By John Piper on Dec 19, 2017
Check out John Piper's answer to a perplexing question from 1 John.
Welcome to a new week on the podcast. This is a really good question from a listener named Danny. “Hello, Pastor John, and thanks for the podcast. What is the sin that does not lead to death, in 1 John 5:16–17? Can you explain this?”
Well, let me venture an answer in summary form and then drop back and give the foundations for it from the context of 1 John and the wider New Testament teaching. Here’s my answer: the sin that does not lead to death (that is, eternal death or damnation — which is what I think John means) is any sin that we commit that we are, by grace, capable of truly confessing and repenting from. That’s my answer.
The reason I put it like that is because of what 1 John 1:9 says and what Hebrews 12:16 says. So 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins” — he doesn’t specify any particular kind — “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” So that’s a very sweeping and glorious and wonderful and precious promise. If you can confess your sin authentically, agree with God that it is sin and that it stinks, hate it, turn from it, and fight against it, you will be forgiven.
However, Hebrews 12:16–17, when talking about Esau and what happened to him, says “[See] that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.”
When it says he sought it, it means he sought repentance. He couldn’t find it. He was no longer capable of repenting. It’s not that he repented and repented and cried over his repentance, and God wouldn’t forgive him. No, no, no. He could not repent. He had sinned to a depth or a degree that God had given him up.
That’s what I think Jesus meant by the unforgivable sin. It’s not a particular sin, like some particular ugly act, but a particular depth or degree or aggravation or persistence in sin to the point where authentic confession and repentance have become impossible.
So my answer to Danny’s question “What’s the sin that does not lead to death?” is any sin — any sin that we are still, by grace, able to authentically, humbly confess and repent from. That sin does not lead to death.
John’s Balancing Act
Now, let’s look at the context because it really helps to see how the very text that Danny is referring to fits into the larger theme of 1 John. First John 5:16 begins like this: “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin.” Now I would translate committing a sin as committing sin because if you say a sin it sounds like there’s a specific one in mind. But there is no Greek word a — there’s no indefinite article in Greek. So you have to decide contextually whether you add it or not, and here I wouldn’t add it.
So let me translate it that way: “If anyone sees his brother committing 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. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death” (1 John 5:16–17).
We need to make sure that we see these two verses as part of the larger balancing act that John is doing in this letter. On the one hand, there’s a strong emphasis in 1 John that those who are truly born of God don’t go on sinning. First John 3:9: “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning.”
On the other hand (that’s one side of the balance), John warns against misunderstanding that in a perfectionistic way as though Christians don’t sin anymore. I’ve actually met people who say that. John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8–10).
Changed but Not Perfect
On the one side, you don’t keep on sinning if you’re born again. On the other side, you don’t ever stop sinning in this world. In other words, John is trying to strike a balance between the absolute necessity of the new birth, which necessarily gives a significant measure of victory over sin. That’s the one side. On the other hand, there’s the reality that we do in fact as Christians commit sins and can find forgiveness as we confess them.
That’s the balance you find in 1 John 5:16–17. So verse 16 begins with “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.” In other words, yes, there is such a thing as a Christian sinning and not being damned for it.
Then verse 17 ends like this: “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.” So John’s striking the note firmly that we should not take anything he has said in a perfectionistic way that implies Christians don’t sin or that all sin leads to damnation. It doesn’t.
A Precious Promise
Christians do sin, and not all sin leads to damnation. But right there in the middle, verse 16, near the end of the verse, he puts in a disclaimer. He says, “When I tell you to pray for sinners I recognize that Jesus taught about unforgivable sin, and I recognize that Hebrews taught about Esau, and I do acknowledge that there is sin that does lead to death and damnation. It puts you beyond repentance. And I’m not talking about that.” That’s the point of that verse. “I’m not talking about that when I tell you to pray for those who have sinned.” He doesn’t tell us not to pray for such sin, he simply says, “That’s not what I’m talking about when I tell you to pray for sinners that God will give them life.”
So to state my answer to Danny’s specific question one more time: What is the sin that does not lead to death? The sin that does not lead to death and damnation is any sin that we commit that, by God’s grace, we are capable of truly confessing and repenting from.
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Micah 6:8 exposes me: I can love abstract ideas of justice and kindness, and neglect their concrete expression. It admonishes me: I cannot “do justice” or “love kindness” without loving real people. It humbles me, which is just what the Doctor ordered, if I’m really ready to walk with him.