The following is Essay 05 of a new essay series that I am working on titled “The Mortal Sin of Protestantism: How Eve Proves the Doctrine of Venial Sin”. Please note that while I am, in fact, very sympathetic to Protestantism, and I am arguably more Protestant than Catholic in personality, when it comes to the matter of mortal and venial sin–which is a matter that I have been thinking about for some time now–I simply see the arguments falling on the side of the Catholic doctrine of mortal and venial sin. Hence this essay series.
Although certain philosophical and historical reasons to be open to the idea of mortal and venial sin have now been presented, it is nevertheless the case that many Protestants naturally place appeals to philosophical and/or historical considerations behind the authority of sacred scripture. Consequently, while an appeal to philosophical reasoning and historical authorities in support of the doctrine of mortal and venial sin may soften some initial resistance to this doctrine, such arguments will not suffice to justify this doctrine in the eyes of many Protestants, because for that, Biblical support is needed. And so, it is to the Bible that we now turn.
1 John 5:16-17
Right out of the gate, let it be clear that there indeed do exist certain biblical passages which, upon analysis, can be seen as supporting the doctrine of mortal and venial sins. And the main biblical passage that is appealed to in support of this doctrine is 1 John 5:16-17, which says the following:
[Quote] 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. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. [Unquote, 1 John 5:16-17, English Standard Version]
Now, when viewed through a Catholic lens, it is evident that the aforementioned verses can indeed serve as support for the doctrine of mortal and venial sin. After all, on a plain and direct reading of these verses, it is clear that these scriptures note that there are some sins which lead to death and yet there are also some sins that do not, which is precisely the distinction between mortal and venial sins. And so, right in this passage, on an immediate reading of it, there are strong indications that the Bible does contain verses specifically detailing a difference between sins that lead to death and those which do not.
The problem, of course, is that there is a debate concerning what type of death is being discussed in 1 John 5:16-17. Is it spiritual death and physical death? If spiritual death—meaning damnation—is being discussed, then 1 John 5:16-17 would support the doctrine of mortal and venial sin, because 1 John 5:16-17 would indicate that some sins are worthy of damnation and so are not, which is precisely what the doctrine of mortal and venial sin entails. And such an interpretation would also be directly opposed to the Protestant understanding of sin, given that Protestants generally accept the claim that all sins are worthy of damnation. However, if 1 John 5:16-17 is actually speaking about physical death, then such an interpretation would remove the support that the doctrine of mortal and venial sin would receive from the aforementioned passage; furthermore, under such an interpretation, 1 John 5:16-17 would no longer be a threat to the Protestant understanding of sin. And so, in light of these latter points, is it any surprise that Protestants do indeed contend that 1 John 5:16-17 is speaking about physical death rather than spiritual death, thereby claiming that this scriptural passage does not support the doctrine of mortal and venial sin? Of course not. And to see an example of this, consider the popular Protestant ‘gotquestions.org’ website and their article “Does the Bible teach mortal and venial sin?’. In this article—which was accessed on the 27th of May 2017—the writers readily claim that 1 John 5:16-17 refers to physical death, not spiritual death. Specifically, they write the following:
[Quote] Some point to 1 John 5:16–17 as a proof text for the concept of mortal and venial sin. In that passage John says, “If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.” We take the “death” mentioned here to be physical death, not eternal death in hell. When a believer continues in unrepentant sin, he will eventually reach the point when God may decide to remove him from this world. God at times purifies His church by removing those who stubbornly disobey Him. The “sin that leads to death” does not result in loss of salvation but in loss of earthly life (see 1 Corinthians 11:30). [Unquote, bold emphasis added, https://www.gotquestions.org/mortal-sin-venial.html%5D
So, as the quote above mentions, certain Protestants argue that 1 John 5:16-17 deals with physical death, not spiritual death. And other Protestants agree. For example, Matt Slick, author of the article “1 John 5:16-17, The sin leading to death” on the popular Protestant ‘carm.org’ website—accessed on the 27th of May 2017—writes the following:
[Quote] The meaning of verses 16 and 17 is debated among Christians. There is no absolute consensus on what this means. But, generally speaking, we conclude that there [are] sins that people can commit which God takes seriously enough so as to end their lives. An example of this is of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-10 who lied to the Holy Spirit. God judged them for this and both were killed. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, https://carm.org/apologetics/verses-examined/1-john-516-17-sin-leading-death%5D
ain, it is clear that Protestants take 1 John 5:16-17 to mean earthly death, not spiritual death. And these Protestants—as noted above—do indeed have examples that they can bring forth to support their claim. However, as mentioned by Matt Slick, there is no clear consensus about what 1 John 5:16-17 means. So already it is admitted that there is uncertainty about the proper interpretation of this scriptural passage. At the same time, and as noted earlier, it must also be acknowledged that it is eminently reasonable to read these verses from a Catholic perspective without needing to twist them or modify them in any way. So, both the Catholic interpretation and the Protestant one can potentially be read into 1 John 5:16-17. Thus, in a very real sense, the correct interpretation of this passage is not immediately or clearly determinate, which means that the passage itself does not plainly show which interpretation is to be preferred over the other. And because of this fact, this means that it is both necessary and beneficial to turn to a deeper scriptural analysis of this passage, coupled with philosophical argumentation, to assess which interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 is the most plausible and rational one for us to hold.
A Burden of Proof Argument
Now, the first critical issue to note about the Protestant interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 is that even if this interpretation is true, this does not mean that the Catholic interpretation is necessarily false. In fact, both interpretations could be true at the same time. After all, 1 John 5:16-17 could refer to both physical earthly death and spiritual death simultaneously. And perhaps the author of 1 John 5:16-17 even meant for this passage to refer to both types of death at the same time, which is why the passage can accommodate both these interpretations at once. Consequently, the Catholic interpretation of this passage cannot be dismissed out of hand simply because—for the sake of argument—the Protestant interpretation is deemed correct.
Furthermore, it must also be noted that a Catholic would have no problem in accepting the dual understanding of this passage. Indeed, a Catholic would be more than willing to accept that—as per the Protestant interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17—God might indeed directly cause the earthly death of a person for some grievous sin. Thus, the idea that God might directly and immediately cause the earthly death of a person for that person’s sins—as in Acts 5:1-10—is by no means opposed to Catholicism. And so, what this means is that the Catholic could accept that 1 John 5:16-17 refers to earthly death, while also claiming that those verses simultaneously refer to spiritual death as well. And there is nothing within those specific verses which would clearly or immediately show that the Catholic is wrong in taking such a stance. However, the Protestant cannot adopt such a stance, for the Protestant is necessarily committed to denying that 1 John 5:16-17 refers to spiritual death. Thus, whereas the Catholic could accept that 1 John 5:16-17 refers to both earthly death and spiritual death, the Protestant cannot do so, for the Protestant must deny the latter while asserting the former.
But in light of these various points, a type of burden of proof argument can actually be made in favor of the Catholic position concerning this passage. And this argument could be formulated along the following lines:
- The passage 1 John 5:16-17, as written, can be read as referring to both earthly death and spiritual death at the same time; furthermore, there is no immediate or clear scriptural way to determine whether this passage refers only to one type of death or the other. Additionally, this passage need not refer to only one type of death or the other, meaning that there is nothing preventing it from referring to both. Consequently, until and unless there is a clear indication that 1 John 5:16-17 refers to only one type of death or the other, it is rational to believe that it refers to both types of death at the same time.
- Catholics can accept that 1 John 5:16-17 refers to both earthly death and spiritual death simultaneously. However, Protestants claim that 1 John 5:16-17 refers only to earthly death, not spiritual death.
- Because Protestants are the ones making the positive claim that 1 John 5:16-17 only refers to earthly death and not spiritual death, and because this claim is not self-evidently clear in the passage itself, then Protestants have the burden of proof to support that claim.
- So, until and unless the aforementioned burden of proof is met, it remains rational to believe that this passage refers to both earthly death and spiritual death.
- Ergo, until and unless Protestants meet their burden of proof in this case, then it remains rational to believe that 1 John 5:16-17 supports the doctrine of mortal and venial sin.
Now, whether or not Protestants can meet the aforementioned burden is a different question. However, the point is that this burden of proof argument can quite reasonably contend that it is indeed rational to maintain that 1 John 5:16-17 refers to both earthly and spiritual death unless the latter type of death is positively shown to have no place in the understanding of this passage. And while objections against this burden of proof argument could no doubt be mounted—as objections could be mounted to any argument—the point is that this argument is readily defensible and quite forceful, so this argument cannot be ignored. And yet, this burden of proof issue is only the first point to note when it comes to 1 John 5:16-17, for there are numerous other reasons to hold that the Catholic interpretation of that passage is the more plausible interpretation of it.
Problems with Earthly Death & Prayer: Part 1
The next issue to consider concerning the Protestant understanding of 1 John 5:16-17 is that if that passage is dealing with earthly death, then the passage itself makes little sense, and it makes less sense than if the verse is seen as referring to spiritual death. But why is this so?
First, remember that 1 John 5:16-17 states that if someone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, then he should ask God and God will give that brother life. But if ‘life’ and ‘death’ means earthly life and death—as per the Protestant interpretation—then if a brother is committing a sin not leading to earthly death, then why should someone ask God to specifically give the brother earthly life if God is already not going to kill that brother. Indeed, why specifically pray to God for a person’s earthly life if God is already not going to take that person’s earthly life away. You are praying and asking for something that is already not going to happen. This makes little sense. In fact, it is almost an absurd request. So this is the first difficulty that is encountered on the Protestant interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17.
Now, if the Protestant tries to say that the term ‘death’ in 1 John 5:16-17 means earthly death, while the term ‘life’ means eternal, spiritual life with God, then 1 John 5:16-17 is still problematic for the Protestant in three different ways. First, if the aforementioned interpretation was the case, then this would mean that a person could simply ask God to give eternal life to a sinner who is not committing a sin leading to earthly death, and God would do it! But such an understanding appears downright heretical; after all, would God give eternal life to a sinner merely on another Christian’s request, even if that sinner himself did not repent of his sins or did not want to be saved? This seems highly unlikely, if not borderline blasphemous. The second problem stems from the fact that even if it were true that a Christian could ask God to give a sinning brother eternal life, if that brother was not going to die an earthly death at that particular point in time, then why would the Christian be instructed to ask God to give this brother eternal life specifically at a time when the brother is not going to die, and would thus have no need to directly worry about eternal life in that moment. This makes little sense. Now, if a Christian brother was going to die an earthly death from his sins at that moment, then it would be understandable why a fellow Christian, at that time, would be instructed to pray that God gives the brother eternal life; but again, if the brother is not going to die, then it makes little sense to specifically ask for the brother’s eternal life at a time when he is not at risk of needing that request, especially since he might fall away from eternal life at a later time anyway. So again, on this interpretation, 1 John 5:16-17 makes little sense. And finally, for Protestants who believe in ‘once saved, always saved’, the third problem is that the aforementioned interpretation of this passage is utterly trivial, for if a brother is already saved and cannot lose his salvation no matter if he sins, then why ask God to give the brother spiritual life if he already has it and cannot lose it; a Christian’s prayers, in such a case, would be utterly pointless. So either way, any Protestant interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 which tries to claim that that passage is dealing with earthly death and spiritual life runs into problems when looks at critically. And while these problems are not fatal for the Protestant view of 1 John 5:16-17, but they are still problems that undermine the plausibility of the Protestant interpretation of this passage.
By contrast to the Protestant interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17, the Catholic interpretation makes better sense of this aspect of that passage. As per the Catholic understanding, when a brother commits a venial sin—a sin not leading to spiritual death—then Christians are to pray for these sins to remove their temporal effects so that the venial sinner does not need to suffer in this life or in purgatory for the removal of those venial sins; thus, the prayers of other Christians can remove the punishment for these venial sins so that the venial sinner, if he dies, does not need to spend time in purgatory but can immediately be given life with God upon death. Now, to understand this Catholic idea better, consider this explanation from the Protestant website ‘gotquestions.org’; in their article “What are indulgences and plenary indulgences and is the concept biblical?”—accessed on the 30th of May 2017—they explain this Catholic doctrine as follows (and please specifically note the bolded sections of this long quote):
[Quote] Understanding the Catholic definitions is very important in understanding this issue: Eternal Punishment: “the penalty for unrepented mortal sin, separating the sinner from communion with God for all eternity; the condemnation of the unrepentant sinner to hell.” Temporal Punishment: “purification of the unhealthy attachment to creatures, which is a consequence of sin that perdures even after death. We must be purified either during our earthly life through prayer and a conversion which comes from fervent charity, or after death in purgatory.” Purgatory: “a state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God’s friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven.” The Roman Catholic Church teaches that sin has a double consequence. For a member of the Catholic Church, committing a mortal sin causes “eternal punishment,” involving eternal separation from God and suffering in hell. … Venial (minor) sin, in contrast, does not cause “eternal punishment” but does cause “temporal punishment.” Roman Catholic teachings sometimes refer to these “temporal punishments” given by God as a means of purifying His children (either in this life or in Purgatory). But the Roman Catholic Church also sees venial sins as creating a debt to God’s justice that must be atoned for in a way that is distinct from Christ’s atonement for eternal punishment. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that because of the unity of the Body of Christ (the Communion of the Saints, including living believers, believers in heaven, Roman Catholic saints in heaven, Christ, Mary, and the imperfect believers in Purgatory), it is possible for the merit generated by the good works, prayers, almsgiving, sufferings, etc., of one or more of these members of the Body to be applied to the temporal debt of another. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the combined merit of Christ, the saints, and godly believers is stored in a place referred to as the Treasury of Merit (it is also sometimes called the Treasury of Satisfaction, the Church’s Treasury, or the Thesaurus Ecclesiae). And through apostolic succession from Peter, it is the Roman Catholic Church alone that has the authority to withdraw merit from this treasury and dispense it to believers in this life or in Purgatory to atone for some or all of their venial sin. This it does through the granting of Catholic indulgences. Again, indulgences pertain only to temporal, not eternal, punishment and can only be distributed through a Roman Catholic Church leader to someone who is either in Purgatory or is still living and whose soul is in the state of sanctifying grace (i.e., he/she would go to Purgatory, not hell, if he/she were to die at that moment). An indulgence can be obtained through a good deed done, a Mass being offered on behalf of someone, prayer, abstinence, giving to the poor, or some other meritorious act performed in accordance with requirements set by a Pope or bishop having jurisdiction over that individual. The offering of a Mass for someone is seen as one of the most effective means of reducing the temporal punishment of that person in Purgatory. A partial indulgence will reduce the temporal punishment a person has. A plenary indulgence will remove all temporal punishment. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, https://www.gotquestions.org/plenary-indulgences.html%5D
So, as stated, and as articulated by the aforementioned Protestant source (and see the section on indulgences in the Catechism of the Catholic Church for further details), the Catholic understanding is that the prayers of believers in this life can be used to remove the stains of the venial sins of other believers, either partially or completely. And if those prayers achieve the complete removal of those stains in this life, then, upon death, the other believer is immediately given spiritual life with God rather than having to wait in purgatory for the removal of those stains. So, on the Catholic understanding, it makes perfect sense to ask and pray to God to give a brother life even though the brother is committing a sin which does not lead to death, for the life being spoken of is an immediate life with God, whereas the death being spoken of is eternal separation from God. But since the brother is not eternally separated from God because his sin is not leading to death, then one’s prayers are not applied to that; rather, they are applied to the brother’s venial sins, which can remove him from immediate life with God if not washed away. So, on the Catholic understanding, this is why 1 John 5:16-17 tells Christians to ask and pray to God to give a brother life, even though the sins that the brother is committing do not lead to death.
Now, a Protestant will obviously disagree with the idea of purgatory, and the Protestant will also dispute the above claims, but the point is that when 1 John 5:16-17 is examined on its own, the Catholic interpretation, which views 1 John 5:16-17 as referring to spiritual life and death, is simply a more plausible interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 then the Protestant interpretation is. This does not mean that the Protestant cannot dispute the Catholic interpretation on other grounds, but it does mean that when looking at 1 John 5:16-17 exclusively, the Catholic understanding of this passage makes more sense of it than the Protestant understanding does.
Problems with Earthly Death & Prayer: Part 2
The second main Protestant interpretational difficulty concerning 1 John 5:16-17 and the issue of prayer stems from the fact that 1 John 5:16-17 states that Christians should not pray for individuals who have committed sins that lead to death. However, if, as per Protestants, this ‘death’ means earthly death, then this means that Christians should not pray for brothers who are committing sins which are so bad that they will lead to God directly removing the brother from this earthly life. But here is the difficult question for that view: Why would Christians not pray for a brother who is committing a sin that is so bad that it will lead to an earthly death? In fact, would it not be the case that Christians should doubly pray for a brother who is sinning so severely that he needs to die? After all, if (1) Christ commands Christians to pray for their enemies (Matthew 5:44)—even though many of these enemies are committing brutal sins—and if (2) Paul commands Christians to pray for all men (1 Timothy 2:1-3), and if (3) Christians are already asked to pray for those committing sins not leading to death (1 John 5:16-17), then this seems to indicate that Christians should deeply pray for all their Christian brothers, even those who are sinning so badly that they are likely to be immediately and directly removed from this earthly life by God. And so, in light of the aforementioned points, it is contended that the idea that Christians should not pray for their brothers who are sinning unto earthly death is not a reasonable interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17.
Now, the Catholic interpretation of this verse is arguably more reasonable and plausible than the Protestant one. Why? Because on the Catholic understanding of mortal and venial sin, a mortal sin—meaning a sin leading to death—requires confession and penance to be removed, not simply prayer. By contrast, a venial sin can be removed with prayer. And, in fact, in Section 15 of his A Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed, Saint Augustine articulates this difference when he says the following:
[Quote] I do not tell you that you will live here without sin; but they are venial, without which this life is not. For the sake of all sins was Baptism provided; for the sake of light sins, without which we cannot be, was prayer provided. What has the Prayer? “Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.” Once for all we have washing in Baptism, every day we have washing in prayer. Only, do not commit those things for which you must needs be separated from Christ’s body: which be far from you! For those whom you have seen doing penance, have committed heinous things, either adulteries or some enormous crimes: for these they do penance. Because if theirs had been light sins, to blot out these daily prayer would suffice. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1307.htm (Access 17 May 2017)]
So here Saint Augustine is claiming that prayer is used to erase light sins, but penance is needed for serious sins, which is essentially the same thing that the Catholic Church presently teaches. And such an interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 makes sense of why prayer is used for brothers committed sins not leading to spiritual death (meaning venial sins), but prayer is not used for brothers committed sins that do lead to spiritual death (meaning mortal sins), for the latter types of sins need penance, not prayer. Thus, the Catholic understanding makes more sense of why Christians are told not to pray for other Christians who are committing sins leading to death: namely, that these prayers are not what is needed for such mortal sins; rather, penance is needed. And so, once again, these considerations demonstrate that the Catholic explanation of 1 John 5:16-17 is more sensible and plausible than the Protestant interpretation is.
Seeing Sins and the Problem of Earthly Death
Another problem for the Protestant ‘earthly death’ interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 stems from the fact that this passage claims that Christians can see their brother committing the sins that do not lead to death. Indeed, 1 John 5:16-17 clearly states that the Christian can see his brother committing such non-deadly sins. Thus, this passage indicates that the Christian could come to know, via his senses and intellect, and either by direct observation or from a reasonable assessment of indirect evidence, that a Christian brother is sinning a sin that does not lead to death. Now, by extension, this latter claim also naturally implies that the Christian could also see his brother committing a sin that does lead to earthly death. After all, knowing when to pray for certain sins and not others necessarily implies an ability to know which sins to pray for and which ones not to pray for. But in that case, it would be necessary to know which sins lead to earthly death and which do not. Yet there is nothing clear in scripture or tradition which indicates which sins lead to an earthly death and which do not.
Now the Protestant can possibly point to a specific incident—such as lying to the Holy Spirit, which occurred in Acts 5:1-10—as an example of a sin that leads to earthly death. The Protestant could also claim that 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 is another example of a sin that could lead to earthly death. Or the Protestant might point to 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 as a sin that leads to earthly death. Or finally, some Protestants might claim that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28-30 and Matthew 12:31-32) is the sin that leads to earthly death. However, nothing in scripture clearly notes that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit leads to earthly death, and furthermore, there is nothing to indicate that the examples in Acts 5:1-10 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 are anything more than one-off cases. After all, consider that it is eminently reasonable to hold that many believers and unbelievers alike throughout history blasphemed the Holy Spirit and also committed sins very similar (or worse) to the ones noted in Acts 5:1-10 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-5; and yet, to the best of our knowledge, at the time those individuals committed the sins in question, they were not quickly or directly removed from this earthly life by God specifically for those sins (as was the case in Act 5:1-10, for example). Consequently, it appears that there is nothing in these specific scriptural texts, and nothing in common experience, to indicate that certain types of sins consistently or uniformly lead to a direct earthly death caused by God for those specific sins (rather than for sins in general, which would be a trivially true claim—and thus an uninteresting and uninformative one—given that God, as the sustainer of all of creation from moment-to-moment, is ultimately responsible, at some point in time, for the death of all earthly people due to their sins).
Now, the reason that the aforementioned issue is a problem is because if 1 John 5:16-17 refers to earthly death, as per the Protestant interpretation, then 1 John 5:16-17 implies that a believer has clear knowledge of (1) which sins do not lead to earthly death, and thus which sins need to be prayed for, and (2) which sins do lead to earthly death, and thus which sins do not need to be prayed for. Essentially, for 1 John 5:16-17 to make sense under the ‘earthly death’ interpretation, the Christian would need to know which sins consistently and uniformly lead to earthly death and which do not, otherwise the Christian cannot know when to pray for his brother and when not to pray for him. But there is nothing in the aforementioned scriptures which clearly indicates which sins lead to earthly death and which do not. Now, it is true that the early Christians could have known which sins lead to earthly death and which did not, and that this information is now lost to us, but this explanation is strained. After all, on the reasonable assumption that Christ would not ask his followers to fulfil a command that they could not reasonably complete, then it would be expected that if 1 John 5:16-17 was referring to earthly death, then there would be scriptural clarity about which sins to pray for and which sins not to pray for. And yet there does not appear to be such clarity, at least not in the scriptural passages mentioned above.
However, in response to the claim that a believer would need to know which sins consistently and uniformly lead to earthly death in order to fulfil the requirements of 1 John 5:16-17, the Protestant could claim that perhaps God has good reasons for not consistently or uniformly causing the earthly death of all people who commit a certain sin (or sins). And it is fully agreed that God could have such reasons. But the point is that 1 John 5:16-17 states that the Christian is to pray to God for a brother committing sins not leading to death, and yet not to pray to God for a brother committing sins leading to death. But if the Christian has no idea whether a certain sin will lead to earthly death in a certain brother, then he has no idea whether to pray for that brother or not. Thus, the point is that in order for the Christian to fulfil the requirement laid down in 1 John 5:16-17, there needs to be consistency and uniformity, as well as knowledge, concerning which sins cause earthly death and which do not. This would be the only way that a Christian could see—implying knowledge gained through the senses—a brother committing a sin either leading to death or not leading to death, for in order to see such sins and then act accordingly depending on which sin is being committed, a Christian would need to consistently and uniformly know which sins lead to earthly death and which do not. Either that, or special revelation in the case of each particular brother would be needed in order to know which of the brother’s sins are leading to earthly death and which are not; however, the idea of special revelation for such cases is in tension with the idea that a Christian can literally see a brother committing these two types of sins. But regardless, the main problem is that neither special revelation, nor clear scriptural knowledge, consistently point out which sins lead to earthly death and which do not. Now the Protestant can simply assert that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, or lying to the Holy Spirit, is the sin that consistently and uniformly leads to earthly death, and the Protestant might even be able to marshal a reasonable case for this claim, but the point is that there is nothing in scripture which clearly and definitely indicates that this is the case.
And yet, perhaps the Protestant can point to 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 as an example of a clear scriptural passage concerning a sin which consistently and uniformly leads to earthly death. After all, 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 reads as follows:
[Quote]Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, 1 Corinthians 11:27-30, English Standard Version]
So here is a scriptural passage which seems to indicate that eating the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner is a sin which can lead to earthly death. But again, the problem with using this passage as support for the ‘earthly death’ interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 is that even in this passage, it is not clear whether eating the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner consistently and uniformly leads to earthly death for all Christians who commit this sin, or just for some, which appears to be what the passage actually implies. And if it is only ‘some’, as the passage clearly implies, then the same problem mentioned above rears its head: namely, the Christian is once again at a loss for how to fulfil the instructions laid out in 1 John 5:16-17, for the Christian does not know which brother who is eating the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner is doing so in a way which will lead to death and which one is not. Furthermore, the Christian cannot simply pray for every brother eating the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner given that 1 John 5:16-17 implies that a Christian should not pray for sins that lead to death.
Now, the Protestant might retort that everyone who eats the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner is committing a sin leading to earthly death, but the earthly death will come at different times for different Christians, and when the earthly death comes may also be dependent on how many times the Christian ate the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. Thus, eating the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner is consistently and uniformly the sin that leads to earthly death for all Christians, but when this earthly death comes for each individual Christian who commits that sin is dependent on a number of factors. And this interpretation is quite reasonable, and it is arguably the best case that a Protestant can point to in order to show that there is at least one sin in scripture which can be believed to consistently and uniformly lead to earthly death. But while the Protestant’s case is reasonable, it is neither clear nor without its own difficulties.
First, it is a problem for both the Protestant interpretation and the Protestant himself that there appears to be nothing in scripture which makes it clear that certain sins consistently and uniformly lead to earthly death; even 1 Corinthians 11:27-30 is not clear about this issue. But since clear knowledge of such sins, from scripture, appears necessary for a Protestant—given his theology—to fulfil the requirements in 1 John 5:16-17, as well as being necessary to see which sins lead to earthly death and which do not, then this lack of clarity is a difficulty for the Protestant ‘earthly death’ interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17. It is not a fatal difficulty, but it is a difficulty nonetheless. And this is especially true under the assumption that Christ would not leave his followers in scriptural darkness concerning the knowledge necessary to fulfil his instructions. Now, as stated earlier, perhaps Christian tradition clearly records which sins consistently and uniformly lead to earthly death, but even if this were the case, that would create problems for the Protestant nonetheless if the Protestant had to refer to tradition as an authoritative source to fulfil the requirements of 1 John 5:16-17.
The second reason that this issue is a difficulty for the Protestant is philosophical and commonsensical: namely, it seems absurd—or at least strains credulity—that eating the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner would be the one sin that is serious enough to be mentioned as leading to earthly death, but the sins of a serial murderer and rapist, for example, are not serious enough to do so. Now this is obviously not a conclusive point, and it is admittedly that appeals to personal credulity are often shaky. Furthermore, God may have His own reasons for acting in this way. Nevertheless, there is something to the point that our God-given common-sense and moral intuition (or at least this author’s moral intuition) finds it implausible that the one sin that scripture might claim is serious enough to warrant earthly death is eating the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, whereas other sins, which are at least as grievous as eating the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, are not clearly articulated as leading to earthly death.
Finally, the third reason that this issue is a problem for the Protestant is that the Protestant ‘earthly death’ interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 faces difficulties that the Catholic ‘spiritual death’ interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 does not face to the same degree. Indeed, not only can the Catholic ‘spiritual death’ interpretation point to passages in scripture which are quite clear about what sins lead to spiritual death, but the Catholic interpretation is also more in-line with human common-sense and moral intuition given that the sins that the Catholic points to as leading to spiritual death are indeed grievous sins which, if un-repented of, can be seen as deserving of spiritual death. So, on the Catholic interpretation, where the sins being discussed are ones that lead to spiritual death, there is indeed greater scriptural clarity concerning which sins consistently and uniformly lead to such a death, and which ones do not. For example, consider the story of Jesus and the Rich Man:
[Quote] And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, Matthew 19:16-26, English Standard Version]
Thus, in this case, scripture records Jesus’s words about what commandments need to be kept, and thus what sins need to be avoided, to enter eternal life. Furthermore, note that the commandments which are uniformly required to be kept in order to enter life are visible commandments, which means that a Christian could consistently know whether his brother was breaking them or not. And this means that the Christian would thereby know which brother to pray for or not, which is precisely what is required to properly fulfil the scriptural demand imbedded in 1 John 5:16-17. So here is an unmistakeable case of scripture clearly articulating which sins must be avoided to have eternal life—meaning which sins lead to spiritual death—and this is precisely what would be expected if the Christian was meant to fulfil the requirements of 1 John 5:16-17, which the Christian is indeed required to do. Consequently, the earthly death interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 lacks the supporting scriptural clarity concerning which sins lead to earthly death, even though we would expect such clarity to be within those supporting scriptures in order to allow Christian to fulfil the ‘prayer’ requirements articulated in 1 John 5:16-17; by contrast, the spiritual death interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 can readily point to other passages in scripture which indirectly support that specific interpretation and which clearly provide the Christian with what we would expect scripture to provide in order to fulfil the requirements of 1 John 5:16-17.
Now, perhaps it could be argued that, technically-speaking, the aforementioned words of Jesus apply only to the Rich Man, or to rich men in general, and not to everyone, thereby meaning that scripture is not so clear about which sins consistently and uniformly lead to spiritual death and which do not. However, the discussion between Jesus and his disciples at the end of the quoted passage clearly implies that Jesus’s words apply to all people. Additionally, note that the Apostle Paul echoes Christ’s teaching about which commandments need to be kept to inherit eternal life when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, says the following:
[Quote] Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. [Unquote, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, English Standard Version]
Note that Paul’s statement applies to all people, a fact which Paul also makes clear in Ephesians 5:5 when Paul says:
[Quote] For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, English Standard Version]
Furthermore, also note that Paul’s claims are reinforced by verses from the 21st Chapter of Revelation as well:
[Quote] “…I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” [Unquote, bold emphasis added, Revelation 21:6-8, English Standard Version]
So, just like Jesus, both the Apostle Paul and Revelation list certain sins as being ones which block a person from eternal life, thereby leading to spiritual death (and even more verses, such as Galatians 5:19-21 and Revelation 22:14-15, also reinforce this fact). And note that these particular sins are also sins that can be “seen” in a person’s earthly life, which means that a Christian could consistently know whether his brother was breaking them or not, thus knowing which ones to pray for or not, thereby once again easily fulfilling the requirement of 1 John 5:16-17 based on the information from other scriptural passages. And so, by way of an illustration, consider that if a Christian saw his brother utter a rude swear word after stubbing his toe, then, in light of the fact that that is not a sin listed above, thus being a sin that would not lead to spiritual death, then the Christian, as per the requirements of 1 John 5:16-17, would pray for that brother and ask God to forgive the brother for his curse word; by contrast, if a Christian saw his brother bear false witness, then, given that that is a sin leading to spiritual death, as articulated above, then the Christian would not just pray for his brother in that case, but rather the Christian would tell his brother to confess his sin, repent of it, and do penance for it. That is the difference that 1 John 5:16-17 entails on the Catholic interpretation.
In the end, the point is not that the ‘seeing’ aspect of 1 John 5:16-17 renders the Protestant ‘earthly death’ interpretation of that passage false, but simply that the Catholic ‘spiritual death’ interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 has less problems dealing with the ‘seeing’ aspect of that passage than the Protestant interpretation does. And this is a point which should not be ignored when comparing the plausibility of the Catholic interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 to the plausibility of the Protestant interpretation of that passage.
Surrounding Context and the Problem of Earthly Death
Finally, it should also be mentioned that the verses before 1 John 5:16-17 support the ‘spiritual death’ interpretation of that passage over the ‘earthly death’ interpretation. But why is this the case? Well, those earlier verses, when taken in context, appear to show that the topic under discussion in 1 John 5 is eternal life, not earthly life. After all, consider 1 John 5:10-17:
[Quote] Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. 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. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. [Unquote, bold emphasis added, 1 John 5:10-17, English Standard Version]
So, the verses in 1 John 5:10-15—the very verses immediately preceding 1 John 5:16-17—are clearly speaking about a believer’s eternal and spiritual life, not his earthly one. Furthermore, the terms ‘eternal life’ and ‘life’ are used interchangeably in 1 John 5:10-15; for example, notice the interchangeable use of these terms in 1 John 5:11 when it says that “…God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (bold emphasis added, English Standard Version). And note that 1 John 5:12—the verse immediately preceding 1 John 5:11, which is speaking of eternal-life—is also clearly speaking of eternal life when it says that “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (English Standard Version); after all, people without the Son still have an earthly life, but they do not have eternal life, and so 1 John 5:12 is without a doubt speaking of eternal life even though it only uses the term ‘life’. But this is very much like 1 John 5:16, where it says that “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life…” (bold emphasis added, English Standard Version). Even 1 John 5:20 speaks of eternal life, thus showing that the verses both before and after 1 John 5:16-17 are all speaking of eternal life, not earthly life. And so, the fact that the context surrounding 1 John 5:16-17 concerns spiritual life and death (not earthly life and death) as well as the fact that the terms ‘eternal life’ and ‘life’ are used interchangeably in 1 John 5, both thereby lend credibility to the claim that 1 John 5:16-17 is also speaking of a believer’s spiritual and eternal life, not his earthly life. Now, this appeal to context is obviously not conclusive proof in favor of the ‘spiritual life’ interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17, but the point is that when 1 John 5:16-17 is read in the context of the verses immediately surrounding it, it definitely appears that the context of all of 1 John 5:10-17 concerns eternal life and death, rather than dealing with earthly life and death, which is the interpretation that the Protestant seeks to put forward as the correct one.
In the end, all these arguments in favor of the Catholic ‘spiritual death’ interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 are not proofs of that interpretation, but they do serve to show that when all the various points concerning 1 John 5:16-17 are considered, the Catholic interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 is more plausible than the Protestant one. Consequently, if the Catholic ‘spiritual death’ interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 is indeed the more plausible one, then this means that it is more plausible to believe that the Bible, in 1 John 5:16-17, actually does teach that some sins lead to eternal and spiritual death, and yet some sins do not. This, in turn, means that is more plausible to believe that the Bible teaches something like the doctrine of mortal and venial sin rather than not. And since such a doctrine is in opposition to widely held Protestant theology, then all this means that it is more plausible than not to hold that this aspect of Protestant theology—namely, the rejection of something like mortal and venial sin—is itself unbiblical.
Finally, it is also here that it can be remembered—as per the burden of proof argument noted earlier in this essay—that even if the Protestant could point to a sin, or sins, that uniformly and consistently lead to earthly death, this would not show that the Protestant ‘earthly death’ interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 was the only correct interpretation. For again, both the Protestant and Catholic interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 could be true at the same time. And since the Catholic interpretation has as much, or more, argumentative support for itself than the Protestant interpretation does, then this merely reinforces the point that the Catholic interpretation cannot be dismissed merely because the Protestant interpretation is viable. Rather, specific reasons need to be given to show that the Catholic interpretation is incorrect. And this will be difficult to do given how the Catholic interpretation of 1 John 5:16-17 seems to fit that passage better than the Protestant interpretation does.