The expression "sin unto death" ( 1 John 5:16-17 ) appears in a context concerning confident, effective prayer (cf. 1 John 3:21-22 ; 4:17 ). First John 5:14-15 speaks generally about the confidence that God will answer requests made according to his will. Verses 16-17 speak specifically about the confidence that God will answer intercession for believers who are committing a sin not unto death and give life to them. But no such confidence is available when the sins is unto death. While all unrighteousness is sin, not all sin is unto death. Thus, the comment about sin unto death is something of an afterthought.
But what are the nondeadly and deadly sins? Some answers are unconvincing because they stress remote contexts rather than the immediate context in 1 John. The view that mortal and venial sins are distinguished is anachronistic. In another approach, death is understood as physical, but in 1 John death and life are spiritual (1:1-2; 2:25; 3:14-15; 4:9; 5:11-13). Another view connects 1 John 5:16-17 with the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit ( Matt 12:31-32 ; Mark 3:28-30 ), but 1 John says nothing about attributing the miracles of Jesus to Satan's power. Yet another theory sees the sin unto death as apostasy (cf. Heb 2:3 ; 6:6 ; 10:29-31 ), but 1 John 2:19 indicates that "apostates" were never really in the community to begin with. Thus, another solution must be sought.
The polemic of 1 John views sin very seriously ( 1:7-10 ; 2:12 ; 1 John 3:4-5 1 John 3:8-9 ; 4:10 ; 5:18 ). While believers do sin occasionally ( 1 John 1:7 1 John 1:9 ; 2:1 ; 5:16 ), they do not persist in ethical disobedience ( 2:4 ), social bigotry ( 2:9 ; 3:14-17 ; 4:20-21 ), or christological heresy ( 2:18-29 ; 4:1-3 ). In this qualified sense they do not sin ( 1 John 3:6 1 John 3:9 ; 5:18 ); in other words, their sin is not deadly ( 5:16-17 ). But those who walk in darkness while claiming to be in the light ( 1:6 ), who hate believers ( 2:9 ), and who deny that Jesus is the Messiah ( 2:22 ) are committing deadly sins. Thus, the polemic admits the reality of believers' sinning against the opponents' perfectionistic claims, but it also stresses the ideal of sinlessness. In this setting, the community is commanded to intercede for fellow believers who occasionally sin, but it is not commanded to pray for the deadly sins of those outside the community.
David L. Turner
Bibliography. R. E. Brown, The Epistles of John; I. A. Busenitz, The Master's Seminary Journal1 (1990): 17-31; R. Law, The Tests of Life; I. H. Marshall, The Epistles of John; S. M. Reynolds, Reformation Review20 (1973): 130-39; D. M. Scholer, Current Issues in Biblical and Pastristic Interpretation, pp. 230-46; S. S. Smalley, 1, 2, 3, John.
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