1 John 5:16 makes a distinction between a sin that leads to death and a sin that doesn’t. This description confuses some readers and troubles others. That there is a “sin that leads to death” raises questions like, “What is the specific sin that John is describing?” and importantly, “Have I committed it?”
Among Bible scholars, there is a variety of interpretations regarding the phrase “the sin that leads to death,” the strongest of which is that John is describing unbelievers. The sin that leads to death isn’t a specific behavior, but a state of being marked by unbelief and the promotion of false teaching.
Is the sin that leads to death the same thing as the so-called unforgivable sin? Is the sin that leads to death intentional or unintentional? Does 1 John 5:16 teach about mortal and venial sins as the Roman Catholic Church believes? What is the point of the verse for believers today? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
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The Sin That Leads to Death: Six Views
The primary reason so many readers of 1 John have questions about the phrase “that sin that leads to death” is because John, the author of the letter, doesn’t describe exactly what the phrase means. Bible scholars suggest that John’s ambiguity meant that the original readers most likely understood the distinction he was making, so he saw no need to elaborate on it.
“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.” ~ 1 John 5:15 (ESV, emphasis added)
Yet for readers trying to understand 1 John 5:16 over 2,000 years later, the differences in opinion among scholars mean that more interpretive exploration is required. Some are more convinced about what the verse doesn’t say as opposed to what it does. Six perspectives have dominated the discussion of the phrase.
1. Is it the unforgivable sin?
Some scholars believe that John is referring to the “unforgivable sin” that Jesus taught about in the Gospels (e.g. Mark 3:22-30): “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (v. 28-29; ESV, emphasis added).
While the unforgivable sin certainly leads to death, it’s unclear if that’s what John had in mind. Several elements of Mark’s account are missing from John’s description, which calls into question whether or not they are parallel topics.
- There is no accusation of attributing miracles of God to the work of Satan in 1 John 5 like there is in Mark 3
- There is no mention of the parable of the strong man in 1 John 5, which Jesus gave as part of his response to the accusers in Mark 3
- There is no reference to blaspheming the Holy Spirit in 1 John 5, which is how Jesus described the sin that God doesn’t forgive that has eternal consequences in Mark 3
The consequence of the sin that Jesus taught about and that John mentions is the same — death — but the evidence suggests that John had a different offense in mind.
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2. Is it a specific sin of some kind?
Some argue that the sin that leads to death is especially wicked in nature. While all sin offends God, Jesus taught that some are greater than others (e.g. John 19:11).
For example, looking at another person in lust and committing adultery are both sinful, yet the latter can be classified as a greater offense because it extends far beyond impure thoughts and involves another person.
This interpretation isn’t as strong as others because 1 John 5:16 doesn’t mention a specific sin. John doesn’t hesitate to call out specific sins when necessary (e.g. 1 John 5:21), but he doesn’t do so in 1 John 5:16. This view would have been much stronger if John had mentioned an act of rebellion like adultery or apostasy.
Additionally, the Bible teaches God forgives people for even heinous sins like murder (Moses), adultery (David), and denying Christ (Peter).
3. Is it a sin that results in the death penalty?
Another view suggests that the sin that leads to death is a criminal act that calls for capital punishment. However, there is nothing in the context that suggests John had this in mind.
The context of the verse regards prayer. While it’s true that the Bible would identify many civil crimes as sinful, it’s not true that all sins are crimes (e.g. people don’t get arrested for envy).
4. Is it an intentional sin?
Recognizing that 1 John’s original readers had a Jewish background, some argue that the sin that leads to death is intentional sin, as opposed to unintentional sin, which the Old Testament makes a distinction between (e.g. Lev. 4:2; Num. 15:22-25, 30-31). In contrast, the sin that doesn’t lead to death is an unintentional sin. However, nothing in the context suggests that this is what John has in mind.
5. Is it a mortal sin as opposed to venial sin?
Mortal sins, according to the Catholic Church, are an especially heinous act of wickedness done intentionally and result in the destruction of love and the loss of grace. If a mortal sin isn’t redeemed and the offender dies, they go to hell.
On the other hand, venial sins don’t result in the destruction of love and the loss of grace, but lead to temporary punishment in purgatory if not redeemed.
Since these terms are taken from Roman Catholic theology that developed centuries after John wrote, it’s unlikely that he had such a doctrine in mind.
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Is the sin that leads to death a state of sinfulness?
The strongest argument is that the sin that leads to death is a description of unbelievers because it makes the best sense of the immediate context as well as 1 John as a whole.
- The person who commits a sin that doesn’t lead to death is called a “brother” (v. 16a). The implication is that the person who commits a sin that leads to death isn’t a brother in Christ.
- The reason why a specific sin isn’t mentioned is because any sin of an unbeliever leads to death because those are sin’s consequences (cf. Rom. 6:23).
- It’s likely that John is referring to those people that he mentioned earlier in the letter who have abandoned orthodox teachings, and may be considered a type of antichrist (1 John 2:18-23, 3:10, 4:1-3).
- In addition to describing them as committing sin that leads to death, John also instructs the readers not to pray for them (v. 16b).
Two of the best 1 John Bible commentaries agree with this viewpoint:
Bible scholar Colin Kruse writes, “Within the overall context of 1 John, where the secessionists are now regarded as unbelievers, even antichrists, the sin that leads to death is probably the sin if the secessionists, in particular their denial that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh, whose death was necessary for salvation.” p. 209 
Bible scholar Karen Jobes agrees, “Sin that leads to death is that which excludes one from the realm of life, sin that prevents one from having the Son… the sin that leads to death, therefore, is the sin of rejecting Christ’s atonement, the sin of calling God’s testimony a lie (1:10; 2:22; 5:10).” p. 236 
Also see Does the Bible Say That Jesus Sinned? to learn more.
What is the context of 1 John 5:16?
John’s instruction in the verse is to pray for fellow Christians who have not committed the sin that leads to death. It’s not just church leaders who are told to intercede in prayer, but anyone who sees their brother sin. Implicit in John’s instructions is that believers, even though they are saved, still sin.
|Translation||1 John 5:16|
|ESV||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.|
|KJV||If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.|
|NKJV||If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that.|
|NASB||If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this.|
|NIV||If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them 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 you should pray about that.|
|NLT||If you see a fellow believer sinning in a way that does not lead to death, you should pray, and God will give that person life. But there is a sin that leads to death, and I am not saying you should pray for those who commit it.|
What is the point of 1 John 5:16? The point of the verse is that Christians need to pray for one another. When a brother or sister stumbles, the church should pray. When a believer makes a mistake, falls short, and sins, other redeemed sinners should lift them up to God.
Also see Are Zodiac Signs Sinful? to learn more.
 The Letters of John by Colin Kruse. The Pillar New Testament Commentary series (PNTC).
 1, 2, & 3 John by Karen H Jobes. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (ZECNT).
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