By Dr. Robert R. Seyda


CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson CXVIII) 04/24/23

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

How are we to interpret John’s advice? Surely, we are to take from it a reminder that we have, in fact, become so unconcerned about the sins of our fellow Christians that we have ceased even to think about praying for them. John’s words challenge us about the quality of our intercession for others. If it is out of place for us to pray publicly about other people’s sins, at least we should be more concerned for their spiritual welfare and pray positively for it in public.

At the same time, in our private prayers, we may also intercede more specifically for those who stumble into sin.[1] At the same time, we may note that while John says that God will certainly answer prayer for the believer who does not sin to death, He does not rule out the possibility of answered prayer for the person who commits a sin that does lead to death. Suppose we have in mind a case where, to our limited view, such a prayer seems unlikely to be answered. In that case, we may recall what Jesus said when a man refused what looked like his only chance of salvation – “For mankind, it is impossible, but not for God; anything is possible for God.”[2] [3]

As a seasoned essayist on the Apostle John’s writings, John Painter (1935) finds the elderly Apostle saying that Satan, the unrighteous one, is opposed to Jesus, the righteous Anointed One, and those born of God, who live uprightly.[4] To call unrighteousness a sin is an amplification similar to “Sin is lawlessness.”[5] That term is identical to the man of lawlessness and the mystery of lawlessness.[6]

The identification of sin this way has much in common with verse seventeen. By referring to every unrighteous act as a sin, John attends to social justice issues and does not allow any escape from being assessed as a sin. Nevertheless, John returns, saying, “There is a sin that is not deadly to eternal life.” The return of this theme creates a rough edge for the connection with what the Apostle Paul said but neatly ties up the discussion here in verses sixteen and seventeen.[7]

Ministry & Missions Overseer Muncia Walls (1937) calls the Apostle John’s words a simple explanation of sin. John said that sin was a transgression of the law.[8] Therefore, every act contrary to God’s will becomes a sin to the person committing such an act. Sin has been characterized as “missing the mark.” (Greek verb hamartia)[9] To miss the mark of the ideal lifestyle God would have us live[10] is to come short of the goals God has set for our lives.[11]

Again, John informs his readers that there is a sin that is not deadly to eternal life. Just because a person may sin does not mean they die. John explained in chapters one and two that there was a solution for any sin committed: confess our sin to a merciful God who will forgive us. While none should intentionally sin, they will slip up in their walk through this world. There is one thing that would be worse than sinning: to fail to confess it and ask forgiveness from the Lord. It is terrible to fall, but it is worse to refuse to get up.[12]

As an articulate spokesman for the Reformed Faith movement, James Montgomery Boice (1938-2000) points out that after the Apostle John indicated the nature of true prayer and stated the confidence in prayer that every Christian should possess, John now moves on to the content of prayer in answer to the question; “What requests should the believer bring before God?” The first response is nearly always personal, which no doubt indicates our limited understanding of this privilege.

Indeed, we think of our need for food and clothing, a good job (or a better one), our desire for a spouse, the elimination of a vexing problem, and other things; in other words, we think of ourselves. It is somewhat of a surprise, therefore, to find that John does not think selfishly but of others and that, as a result, his first specific example of prayer is intercession.

John’s encouragement to pray for others is based on a great promise: the promise that God will hear and “give… life… [for] those whose sin is not deadly to eternal life.” In addition, John often spoke of the need to pursue righteousness as evidence that the individual involved is truly God’s child. But although the individual Christian must and will pursue righteousness, they will, nevertheless, sin and become entangled in it from time to time.

What then? Christians should confess their sin and turn from it, knowing that they have an advocate in Jesus the Anointed One and that the Father is faithful and just to forgive them based on the Anointed One’s sacrifice and continuing intercession.[13] But it is often the case, when they are in this state, that this is what Christians find hard to do.

So, now what? Should they be left to themselves to suffer the consequences of sinning? Not at all, says John. Rather, those who are spiritual should pray on their behalf, knowing that God will hear and respond when they pray that way for others.[14]

Expositor and systematic theologist Michael Eaton (1942-2017) remembers that the Apostle John does not want believers to be over-friendly toward false teachers. His urging them to pray only has “those who sin but whose sin is not deadly to eternal life” in mind. He is not asking them to pray for the Gnostics who encountered the truth in John’s ministry but rejected his Good News. Almost certainly, John has in mind gnostic heretics who deny the truth when he says, “There is a sin deadly to eternal life. I do not recommend that you pray for those who commit it.”

John wants them to feel sure about the possibility of restoration. The fact that John is serious concerning those who have rejected his message must not make the Christians at Ephesus think he is disappointed in them. But, on the other hand, John does not want anyone to feel wrong-doing is harmless because the Christians’ sins are “not deadly to eternal life.” So, he says: “All unrighteousness is sin, but there is a sin not deadly to eternal life.” His last word in this connection is a word of encouragement. For all sins other than rejecting Jesus, he lets them know there is forgiveness! [15]

After scrutinizing the Apostle John’s subject William Loader (1944) hears John expressing concern about believers who go astray. Within the context of prayer, John addresses the problem of what to do about fellow Christians who sin. Within this discussion, he distinguishes between a sin deadly to eternal life and a sin not deadly to eternal life. Before attempting to clarify the precise meaning of these terms, it will be helpful to hear what is said about them in verses sixteen and seventeen. This sheds important light on their meaning.

Then, John tells the readers that they should intercede for their fellow Christians who are committing a sin that is not deadly to eternal life. Already this raises several further questions. First, are they being asked to pray for the person who is in the act of committing a sin or for the person who has already sinned? If it were the latter, we might expect the prayer to be about forgiveness.

Confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness are themes early in this epistle.[16] But verse sixteen is formulated to suggest the former: prayer for someone sinning. We might then understand the request to be about helping the person to resist temptation and turn from sin. Although all wrongdoing is sin, John tells us in verse seventeen, not all sin is unforgivable.

Therefore, it is time to ask what is this sin deadly to eternal life? What can be so severe that John considers those engaged in to be removed from any hope of return? If we were to ask this question of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, which is greatly concerned with emphasizing the Anointed One’s role in interceding for them as they face temptation and struggle with suffering, the answer would be clear. It is the sin of apostasy.[17]

Similarly, the author of Hebrews tells us that Esau lost any chance of reversing his decision to forfeit his firstborn rights: “You remember that after Esau did this, he wanted to get his father’s blessing. He wanted that blessing so much that he cried. But his father refused to give him the blessing because Esau could find no way to change what he had done.”[18] For such people warns Hebrews, “If we continue sinning after we have learned the truth, then no other sacrifice will take away sins. All that is left for us is a fearful time of waiting for the judgment and the angry fire that will destroy those who live against God.”[19] [20]

Great Commission practitioner David Jackman (1945) notes that the sinning Christian, whose active life in the Anointed One is declining, though their sin is not deadly to eternal life, will be restored by God’s grace through the Christian church family’s prayers. They will be convicted by the Holy Spirit whom they were grieving, reestablished by a renewed repentance and faith, and restored to walking in the light with God. This is an excellent stimulus for the church to pray for the complete restoration of Christians who wander or “backslide.”

It is also an essential duty, for verse seventeen reminds us that all wrongdoing is sin. Sin matters because it destroys fellowship with God and between Christians. “But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense ‒ Jesus the Anointed Righteous One.”[21] And it is our task to speak to the same Father, through the Son, whenever we are aware that one of His children is wandering into sin. All the weight of the divine covenant commitment lies behind our expectation of faith that such a Christian will be restored. So, we must pray with boldness and confidence. [22]

After studying the context of this verse, John W. (Jack) Carter (1947) believes that the Gospel can persuade a faithful Christian to know that, though all sin is an expression of unrighteousness, it can no longer separate them from the LORD’s promise of an eternal home with Him. However, some taught (and still do to this day) that if a person of faith commits any sin, they are instantly declared unrighteous and have lost their salvation until they subsequently find a second forgiveness as a backslider at the altar. If they do not seek God’s forgiveness, they face eternal damnation with sinners. 

However, we find no such doctrine in the words or illustrations of the post-resurrection covenant with God. The First Covenant’s sacrificial system was simply an archetype, an example that would cause us to recognize the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Since the resurrection of Jesus, the sacrificial system is no longer needed. Forgiveness is found through faith in God, and the sacrifice of atonement paid by Jesus on the Cross of Calvary. Because of this, one is not going to lose their salvation through an act of sin. If this were possible, all people of faith would be without hope since our natural, self-centered spirit is always pressing us into thoughts and actions that fall short of God’s demand for perfection.[23]

A man who loves sharing God’s Word, Robert W. Yarbrough (1948) finds that verse seventeen rounds off the Apostle John’s teaching on this subject of sin. The statement “all wrongdoing is sin” (Greek adikia, “wrongdoing”) is the same word used in “God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all adikia.[24] This verse shows that adikia is best understood as denoting specific evil deeds.

It is likely a blanket term for the transgressions that John addresses, whether they are deadly to eternal life or not. Sin brings spiritual death, and the wrongdoing that John points to is indeed sin. But John quickly adds, “there is sin that is not deadly to eternal life.” As grim and ugly as all sins are and granting that particular evil deeds can signal terminal opposition to God, there is also a sin that can be overcome through prayer, repentance, and renewed faith resulting in reform and restoration. Thus, John’s instruction ends on a cautionary but hopeful note.[25]

Skilled in Dead Sea Scroll interpretation and Final Covenant writings, Colin G. Kruse (1950) states that in verse seventeen, the Apostle John reaffirms and reinforces the distinction he made between sins that are and sins that are not “deathly.” The highlighting of the difference between deadly to eternal life sins and those that are not, seems to assure John’s readers that although they may fall into sin from time to time, their sins do not lead to permanent spiritual death. John already emphasized that God forgives those who confess their sins and cleanses them from all unrighteousness or wrongdoing.[26]

With her crafted spiritual insight, Judith Lieu (1951) notes that various attempts to categorize sin in other traditions illustrate that it is wrong to expect perfection from every believer. Contradictory consequences often occur under different circumstances, and the dilemmas of living in this world challenge neat theological ideals. For example, the Apostle John may have expected his readers to easily identify situations where prayer was both possible and appropriate. Still, he may also have felt this would become obvious to them.

More importantly, the emphasis here is not on the inevitable consequences of the choices made by a member of the community, the sinner, but on the exercise by the community as a whole of the privileges of having God’s ear. Within the biblical tradition, individuals can act as intercessors before God for the people as a whole.[27] Here, in John’s epistle, that possibility is available to any Church community member. Also, as in those earlier examples, they may be forbidden to intercede because God is determined to let the punishment run its course.[28] [29]

Emphasizing the Apostle John’s call to Christian fellowship, Bruce B. Barton (1954) points out that verses sixteen and seventeen describe the kind of petition God will answer. Because the believers are called to love one another, it follows that they ought to care enough to intercede with God if they see any fellow Christian sinning in a way that is not deadly to eternal life. Intercessory prayer forms a vital part of the fellowship of the Church.[30] The faithful prayers of believers in the church can help restore the wayward or backslidden Christian. Their prayers can affect the conviction of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life and restore such ones to a wholesome Christian life.

[1] John uses the perfect tense often, to indicate the present state of the believer

Marshall, I. Howard: The Epistles of John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), p. 256 Eerdmans, Kindle Edition

[2] Mark 10:27

[3] Marshall, Ian Howard: The Epistles of John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), op. cit., pp. 245-246, 251

[4] 1 John 2:1; cf. 1:9; 2:29

[5] Ibid. 3:4

[6] 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 7

[7] Painter, John. Sacra Pagina: 1, 2, and 3 John: Volume 18, op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Edition

[8] 1 John 3:4

[9] Ibid. 5:16

[10] Ibid. 2:1

[11] Romans 3:23

[12] Walls, Muncia: Epistles of John and Jude, op. cit., p. 94

[13] See 1 John 1:9-2:2

[14] Boice, James Montgomery: The Epistles of John, An Expository Commentary, op. cit., pp. 139-143

[15] Eaton, Michael: Focus on the Bible, 1,2,3 John, op. cit., pp. 193, 195

[16] See 1 John 1:5-2:2

[17] Hebrews 6:4-6

[18] Ibid. 12:17

[19] Ibid. 10:26-27

[20] Loader, William: Epworth Commentary, The Johannine Epistles, op. cit., pp. 74-76

[21] 1 John 2:1

[22] Jackman, David: The Message of John’s Letters, op. cit., p. 166

[23] Carter, Dr. John W. (Jack). 1,2,3, John & Jude: (The Disciple’s Bible Commentary Book 48), op. cit., p. 135

[24] 1 John 1:9

[25] Yarbrough, Robert W., 1-3 John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), op. cit., pp. 312-313

[26] Kruse, Colin G., The Letters of John (The Pillar New Testament Commentary), op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Edition

[27] Genesis 18:22-33; Exodus 32

[28] Jeremiah 7:16; 11:14

[29] Lieu, Judith: A New Testament Library, I, II, & III John, op. cit., p. 228

[30] See John 20:23

About drbob76

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