The Evangelical Universalist Forum

JRP's Exegetical Compilation: 1 John 5:16-17

This thread is part of my Exegetical Compilation series which I’m sllllowwwwllllyy posting up here.

1 John 5:16-17: As a quick summary, “If anyone sees his brother sinning, a sin not unto death, he should ask and He [God] will be giving him life, to these who are sinning, not unto death. Is there (or There is) sin unto death? – I say that he should not be asking about that! All injustice is sin; yet sin is not unto death.” This translation doesn’t say there are no sins that doom a person unto death; only that John is exhorting his readers not to ask about that. Which fits the notion that we aren’t in any position (unless maybe we’ve been given apostolic authority) to know which sins are sins to death or not, so most of us should treat our brother’s sins as not being sin unto death. If we ask for his salvation and it’s in the will of God for him to be saved from death, God will grant our prayer. If God’s will is for him to die, then He won’t grant our prayer – but for sake of charity, and since we aren’t apostles, it’s better for us to pray in hope for the sinner. The text is neutral about whether the death is hopeless or not; but the text most certainly does not say, even on standard translations, that there is a sin such that a Christian should not pray for a person to be saved from their sins!

It’s interesting that the surrounding context, especially afterward, makes it pretty clear that by “brother” John isn’t here talking about our Christian brothers but about our non-Christian brothers; and yet elsewhere in the NT, the examples of sin-unto-death are issues within the Christian family. Non-Christians aren’t usually the ones under the threat of that special punishment, Christians are.

The combination of “brother” language to refer to non-Christians, however, might mean that Christians are under threat of being punished as unfaithful and so being treated differently (namely as the unfaithful instead of as the faithful) – a point that comes up elsewhere in scriptures (such as the Synoptic Gospels and Hebrews) – whereas the possible change of status is entirely positive for those who start out unfaithful.

It doesn’t help that the verses are freakishly difficult to translate anyway:

“If any should be seeing the brother of him sinning sin not toward death {pros} typically means ‘toward’, which is why in KJV English it’s translated ‘unto’], he shall be asking, and He [God] will be giving to-him life to-the ones sinning (shifting suddenly to the plural) not toward death. There-is [or Is…? or Is there…?] sin toward death; [emphatically] not concerning this-there {ekeinês}, a location pronoun ‘there’ as a genitive noun object of the preposition {peri} ‘about’] I am saying that he should be asking. Every unfairness [or injustice] is sin; yet is sin not toward death.”

Should the phrase be a question that I’ve marked with a bracketed [Is there…?]? It’s hard sometimes in NT Greek to tell when something is being asked instead of stated. I can however tell that the subsequent phrase is clearly about a ‘there’, as a noun.

I’m inclined to think that switching terms like that, indicates the writer doesn’t want the reader to be asking whether there is a sin toward death: “don’t go there!” as we would say colloquially in English to someone asking us a question we’d rather they not be asking. This impression is heightened by the final phrase of the set, which could be translated “there-is sin” (with the subject tacit), or “is sin” or “sin [emphatically] is”, or even rhetorically, “yet/and is sin not toward death?”

Another reason I’m inclined to think this paragraph isn’t talking about a distinction between praying for brothers who aren’t sinning toward death and not praying for brothers (or whoever) who are sinning toward death, is because we’re clearly taught elsewhere all over the scriptures that any sin is a sin toward death! It is only because of God’s grace that any sin does not result in death, whether in the short run or in the long run.

I thus would end up going with the following interpretive option:

“If anyone sees his brother sinning, a sin not unto death, he should ask and He [God] will be giving him life. These are sinning, not unto death. Is there sin unto death? – I say that he should not be asking about that! All injustice is sin; yet sin is not unto death.”

One of the ecumenical advantages of putting it this way, is that even Calvinists and Arminians (and their non-Protestant equivalents) could, in various ways, accept and apply the translation; typically by topically synching it with the following verses which talk about how those who are begotten in God are not sinning and are not being touched by the evil one despite living in such a fallen world. The third sentence could even be interpreted now to be a Calv prooftext about the sufficiency of God to save Christian brethren, with St. John disavowing even the question of whether a brother could be sinning so that God would give up on him eventually.

But beyond whether a Calvinist could then adduce the result in favor of God’s potent competency to save sinners from sin, could a Calvinist adduce the subsequent paragraph, where John is talking about how those who are begotten of God are not sinning or being touched by the evil (one?) despite living in a whole kosmos lying in the evil; to mean something else along Calvinist lines? – namely that there is no point praying for the salvation of those who are not already being begotten of God, in the sense of those whom God has not chosen to act toward saving?

The concept of the previous paragraph (vv 16-17), on this Calvinistic theory, would be that if we see a person doing sin, whom God has chosen to act toward saving from sin, then even though we know he won’t arrive at death (thanks to God) from doing that sin, we still ought to pray for God to help us cooperate with God in leading our fellow-chosen-one away from sin. (The grammar might work out that way well enough, especially if a ‘for’ was helpfully interpolated into the translation in one of a couple of strategic places.)

My problems with this are a minor exegetical and a majorly practical one. The (only?) minor exegetical problem is that this would render verse 17 inexplicable as an addition: John already told us there is a sin not to the death (that’s presumed already in his injunction, isn’t it?) Why is he reiterating it? – and why bother adding that all injustice is sin? (This is probably why a few late Greek texts omit the negative {ou} in verse 17.) This is aside from the question of whether the smoothest reading of the extant Greek wording allows this meaning, since technically one could interpolate a few words here and there (as pretty much all translations have to do anyway) in order to get the sentences to synch with this meaning.

My major practical problem is that, strictly speaking, the advice is useless – not because there’s no point praying for brethren-who-will-be-saved (since the grammar can be read to indicate, probably correctly in any case, that the point to praying is to ask God how we can help God lead our brother out of sin, in loving cooperation with Him); but because under this kind of theology WE HAVE NO WAY OF TELLING WHO IS AND WHO ISN’T CHOSEN BY GOD FOR SALVATION FROM SIN! Even people who by all outward appearances seem to be professing Christians, and even doing works of miraculous power in His name, may be headed for a condemnation that can only be hopelessly final under Calv (and Arm) soteriology. (cf RevJohn 2:1-7; Matt 7:21-23) Whereas, any of those pagan idolaters over there may be led at the last moment to accept Christ. None of us have any way of knowing; we might even be (self?)-deceived about thinking we are of the ‘elect’!

It might be replied that since we cannot know for sure who is and who isn’t of the ‘elect’, then we could pray for everyone and (as the saying goes) let God sort out the bodies. True; but then the Calv translation of the injunction is still useless, insofar as it is read to be saying that we should distinguish between praying for those who are already slated not to arrive at death from their sins, and those who will be so arriving.

Given that the larger local context is about idolatry, one might suppose that the topic of whom to pray for and whom not to pray for is actually limited to those who are not pagans and those who (currently?) are, respectively. This would mean that we are not to pray for pagans to be converted to Christianity; which if anything would seem worse than a more generally Calvinistic application of the principle! – since in the more general application at least we have no idea really who we are and are not supposed to pray for; but here the application would practically exclude everyone who isn’t already officially a professing Christian except maybe those, like Jews, who are strict monotheists right now. Even Muslims give pagans a chance to convert before killing them!

I also observe that St. Paul, in a couple of epistles (most famously 1 Cor 5 but also 1 Tim 1), hands over to Satan certain rebel teachers who (as 1 Tim puts it) have shipwrecked in regard the faith. (In 1 Tim these are Hymenaeus and Alexander “among others”; in 1 Cor 5 it’s the unnamed teacher and Epicurian factionalizer I like to call Stepmom-Sleeping Guy.) In 1 Cor 5’s case, this looks pretty certainly like it’s to the death; and the phrasing is extreme in either case. It also reminds me of the phrasing in 1 John 5 which might be rendered “the evil one” (a nickname for Satan).

But is their cause hopeless?! Not at all! Paul in each case specifically says he’s doing it so that they’ll learn better: in 1 Tim 1:20, “so that they may be taught not to blaspheme”, and in 1 Cor 5:5, “so that [the SSG’s] spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus”. Insofar as what they’re doing counts as idolatry, Paul can be said to be praying not for them to live but for them to die: he’s going further in that sense than the Evangelist in 1 John 5! (Even on Calv interpretation, John is simply saying don’t ask for those who are sinning toward death to be given life by God. He isn’t saying his readers should pray for them to die!) But Paul’s active condemnation, though into death, isn’t into hopelessness. On the contrary, he has hope for them through the condemnation of God.

Taken altogether, then, I have to lean toward rejecting a Calv interpretation/translation of 1 John 5: 16-17; and I certainly don’t see how Arminians could do any better with it, even when the translational options are factored in. Whereas, when translational options are factored in, I arrive at a result that synchs up with things I think are being taught elsewhere in Scripture (even on basically the same topic); provides the smoothest use of the Greek as it stands; has some exegetical superiority to other options – and, perhaps incidentally, fits well enough into universalism.

Put another way, the verse as commonly rendered would be some kind of serious theological problem, but it wouldn’t be specially a problem for universalism any more than for Calvinism. Maybe less so, inasmuch as a “sin unto death” isn’t treated as being finally hopeless elsewhere in scripture despite arriving at the death.

But when the supposed threat (“sin unto death” is possible) comes packaged with a huge practical problem (it looks like the “sin unto death” is supposed to be observable, and yet both practically and doctrinally speaking it cannot really be observable by us, even if Calvinism or Arminianism is true), then I’m not worried about the claim as a problem against universalism. I start to suspect mistranslation instead.

Can the verses mean that we shouldn’t ask God to give life to the willfully unreprentant? I could agree with that easily enough. After all, a basic tenet of orthodox/evangelical universalism is that the only unforgivable sin is the one that is not repented of.

In this case, a sin not unto death would be one that the other person is repentant of but still tends to habitually do, or he tends to fold under temptation, or whatever; but he does know it’s wrong and (this is the key point) is seeking to be free of it. A sin unto death, by contrast, would be one the other person is unrepentant of. Not only would such sins be somewhat feasibly identifiable by us as external second-party observers, but it might actually be a sin to ask God to give life (in the sense of the zoe eonian) to someone who persists in being unrepentant! (This should be distinguished from those who are sinning but don’t realize yet that they are sinning.)

From the standpoint of universalistic soteriology (as developed elsewhere), what should be prayed for is that God would lead the sinner-unto-death to repentance, encouraging those who still love their sins to repent and drink and wash clean with the water flowing from under the throne of life, freely and without cost (if I may illustrate from other Johannine texts here), so that they may obtain permission to enter the never-closed gates of the city and eat of the tree of life, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations.

At the end of the day, 1 John 5 isn’t a decisive chapter for any of the three basic soteriology groups. The sin-unto-death verses are tough to translate, and positions already developed elsewhere can be fitted into the various translation options (sometimes into more than one option per soteriology.)

As always, forum members are free to add to and discuss these verses in the comments below, pro or con, and also to link to other discussions of them on or off site.

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