"Sin leading to death" - interpretation of 1 John 5:16


This is from “Believer’s Bible Commentary” by William MacDonald, page 2325:

It is impossible to say with finality just what sin leading to death is, and so perhaps the safest course to follow is to list various accepted interpretations and then tell which one we feel is most correct.

  1. Some feel that the sin leading to death refers to sin persisted in by a believer and unconfessed by him. In 1 Corinthians 11:30, we read that some had died because they partook of the Lord’s Supper without judging themselves.
  1. Others feel that the sin of murder is referred to. If a Christian should, in a moment of passion, murder another person, then we should not feel at liberty to pray for his release from the death penalty, because God has already stated that it is His will that “whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed."
  1. Still others feel that the sin referred to here is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus said that those who attributed His miracles which were done in the power of the Holy Spirit to Beelzebub, the prince of demons, had committed the unpardonable sin, and that there was no forgiveness for this sin either in that age or in the age to come.
  1. Others believe that it is some special form of sin such as that committed by Moses or Aaron, Ananias and Sapphira, and which God visits with summary judgment.
  1. A final explanation is that the sin of apostasy is in view, and we believe that this is the explanation which fits in best with the context. An apostate is one who has heard the great truths of the Christian Faith, has become intellectually convinced that Jesus is the Christ, has even made a profession of Christianity, although he has never been truly saved. After having tasted the good things of Christianity, he completely renounces them and repudiates the Lord Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 6 we learn that this is sin leading to death. Those committing this sin have no way of escape, since “they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame."

In this entire Epistle, John has been speaking with the Gnostics in view. These false teachers had once been in the Christian fellowship. They had professed to be believers. They had known the facts of the faith, but then they had turned their backs on the Lord Jesus and accepted a teaching which completely denied His deity and the sufficiency of His atoning work. A Christian cannot have liberty in praying for the restoration of such because God has already indicated in His word that they have sinned unto death.

5:17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death.
There are distinct differences in the degrees of sin, and there are sins which are not of such a serious nature as to result in death.

My understanding is that we Catholics interpret “sin leading to death” as basically any sin that causes spiritual death, i.e., mortal sin. I’m struggling to discuss this with my Evangelical girlfriend, who essentially subscribes to #5 above - there’s apostasy, and there’s everything else; nothing short of apostasy can cause one to lose salvation.

Do understand the Catholic interpretation rightly? Are there other Scriptures that cover this territory? (That’d be helpful in talks with a sola scriptura adherent.)


I dont see how the distinction between mortal sin and venial sin can not be evident in this passage. Ive heard plenty of non-Catholic interpretations, as i am a former Southern Baptist myself. Depending on what doctrines the group has about sin and salvation depends on what interpretation the group would go with on this passage and how they might dance around it. I remember a Baptist years ago claiming that the sin unto death is actual physical death because of the sin, as he claimed that he had seen people fall over dead after sinning, much like the couple in Acts who did not hand over all their possessions and lied about it.


I think a key is this line in point #5:

An apostate is one who has heard the great truths of the Christian Faith, has become intellectually convinced that Jesus is the Christ, has even made a profession of Christianity, although he has never been truly saved.

(Emphasis mine)

Basically, this falls into “once saved, always saved” territory, right? There’s nothing that can cause a truly saved person to lose salvation; if you apostasize, you weren’t really saved to begin with. Therefore, since one can’t ever lose salvation (according to OSAS), obviously 1 John 5:16-17 can’t mean that there are degrees of sin (i.e., mortal and venial).

I’m thinking that 1 Cor 6:9-10 lists some things that would be mortal sins ("…will not inherit the Kingdom of God" = death = mortal sin), but I suspect I’ll get a response that v.11 immediately says, “That is what some of you used to be; but now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified…” But then I think that, sure, the Corinthians were washed/sanctified/justified - but Paul still has to correct and warn them. (Of course, it I bring up these verses, I’ll get accused of taking them out of context and “proof texting,” which has already been implied in conversation when I mentioned 1 John 5:16. sigh)


The ‘sin that leads to death’ is the self-same one that is called elsewhere, 'the unforgivable sin.'

I have done a workbook question/answer group study for this and posted it on the internet here: 5loaves2fishes.net/pdfs/unforgivable.pdf

Check it out, and see what you think from your perspective. :slight_smile:


According to the Catechism, the “sin that leads to death” spoken of by St John is mortal sin, any sin that constitutes, by its nature, a turning away from God by virtue of being a grave offense against the love of God and neighbor. #5 is convoluted and confused, based on an erroneous OSAS theology, seeking to deny that anyone who turns away from God could’ve possessed any kind of authentic faith to begin with.


This is how I’ve interpreted it; as it’s the only sin that “Cannot be forgiven.” And John’s own words say:

There is sin that leads to death; I **do not say that one should pray for that.


I don’t believe he’s speaking of all mortal sins, due to the fact that we pray for the ‘mortal sins’ of others all the time. John seems to be singling out one specific sin leading to death that we ought not to pray for. What sin(s) would you agree with John that we should not pray for?

All I can think of is the unforgivable sin… But even that is confusing…


One question to ask, I suppose, is: What is meant by “death”?


With the Original Sin, both physical death and spiritual death, referred to by Trent and others as the “death of the soul”, is said to have entered man’s world. Man cannot live without God. We’re “born dead”, so to speak, because of Adam, and then, continuing the family tradition, we’re dead in our own trespasses and sins. To be separated form God is to be spiritually dead. “Apart from Me you can do nothing”, Jesus tells us in John 15:5. So man is dead, needing to be “born again” or “born from above”, to be reconciled with God so the two may commune again, as is the natural order of things. By committing a mortal sin, man dies again, excommunicating himself anew.


So then we could paraphrase the verses from 1 John 5 like so:

16 If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to [separation from God], you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to [separation from God]. There is a sin that leads to [separation from God]. I am not saying that you should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to [separation from God].

If “separation from God” squares with “will not inherit the Kingdom of God” in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (which I mentioned earlier), it seems we have some idea of sins that are of a particularly serious nature, i.e., that lead to spiritual death.

9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

Is that reasonable?


Yes, there is sin that can lead to “eternal death”, aka “hell”, permanent separation from God.


Why does John say not to pray for it though? Seems like a rather odd command not to pray for ‘mortal’ sins.



Because venial sins can be forgiven through prayer, but mortal sins require absolution from a priest in confession.


Where do you get the connection between the unpardonable/unforgivable sin, and the sin that leads to death?

Lots of sin leads to death. Why are you assuming they are the same thing?


I just found this article on the main CA site. It adds nicely to all the information you’ve presented in your posts, and towards the end it actually addresses the question about not praying for mortal sins.

St. John distinguishes the effects of mortal and venial sin as well. Members of the Body of Christ can pray for someone who commits venial sin (sin “which is not deadly”) and “life” (Gr. – zo-ay, or the divine life of God) and healing can be communicated to him through that prayer. But when it comes to “deadly sin,” St. John tells us not to “pray for that.” This is not meant to say we should not pray for a person in this state of sin at all. Scripture is very clear that we should pray for “all men” in I Tim. 2:1-2. The context seems to indicate that he is referring to praying that God “give [the wounded member of Christ] life” directly through that prayer. Divine life and healing can only come through members of the Body of Christ to other members in a direct way if the person being prayed for is in union with the Body of Christ. For mortal sin, one can only pray that God would grant the grace of repentance to the sinner so that they may be restored to communion with the Body of Christ through the sacrament of confession.

To understand this better, consider the analogy St. Paul uses for the people of God in I Corinthians 12:12-27—the analogy of the physical body of a human being. St. Paul tells us we are all members of “the Body of Christ.” A wounded finger that is still attached to its host body can be healed organically by the rest of the body. That kind of wound is analogous to the effect of venial sin. A severed finger, however, cannot be healed by the rest of the body because it is no longer attached to the body. That kind of wound is analogous to the effect of mortal sin. So it is in the Body of Christ.




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