1 John 5:16-18 (continued)
In the previous note, I discussed the opening declaration in verse 18, along with the various (and seemingly contradictory) statements in the letter to the effect that Christians both do commit sin and do not (indeed, cannot) commit sin. There is no simple answer or solution to this difficulty, but I have sought to analyze it carefully, based on the overall language and ideas expressed throughout the letter. However, before proceeding to a more precise interpretation, it is necessary to examine the distinction in vv. 16-18 regarding sin that is “toward death” (pro\$ qa/naton) and sin which is not so. Here again are verses 16-17 in translation:
“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.”
Sin which is “toward death”
The simplest explanation of the expression “toward death” (pro\$ qa/naton) is something which leads toward death or results in it (cf. John 11:4). The underlying idea is presumably legal, particularly as expressed in the Old Testament Law (Torah). Certain violations of law—i.e. serious crimes against society or religious transgressions—specifically result in death for the offender (Exod 21:12ff; Num 18:22, et al). Some commentators understand the idea of the transgressor being “cut off”, at least in certain passages, as referring to a punishment by God of death. Naturally, in such legal and religious-cultural settings, certain sins result in death (or a sentence of death) while others do not. How might this apply to the situation in 1 John? A number of interpretations have been offered by commentators over the years; these include:
- The distinction involves especially serious or egregious sins—religious and/or ethical violations—in the basic sense indicated above.
- It reflects something akin to the thought in James 1:14-15, of sinful behavior which is cultivated and allowed to grow, leading to “death”; this would perhaps relate to the interpretation that the present tense of the verb a(marta/nw in 3:6, 9; 5:18, etc, refers to continual, habitual sinning, rather than occasional failings by the believer.
- The distinction involves ‘ordinary’ sinning (i.e. moral lapses, etc) vs. more serious sins (i.e. “blasphemy”) against God’s own person, perhaps in a specific theological/Christological sense.
- It relates to the “unforgivable sin” (i.e. against the Holy Spirit) of which Jesus speaks in Mark 8:38 par.
The first option certainly fits the fundamental religious/ethical background which presumably underlies the expression. Indeed, early Christians preserved the basic idea of especially serious (and blatant) sins which no true believer ever should, or would, commit. There are a number of examples of such “vice lists” in the New Testament, which are generally in accord with both Jewish and Greco-Roman standards of decency and morality—e.g., Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:22-23. In Rom 1:32, Paul specifically declares that those who commit such gross transgressions are “deserving of death“. This draws upon traditional Israelite and Jewish religious thought, as expressed in the Torah (cf. above). He similarly states (again using traditional language) that those engaged in such behavior will certainly not “inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:10; Gal 5:21).
The problem with this view is that such traditional ethical instruction is really not to be found in the letter. Only in 2:15-17 do we see anything of the sort, and, even there, the emphasis is more generally on the character of “the world” rather than on specific types of sin. The closing statement of the letter (5:21) appears, at first glance, to be a traditional warning against (pagan, Greco-Roman) idolatry; yet, based on the overall orientation of the letter, it is likely that the warning should be understood as a coded statement, referring to the false views of those described in 2:18-25 and 4:1-6, etc, symbolically as idol-worship. So, this leaves us with two options: (1) in 5:16-18 the author is referring to something (types of serious immorality, etc) not otherwise emphasized in the letter, or (2) the sin that is “toward death” relates to something other than violation of traditional religious and moral behavior. In my view, the latter is more likely and fitting with the rhetorical thrust of the letter. If so, then it would also eliminate the second interpretation cited above. As I argued in the previous note, the use of the present tense of a(marta/nw does not necessarily indicate continual/habitual sinning, but more properly the simple distinction between past and present sins.
I would suggest that the third and fourth views listed above are rather closer to the mark, though the dynamic must be understood in terms of Johannine thought (i.e. that of the Letters and Gospel). Jesus’ specific saying regarding the “unforgivable sin” (against the Holy Spirit) is foreign to 1 John, though it may provide a loose parallel in the way that early Christians may have understood certain “sins” as directed specifically against the person of Christ and/or the Spirit.
It is useful at this point to consider the statement made by the author in verse 17:
“All sin is injustice [a)diki/a], and (yet) there is sin which is not toward death.”
The noun a)diki/a literally refers to something which is “without justice, without right(eous)ness”; we might say that it is “lacking right-ness”. This blanket statement refers to “all sin” (pa=sa a(marti/a). At the same time, it would seem that the author agrees with the general assessment in James 1:14-15 that all sin eventually leads to death (on this point, cf. below). What, then, is the sin which is, or leads, “toward death”? Let us look at the key references to “death” (qa/nato$) in the Johannine Gospel and First Letter, specifically with those which relate to the believer (rather than the sacrificial death of Jesus):
- Jn 5:24—the person hearing Jesus’ word, and trusting in him (and the One who sent him), holds the “Life of the Age” (eternal life) and “has stepped across out of death (and) into Life”. Humankind in the world is dominated by sin and darkness, and is on a path which leads to (ultimate) death in the end-time Judgment. Only those who trust in Jesus have Life, and are transferred out of this realm (and path) leading to death.
- Jn 8:51-52—here we find a slightly different formulation of the same idea: that the person (believer) who keeps/guards Jesus’ word will never “see/taste death”. The motifs of “hearing” and “keeping” Jesus’ word are two aspects of the principal idea of trusting in Jesus (and in God the Father).
- 1 Jn 3:14 reflects both of these declarations by Jesus, defining them specifically in terms of love for one’s fellow believer:
“We have seen [i.e. known] that we have stepped across out of death (and) into Life, (in) that [i.e. because] we love the brothers; the (one) not loving remains in death.”
We have discussed previously how, in Johannine thought, the entirety of the Christian life is summarized by just two “commandments” (e)ntolai/); actually, it is better understood as a single, two-fold duty: (1) trust in Jesus and (2) love for fellow believers (following Jesus’ own example). This may be deduced from evidence all throughout the Gospel and Letters, and is stated precisely in 3:23-24. Every true believer observes (keeps) this two-fold command; by contrast, the one who violates it is not a true believer. This background provides what I consider the best avenue for interpreting 5:16-18, which I would summarize as follows:
- Believers may sin at various times, but they do not (and cannot) sin in the sense of violating the two-fold command which is fundamental to one’s Christian identity.
- “False” believers, such as the “antichrists” who separated from the Johannine congregations, may claim to be true Christians, but they are not, since they violate the two-fold command—i.e., they do not have proper trust in Jesus, and/or do not demonstrate true love. As non-believers (belonging to “the world”), who thus act in a manner “against the Anointed” (i.e. ‘anti-christ’), they do not possess Life, and remain on the path leading toward death.
- It is thus these false/non-believers who sin “toward death”; true believers cannot sin in this way.
From what we read in the letter (and also in 2 John 7-11), it is clear that those who separated from the Johannine congregations, holding (and proclaiming) a false view of Jesus, were exerting some measure of influence in the various churches. This setting informs the warnings in 1 Jn 4:1ff and 2 Jn 8ff—i.e., the need for believers to be on guard and to “test” the “spirits” of those speaking about Jesus.
Life and Death in 1 Jn 5:16
Another difficulty in the interpretation of vv. 16-18 is the way “life” (zwh/) and “death” (qa/nato$) relate in this passage. The syntax of verse 16 is actually rather ambiguous; I translate it here without any explanatory gloss:
“If any one should see his brother sinning sin not toward death, he will ask and he will give him life…”
We must first determine the point of reference for the subject/object of the phrase in italics—who gives and who receives life? There are three options:
- The person (believer) making the request is the one who gives life to the believer who is sinning
- God gives life to the sinning believer
- God gives life to the one making the request
I would say, with most commentators, that the second option is to be preferred, though it is possible that the phrase expresses the idea that the believer’s request effectively results in (God) giving life to the one sinning. How should we understand “life” here? Throughout the Gospel and Letters of John, the word zwh/ virtually always refers to the (eternal) Life possessed by God, and which God, through Jesus (and the Spirit), gives to believers. Yet, if believers already possess this Life, and are not sinning “toward death” (cf. above), in what sense is the believer given “life” here? I note several possibilities:
- Here, in fact, the reference is to the danger of physical death as a result of sin
- The language simply reflects the basic distinction of sin and evil as the opposite of life (i.e. death), in a general sense
- Sin puts the believer (temporarily) out of union with God and Christ (i.e. “death”); only after confession/admission of sin and forgiveness/cleansing is this union (“life”) restored
- The forgiveness provided to the sinning believer is part of the same life-giving power of God which Christ possesses; this is inherent both in the saving work of his sacrificial death (“blood”), and through the (priestly) intercession he performs on our behalf (1:7-9; 2:1-2). Since Jesus himself is Life (Jn 1:4; 11:25; 14:6; 1 Jn 1:1-2, and cf. the upcoming note on 5:20), he gives life in all that he says and does.
The last option is the one best in keeping with Johannine thought, and, I should say, is to be preferred. In the next note, I will be reviewing aspects of this overall study (on 5:16-18, etc), and will attempt to bring the strands together into a more concise and definite interpretation.