Four Ways of Looking at the Sin That Leads to Death

Serious v. minor. The unforgivable sin. Physical death as punishment. Spiritual death. Which one best describes the sin that leads to death? You decide.

I’ve been rummaging around 1 John again. Particularly the 5th Chapter…

There is a sin leading to death. 

This concept of a sin that leads to death can be a notorious torment to readers because there are a number of ways you can twist it.

Now, sin that leads to death…it occurs in the Old Testament in the books ,  and .

In each instance physical death is the consequence of sin. Not much room for misinterpretation.

In the New Testament context, however, it’s not so cut and dry. But scholars and pundits have boiled the interpretation down to four fundamental ideas.

Let’s look at and evaluate these four ways.

Serious Sin v. Minor Sin

On the surface, the sin that leads to death could simply refer to serious sins over minor sins.

If this is the case, the author may be telling his readers to pray for a brother on behalf of a minor sin, but should leave those who commit more serious sins to the care of God.

But it’s unlikely this is the true meaning.

The Unforgivable Sin

Another way to look at this concept is to see it as identical with the “unforgivable sin” Jesus mentioned in  and , namely being ashamed of Him.

Jesus also suggests  is the unforgivable sin. This is closer to the truth. But were not there yet.

Physical Death as Punishment

Some interpreters see the “sin resulting in death” as a sin so serious that the sinner deserves to die…


It’s not one particular sin like homosexuality or lying or idolatry. It could be any grave, calculated and unconfessed sin that exhausts God’s patience.

In the early church, this was an extreme but effective form of . This is seen in the .

But I don’t think this is how were supposed to walk away with it either.

Spiritual Death

In all of John’s literature there’s a tendency to talk about spiritual rather than physical death that makes this final option the best option.

For example,  evaluates the Church at Sardis as follows: “I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.”

A clear reference to spiritual death.

So, in 1 John, there is evidence that John had unbelievers in mind when he wrote 5:16. The author also spoke about unbelievers who ,  and .

These opponents–once believers–eventually departed from the church. Now they’re all spiritually dead.

Now, pay attention: Jesus, in his , excludes the “world” from his prayers. This sets a precedent.

And it makes sense.

Following the behavior of Jesus, John warns his readers against praying for apostates–believers who walked away from the church.

Thus the sin leading to death refers to the apostasy–refusing to believe in Jesus as the Christ–which marked a person as an unbeliever and sealed their fate.

And John says were not supposed to pray for them.

Our Response to the Sin Leading to Death

But that sounds so narrow minded. Fundamental. Extreme. Unbiblical. Yet, that’s exactly what John suggests you do. And that’s the kicker.

It’s just a suggestion. Not a law.

So, do we pray for those who’ve fallen away even though John recommends we don’t?

I say we do.

Only God knows who has committed the unpardonable sin. We don’t have the knowledge or authority to make such claims.

But what do you think? Am I missing anything? Do you know of any other theories on how 1 John 5:16 is handled? I look forward to your responses, brutal and all.

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