By Dr. Robert R. Seyda


CHAPTER FIVE (Lesson CXIX) 04/25/23

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

The question then arises: what is the difference between sinning in a way that is not deadly to eternal life and a sin that is deadly to eternal life? John’s readers apparently understood the contrast since John did not elaborate further. Breaking God’s law is sin; that is, not living right is sin – including the moral sins committed by believers.[1] The sin deadly to eternal includes deliberately denying that Jesus is the Anointed Son of God that deliberately rejects Jesus as the Anointed One, destroying faith and love. John did not forbid prayer for the one who disregards the Anointed One, nor did he encourage it.[2]

A scholar who truly inspires Christian missionaries, Daniel L. Akin (1957), in verses sixteen and seventeen, the Apostle John gets specific regarding prayer. In the previous two verses, the subject was “imploring.”  Now, these two verses are about “intercession.” The issue is seeing someone in sin. In the original Greek text of verses sixteen to eighteen, the words hamartanō and hamartia (“sin”) appear seven times. But verse sixteen is one of the most difficult verses to interpret in all of Scripture. The best approach is to be humble, correct, and wise in translating it. It involves sins that bring spiritual death and those that do not.

When praying for those whose spiritual discipline does not lead to spiritual death, it is for restoration. When it comes to saying prayers for those who died spiritually, the Apostle John says he has no comment because he doubts it would do any good. Such mortal sins include: “Deliberate sin,”[3]Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,”[4] and “Total rejection of the Gospel.”[5] Here we can see that John is saying that for those who willfully, firmly, and irrevocably reject the biblical teaching about Jesus’ atoning death and life-giving resurrection, praying for such a person is futile and useless; it won’t change a thing.[6]

With a classical thinking approach to understanding the scriptures, Bruce G. Schuchard (1958) states that in verse seventeen, the Apostle John asserts that, while all sin is a deadly poison to eternal life, thankfully, not all sin results in spiritual death John is talking about. The second of three parenthetical references to sin[7] here speaks in the broadest possible terms of “all unrighteousness.” Every unrighteous sin threatens the life that is ours in the righteous Anointed one.[8] But with God, there is forgiveness.[9]

Therefore, with Him, our sin is not deadly to eternal life because there are forgivable sins. John’s “unforgivable sin” is a hard-hitting and attention-getting way of saying, “Beware, this way leads to darkness and the death of eternal life.”[10] The last of three parenthetical references to “sin[11] marks an end to John’s detour around verse thirteen. Those who heed the apostle, who believe in the name [Yeshua, meaning “Savior”] of God’s Son, who know that theirs is the gift of the life of the age to come joyfully ask for themselves and others – for they know God gladly hears when the sin is “not deadly to eternal life.” [12]

Great expositional teacher David Guzik (1961) admits that what the Apostle John says here in verses sixteen and seventeen is a problematic concept. Still, we have an example where the Apostle Paul says that among the Christians in Corinth, some died because of their disgraceful conduct at the Lord’s Supper (“Many in your group are sick and weak, and many have died.”)[13] This death came not as a condemnation but as a corrective judgment (“When the Lord judges us, He punishes us to show us the right way. He does this so that we will not be condemned along with a godless society.”)[14]

Apparently, a believer can sin to the point where God believes it is just best to have them rest in peace, probably because they have in some way compromised their testimony so significantly that they should leave for their rest early so they don’t jeopardize their soul’s salvation. However, it is certainly presumptuous to think this about every case of an untimely physical death of a believer or to use it as an enticement to suicide for the guilt-ridden Christian. Our lives are in God’s hands, and if He sees fit to send one of His children to the grave, that is fine.[15]

An expert in highlighting the crucial part of a biblical message, Marianne Meye Thompson (1964) comments on the Apostle John’s statement that there is a sin that leads to death. He is not saying that we should pray about that. On the contrary, this statement implies that there are situations in which one is prohibited from praying, a prohibition that seems difficult to comprehend. But it fits well with John’s understanding of judgment and a specific kind of prayer. But how does one “observe” another Christian sinning? Does this mean that it is a public or visible sin? Is the elder apostle referring only to sins one can witness, such as actions, rather than thoughts?

As is typical of the Johannine literature, “seeing” probably means “perceiving” or “understanding” John does not explain how one “perceives” a fellow Christian as sinning. Nevertheless, the proper response is to pray for that person. Presumably, that person has also repented and asked for forgiveness, for if the person who is sinning and is prayed for is indeed a spiritual brother or sister, then in John’s view, they would also be characterized by confession of sin and petition for pardon. Those who do not acknowledge their sins to God are not children of God. [16]

Prophetically speaking, Ken Johnson (1965) takes a different view. He suggests that we should always pray for sinners to repent and be converted as well as for Christians who stumble into sin. However, we should not waste time praying for them once someone dies because their fate is sealed. No one has a second chance to be saved after death. Paul mentions some who practiced the error of baptizing the dead.[17] This Gnostic belief of baptizing for the deceased had been around for a long time.[18]

As a lover of God’s Word, Peter Pett (1966) indicates that the Apostle John made it clear at the beginning he knew that some Christians would continue to sin. Indeed, he insisted that all Christians recognize that this failing in them would continue.[19] But they were not “sins deadly to eternal life,” for they could come to Him in the Light and be cleansed.[20] Thus, he says, we should be observant of our spiritual brother or sister’s failings as well as our own. Not to gloat or to be self-satisfied but to pray for their restoration.

We may be disappointed in seeing a fellow Christian who is entrapped by sin finding release difficult. For such a believer, we are to pray to God, and God will grant us their restoration. He promises that He will accordingly restore such. God will give them life rather than eternal death without the Anointed One they would have deserved. John is stressing our responsibility to pray for our spiritual brothers and sisters in the Anointed One, especially in the church we are members of.

The early church had an all-inclusive responsibility for one another. In a sense, of course, all sin is potentially “deadly to eternal life.”[21] But for such, there is forgiveness available in the Anointed One. Unfortunately, there is an “unforgivable sin” because those involved have so hardened their hearts that they are permanently closed to the Anointed One. They refuse to believe. They see what should convince them of the truth and refuse to accept it. They invent false arguments to avoid conversion.

Finally, such becomes an attitude of heart that nothing can change. Their opinions have solidified in their hearts so that they cannot change. They have put themselves beyond repentance. John is here concerned that we direct our prayers wisely. Our spiritual brothers and sisters in fellowship need our prayers, and our prayers will be effective for them because their ears are open to God’s voice. But some have hardened themselves and for whom our prayers will probably not be effective. Ultimately, we cannot carry the whole world’s weight.[22]

In his unorthodox Unitarian way, Duncan Heaster (1967) finds the Apostle John urging them to accept that although sin is sin, not all sins lead to death; and the reason they don’t is that other believers can pray for the sinners, and they will receive the gift of life, the Spirit, the life of Jesus, to strengthen them. So, our responsibility to pray for others is enormous.[23]

Bright seminarian Karen H. Jobes (b. 1968) sees that in verses sixteen and seventeen, the Apostle John instructs his readers about what they are to do when they see a Christian spiritual brother or sister sinning a sin that does not lead to death. First, they are to pray for that sinner. John recognized that some of his readers would sin in various ways and put some responsibility on the congregation’s members for the Church’s spiritual health. His appeal to “anyone” to intercede is remarkable because mediation between humans and the divine world was limited primarily to priests and prophets.

This is perhaps an expression of John’s belief in the “priesthood” of all believers.[24] Is John being hard-hearted by instructing prayer only for those whose sin does not lead to death? At the time of John’s writing, he was likely referring to those who left his church(es) as committing the sin that leads to death.[25] They denied that Jesus is the Anointed One who came in the flesh, refused to believe that He came by water and blood, and thereby rejected the significance of His atoning death.

In other words, they put themselves beyond the fellowship of apostolic Christian belief, so John is focusing his pastoral attention on strengthening the fellowship of those who remained faithful. There is no point in interceding for the sins of those who persist in beliefs about Jesus that prevent them from receiving God’s forgiveness. John simply says, “I am not saying that you should pray about the sin that leads to death.” He does not forbid praying for those who have left the church and are still in need of God’s transforming grace, but that is not the situation he is addressing here.[26]

A skilled sermonizer, David Legge (b. 1969), mentions that the first certainty of eternal life is found in verse thirteen. It is the certainty of the assurance of the possession of eternal life, knowing that you’re born of God, knowing that you are saved and have partaken of salvation that the Anointed One purchased for you through faith. Then the second certainty that he mentions is found in verses fourteen to seventeen, which relates to the assurance of answered prayer. One evidence that we are born of God is the reason He hears us, and verse fourteen is essential: “This is the confidence that we have in Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.[27]

5:18 We know that those who have been made God’s children do not continue to sin. The Son of God keeps them safe. The Evil One cannot hurt them.


The Apostle Paul gives a good reason for the Apostle John speaking this way. Paul told the Roman believers that God’s Spirit communicates with our spirit and confirms that we really are His children.[28] Paul was encouraged to notify the Corinthians that he lived by the same principles.  He said, “I’m so glad to report with complete honesty that I have been transparent and sincere in all my efforts. I depended on the Lord for His help and not on my human skills and wisdom alone. That is how I’ve conducted myself in front of worldly people, and especially to you.”[29]

Paul also communicated from prison, where he was incarcerated for Jesus’ sake, by telling young Timothy, “My living and working for the Lord is the reason I’m in all this trouble. But I am not ashamed and have no regrets. I am sure that He is more than able to safely guard all that I have given Him until the day of His return.”[30]

But Paul couldn’t say the same of others who rejected his message from God. He told the Roman believers that since they didn’t bother with God, God quit worrying about them and let them run loose. As a result, their lives became full of wickedness and sin, greed and hate, envy, and murder, fighting and lying, bitterness and gossip. They became backstabbers, haters of God, rude, proud, and boastful. They thought up new ways to sin and rejected all parental authority. They foolishly broke every promise and were heartless without pity. They thoroughly understood that they would suffer God’s death penalty for these crimes, yet they went right ahead and did them anyway and encouraged others to do them, too.[31] As the old saying goes, “Misery loves company.”[32]

After all, the Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus was the one who gave His life to rescue us from drowning in sin. It was God’s design to keep us from being swallowed up by this evil world.[33] When a person once born again still goes on sinning, the Apostle James says it’s like cheating on God, having an adulterous affair with a godless society. As such, you become alienated from God. So, if a person’s aim is to enjoy the immoral pleasures of the unsaved world, they cannot also be God’s closest friend.[34]

John has a special meaning behind this statement. The system of sacrifice and stoning governed all the mortal and moral sins of the First Covenant. But now that the last and final sacrifice has been offered by the Anointed One on the cross, there is no need for sinning to continue because the forgiver is living within the believer.  Will we still make mistakes? Yes!  But they can be corrected immediately when the Holy Spirit convicts us, and we ask God’s forgiveness straightaway. That’s because we are God’s children asking forgiveness from our heavenly Father. Let me put it another way. If a neighbor’s son or some vagrant runaway breaks out your window, the law would rule your reaction. But if it was your son who broke the window, you would respond according to the dictates of your heart.

[1] See 1 John 1:7, 9; 3:4

[2] Barton, Bruce B., 1,2,3 John (Life Application Bible Commentary, op. cit., pp. 116-118

[3] Acts of the Apostles 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 11:30

[4] Cf. Matthew 12:32; Mark 3:29

[5] 1 John 2:19

[6] Akin, Daniel L., Exalting Jesus in 1,2,3 John (the Anointed One-Centered Exposition Commentary), op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Edition

[7] See 1 John 5:16c, 17b

[8] 1 John 2:29; 3:7, 12

[9] Ibid. 1:9; 2:1

[10] Luke 11:35; Cf. Proverbs 7:24-27

[11] See also 1 John 5:16c-17a

[12] Schuchard, Bruce G., Concordia Commentary, 1-3 John, op. cit., p. 578

[13] 1 Corinthians 11:30

[14] Ibid. 11:32

[15] Guzik, David: Enduring Word, 1,2 & 3 John & Jude, op. cit., pp. 99-100

[16] Thompson, Marianne M., The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, 1-3 John, op. cit., pp. 143-144

[17] 1 Corinthians 15:29

[18] Johnson, Ken. Ancient Epistles of John and Jude, op. cit., p. 84

[19] 1 John 1:8-10

[20] Ibid. 1:7

[21] Ezekiel 18:20

[22] Pett, Peter: Commentary on the Bible, 1 John, op. cit., loc. cit.

[23] Heaster, Duncan. New European Christadelphian Commentary: op. cit., The Letters of John, p. 80

[24] Cf. 1 Peter 2:9

[25] 1 John 2:19

[26] Jobes, Karen H., 1, 2, and 3 John (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament Series Book 18), op. cit., pp. 233, 236-237

[27] Legge, David: Preach the Word, 1 John, op. cit., Sermon 16

[28] Romans 8:16

[29] 2 Corinthians 1:12

[30] 2 Timothy 1:12

[31] Romans 1:28-32

[32] The term misery loves company is a proverb that appears in the play Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), which reads in Latin: Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris (“Solace of the wretched will have companions of pain.”). It is often ascribed to John Ray (1627-1705), an English naturalist who collected English Proverbs.

[33] Galatians 1:4

[34] James 4:4

About drbob76

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