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There is Sin Not Toward Death
Some thoughts on 1 John chapter five
Well here we are. It’s time for 1 John 5, which is the last chapter in this short epistle. As always, be sure to check out my friend Corri’s post on her blog fearlessandjoyful.com and give it a follow. While we do the study together, her insights always slightly differ from mine, so you’ll get a broader perspective on this chapter — which is always a good thing.
In 1 John 5, there is an enigmatic verse that says, from Scot McKnight’s translation, “If someone sees one’s sibling sinning a sin not toward Death, the one will ask and will give Life to him—for the ones sinning not toward Death. There is a sin toward Death. I am not saying that you request about that. Every wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin not toward Death” (1 John 5:16-17).
What is this sin? While I think it must have been something specific to John’s audience, I do think that we can make an educated guess as to what this sin could be, even though it appears that John doesn't tell us what it is.
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Hatred and Denying Jesus - the Sin that Leads to Death
My personal opinion is that this sin that leads to Death, what some versions call a mortal sin, is hatred and denying Jesus, and I think these two are bound up together for John’s audience. Allow me to demonstrate why!
1 John 1
There’s just one idea we need from 1 John 1 which will come into play later. In verse 7, John says that we ought to walk around in the Light as he is in the Light, but in verses 8 and 10, John warns that if we claim we have no sin, we deceive ourselves an we make God a liar.
Why would John want us to admit that we still have sin as Christians? I think it’s because he’s distinguishing from general sin and the mortal sin he will address later.
1 John 2
In 1 John 2, John writes, “The one who says that ‘I have known him’ and doesn’t observe his orders is a falsifier, and the Truth is not in that person” (1 John 2:4). What are the orders John has in mind? As we discussed in a previous post, these are not general commands, thoughts on worship, or ideas about the organization of church leadership; instead, John specifically has in mind love of each other that comes from allegiance to the Christ (1 John 3:23).
Disobeying the orders, which would be the sin John has in mind, would look like rejecting Christ and, therefore, hating one’s brothers and sisters.
In 1 John 2:9-11, John writes that those who love each other are in light, but those who hate each other are in darkness. Specifically, he says, “…and there is no tripping in the person.” In other words, the one who loves others doesn’t sin the sin that leads to Death.
Then there’s the Anti-Christos. This is a really important point. In 1 John 2:18-20, the Anti-christoses exited the fellowship. John says they would not have left if they were really born of the world to come. How could these people be identified? They had publicly denied Jesus (1 John 2:22).
1 John 3
In 1 John 3, we have two more passages that appear to me to be similar to our main text in 1 John 5:
Everyone who remains in him doesn’t sin. Everyone who sins has not seen him and has not known him.
Everyone who has been given life from God doesn’t do sin because his seed remains in him and is unable to sin because the person has been given life from God. (1 John 3:6, 9)
When you read these two passages, do you think to yourself, “What is wrong with me?” I do. Why? Because I sin. But this shouldn’t be a shock to you or to me because John told us in the first chapter to admit that we do sin, and in chapter 5 he says that we ought to pray for our brothers and sisters who we see sinning a sin not toward Death.
So what is this text talking about? In the past, I believed it was best explained by focusing on the active voice. You might read it like this… “Everyone who remains in him doesn't continue to sin…” And while this may be a valid way of reading the text, I think there is more to it than this.
I think John has in mind a specific sin in this passage — the sin that leads towards Death. This sin is hatred of one’s brothers and sisters that comes from a denial of Jesus as the Christ. In 1 John 3:10, John writes, “In this God’s children and the Accuser’s children are apparent: everyone who doesn’t do rightness isn’t from God — and the one who doesn't love one’s sibling.” The “not doing rightness” comes from a hatred of one’s sibling.
Personally I think the “lawlessness” in this chapter, Covenant-Code breaking, is the same lawlessness of Matthew 24:9-14 which I believed is talking about a denial of the nonviolent kingdom of heaven preached by Jesus in order to embrace the violent “false Christs” of the violent rebellion against Rome, but I plan on expanding on this in a final article on 1 John next week.
1 John 4
I’m going to keep this section really short, but notice 1 John 4:1-6. In this passage, the false spirit is distinguished from the true prophet by one thing: confession or denial of Jesus as the Christ. Those who confess Christ, John goes on to say, receive the words of the apostles which are quite simple: love one another.
In 1 John 4:20, John writes, “If someone says that ‘I love God’ and hates one’s sibling, the person is a falsifier. For the one who doesn’t love one’s sibling, whom one has seen, is unable to love God, whom one has not seen.”
His Orders are Not Heavy
Going back to 1 John 5, we’ll notice a few more things before looking at our text once again.
In 1 John 5:1, John sums up the entire book:
Everyone who trusts that Yēsous is the Christos has been given life from God—and everyone who loves the One who gave life loves also the one given life from him.
Loving God and God’s children means loving each other by keeping his orders, which John has already shown are trusting in Christ and living a life of love. God’s orders, John writes, are not heavy (1 John 5:3). Our faith that conquered the Kosmos is quite simple: trust in Jesus as the Christ and allow this faith to manifest itself in love.
This doesn’t mean perfection, as we saw in 1 John 1:8-10. But it does mean that our default attitude ought to be one of love.
When we trust in the name of God’s Son, then we have eternal life. Nothing can take that away from us, not even the sins which we sin that are not unto death; that is, the things we might regularly mess up on but do not cause us to deny Jesus and hate our brothers and sisters because of this denial.
In 1 John 5:18, John explains, “We know that everyone has been given life from God doesn’t sin but the one who has been given life from God observes oneself, and the Evil One doesn’t touch the person.” The Evil One shows up quite a bit in 1 John, and when he does, hatred and denial of Christ fall quickly behind.
For John’s audience, I think this specifically refers to those who were leaving the nonviolent community of Jesus to join in the violent rebellion against Rome. While our series on John is technically over, we’ll return once more to look more into this idea.