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Unraveling the Mystery of 1 John 5:16

by Stephen Davey

Diane asked:

I am confused by 1 John 5:16. Could you explain it?

Thanks for your question, Diana. Here is some information to help you. 

Understanding 1 John 5:16

Understanding certain verses in the Bible can often be challenging, and 1 John 5:16 is one such verse. It reads, 

“If anyone sees his brother or sister 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 sin leading to death; I am not saying that he should ask about that.” (NASB)

To help you better understand this verse, I want to break it down into three questions. 
•    What is a sin not leading to death? 
•    What is a sin leading to death? 
•    What does John mean when he says we should not ask about that”? 

Let's unpack this in light of other Scripture passages and the original language.

Sin Not Leading to Death

First, the verse speaks of sin not leading to death. John encourages believers to pray for their brothers and sisters who have been seen committing such a sin. But what exactly is this sin? Well, the Bible tells us that “all wrongdoing is sin” (1 John 5:17) and that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Death, whether spiritual (eternal separation from God) or physical, is the result of sin. And physical death comes to all of us. 

In this passage from 1 John, you might notice that this sin not leading to death is something that a brother, a fellow believer, would commit. The full verse of Romans 6:23 states this: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Remember, all sin leads to death, but for the one who believes in Jesus Christ as Lord, that person has eternal life! Their sin no longer means spiritual death or eternal separation from God. Because they accepted Christ’s sacrifice, death has lost its sting. 

So, as believers, we still commit sins. None of your past sins have resulted in your spiritual or physical death. When you see a brother or sister sinning, you should pray.

Sin Leading to Death

More challenging to interpret is John's mention of sin leading to death. This sin is often incorrectly confused with the unpardonable sin. The unpardonable sin is when one persists in their unbelief without repentance. Therefore, this is a sin only an unbeliever can commit. This is very different from the sin leading to death. 

Because John is talking about believers in this passage, we know he is not talking about spiritual death. Instead, John is referring to the reality that God may cut short the life of a believer because of sin. For the believer, which John has in view here, persisting in sin without repentance may lead to an untimely death. This is never an issue of God’s unwillingness to forgive. It’s an issue of unrepentance. John is warning believers of potential discipline by God, leading to an early death. The believer is not spiritually lost, but I believe God does this occasionally to preserve the testimony of Christ and His church. 

I Am Not Saying That He Should Ask About That

The final phrase we need to understand is John telling us not to ask about sins leading to death. To understand this phrase, I want to explain something about what this verse means in its original language. 

The first time the word “ask” appears in the verse, where John encourages us to ask of God on behalf of the sinning brother, comes from the Greek word aiteō. This word most often refers to making a request or petition in prayer. 

Later on in verse 16, it says, “I am not saying that he should ask about that” when John speaks about sin leading to death. That is a different word. It comes from the Greek word erōtaō, which means to make request. The primary meaning of this word is “to seek information.” John essentially advises, “I do not say that he should make a request for information.” In other words, we might want to dig into what happened to the person and the nature of his sin. John is telling us that it isn’t up to us to seek out more details. We don’t need more information to practice intercession. God knows all the details... He simply wants us to pray. 


So, John tells us that when we learn of a fellow Christian involved in sin, we should pray for that person. Sometimes, God may take a believer home to heaven early because of sin in his or her life. If we suspect that has happened, it is not our role to speculate or try to learn what we can about that person's sin. That is between that person and God. We pray for each other for as long as we are alive, and we don't investigate the sins of people who have died prematurely to learn if God has judged them. 


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Curtis says:
Very insightful. Thanks for the explanation of that verse.