Questions and Answers
Q: Our Sunday School class is studying 1 John chapter 5, and the passage last week incited a lot of interest because vv. 16-17 are somewhat less than clear. I've looked at a bunch of commentaries and assorted resources and at this point, I still don't know what the "sin that leads to death" is. Our homework assignment was for us to come back on the 27th with an answer. Most writers I've read admit in discussing this passage that this is one of the more controversial passages in the Bible. I'd be real interested to get your take on this. Thanks for your time.
My first observation is that this passage is addressing "brothers", Christians. In fact, the entire book of 1 John is to the child of God for the purpose of promoting faithfulness to the Lord and to assure the Christian of his eternal security in Christ, 1 John 5:13. When God saves, He saves forever! Therefore, if a child of God has been given eternal life in Christ, a life that will never end, then, the life referred to in this passage, 1 John 5:16-17, is not 'spiritual' life, but physical life.
The writer, John, appeals to believers to give themselves to prayer for their fellow believers who are traveling down the wrong path and to encourage that 'brother' to repent and return to faithful obedience to God. Thus, promoting discipleship and spiritual maturity among the Christian community. "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.", Galatians 6:1-2 (NKJV). If the 'wayward brother' repents, then he is restored into fellowship and continues his spiritual growth and service to the Lord, ". . . He will give them life for those who commit sin not leading to death.",
1 John 5:16.
One must remember that our loving heavenly Father disciplines His children. When we, Christians, began to stray away and allow sin to dominate our lives, then our heavenly Father moves into action by gently convicting us of our sin. If we refuse to heed His call to repentance and return to Him, then He practices tough love. "My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives . . . If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons . . . He for our profit, that we might be partakers of His holiness . . . afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it . . . Therefore, strengthen the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated, but rather be healed.", Hebrews 12:5-13. Spiritual healing is always the motive and goal. Ultimately, one who stubbornly refuses to heed God's call to repent and return to Him could be taken home to heaven prematurely.
Making reference to 1 John 5:16, Charles Ryrie wrote: "sin unto death. Believers can sin to the point where physical death results as the judgment of God (cf. 1 Cor. 11:30). The Greek reads sin, not a sin, in verses 16 and 17, implying not a single act but acts that have the character of sin unto death."1 There are several examples of believers committing the 'sin unto death' within Scripture. In the Old Testament, Moses and Aaron both committed the 'sin unto death'. They disobeyed a clear directive of God that portrayed a type of Christ and neither were allowed to enter the promised land of Canaan. Amos chapter 4 issues a warning to the people of Israel to return to the Lord. The prophet describes the various ways that God disciplined them to turn them back to serve Him. Regardless of how the Lord reached out to His people, they refused to repent and return to Him. In verse 12, God ends His appeal to them by declaring, "prepare to meet thy God, O Israel."
In the New Testament, one finds the example in Acts 5, where Ananias and Sapphira sinned unto death, physical death. Also, in 1 Corinthians 11:17-32 the Scripture provides another example. Here, some of the Corinthian Christians were habitually conducting themselves irreverently at the Lord's Supper. They turned this solemn and reverent occasion into a drunken feast and refuse to heed the correction from the Lord through His apostle. Therefore, "he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment unto himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep, (physically ill and or premature death, emphasis mine). For if we judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world."
The sin unto death is not the unpardonable sin, blaspheming the Holy Spirit. That sin was committed by unbeliever's as they rejected the physically present, Lord, Jesus Christ. The writer of 1 John is quick to point out that, although all unrighteousness is sin, not all sin is unto death, "there is a sin not unto death.", 1 John 5:17. One must be careful not to assume that all illness within Christians or the death of a Christian is a direct result of the sin unto death or the chastening of the Lord. Sometimes it is simply the result of this sin cursed world in which we live.
How do we know if someone is committing the sin unto death? I don't think we can. However, I believe the Christian himself will know, for the Holy Spirit is always faithful to address the sin within the life and heart of God's children.
The 'sin unto death', as I understand it, is not one simple act of disobedience, but a heart attitude of disobedient rebelliousness. The faithful Christians are to lovingly minister to and encourage their fellow believers to follow after righteousness, Hebrews 10:23-25.
(1) Charles Ryrie, The Ryrie Study Bible, (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Publishers, 1986, 1994) 1904.