(1 Jn. 5:16) What is the sin leading to death?

CLAIM: John writes, “There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this” (1 Jn. 5:16). What is this sin, and why should we not pray for it?

RESPONSE: To begin, this sin doesn’t seem to apply to a genuine Christian. The verse begins by referring to a “brother” who commits a sin that does not lead to death. But it switches to others who commit sins that do lead to death. Thus, Kruse writes, “Sometimes it has been assumed that believers are also in danger of committing mortal sins and so losing the eternal life that God has given them. However, as far as the author is concerned, believers cannot commit sins that lead to death. Unlike other writers of the NT (e.g., the author of Hebrews), he does not contemplate the possibility of apostasy on the part of true believers.”[1] John writes that “all unrighteousness is sin” (v.17), so he doesn’t believe anyone can sin their way out of salvation, which is a past tense and completed event (cf. 1 Jn. 3:14; 5:24). This means that this passage doesn’t seem to be written to the believer with a sensitive conscience. If such a person thought they committed this sin, this serves as good proof that they didn’t!

We agree with most commentators that this is a very unclear passage. Roman Catholic theologians appeal to this passage to support the concept of venial and mortal sins (see “Sin: Venial and Mortal”). But we would be wise not to base any serious doctrines like this upon such an unclear passage. While we aren’t certain of its meaning, several options are possible. We will list these options in order of their likelihood. That is, we are more likely to adopt the first options rather than the last options:

OPTION #1: The Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?

John frequently refers to the testimony of the Holy Spirit throughout his letter (1 Jn. 3:24; 4:13; 5:6-8). If one of the false teachers rejected this testimony, what hope is there for such a person? In this view, the “sin leading to death” refers to the one sin of rejecting the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Jesus taught all sins would be forgiven, but “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mk. 3:29; cf. Mt. 12:32). To blaspheme the Holy Spirit means to reject the drawing ministry of the Holy Spirit to lead us to Christ (Jn. 12:32; 16:8-11).

John doesn’t call the person who commits this sin a “brother.” Whatever this sin is, this is committed by a non-Christian. Earlier in the book, John regarded these people as having never actually received Christ’s forgiveness: “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us” (1 Jn. 2:19). Thus, this doesn’t refer to losing one’s salvation, but to never having salvation in the first place.

The proto-Gnostic false teachers could very well be in view because John refers to the practice of habitual and unrepentant sin in the following verse: “We know that no one who is born of God sins; but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him” (1 Jn. 5:18). Earlier in 1 John 3:6-9, he uses the same expression, presumably referring to the libertine Gnostic false teachers of his day. This sin of rejecting Christ habitually is not aimed at the Christian—but the false teachers of John’s day (see comments on 1 Jn. 3:6-9).

The difficulty with this view is that John tells us not to pray for this person. Why wouldn’t we pray for someone who is still lost and hasn’t received Christ? Proponents of this view note that John doesn’t forbid us from praying for the person, but rather praying for this specific sin (i.e. blaspheming the Holy Spirit). People are given free will, and we shouldn’t pray that God would remove that freedom of the will. As Thompson writes, “What one may not ask for with respect to those whose ‘sin is unto death’ is that they be given life apart from their repentance, confession and returning to following Christ… One can pray that unbelievers may repent and come to fellowship with God. But if God were to forgive them as they persist in their sin, that would not be forgiveness: it would be denial of human sinfulness which, in the Elder’s view, is an abhorrent lie.”[2]

OPTION #2: The sin refers to the unbelief of the false teachers

This view dovetails with the “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” view above, only it gives a face to the people who do such a thing. These licentious proto-Gnostic teachers had experienced fellowship and apostolic teaching, but they had rejected it (1 Jn. 2:19). They rejected the testimony of the Holy Spirit (1 Jn. 3:24; 4:13; 5:6-8). In such a case, these could very well be the people who blasphemed the Holy Spirit. Kruse comments, “When the author speaks of ‘sin that leads to death,’ it is very likely that he has the sin of the [false teachers] in mind. They are people who deny that Jesus is the Christ come in the flesh, and also deny the significance of his atoning death. This would mean that they place themselves outside the sphere of forgiveness and their sins become sins unto death.”[3]

OPTION #3: This is referring to PHYSICAL death.

Hodges[4] holds that physical death is in view. This same expression “not leading to death” (ouk estin pros thanaton) also occurs in John’s gospel, when Jesus says, “This sickness is not to end in death” (Jn. 11:4). Of course, Lazarus physically died, but it wouldn’t “end in death.” Moreover, the Bible speaks about God judging believers physically for serious sin (1 Cor. 11:27-30). This was true in the OT (Num. 3:4), as well as the NT (Acts 5:1ff). For this reason, it’s likely that John is speaking of believers being physically judged, rather than spiritually judged for serious sin. If this is the case, fellow Christians shouldn’t pray for these believers to be healed (“I do not say that he should make request for this.”). This is because God is divinely judging them (c.f. Jer. 7:16; Isa. 1:15).

The difficulty with this interpretation is the fact that John uses “death” (thanatos) to refer to spiritual death in this book—not physical death (1 Jn. 3:14; cf. Jn. 5:24; 8:51-52). At the same time, John does use this term to refer to ordinary physical death (Jn. 12:33; 18:32; 21:19; Rev. 2:10; 2:23; 9:6; 12:11; 13:3), so this isn’t that unlikely.

OPTION #4: This is referring to praying for someone who is ALREADY DEAD

Under this view, John wrote to stop Christians from praying for those who were spiritually dead and also physically dead. If someone died rejecting Christ, we shouldn’t continue to pray for them. As Johnson writes, “The issue of when the death occurs is not resolved in the phrase itself, but [John’s] refusal to authorize prayer for those whose sin is unto death (v. 16) suggests that he thinks of the death as having already occurred.”[5]

The problem with this view is that if this was John’s intent, then we would expect him to elaborate on his meaning. After all, praying for the dead is a concept that is totally alien to this letter. Consequently, this interpretation would be coming out of left field.

OPTION #5: This is referring to church discipline

Under this view, the person experiences “death” by being handed over to the world-system. While we would certainly pray for the person, we wouldn’t pray that God would protect them from all of the breaking that they need. As Paul writes in a similar passage, “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5). Under this view, the “destruction of his flesh” would be synonymous with the sin “leading to death.” In cases of church discipline, we do pray that the person would be restored to an authentic relationship with God, but we also pray for the necessary breaking that is needed as well.

The difficulty with this view is that John doesn’t use the term “death” (thanaton) to refer to the destruction of our flesh or our spiritual breaking. He typically uses it to refer to the loss of eternal life or physical death. Moreover, church discipline isn’t mentioned in this entire letter. We reject this interpretation.

OPTION #6: The sin refers to apostasy in general

Akin[6] holds that the “sin leading to death” refers to someone fully rejecting the gospel and committing apostasy. Thus, the sin refers to “total apostasy, the rejection of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and denial of the faith.”[7] He cites passages that are understood to refer to the inability of an apostate to return to Christ after fully and totally closing his heart (Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-27). Consequently, we shouldn’t pray for this person because of OT precedent (Jer 7:16-18; 11:14; 14:11). Moreover, Jesus didn’t always pray for the world (Jn. 17:9), so this serves as precedent as well.

We reject this view because we never know when an apostate or a prodigal will return. We also never know when a non-Christian will turn to Christ in faith. Why wouldn’t we pray for such a person?


Not everything in Scripture is equally clear. Peter said that some of Paul’s writings were “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16). In the Bible, the main things will no doubt be the plain things. Therefore, however we interpret this passage, we should make sure to interpret the unclear in light of the clear. Since the “sin leading to death” only occurs in this one passage, and it is very unclear to interpret, we should not build a major doctrine on this one passage.

[1] Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John, ed. D. A. Carson, Second Edition, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; London: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos, 2020), 206.

[2] Marianne Meye Thompson, 1-3 John, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 1 Jn 5:16.

[3] Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John, ed. D. A. Carson, Second Edition, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; London: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Apollos, 2020), 207.

[4] Zane Clark Hodges, The Epistle of John: Walking in the Light of God’s Love (Irving, TX: Grace Evangelical Society, 1999), 233.

[5] Thomas F. Johnson, 1, 2, and 3 John, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 136.

[6] Daniel L. Akin, 1, 2, 3 John, vol. 38, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 209.

[7] Daniel L. Akin, 1, 2, 3 John, vol. 38, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 209.