1 John 5:16-18 (concluded)
In the last two notes, we have pursued a detailed study of 1 Jn 5:16-18 and the various difficulties surrounding this passage. Before offering a conclusion, it will be good to examine certain other details in these verses, to gain a bit more clarity as to what the author is actually saying.
“If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death. | There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request. All injustice is sin, and (yet) there is sin (which is) not toward death. | We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil does not attach (itself) to him.”
We may divide this passage into three sections, or statements, marked by vertical bars above:
Statement 1. “If any (one) should see his brother sinning sin (that is) not toward death [mh\ pro\$ qa/naton], he will ask and (God) will give him life—(that is,) the (one)s not sinning toward death.”
This was discussed in detail in the previous note; however, it is worth considering the structure of this sentence:
- A brother (i.e. believer) sinning sin not toward death
—ask (of God) and (God) will give him life
- those not sinning toward death
- A brother (i.e. believer) sinning sin not toward death
The chiasm gives double emphasis to the idea that only those not sinning “toward death” will be given life; indeed, it is only for these (i.e. true believers) that the request/prayer should be made to God on their behalf. As I discussed yesterday, the best way of understanding the “sin toward death” is as violation of the two-fold commandment (3:23-24) which defines the believer’s identity in Christ. True believers are not able to violate this command; only “false” believers who effectively speak and act “against Christ” (i.e. anti-christ) sin in this way. Since they are false believers, and not among the elect/chosen ones, they do not possess Life—indeed, they cannot.
Statement 2. “There is sin toward death, and about that (sin) I do not say that he should make (such a) request. All injustice is sin, and (yet) there is sin (which is) not toward death.”
This is actually comprised of separate statements, which are related to each other, and which have the same conceptual structure as Statement #1 above:
- There is sin “toward death”
——one should not make any request regarding it, but only for
—all (other) sin
- There is sin “not toward death”
- There is sin “toward death”
Here the author more precisely makes the distinction between the sin “toward death” (i.e., violation of the two-fold command) and that which is not (i.e., all other sin a believer might commit). All sin is wrong (lit. “without justice, without right-ness”), but only the sin which violates the central (two-fold) commandment is “toward death”. Bear in mind that the author is addressing those whom he considers true believers and urges them to live and act according to that identity. This is perhaps the reason why the author does not address traditional ethical and religious concerns, except only very loosely and in passing (2:15-17). He would have taken for granted that true believers in Christ would live upright lives, conducting themselves honorably, in spite of occasional lapses of sin (1:8-10; 2:1-2). The main issue in the letter relates to those who separated from the mainstream congregations and now belong to “the world” (2:19; 4:1ff; 5:19; 2 Jn 7). According to the viewpoint of the author, these “false” believers violate both aspects of the two-fold command that defines the Christian:
- By separating from (and opposing) the Johannine congregations they do not show proper love for their “brothers”; on the contrary, they actually demonstrate the opposite, hate (2:9, 19; 3:11-15)
- They do not have proper trust in Jesus, in that they hold (and proclaim) a false view of Jesus (2:22-23; 4:1-6; 5:6-12; 2 Jn 7ff)
Especially difficult for many Christians to appreciate today is the directive that one should not make any prayer/request to God on behalf of those “sinning” in this way. This seems rather harsh, especially in light of the Christian ideal of showing love for sinners. However, early Christians held rather a different view when it came to supposed (i.e. “false”) believers who were thought to be opposing the truth. This applied both to theological and Christological opinions, but also to behavior which violated or disrupted Christian unity. The approach advocated regarding such persons, and the way they are described in the Writings, is consistently strident and harsh—Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:4-5, 11; 2 Cor 11:12-15; Gal 5:7-12; 6:12-13; 1 Tim 6:3-5; 2 Tim 3:1-9; 2 Peter 2; Jude vv. 3-4ff, etc. There is, indeed, a clear parallel in the Second Letter (vv. 10-11), where the author urges those whom he is addressing not to take the “false” believers into their houses, nor even to offer them a polite greeting.
Regarding the above points, many sad (and tragic) episodes in Church History have demonstrated vividly that such instruction in the New Testament must be interpreted and applied most carefully. I will be discussing this further in an upcoming note dealing with the background and setting of the Johannine letters.
There is, however, perhaps a deeper significance to the advice given here in v. 16. It has to do with the nature of the Christian Community—that is, of believers united together in Christ through faith and love. The sort of concern shown over the person sinning, and indicated by the request made to God, relates to the preservation of the bond of unity between believers. Sin disrupts and defiles this covenant bond and must be cleansed. In other words, verse 16 reflects the love that believers have for each other; it does not apply to non-believers (much less to false believers). Whatever concern or love one might show to the world, it is not the same as the bond of love that unites believers in Christ. With regard to prayer, there may be an echo of this idea in John 17:6-9:
“I have made your name shine forth to the ones [lit. men] whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept watch (over) your word. … I make (my) request about them; I do not make (any) request about the world, but about (those) whom you have given to me, (in) that [i.e. because] they are yours…”
Jesus’ prayer is not for “the world” (and those who belong to it), but those (believers) given to him by the Father (i.e., the elect/chosen ones). This does not mean that Jesus has no concern or “love” over others in the world (cf. Jn 3:16, etc); rather, it reflects a distinctive understanding (and expression) of love.
Statement 3. “We have seen that every (one) having come to be (born) out of God does not sin, but the (one) coming to be (born) out of God keeps watch (over) him, and the evil does not attach (itself) to him.”
Most of this statement has been discussed in detail in the previous notes; I wish to draw attention to the closing words: “…and the evil does not attach (itself) [a%ptetai] to him”. Many commentators read the substantive adjective with the article (o( ponhro/$) as “the Evil (One)”, and this probably reflects the author’s understanding. This protection from evil is important in several respects:
- It is central to the idea of both: (a) the believer being born out of God, and (b) that God keeps watch over the believer (primarily through the Spirit).
- It relates to the idea that the believer does not (and cannot) sin. While the believer may commit occasional sins (moral lapses, etc), sin and evil does not “attach (itself)” to him/her. The verb a%ptw / a%ptomai is often translated as “touch”, but that is not quite strong enough. Sin remains foreign to the believer and does not become part of his/her identity or destiny. A somewhat similar idea is expressed beautifully in Wisdom 3:1.
- The reference to “the evil (one)” here must be understood in light of the statement which follows in verse 19:
“We have seen that we are out of [i.e. from/of] God, and (that) the whole world is stretched (out) in th(is) Evil.”
The contrast between believers (born of God) and the world (lying in evil) could not be made more clear.
I wish to conclude this discussion on 1 Jn 5:16-18 with a series of summarizing points, which, I hope, will help to elucidate this difficult passage:
Sin and the Believer
- Statements indicating that the believer does not (or cannot) sin are to be understood in terms of the believer’s fundamental identity in Christ. At this essential level, we participate in the sinlessness of Jesus.
- This union with Jesus (and God the Father), by which we participate in the divine purity (sinlessness), is presently realized for believers through the Spirit. However, it will not be fully realized and experienced until the end-time.
- For this reason, believers do (and are able to) commit sin (moral lapses, etc) during this earthly life. Through admission/confession of sin, we are cleansed and forgiven.
- It is the power and work of Jesus—both his sacrificial death and (priestly) work of intercession before God the Father—which cleanses us from sin. This is part of God’s saving work and life-giving power.
- We as believers are exhorted to live and act—developing patterns of thought and behavior—in a manner which reflects our true identity (pure/sinless) in Christ.
- While we may sin, as believers we possess (“hold”) Life, and have been transferred out of “the world”—i.e., out of the domain of sin and darkness. We are thus no longer on the path leading “toward death”.
- The life-giving presence of Jesus (the Spirit) protects us from evil. Though we may sin, evil and sin cannot touch us or “attach itself” to us. It is incidental, like the dust which gathers while we walk (cf. John 13:5-11); it is not part of our nature or identity as believers.
The Sin “toward Death”
- Sin is understood primarily as the lack of “right-ness” or “just-ness” (i.e., righteousness, justice). In traditional religious terms, this is expressed as transgressions or violations of (religious and moral) Law.
- However, for believers in Christ, there are now only two “commandments”—a two-fold command, or duty—which we must follow: (1) trust in Jesus and (2) love for one another (i.e. for our fellow believers), according to Jesus’ own example. All other aspects of religious and ethical behavior stem from this.
- Since these two commands reflect our fundamental identity as believers in Christ, true believers will not (and cannot) violate them. The presence of the Spirit works in us, teaching and guiding us to observe this command, protecting us from sin.
- It follows that only those who are not true believers (“false” believers) sin in this way by failing to observe the two-fold command.
- Such false believers are actually “in the world” (i.e., belonging to the world); they do not hold Life, but remain on the path leading toward death.
- They are thus sinning the “sin toward death”.
- This sin is observable and demonstrable in that such “false” believers:
(1) do not show genuine love toward other believers (according to Jesus’ example), and/or
(2) do not have a proper (or correct) trust/faith in Jesus as the Anointed One and Son of God sent by the Father.
- Since they do not possess the true Spirit of God (and Christ), but speak and act from a different spirit, it is possible (and necessary) to “test” such “spirits”. The author of 1 John makes this test specific: (a) lack of love (i.e. “hatred”) which leads to disruption of unity, separation and hostility, and (b) an aberrant view of the person of Christ, specifically one which denies the reality of his human life and sacrificial death.
- Such persons are not to be regarded or treated as fellow believers; in particular, we ought not to pray for them in the same way we would for a fellow believer who sins.