SPECIAL TOPIC: SIN UNTO DEATH
A. Hermeneutical considerations
1. proper identification must be related to the historical setting of 1 John
a. the presence of Gnostic false teachers in the churches (cf. 2:19,26; 3:7; 2 John 7)
(1) "Cerinthian." Gnostics taught that the man Jesus received the Christ spirit at his baptism and that the Christ spirit left before his death on the cross (cf. 5:6-8)
(2) "Docetic" Gnostics taught that Jesus was a divine spirit, not a true human being (cf. 1 John 1:1-3)
(3) Gnosticism revealed in the writings of the second century reflected two different views about the human body
(a) since salvation was a truth revealed to the mind, the human body was irrelevant to the spiritual realm. Therefore, whatever it desired it could have. These are often referred to as antinomian or libertine Gnostics.
(b) the other group concluded that since the body was inherently evil (i.e. Greek thought), any bodily desire should be shunned. These are called "Ascetic" Gnostics.
b. these false teachers had left the church (cf. 1 John 2:19), but their influence had not!
2. proper identification must be related to the literary context of the whole book
a. I John was written to combat false teaching and assure the true believers
b. these two purposes can be seen in the tests of true believers
(a) Jesus was truly human (cf. 1 John 1:1-3; 4:14)
(b) Jesus was truly God (cf. 1 John 1:2; 5:20)
(c) humans are sinful and responsible to a holy God (cf. 1 John 1:6,10)
(d) humans are also forgiven and made right with God by
i. Jesus' death (cf. 1 John 1:7; 2:1-2; 3:16; 4:9-10,14; 5:6-8)
ii. faith in Jesus (cf. 1 John 1:9; 3:23; 4:15; 5:1,4-5,10-12,13)
(2) practical (positive)
(a) lifestyle obedience (cf. 1 John 2:3-5; 3:22,24; 5:2-3)
(b) lifestyle love (1 John 2:10; 3:11,14,18,23; 4:7,11-12,16-18,21)
(c) lifestyle Christlikeness (does not sin, cf. 1 John 1:7; 2:6,29; 3:6-9; 5:18)
(d) lifestyle victory over evil (cf. 1 John 2:13,14; 4:4; 5:4)
(e) His word abides in them (cf. 1 John 1:10; 2:14)
(f) they have the Spirit (cf. 1 Johh 3:24; 4:4-6,13)
(g) answered prayer (cf 1 John 5:14-15)
(3) practical (negative)
(a) lifestyle sin (cf. 1 John 3:8-10)
(b) lifestyle hate (cf. 1 John 2:9,11; 3:15; 4:20)
(c) lifestyle disobedience (cf. 1 John 2:4; 3:4)
(d) love the world (cf. 1 John 2:15-16)
(e) deny Christ (denies Father and Son, cf. 1 John 2:22-23; 4:2-3; 5:10-12)
3. proper identification must be linked to specific items in the relevant text (cf. 1 John 5:16-17)
a. Does the term "brother" of v. 16 relate to both those committing a sin not leading to death and to those committing a sin leading to death?
b. Were the offenders once members of the church (cf. 1 John 2:19)?
c. What is the textual significance of:
(1) no article with "sin"?
(2) the verb "sees" as a third class conditional with aorist active subjunctive?
d. how can the prayers of one Christian (cf. James 5:15-16) restore eternal life, zōē, to another without the sinner's personal repentance?
e. how does v. 17 relate to the types of sin (unto death, not unto death)?
B. Theological problems
1. Should an interpreter try to link this text with
a. the "unpardonable" sin of the Gospels
b. the "once out" sin of Hebrews 6 and 10
The context of I John does seem parallel to the unpardonable sin of the Pharisees in Jesus' day (cf. Matt. 12:22-37; Mark 3:2-29) as well as the unbelieving Jews of Hebrews 6 and 10. All three groups (Pharisees, unbelieving Jews, and Gnostic false teachers) heard the gospel clearly, but refused to trust Jesus Christ.
2. Should modern denominational questions be a theological grid to view this text?
Evangelicalism has overemphasized the beginning of the Christian experience and neglected the ongoing lifestyle evidences of true faith. Our modern theological questions would have shocked first century Christians. We want "certainty" based on selected biblical "proof-texts" and our own logical deductions or denominational biases.
Our theological questions, grids, and distinctives reflect our own insecurities. We want more information and clarification than the Bible provides, so our systematic theologies take some small chunks of Scripture and weave huge webs of logical, western, specific doctrines!
Jesus' words in Matthew 7 and Mark 7 were adequate for the early church! Jesus looks for disciples, not decisions, long-term lifestyle faith, not short-term emotional faith (cf. Matt. 13:10-23; John 8:31-59). Christianity is not an isolated past act, but an ongoing repentance, faith, obedience, and perseverance. Christianity is not a ticket to heaven, purchased in the past, nor a fire insurance policy taken out to protect one from a lifestyle of selfish, godless living!
3. Does the sin unto death refer to physical death or eternal death? John's use of zōē in this context implies the contrast refers to eternal death. Is it possible that God takes home (physical death) sinning children? The implication of this context is that (1) the prayers of fellow believers and (2) the personal repentance of the offender combine to restore the believers, but if they continue in a lifestyle that brings reproach on the believing community, then the result may be an "untimely" or early physical departure from this life (cf. When Critics Ask by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, p. 541)
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