Among the most difficult passages in the bible is 1 John 5:16-17. The reason that it is difficult is that John doesn’t give us much clarity about what he actually means. In the passage John argues that there is a sin that does not lead to death, and if we see a fellow Christian committing that sin, then we are to pray for that person, and God will restore him or her. Then he argues that there is a sin that does lead to death. He does not command us to pray for that person. It seems kind of scary. Of course this passage has produced a lot of debate among Christians about what these sins are. The debate is rooted in many ideas, but the chief idea is that the bible seems to teach unequivocally that all sin leads to death (Genesis 2:17, Romans 6:23, James 1:15, Romans 5:12 . . . ). So what are these sins and how can we interpret these verses? Well, here are some possibilities. None are perfect, but perhaps they can give us something to study and pray about.
1) Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28-30). Disrespecting the Holy Spirit is a sin that cannot be forgiven, which certainly leads to a spiritualdeath in hell. However, in his difficult passage, John refers to the potential sinner as a brother or fellow believer. It seems very unlikely that a person who truly knows Jesus and has been truly saved would commit this particular sin.
2) Chronic or unrepentant sin. This seems to be a better candidate. No doubt, continuing to sin will lead to physical death. For instance, an alcoholic who remains in his sin of drunkeness will likely eventually succumb to liver disease, or death by bad decisions. But John tells us in chapter 3 that true believers don’t keep on sinning (1 John 3:9). And yet we know that even the best believers can struggle with sin in some way. Note the apostle Paul’s personal use of the present tense (Romans 7:19-20).
3) There is a difference between physical death and spiritual death (Matthew 10:28). It is possible that a person’s body can die, but his spirit be given a new body (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). In fact, this is true of every saved person (Philippians 3:21). We all will die, because our sins all lead to the death of our physical bodies. But some will also die a spiritual death in hell because they haven’t submitted their lives to Christ. The alcoholic who has submitted his life to Christ, but continues to struggle with his addiction is sinning unto physical death, but his spirit may be redeemed with a new body in Heaven because of his commitment to Christ. Then, of course, there are those sins for which God may proclaim immediate destruction of the individual body so that his church body can be kept healthy (Acts 5:1-11, 1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Notice how in that Corinthians verse that the person is turned over to Satan so that his sinning body can be destroyed in order that his spirit be saved. It may be for this reason that John doesn’t ask us to pray for the restoration of that person. Perhaps such a person is so damaged by sin that God must deal with him drastically so that he can be protected eternally, and the community to which he belongs can be protected in the present.
In any event, we can all agree that John is making the case that all sin is serious, and must be dealt with.