sanctified living. It is a sin, though it may be called only unrighteousness, and therefore needs forgiveness. It is a grievous sin, whether committed by a believer or an unbeliever.

Though it is a sin, a violation of God’s holy law, it may be one that God can forgive because it does not restrain the Spirit of Grace, nor does it deny the spiritual nature of the Anointed One.[18] In this closing portion of his Epistle, John briefly resumes or summarizes the chief facts belonging to the new life. The great matter to which he would conduct his readers in all this writing is realizing their union with God in the Anointed One and its call to holiness. Therefore, it is fitting that some of the last words of his letter of love and righteousness should touch on this cardinal truth of the Christian position.[19]

With Spirit-led certainty, William Baxter Godbey (1833-1920) establishes that the Apostle John gives his second definition of sin, “unrighteousness,” which means hereditary sin. His first definition, “transgression,” means actual sin.[20] What is this sin for which we are not to pray for pardon since there is no pardon possible in the case? John answers this question throughout his epistle. The remarkable fact of Gospel truth presented in this letter is the Christhood, out of which salvation is utterly impossible since God out of the Anointed One is a consuming fire. That is why believing and adopting the false prophets’ doctrine is an unpardonable sin if not repented of. 

When people reject Christhood, it is useless to pray for them, because they cannot be saved in their present attitude. If you can prevail on them to forsake their unchristian heresies, then they are open to conviction, subjects of prevailing prayer, and candidates for salvation. This same great, though sad, truth is brought out by Jesus in the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, denominated by the unpardonable sin.[21]

Since the Holy Spirit is the Successor and Revelator of the risen and glorified Anointed One, it is utterly impossible for anyone to receive the benefit of the Christhood without the office of the Holy Spirit in illumination, conviction, regeneration, sanctification, and glorification. Hence, the unpardonable sin is following Antichrist and blaspheming the Holy Spirit by rejecting Him.[22]

Noting the Apostle John’s doctrinal implications, John James Lias (1834-1923) takes the Apostle John’s word in verse seventeen that “all wrongdoing is sin, and there are forgivable sins.” There are other cases in which intercessory prayer can be applied. Wherever there is any measure of unrighteousness, there is sin and a fit occasion for intercession. Therefore, injustice (“unrighteousness”) is any act of unfairness, discrimination, or unkindness – wrongdoing. We may compare this declaration: “Everyone who sins breaks the law; sin is lawlessness,[23] namely, disregarding the law.

Thus, lawlessness is theoretical, and breaking the law is practical, which answers the question – what is the true character of sin? What is the principle which lies at the root of it? The former answers how I can know sin to be sin. What sort of conduct is sinful? The answer is, “Everything which transgresses the golden rule of doing as we would be done by.” Into such behavior, even the regenerate is frequently betrayed. As John reminded us, “If we say that we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves,[24] and God is “faithful and just” in forgiving that sin.[25]

With his systematic spiritual mindset, Augustus Hopkins Strong (1836-1921) says that in verse seventeen, guilt is measured not by the objective sufficiency or insufficiency of divine grace but by the degree of non-receptiveness into which sin has brought the soul. It must be noted that all sin that comes short of a final rejection of the Anointed One is ignorance rather than sin and the object of no condemning sentence. Any attempt to make this a sin against the Holy Spirit is contradicted by Conscience and Scripture alike.

A growing hardness of the heart precedes the sin of final rejection. Strong informs us that in a weekly magazine called The Outlook,[26] one of the contributors wrote, “If a man should put out his eyes, he could not see, and nothing could make him see. So, if a man should, by obstinate wickedness, destroys his power to believe in God’s forgiveness, he would be in a hopeless state. God would still be gracious, but the man could not see it and so could not take God’s forgiveness to himself.”[27]

A tried and tested biblical scholar who believes in reinforcing the Christian life, Robert Cameron (1839-1904) points out that the “unforgivable sin” has caused much curious speculation. Much can be said in favor of two views. One is that the Apostle John was referring to spiritual death. The Greek noun thanatos, (translated as death) is used twice[28] in the early part of this Epistle, which means spiritual death in both places. What is put in contrast with death is life.

The Greek noun zōē here, translated as life, is used in no less than ten[29] other places in this very Epistle, and in every case, it means eternal or spiritual life. Another Greek word, meaning natural life, bios, is used twice in this Epistle.[30] If John intended natural life, he would have used the Greek noun bios. But he has not done so. He, moreover, has just been speaking of eternal life in the thirteenth verse, and he goes on to speak of it again in the twentieth verse. If a different kind of life were meant, it would be natural to expect John to indicate it using the Greek noun psychē, used for physical life elsewhere.[31] [32]

Manifestly and distinctly, Erich Haupt (1841-1910) recalls that in previous comments, the Apostle John implied different kinds of sin: unforgivable and forgivable. So now, John declares, in verse sixteen, “There is a deadly sin,” and in verse seventeen, “There is a sin not deadly.” That these two clauses are thus connected is not generally acknowledged; still, less is it the standard view that the words “All unrighteousness is sin” are to be linked with what precedes instead of with what follows. As a result, it scarcely needs any demonstration that these two clauses correspond in their construction and are in thought fitted to each other. It is, in any case, enforced upon us when we observe that the proposition “all unrighteousness is sin” cannot belong to “there is a sin not deadly.”

If it did, we should be able to see what caused John to introduce the idea of unrighteousness here. This idea not only has no organic connection with the proposition that all sin is not unforgivable but is unrelated to it and somewhat conflicting. Therefore, we should be obliged to take it in a more agreeable way: “all unrighteousness is indeed sin.” But do not think too passively concerning unrighteousness; it also is sin. However, we could expect to read, “it is not an unforgivable sin.” That, however, we do not read, but only that there is sin which is not deadly. The idea of unrighteousness is, therefore, dropped again. It is entirely irrelevant to the proposition “it is a sin not deadly. Are we indeed to suppose that the apostle felt called to occupy himself with teaching here, in an incidental way and without any necessity, the relation of “unrighteousness” to “sin.”[33]

[1] Cf. Matthew 18:18-20

[2] Pope, William B., The International Illustrated Commentary of the N.T., Vol. IV, op. cit., p. 40

[3] 1 John 3:14

[4] Ibid. 1:9

[5] Ibid. 3:9

[6] Steele, Daniel, Half-Hours with St. John’s Epistles, op. cit., pp. 145-147

[7] 1 John 1:9

[8] Ibid. 3:4

[9] Cf. Romans 6:13

[10] See 1 John 5:18-20

[11] Ibid. 5:18

[12] Ibid. 5:19

[13] Ibid. 5:20

[14] Westcott, Brooke F., The Epistles of St. John: Greek Text with Notes, op. cit., pp. 192-193

[15] Professor of Hebrew and Oriental languages in New College, University of Edinburg

[16] Davidson, A. B., The Theology of the Old Testament, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1904, pp. 315-316

[17] 1 John 5:18-21

[18] Sawtelle, Henry A., Commentary on the Epistles of John, op. cit., pp. 61-62

[19] 1 John 2:4

[20] Matthew 12:31-32

[21] Godbey, William Baxter: Commentary on the New Testament, Vol. II, op. cit., pp. 398-399

[22] 1 John 3:4

[23] Ibid. 1:9

[24] Lias, John James: The First Epistle of St. John with Exposition, op. cit., pp. 411-413

[25] The Outlook, Published in New York, from 1893-1928

[26] Strong, Augustus H., Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, op. cit., pp. 495-496

[27] 1 John 3:14; cf. 5:16, 17

[28] Ibid. 1:1, 2, 25; 3:14, 15, 5:11, 12, 13, 16, 20

[29] Ibid. 2:16; 3:17

[30] 1 John 3:16; see Matthew 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 6:9; John 10:17; Acts of the Apostles 20:10; Romans 11:3; Philemon 2:30

[31] Cameron, Robert: The First Epistle of John, or, God Revealed in Light, Life, and Love, op. cit., p. 243

[32] Haupt, Erich: The First Epistle of St. John: Clark’s Foreign Theological Library, Vol. LXIV, op. cit., pp. 331-332

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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