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Sin unto death

A reader has been wondering about the "sin unto death" in 1 John 5:16-17. All unrighteousness is sin, says John, but there is sin unto death and sin that isn’t unto death. It’s almost unfair to try to say something here about the rich questions that come up in biblical study. Even presuming it’s accurate it’s always too brief or too rambling or too something. Oh well. A person would really need to see the literature on 1st John to get a rich sense of the differing possibilities open to a student on this text.

1st John assures us that those who walk in the light in Jesus Christ find free and full forgiveness of sins (1.7-9). This takes it for granted that even those who walk in the light will sin (there’s only one Jesus!). He says he writes to his brothers and sisters in Christ to keep them from sinning (the Christ of the cross didn’t come to make it easier for us to sin, much less to do it with an a clear conscience). But he insists that when they do sin they have one who runs to their aid to the Father and that it is through his sacrifice that they gain forgiveness (2:1-2). I don’t know of a book that takes sin more seriously than 1st John but he makes no bones about it, in Jesus Christ sin and sins are fully dealt with and all sin is serious (5.17).

But various influences had begun to grow within the Christian movement and in the process the truths of the gospel about Jesus Christ began to be told and interpreted in a way that undermined foundational truths. Foundational truths that were known and taught "from the beginning" and consequently a lot of believers got all tangled up.

There were Jewish and Hellenistic strands that came together at some points and diverged at others. Ebionites, for example (they became prominent some time after AD 70), were a Christian sect that affirmed the full humanity of Jesus but denied to him any pre-incarnate existence. They lived according to the Law of Moses. Cerinthus, said to be an Egyptian born Jew and a disciple of Philo (who embraced much of Plato’s teaching), insisted that "Jesus" was the natural son of Joseph and Mary. But he claimed that "the divine Christ" came on Jesus to enable him to serve God and then left him at the cross. The Judaism of northern Palestine in the time of Jesus Christ was affected by Greek thought and scholars are sure that while there was no full-blown Gnosticism in the first century there were certainly such tendencies. Gnosticism as it developed was the smart man or woman’s philosophy which then became (we might say) philosophical theology. There were numerous angles to it—all inter-connected. One of the central claims of Gnosticism was that life and fellowship with God came to people through their intellect, their knowledge and grasp of truth. There was more than one school under the heading of Gnosticism but as the name implies (from the Greek word for knowledge) the way to salvation was intellectual light—the "knowing ones" were the saved ones. As in Colossians there appeared to be those that insisted the believers couldn’t be perfected in and by Christ alone—something else was needed, so the Gnostic types to whom John is reacting claimed that without their special knowledge the church was wandering. John insists that God had given to the Church by the Spirit and in Jesus Christ all it needed and it didn’t need the "knowing ones" to teach them anything (2:26-28). [He wasn’t saying that each individual Christian was infallibly guided and exhaustively equipped! He speaks of the body of Christ.] The wise ones were also the superior ones so they could hardly be faulted for looking down their noses at the poor ignorant peons who hadn’t grasped the profound truths about reality and God.

There is much in the epistle about lovelessness; about not loving God and about not loving one’s brothers and sisters. There is much in the epistle about not being righteous and pursuing an upright life.

There is still debate about what Gnostics held but it does seem clear that they had adopted the view that matter was evil (Plato and other prominent Greek philosophers held that sort of view). This had ramifications for the doctrine of the Incarnation of God. He certainly could not have become flesh and so the body of Christ wasn’t real—it only "seemed" to be and so we had the development of the Docetics (from the Greek word "to seem," only apparent) who insisted that if Christ was divine he couldn’t have been truly human. For some with whom John is dealing, salvation via knowledge was liberation from the flesh, the discarding of the body and in some mystic way, finally uniting with God, the Great Spirit.

If indeed we have that as background to 1st John we have Jewish and Greek elements combining to say (among other things) that Christ didn’t come in the flesh, that since matter is inherently evil we can’t be held responsible for personal behaviour, that since we’re so smart the rank and file are beneath us and, when you combine the inherent evil of the body with out inner enlightenment, the real us doesn’t sin. Just as the earthly Jesus was not the transcendent Christ so they were inwardly different from their physical appearance. They had risen [they claimed] beyond their place in this passing life. And if you add to that strange mix a Jewish protest against wicked behaviour, a protest that suggests that it’s the Christian faith that leads to sin, then John’s insistent call to holiness gathers strength and point.

Read the whole text of John’s short letter and see that this much we can be sure of, some seemed to think you could live however you wanted and still be Christ’s. More pointedly, they didn’t think they sinned—they "explained" that away. And there were those who despised their brothers and sisters.

With all that as background I’m guessing that the sin that inevitably leads to death in every sense is sin that isn’t confessed (1:7-9). The OT drew a distinction between sins committed wilfully in arrogance ("with a high hand") and those committed that inevitably occur because that’s part of the human condition in its moral weakness. For sins with a high hand sacrifice didn’t avail for the perfectly good reason that sacrifice was to express the contrite heart and arrogant sinners had no such heart. See Numbers 15:25-31 and other texts.

"Unintentional" sins in the OT embraces more than sheer ignorance. Unintentional covers what is not done in arrogance or wilfulness. One kind of sin was weakness (moral and/or the weakness that is part of humans in social relationships) and the other was wilful defiance. One was the inevitable result of lacking the moral (or other) strength to completely avoid transgression and the other was the arrogance choosing to transgress.

The Bible doctrine of sin takes into account the nature of the sinful deed itself, of course, but that is only a fragment of the truth. To steal a piece of a family’s land by moving the boundary marker was indeed a sin but seducing people to worship others gods was a greater sin. The impenitent heart sins at the level of the emotions, the will and attitude as well as in the deed, great or small. A sin unto death is a sin done in the face of the threat of death (moral, physical or spiritual death). "Unintentional" sins are sins within the covenant but sins of a high hand are covenant-breaking sins whose fruit cannot be other than death.

I’m guessing that John’s unto death sinners simply refuse to confess that they sin—they say they don’t (1:10). They profess to know Christ but they sever knowing him from seeking to live as he lived (2:3-6). John insists that those who "know" Christ will follow in his steps and that this has been the faith from the beginning (2:7-11). No wise and knowing ones should be allowed to deceive them. But how could people think they didn’t sin? [I met such a one several years ago.] If the "real me" is not the person you see and associate with in life then it doesn’t matter how I behave for the real me is independent of the flesh. I’m not "of this world" (and texts can be quoted to say that)—I have transcended it all. You can’t hold me responsible for what the flesh does for that isn’t the real me.

Such a person sins sins that inevitably lead to death. Others sin despite their wanting only to please God, they sin sins that are not unto death. This doesn’t mean that some sins are sin and others aren’t. All unrighteousness is sin but some sin brings death because if we believe there is no sin to be forgiven (and that's what they said), why, then, they can’t be forgiven.

Let me summarise. I think that in this epistle the "sin unto death" is sin that 1) rises out of Gnostic-type heresy that says the body is evil, 2) it is sin they won't confess because they think it isn't them that is sinning, 3) it is sin that involves arrogance and a despising of brothers and sisters they think are poor ignorant dullards. 4) It is not the sin that we sin simply because we're morally weak and aren't able to avoid it always. This was sin the "wise" were sinning and refusing to acknowledge. Without that confession (penitent acknowledgement) there is no forgiveness (1:10).

I don’t think this section of scripture has anything to do with the blasphemy of the Spirit or the Hebrew 6:4-6 danger. It has a Jewish/Gnostic background and neither Hebrews 6 nor Matthew 12 relates to John’s concerns.

Spending Time with Jim McGuiggan