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Last week we saw what we can know. We can know we have eternal life because of the things John wrote in his letter and the things that are present in our lives because of Christ. That should be comforting to us. This week we’ll look at one of the most difficult verses in John’s letter.
1 John 5:16 says, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this.”
So let’s help a brother out. John loves conditional clauses and he offers another one in v. 16. There is a, “sin not leading to death” and a, “sin leading to death.” One we’re supposed to pray about, the other we’re not. What are they? What’s the difference?
John says, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death.” Notice that John is talking about a brother – not a biological brother, but a Christian brother. His thought here is that there is evidence in the person’s life to suggest he really is a believer. This person’s life is not characterized by a habit of sin. It’s not a talk only profession of faith that seems so prevalent in the world today. The brother is a child of God that has messed up in some way, has been observed doing something that is wrong. When our children do wrong; when they disobey, or lie, or cheat or whatever they will do; it causes us pain, unhappiness, and grief for us. Our fellowship with the kids is broken. We may send them to their room. We may take away some privilege they have or not let them go somewhere they want to go. While the fellowship may be broken, the relationship is not. Nothing can change the fact that I have two children. No matter what they do or do not do. It is because I am their father. My blood is their blood, my DNA is infused in them. The fellowship remains broken until they ask for forgiveness. When that happens, forgiveness is granted. The consequences are still there, but the fellowship is restored.
When we sin, we grieve our Holy Father. We may be disciplined; we may lose rewards, but the relationship is unchanged. When we, “Confess our sin, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 Jo. 1:9) Fellowship is restored. In 1 Jo. 1:8 John said “If we say we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” John acknowledges we’re going to commit sin even though he tells us not to sin so this makes v. 16 that much more confusing. People sometimes attempt to put sin into categories of severity. Maybe you’ve heard of the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. Or perhaps when you think of sin, the really bad ones are murder, rape, and stealing. If we think like that, we might conclude that since we haven’t done any of those we’re pretty good. And by the world’s standards that may be true, but Rom. 6:23 still says that, “the wages of sin is death” and it’s not limited by the severity. So, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death.” The goal is restoration of the believer – restoration to God. The natural response for the child of God is to pray for that person. We saw in the previous two verses that we have confidence that God hears and answers our prayers when we ask in accordance with biblical principles. A believer is not without sin according to 1:8, but his life is not characterized by sin according to 1 Jo. 3:8-9. If you see it happening, you need to do something about it, but not from a position of piety or holiness like the Pharisees.
Luke 18 tells us the story of two men: one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee prayed to himself thanking God that he wasn’t like the other people; the swindlers, the unjust, the adulterers or even the tax collector. He fancied himself a righteous man. The tax collector, on the other hand, wouldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven, but cried out, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” (Luke 18:13) John’s goal if for us to pray for that Christian we see sinning. In Gal. 6:1 Paul said, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” Restore means return to a former condition or position. That’s always the goal. You want that child of God to realize that his fellowship with God was broken and pray that he’ll make it right through confession, repentance, and restoration. Sometimes that means that a more spiritual, more mature individual need to get involved. The approach must be right though. We’re not the sin police. We’re not mini Holy Spirits. Paul’s caution was to restore with a spirit of gentleness. On the other hand, if we’re the one that is approached, we can’t get defensive and say things like, “Well I know I did that, but you did this!” None of us are perfect and Christianity is about growing to be like Christ. None of us reach perfection overnight and we cannot reduce our walk with Christ to a system of legalism that drains us emotionally and defeats us spiritually. Be thankful the Lord has put people in our lives to help us and hold us accountable.
If we helped out a brother we also need to help a non-brother out. The second part of v. 16 says, “There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this.” Earlier I said, “The wages of sin is death.” Is John contradicting Paul? How can there be a sin not leading to death and a sin leading to death? Isn’t sin, sin?
There are three main schools of thought on the meaning of this passage. The, “sin leading to death” means there is a specific deadly sin. Commission of this sin is so heinous that forgiveness is not possible and the hope of eternal life is lost. In the O.T., there does seem to be some sins that are worse than others. Unintentional sins could be cleansed by offering a proper sacrifice, but intentional sins were punishable by death. One denomination separates sin into mortal and venial sin – in other words, major and minor. Paul provides a pretty comprehensive list in the N.T. “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal. 5:19-21) There’s that word practice that we’ve seen John frequently use. Paul’s contrasting the deeds of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit so that doesn’t seem to fit. “Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor. 6:9-10) But Paul concludes by saying, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:11) So there doesn’t seem to be evidence that a particular sin is beyond God’s grace.
The second thought of the “sin leading to death” is that it refers to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Matt.12:32 says “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.” Jesus was referring to the Pharisees in this passage who accused Him of performing miracles in the power of Beelzebub. The idea here is that if you sin against another man, God intercedes for you, but if you sin against the Holy Spirit, there is no one to intercede.
The third school of thought is that John refers to a total rejection of the Gospel. Unlike the first idea of a specific sin, this is a complete rejection of Jesus Christ and what He did. It is a denial of His deity, sinless life, death, and resurrection. Heb. 10:26 says, “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” John mentioned it earlier in 1 Jo. 2:19, “They went out from us but they were not really of us.” People that “leave” the faith were never part of the faith. This seems the most likely meaning. So we pray for a brother that is engaged in a sin not leading to death, but don’t pray for the one engaged in a sin leading to death. Since John doesn’t explicitly state what he is talking about, we have to conclude that his readers at the time knew what he was talking about. That doesn’t mean we blow off the verse. It still means what it means.
So what do we do? We often pray for a person involved in habitual sin. We pray that they’ll stop and we really waste our time because they can’t stop – they are slaves to sin. Instead we need to be praying for their salvation. This may come as a shock because the person may profess to be a Christian. Is there evidence in their life? Is there repentance for sin? Is there gut wrenching conviction from the Holy Spirit? Is there sorrow for sin or rationalization? John says pray for restoration or salvation.