He that hath the Son hath the life; he that hath not the Son of God hath not the life. These things have I written unto you, that ye may know that ye have eternal life, even unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God. And this is the boldness which we have toward him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us: and if we know that he heareth us whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions which we have asked of him. If any man see his brother sinning a sin not unto death, he shall ask, and God will give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: not concerning this do I say that he should make request. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death (1 John 5:12-17).
John is beginning to conclude his first letter, a treatise designed to encourage Christians in their faith and standing before God while warning them regarding false teachers.
Previously in chapter five John has emphasized how believers are born of God, keep His commandments, overcome the world through Christ, and that believers have the witness of God regarding Jesus His Son in them (1 John 5:1-11). This witness includes the fact that believers have been given eternal life through the Son (1 John 5:11).
The theme of having eternal life continues throughout the rest of the letter. It features prominently in verses 12 and 13: the one who has the Son has “the life,” and those believing in the name of the Son of God can know that they have eternal life. Likewise, the one who does not have the Son does not have “the life.”
Focus on “the life” evokes John 11:25 and 14:6– Jesus is the resurrection, the way, the truth and the life. Since Jesus is the Word (John 1:14), and the Word is the agent of creation (John 1:3, Hebrews 11:3), all life truly is in the Son. Yes, those who believe in Jesus in obedient faith have spiritual life– but there is also a sense in which those who trust in Jesus are those who can truly live as human today, seeking to accomplish the will of their Creator (cf. Galatians 5:17-24). We truly can have life in the Son– but only if we are doing the commandments (1 John 5:2-3).
Yet there is more for believers. They have life in the Son, indeed, but John goes on to show that believers can boldly make requests to God according to His will and be guaranteed a hearing and our needs fulfilled (1 John 5:14-15). This is similar to what is seen in Hebrews 4:14-16. Considering how so many have been fearful when approaching the throne of God (cf. Isaiah 6:1-5, Ezekiel 1:4-28), the opportunity to approach Him with boldness is astounding indeed!
This is not a carte blanche for anything the believer may want– as John says, we can have confidence regarding the requests we make that are in accordance with God’s will (1 John 5:14), not just any request. The warning of James 4:3 applies: if we ask to spend in pleasure, we will be frustrated!
John goes on to speak regarding prayer for others caught in trespasses– a noble thing for sure (cf. Galatians 6:1, James 5:19-20). In this discussion John makes a contrast between the “sin leading to death” and the “sin not leading to death,” and exhorts Christians to pray for their fellow Christians in terms of the latter and not the former (1 John 5:16). John maintains that “all unrighteousness is sin,” but there is a “sin not unto death” (1 John 5:17).
These two verses have been abused and misused for centuries in order to prop up a hierarchy of sins– “mortal sins” versus “venial sins” or some permutation of the sort. Such a view assumes that John’s delineation between sins leading to death or not leading to death involves particular sins and their severity. Such a perspective, however, is foreign to the New Testament. In no other passage do we see that certain sins are more or less severe than other sins. In fact, sin lists tend to feature all kinds of sin– sexual sins and sins of the tongue, sins of thought and even sins of omission (cf. Galatians 5:19-21, 1 Peter 4:15, James 4:17).
The New Testament does make a distinction, however, between repentant sin and unrepentant sin– there is no sin so terrible that cannot be forgiven (1 Timothy 1:12-15), and yet no sin so slight that it cannot condemn (1 John 5:17). This is how we can understand what John is saying: the “sin to death” is the sin of a hardened, unrepentant person; the “sin not to death” is the sin of a tenderhearted, repentant disciple. Let us serve God in Christ and have life!
Ethan R. Longhenry