Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What is "a sin unto death"?

"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

This is probably one of the most misunderstood passages of scripture in the New Testament. A dear sister in Christ asked me recently what to make of this verse and I thought I'd share my response to her here since many of us are likely curious about this same topic.

So, what is meant by a sin unto death? Unless we know what “a sin unto death” is, how can we know whether to pray for the person or not? This is the basic question.

Most commentaries will suggest that it’s referring to suicide and that the "sin unto death" is the act of taking ones' own life. This could be a valid interpretation since suicide does result in the death of the person, but it doesn't necessarily make clear the rest of the passage where John suggests that "there is sin that does not lead to death." If the sin that leads to death is suicide, it seems strange to refer to other sins this way.

Others suggest that John is speaking of the "unforgivable sin" or blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Still others believe it means “a sin that leads to the death penalty” such as murder, blasphemy, rape, incest, etc.

Some believe that it’s referring to someone who turns away from their faith in Christ. Those who believe this cite Hebrews 6: 4-6 which says, “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.”

However, this passage in Hebrews can also be understood to be saying that it is impossible for a Christian who has tasted the heavenly gift to fall away in the first place. If this is the case, then it's probably not what John was talking about in his passage.

Still another passage in Hebrews seems to suggest that what John might be talking about is a continual, persistent practice of sin in the life of the Christian. In Hebrews 10:26-29 it says – “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?”

This may be closer to what John is talking about. It does seem to fit with the tone and the logical flow of the passage. Any sin, therefore, can be the kind that leads to death if we do not resist and repent and cease our practice of sin. Maybe that's why John doesn't name the sin ("lust" for example) because for you it may be lust, but for another it might be pride or drunkenness. What may be "a sin unto death" for you may not be much of a struggle for me, but my sin unto death may have no hold over you.

For what it’s worth, it seems that John is suggesting that “a sin unto death” is something that you and I can see or observe. I think it would be difficult for you and I to know if someone has actually blasphemed the Holy Spirit, or if they have truly left the faith for good. (And the scriptures do suggest that we can be restored to the faith if we repent and return to Christ).

So, maybe there’s a much simpler understanding for this passage? What if it simply means to “sin until you die”. In Revelation 2:10 Jesus urges the Church to “be faithful unto death” which means to continue being faithful until we die. So, “unto death” may just simply mean “until you die”.

If this is what John means, then what he’s really saying is that we shouldn’t pray for someone who is already dead. The early church did sometimes practice prayer for, and even baptism for, those who had already died. It could be that John is teaching that, while someone is still alive, there is still hope for the person to repent and to receive life from Jesus. Once they are dead, it’s too late to pray for them.

The truth is, there are many different ways to understand this passage and I think the best any of us can do is to take our best guess and leave room for interpretation since it's not such a clear passage to begin with.


1 comment:

Jeremy Myers said...

Thank you for this. Beautiful and gracious. I think that many divisive Scriptures could be explained this way:

"there are many different ways to understand this passage and I think the best any of us can do is to take our best guess and leave room for interpretation..."