The Sin That Leads To Death


‘If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray, and God will give him 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 he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death’. 1 John 5:16-17

Time and time again John has stressed the importance of brotherly love. He says that we ‘ought to lay down our lives for each other.’1 John 3:16

He asks us ‘If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?’ 1 John 3:17

It’s not surprising then that he says that we should be willing to pray for each other. Now there is no escaping the fact that this is a difficult text to understand.

What is the ‘sin that doesn’t lead to death’? What is the sin that ‘does lead to death’? What does John mean when he says, ‘God will give him life’?

As far as my studies have led me to believe I believe that John is saying, ‘Listen, if anyone sees his brother sin.’ John is talking about after the fact, after the sin has taken place. And the reason I believe that is because in the future after the sin has been committed,

what does John say the sinner will do?

He will pray, or he will ask as some translations have it.

Look at the Message translation of these verses.

‘For instance, if we see a Christian believer sinning (clearly, I’m not talking about those who make practice of sin in way that is ‘fatal’, leading to death) we ask for God’s help and he gladly gives it, gives life to the sinner whose sin is not fatal. There is such a thing as a fatal sin, and I’m not urging you to pray about that. Everything we do wrong is sin, but not all sin is fatal.’ 1 John 5:16-17

The Message translation makes it a little easier to understand because the sin that doesn’t lead to death and the sin that does isn’t a specific sin. In other words, if anyone continues in their sin, eventually that will lead to their spiritual death.

What kind of sin could a Christian commit that would lead to death?

James says, ‘When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.’ James 1:14-15

According to James, any temptation can lead to sin and death. But what we need to remember is that sin does not produce ‘death’ until it is ‘fully grown.’

So, how do we avoid sinning toward death? What is the sin that doesn’t lead to death?

John gives us the answer ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ 1 John 1:9

And so, when we put these Scriptures together we can clearly see that the sin that leads to death is the un-repented and unconfessed sin of the sinner. And if we follow this understanding of the text it is obvious that the sin that doesn’t lead to death is the sin which has been confessed and repented of.

And it’s this sin which John says that we can pray for our brethren and God will forgive. Common sense tells us that we cannot expect God to forgive a person who refuses to repent. That’s why John says, ‘I do not say that he should pray about that.’ 1 John 5:16

Now we need to remember that when John is talking about death here, he’s talking about spiritual death.

Remember when Adam was in the Garden and God said to him in Genesis 2?

‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’ Genesis 2:17

Now we know that both Adam and Eve ate from the tree and they were cast out of the Garden, but they didn’t die physically, did they? They died spiritually.

John says, ‘If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray, and God will give him life.’ 1 John 5:16

Well if the ‘death’ in this passage is ‘spiritual death’; it is natural to believe the life is ‘spiritual life.’ You see the ‘life’ which God will give the repentant sinner in answer to our prayers could also be described as ‘forgiveness.’ And we know that forgiveness is essential for eternal life in Christ.

And so what John is saying here is that the promise of 1 John 1:9 where he tells us that, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.’

What he’s saying is that this same offer of forgiveness is offered to the repentant sinner who has his brothers and sisters in Christ praying on his behalf.

That’s why he says in 1 John 5:16 that “If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray, and God will give him life.”

Now again you might ask, why bother to pray for a repentant Christian if their sins will be forgiven anyway? Well that’s a good question and the only answer I could find in Scripture is back in the Book of James.

‘Therefore, confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.’ James 5:16



"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness."

2 Timothy 3:16