16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.
1 John 5:16-17
Numerous articles have been written about this passage. And it appears that Christians are divided regarding this particular “sin that leads to death.” Does this refer to literal death or spiritual death? How then do we know to what type of sin John refers in this passage? It is important to understand the meaning of the word “sin” in the New Testament. The Greek words used for “sin” in the said passages are hamartanousin (plural) and hamartia (singular). The Greek word hamartano means “not to hit,” “to fall short intellectually,” “to fall short morally,” and “to do wrong.”1 Based on the context of the surrounding passages, hamartano’s meaning will undoubtedly become clear.
In 1 John 3:4, it is stated that “sin” is lawlessness or the transgression of the law, which means “moral failure” or “doing wrong.” No evangelical who adheres to the doctrines of sola fide and sola gratia will explain that a believer’s spiritual salvation can be forfeited through moral failure and wrongdoing. Clearly, this kind of understanding leans toward salvation by works. Rather, one of the meanings of “sin that does not lead to death” in 1 John 5:16–17 is that a believer who continues to commit moral failure or wrongdoing will not die spiritually (or be unsaved) but physically.2 Let’s review the passages that follow to understand them more clearly.3
Jesus’ Warning to the Healed Paralyzed Man (Jn. 5:1-14)
An invalid for thirty-eight years was healed by Jesus Christ at the pool of Bethesda, near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. After healing him, Jesus warned him that if he continued to sin, he would suffer greater consequences, including possible physical death.
Ananias and Sapphira Faced Judgment (Acts 5:1-11)
Both believers, namely Ananias and Sapphira were judged by God because they lied to the apostles and kept a portion of the land’s profits for themselves. As a result, they died three hours apart, separately, and abruptly.
The Sexually Immoral Brother In Corinth Was Hand Over To Satan (1 Cor. 5:1-5)
A believer has an incestuous relationship with his stepmother, the new wife of his biological father. If this believer does not cease his immoral behavior, he will certainly face divine judgment. Paul has already decided to hand him over to Satan so that his flesh will be destroyed (killed) and his spirit will be saved.
A Believer’s Unexamined Life Before Communion May Also Bring Sickness or Death. (1 Cor. 11:27-32)
The selfishness of the Corinthian believers in thinking of themselves before others during the Lord’s Supper has earned them God’s divine judgment. This is why many of them became physically weak and sick, while others have physically died prematurely. This is why Paul reminded them that any man must examine, scrutinize, or test himself to determine whether he is truly worthy to partake in the Lord’s Supper. This is why many Christians confess their sins before partaking of the Lord’s Supper.
A Believer’s Illness Could Be Caused by An Unconfessed Sin. (Jam. 5:13-16)
There are sins in the life of a Christian that may have been directly caused by sin, which must be confessed. This is also comparable to David’s experience, in which he felt the Lord’s hand heavy upon him and his strength drained away because of unconfessed sin (see Psa. 32:1–5).
David Was Nearly Killed by Illness Due to His Moral Sins. (2 Sam. 12:1–14; Psa. 32)
When David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered Uriah, he likely believed that God would not notice. David didn’t confess his transgression to God until he was corrected by Nathan the prophet. He additionally realized that this unrepentant sin was taking a toll on his physical body, as evidenced by his physical illness. And it also had a negative impact on the lives of others as a consequence of what he did.
These physical illnesses and deaths are divine disciplines that God allows His people to go through in order for them to awaken. This is due to the fact that the Lord disciplines those He loves.4 Even though physical illness and death occur in the lives of believers, not everything that happens to them is a direct result of God’s heavy hand or divine discipline. If a believer’s walk with the Lord is blameless despite the occurrence of physical illness and premature death, these events may be a trial or test of their faith, allowing them to emerge as gold and faithful to the Lord (see 1 Pet. 1:6-7). In order for us to know what is in our hearts, we recognize that God has the right to do this to His people.
Despite His Zeal To Follow Jesus, Stephen Died Early (Acts 7:54-60).
After giving his testimony to the religious authorities and a Jewish audience, Stephen was stoned to death. He was even observed praying to God while they threw and hurled stones at him. Many people claim to be Christians, but when their position or lives are threatened in times of adversity, they deny the Lord (see Jn. 12:42; Matt. 26:69-75).
Despite His Faithfulness, King Hezekiah Was Affected by An Incurable Disease (2 Kings 20:1–6).
Despite King Hezekiah’s faithfulness and blameless walk with God, he was diagnosed with an incurable disease. As a result, God instructed him, via the prophet Isaiah, to organize his household or delegate everything, as he would not recover from his illness. However, after praying and pleading with the Lord, he was granted an additional fifteen years of life.
Due to a Divine Test, Job Suffered From Physical Illness (Job 1:6–12).
Job has no idea that he was mentioned in a conversation between the Lord and Satan in order to test his faithfulness. God allowed Satan to harm Jobs’ property, children, and health. Despite this, he continued to be righteous without blaming God.
Despite Having No Sin, Jesus Died at the Age of 33 (Luke 23:39–41).
The Lord Jesus Christ never sinned. His walk was pure and blameless. Nonetheless, despite His faithfulness to His Father’s will, He went through suffering, crucifixion, and death. Everything happened as a result of the Lord’s love and desire for Him to die for mankind’s sins. He died as a result of God’s love for the world (see Jn. 3:16; Rom. 5:8).
In conclusion, for erring believers, the sin that leads to death can be understood as physical death.5 This is the result of God’s divine discipline over them. A type of sin that does not result in physical death has not yet been dealt with severely by God. It is true that God does not treat believers based on their sins.6 However, these are believers who fear Him regardless of their weaknesses.7 They are like Paul, who struggles with sin but disdains it and is ashamed of what he has done.8 Other than us, there is no way for us to know how God treats His children. After all, the Lord knows who belongs to Him, and anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ should learn to despise evil.9 And in case they fall, they just need to confess in accordance with James’ instructions, just as David did. The apostle John also stated that we must acknowledge our sins and have faith that God has already pardoned and cleansed us of them.10 The Lord commands us to walk holy and blameless because He is holy.11 A believer has no idea what awaits those who love God and are called according to His purposes.12
1 Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament,” (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1985), 48.
2 This assumes that the believer has not abandoned the faith or apostatized (see 1 Tim. 4:1; Heb. 3;12). In addition, a genuine Christian who struggles with worldliness, fleshliness, or carnality does not jeopardize his salvation. They will, however, undoubtedly face God’s chastisement (see 1 Cor. 3:1-3; Heb. 12:4-11).
3 The word “death” in Romans 6:23 refers to spiritual death, which the Gentile audience of Paul was once destined to experience (see Rom. 6:20, 22). This “sin” refers to their former fleshly lawlessness, which resulted in bondage and slavery (see Rom. 6:15, 19).
4 Heb. 12:6.
5 On the other hand, many Reformed Arminians see this as a sin that leads to spiritual death if they deny, turn away from, or abandon their faith in Jesus Christ (see Heb. 6:4-6; Matt. 26:69-75; Jn. 6:68).
6 Psa. 103:8-10.
7 Psa. 103:11.
8 Rom. 7:17.
9 2 Tim. 2:19
10 1 Jn. 1:9.
11 1 Pet. 1:16.
12 1 Cor. 2:9.