Commentary on 1 John 5:16-17
Verses 16-17 have been the subject of much debate throughout the his¬tory of the church. Here again John introduces notions that he has not mentioned previously, and does little to explain them. These are the notion of “mortal sin” and “sin that is not mortal.” As we have seen in the earlier part of the Epistle, John has to struggle with the tension between the purity to be expected of those born from God and the actual reality of the church, where sin is still present.
Thus, after declaring that “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1:8), he says that “no one who abides in him sins” (3:6). To say that believers do not sin would be patently untrue. To say that this is of no consequence would undermine the very notion of being born from God and into a new life. John needs to say that sin—any sin—is a very serious matter; and yet he has to affirm also the forgiving love of God. Now, at the end of his letter, he faces the same issue once again. But in this case he does so by speaking of sin that is mortal and sin that is not.
Throughout its history, the church has had to struggle with the tension between its message of love and forgiveness and its own holiness and purity. The church cannot simply say that all sin is of such consequence that those who commit them are forever cut off from God’s grace. Nor can it say that, since God is in the business of forgiving, sin is ultimately of no consequence. The result has been a series of attempts to distinguish between those sins that Christians generally commit, for which they will be forgiven if they confess, and those other sins that are so egregious that they are unforgivable, or at least require long periods of penance before they can be forgiven.
At some point, apparently early in the second century, Christians generally held that the most egregious sins were apostasy, homicide, and fornication. But at the same time they had to struggle with the cases of those who fell into one of these sins and then asked to be readmitted into the communion of the church. The general response of the church was not to make light of such sins, but still to allow for the forgiveness of those who had committed them and sincerely repented—a sincerity that would often require years and decades of repentance before one was readmitted into the communion of the church. Some held that, if one sinned after baptism, the only recourse left was the “second baptism” of martyrdom.
As time went by, there were formal classifications of sin, till finally the distinction was made between “mortal sin” (pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth) and “venial sin.” John would have found this distinction scandalous, for he would never have considered any sin “venial.” All sin is an egregious rebellion and attack on the majesty and love of God. We should note that the later distinction between “mortal” and “venial” sin is all about attitudes and motives, while John is concerned about actions. It may be helpful to try to nip sin in the bud by stressing the attitudes that lead to sin, but John is concerned that the hungry be fed. It may well be that as we engage in actions of love our attitudes will change.
Still, John does make a distinction. For him some sin is “mortal”—as the NRSV translates what would literally mean “leading into death”—and some is not. Do we have here the first seeds of the distinctions that would later come to full bloom? Probably yes. But it should be pointed out that most likely what distinguishes “mortal sin” from that which is “not mortal” is not so much its moral enormity, but the manner in which it breaks the life of the community of love which John sees the church to be.
The ones who have been the object of his most stringent attacks in the rest of the Epistle are not those who break the moral codes, but rather those who break the community. Those whose false teachings lead people away from the community he calls antichrists. Those who will not come to the aid of a sister or brother in need he calls murderers. Thus, the sin that leads to death is the sin that breaks the community, for eternal life is to be found in the community that receives it from Jesus. To break away from the community is to break away from Jesus and to break away from life. This is therefore sin that leads into death—or, as the NRSV says, mortal sin.
This is why John urges prayer for those whose sin is not mortal. If one sees “a brother or sister” sinning, one should pray for that person, whom God will restore to life—that is, to the community of those whose sin has been washed away by Jesus. But then there are others—John does not call them brothers or sisters—whose sin is unto death. This is so, not because it is morally more reprehensible, nor even because they repeatedly fall into it, but because it is sin that severs them from the community of life. Finally, John makes it clear that the fact that sin that is not mortal will be forgiven does not mean that one should make light of sin: “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal” (v. 17).