Question / Comment - Can a Christian
commit a sin that leads to death?
I have a question regarding 1 John 5:16. What sin could a brother (Christian) commit that we should not pray for, a sin that leads to death. You could maybe build a case for not praying for a non christian who has taken a strong stand against Christ, but a brother, born again person, how can he sin and not be forgiven. That contradicts 1 John 3:9. Passages like that cause me to wonder whether I might have committed such an unpardonable sin and consequently tend to rob me of my joy in the Lord.
Now let us come to the moot question, what is this sin unto death? There are three major explanations that exist of this passage and particularly of this phrase, "the sin unto death." The first view regards it as some specific sin which is so terrible as to be unforgivable, as suicide, murder, idolatry, even adultery. This view (which has been held by many through the Christian centuries) early gave rise to the Catholic distinctions between mortal and venial sins. This is, perhaps, why the RSV translates this "sin which is mortal" and "sin which is not mortal." There is absolutely no question but what that translation is wrong. It should never be translated "mortal sin" for it has nothing to do with the question of salvation. There is no warrant in Scripture whatsoever for distinguishing between mortal and venial sins; i.e., sins which can be forgiven (venial), and those sins which can never be forgiven (mortal). Scripture makes no such distinctions. As a matter of fact, this sin is not any one specific sin. The Greek makes very clear here that this is simply sin in general. It is not a sin which is unto death; it is simply sin which is unto death. Any specific sin can become sin unto death. Therefore, it is not a specific kind of sin that is in view and that interpretation simply cannot stand.
There is a second view which links this with the words of Jesus concerning the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Remember that on one occasion he warned that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. The death which is mentioned in this passage in First John is taken to mean spiritual death and is then associated with the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This is, of course, a description of what we generally call apostasy; i.e., an apostate is someone who has made a profession of faith in Christ but begins to drift away and ultimately comes to the place where he actually blasphemes the name of the Lord Jesus and the things of Christian faith, denying them and turning his back upon them to go into a completely apostate state. Hebrews 6 and Hebrews10 and other passages make clear that such an apostate is in a terrible situation. He has committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the flagrant rejection of the testimony of the Holy Spirit to Jesus Christ, and that is unpardonable.
But it is equally clear that kind of sin can never be committed by a genuine born-again Christian. It is only committed by those who have made a profession of faith but have never entered into new birth in Jesus Christ. But the word here is "if any one sees his brother committing what is not a sin unto death," and the word, brother, is reserved for other Christians. It is so defined in Chapter 5, Verse 1, of this very letter. John says that "every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the Father loves the child." That is, such a one is my brother; he, like me, is a member of the family of God through faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, it seems likely that the sin unto death mentioned here is limited to Christians, and cannot refer to apostates.
That brings us to the third view, which I believe is the correct one, which views death here as physical death: "If any one sees his brother committing what is not a sin unto [physical] death, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not unto [physical] death. There is sin which is unto [physical] death." There is sin which a Christian can commit which will result in God taking him home in physical death. John goes on to say, "I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not unto [physical] death."
Now there are certain examples of this "sin unto death" given in Scripture which, if one studies them through carefully, will reveal the element that turns ordinary sin into sin which is unto death. "All wrongdoing is sin," says John. All unrighteousness is sin, let us not misunderstand that, but there is sin which has a certain element about it, a certain characteristic which will result in physical death, physical judgment. Let us look at some of the instances of this in Scripture.
Moses, for instance, committed a sin unto death when he was commanded of God to speak to the rock in the wilderness and water would come forth to meet the needs of the children of Israel ( Numbers 20:8). Previously he had been commanded to strike a rock and the water would come out, and when he did the water did come out. But on a second occasion he was told to speak to the rock. This change was important because the rock was a type of Christ and to strike it was a picture of the judgment of the cross. Now the cross is the way by which the refreshing water of grace first comes into our life as Christians, but after we have become Christians we are not to strike the rock (crucify Christ again) but to speak to it. We are to simply ask of him and out of the Rock will come flowing the rivers of living water we need. But Moses broke the significance of that type when in his anger, he struck the rock twice. Though God, in grace, allowed the water to come flowing out, he said to him, "Because you have disobeyed me and not sanctified me in the eyes of the people, you will not be allowed to lead these people into the land of promise," Numbers 20:12). Later on, when they came to the borders of the land, Moses said to God in effect, "Lord, allow me to go on in. Forgive this, and let me go on in" Deuteronomy 3:24-25), and the Lord said to him, "Speak no more to me about this matter" Deuteronomy 3:26), i.e., do not pray about this (just as John said, "I do not say you should pray about that"), "but get up to the mountain and I will let you see the land, but that is as far as you can go," Deuteronomy 3:27). Moses had committed a sin unto death. In his case it did not occur right away, but it occurred prematurely and before his work was really completed.
A little further on in the book of Joshua you find that Achan commits a sin unto death. As the children of Israel crossed the Jordan and surrounded Jericho they were told that when the city became theirs they were not to touch anything in it, they were not to take any of the possessions of the inhabitants of the city, or to covet anything, for it was all cursed of God. But when the walls came tumbling down and they came into the city, one man among them, Achan, saw a beautiful garment and a wedge of gold, and he coveted these and buried them in the dirt beneath his tent. For this judgment came upon Israel. In their next battle they met with utter and complete defeat. Searching out the camp, in obedience to the Word of God, Joshua found that it was Achan who did this. He was brought out with his whole family, and by command of God they were put to death. That was a sin unto death.
In the New Testament, in the fifth chapter of Acts, Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, pretended to a devotion that they did not really possess, and wanting a reputation in the eyes of other Christians, they lied about the money they received for certain land. As a result, they were immediately put to death by God when their lie became evident. They were taken out, one by one, and buried. They, too, had committed a sin unto death.
Also remember what the Apostle Paul said to the Corinthians about their conduct, saying, "Some of you are drunken, some are selfish, pushing your way in and eating before others, showing no concern for others, and above all not discerning the meaning of this table, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause, many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep" ( 1 Corinthians 11:28-30), i.e., have died. Now what does this mean? It meant that certain ones had committed sin which was unto death.
But note that in all these examples it was not the same sin, by any means. It was simply sin which results in the judgment of physical death. What then, is the element that turns ordinary sin into this kind of sin? I think if you look at these examples together you will see what it is. It is the element of wanton, presumptuous action in the face of clear knowledge that it is wrong. It is willfulness, a willful presumption to pursue something when you know God has said it is wrong. This is sin unto death, and the result is physical judgment.
Now it does not always come suddenly. It did with Ananias and Sapphira, it did with Achan, but it did not with Moses, and it did not with the Corinthians. With them it came in stages: first it was weakness, then sickliness, and finally death. Perhaps much of the physical weakness that is apparent among Christians today may arise from this very cause. Not all physical weakness comes from this, not all premature deaths arise from this, but some very likely do. It is persistence in a determined course of action when you know that God has said it is wrong, that creates sin unto death.
Now let us look again at what John has said. "If any one sees his brother committing sin which is not unto death," i.e., sin which arises largely out of ignorance, sin where someone is simply doing something which they may have a vague idea is wrong, but they have no understanding of the implications of it, no awareness of how bad it is. This is the kind of sin we older people often see manifest among the younger. Young Christians often stumble into things they are not aware of, they do not understand what they are getting into, they do not realize the danger. Then, if you see your brother committing that kind of a sin, ask of God, and God will give life for those whose sin is not unto death. God will withhold the judgment of physical weakness and grant opportunity for the renewal of life.
You can see that in the Old Testament in the case of King Hezekiah. Remember that in a very unwise moment he allowed the King of Babylon to send visitors into his palace to investigate all that was going on, and to see the riches of the palace. The prophet Isaiah warned Hezekiah that these men only wanted to see how much money he had and whether it was worth sending an army to take it or not. He said, "You have sold yourself into the hands of the Babylonians." As a result of that, King Hezekiah received a sentence of death from God. God told him to prepare himself, to get everything ready because he was going to die. Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed, beseeching the Lord. As a result of that prayer of confession and repentance, God stopped the prophet Isaiah as he was going out the door, having delivered the sentence of death and said, "Go back to the King. I have granted him fifteen more years of life," Isaiah 38:5). As a sign that it would happen, the sun dial in the garden went backward ten degrees. That is an example of God granting life for those who do not commit a sin which is unto death. Repentance reverses the judgment. Those who willfully determine to go on in a way that is wrong commit sin which is unto death, and when they do God says do not pray for that.
Paul, writing to Titus, says something very similar. In the closing part of that little letter he says, "As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned," (Titus 3:10-11 RSV). Here is a brother determined to go on his way. Therefore, there is no need to pray for him. There is nothing you can do but let God's judgment wake him up. Perhaps God in grace will deal patiently with him, give him a time of sickness or weakness, and that will bring him to his senses. But if not, God will take him home.
Dr. H. A. Ironside used to illustrate this as follows: Sometimes you see children playing outside, and when quarreling breaks out the mother says, "If you don't behave yourself, you will have to come in the house." Her child says, "Don't worry, mother, I'll be good." But a little while later quarreling breaks out again, and the mother comes out and says, "Now that's enough. You've got to come in. I can't trust you outside anymore." The child begs his mother to let him stay out some more. "Oh, mother, I'll be good. I promise I will." But she says, "No, I gave you a chance. Now come on inside. I can't trust you out there any more."
That is what God sometimes says to us. Do we realize, Christian friends, that God's whole reputation is at stake in our behavior? Everything we do and say is reflecting the character and the being of God to the world around. No wonder he watches us so assiduously. No wonder he judges us so precipitously at times. If there be a willful determination to disgrace him in the eyes of others, as Moses did, God will say, "All right, that's enough. I can't trust you out there anymore. Come on home." And home we go.