Those who deny the eternal security of the believer (Conditional Security Advocates or CSAs) will inevitably point to 1 John 5:16 to support their view. John writes, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life – to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.” (ESV) Some CSAs teach that “death” in this text is eternal death which the believer can experience if guilty of committing a certain sin. We will examine two possible interpretations of John’s words, both of which defend the truth of the believer’s eternal security.
Possible Interpretation #1
John uses the term “brother” as merely a professing brother, but not a true believer (3:15 is used as support: “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him”).
In this interpretation, “death” means eternal death and the “sin that leads to death” is the sin of anti-christianity that John describes in earlier chapters. Thus, a person who is guilty of committing this sin is hopelessly lost, and praying for them is pointless (“I do not say that one should pray for that”). On the other hand, those who are guilty of “sinning sin (literal rendering) not leading to death,” prove by their habitual sinning that they are truly unregenerate and need spiritual life. Thus, the man who sees this professing brother continuing in this course of sin “shall ask, and God will give him (the professing brother who is actually unregenerate) life (eternal life).”
The strength of this view is that in interpreting both “death” and “life” as spiritual, the terms are allowed to be true contrasts. Also, these words are used elsewhere in the epistle to refer to spiritual death and spiritual life.
Possible Interpretation #2
John uses the term “brother” to mean a genuine brother, as he does elsewhere in the epistle. In this interpretation, “death” means physical death and there are sins which believers can commit or continue to commit that will lead to a premature home-call. In light of this John says, “There is sin that leads to death: I do not say that one should pray for that.” When John says not to pray for “that,” he means praying that physical death be the end result of such sinful behavior. John is not admonishing his readers to refuse prayer for people, but to refuse to pray vindictively. On the other hand, believers that are guilty of “sinning sin not leading to death” are clearly disobedient and in need of restoration. Thus, fellow believers “shall ask, and God will give him (the sinning believer) life (restoration of abundant life, life as God intends it to be lived).” The purpose of the passage, therefore, is not to identify the unstated “sin that leads to death,” nor to determine who has committed it. The purpose is to give direction in prayer for sinning believers. John tells us whom to pray for (a sinning brother), and what not to pray for (God acting vindictively). The work of chastisement should be left in the Lord’s hands.
This interpretation has the following strengths. First, it allows “brother” to mean “brother.” John gives no indication that he is only a professing brother. Second, it harmonizes with other judgment passages in the NT. Acts 5 describes the premature death of Ananias and Sapphira, who were both among the believing community. Peter does not imply that they had lost their salvation because they had “lied to the Holy Spirit.” Also, 1 Corinthians 11:30 tells us that in Corinth, many were sick and many died because of their sinful behavior. Paul does not even hint that any of these had lost their salvation. Third, this view harmonizes with James’ similar text (5:19-20). The context of both passages is prayer. Both James and John conclude their epistles with this subject. The guilty person is a “brother” in both cases, and death is the end result because of sin. James even refers to those who are physically sick and implies the sickness is because of sin (5:15). Fourth, this interpretation places a high value on the effectiveness of prayer for disobedient believers.
Both interpretations reflect Biblical truth and strongly support the doctrine of eternal security.
Weaknesses of the CSA Interpretation
First, the CSA interpretation is in conflict with John’s other texts, which affirm the believer’s eternal security in Christ (John 3:18; 5:24; 6:37,39-40; 10:27-29; 17:2; 1John 5:18). Second, John never tells us which sin (or sins) will bring about the eternal death threatened. This has led to some unscriptural conclusions, and to lists of “mortal” or “venial” sins being compiled. Also, since John has not named any sin(s), we would have no way of knowing if we were irrecoverably doomed to eternal death. Third, CSAs are left to tell us what “life” means in this text. If “spiritual life” is meant, the verse is nonsensical, for how can God be asked to give life to someone whose sins do not lead to spiritual death?
In order to preserve us from an attitude of ranking and sorting sin in order of its seriousness, John adds, “All unrighteousness is sin” (5:17). Our goal as believers should not merely be to avoid committing the sins we may deem as “serious,” but to avoid sinning, period. Such holy living is expected of God’s people, people He has set apart, people His word describes as eternally secure. And although we may strive for holiness, God has still left us with the flesh, and we will still sin. Yet no sin should make us fear eternal separation from our God. J. Denham Smith wrote these comforting lyrics:
God’s almighty arms are ‘round me,
Peace, peace, is mine!
Judgment scenes need not confound me,
Peace, peace, is mine!
Death and hell cannot appall me,
Safe in Christ whate’er befall me,
Calmly wait I, till He call me,
Peace, peace, is mine!