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What Is the Sin That Does and Does Not Lead to Death?

Ask Pastor Alex, Episode. 51

This is the Ask Pastor Alex podcast with your host, Pastor Alex. All right, welcome back everyone. We are here with another episode and another question. And the question for today’s episode is, what is the sin that does and does not lead to death? Now, this is a really good question. It’s also a really hard question. There are really no easy ones here on the podcast, but that’s okay. We don’t shy away from the difficult questions. We dig into God’s Word because it has all the answers we need. So this question actually comes from my gospel group at church. Our gospel group was discussing this last week because our reading for the week had been 1 John. And so naturally this question was brought up. For those who don’t know the reference, this question comes from 1 John chapter 5 verses 16 through 17. The Bible says, “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.”

 Now that is a difficult passage as you can tell. And there are two obvious questions that arise when reading these verses. The first question is, well, what are the sins not leading to death? And the second question is, what are the sins that do lead to death? However, in order to answer these questions, we have to know at least two things. First, we need to know and understand that all wrongdoing is sin and deserving of death. And the second thing we really need to understand is the context of 1 John. We say it all the time here on the podcast, context is king. And so if you want to understand a passage, you need to understand the context of that passage. So let’s get into the context of 1 John and help us understand what’s going on here. You see, John wrote this letter for two purposes. 

The first purpose is to assure true believers of their salvation. And the second purpose is to expose false believers. Now notice that I said false believers and not unbelievers. There’s a difference and we need to understand that difference. False believers are those who believe themselves to be Christians, but are deceived. Unbelievers are those who know they are not Christians. So do you see the difference there? A false believer is someone who would claim to be a Christian, but is actually deceived in that belief. But an unbeliever is a person who makes no claim to Christianity. He does not believe that he is a Christian. He knows that he is an unbeliever. And in John’s day, there was a large group of false teachers who had been part of the church for some time. They had been involved in the fellowship of the church and the activities of the church. And at one point they seemed to be genuine in their faith. But over time they began to adhere to false doctrines and false teachings. They then began to promote those false teachings, trying to convince other people that they could still be true Christians while believing things contrary to the gospel and even rejecting the essentials of orthodoxy. So for instance, if we go throughout John’s letter, we can see many different examples of these false teachers and their false teachings. So for instance, they said that a person didn’t have to believe that Jesus was truly a man. They said it was possible to believe that Jesus merely appeared to be a man, but that he was God, a spirit who just took on the appearance of man, but did not actually become man and take on human flesh. John addresses this in his letter in chapter four, verses two to three. He says, by this, you know the spirit of God. Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. And every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. So true believers confess that Jesus was fully God and fully man. That’s the doctrine of the hypostatic union. But false believers deny the humanity of Jesus. These false believers also taught that because we are covered by the blood of Jesus and abound in God’s grace, that true Christians can just sin whenever they want to. That true Christians can just sin willingly and habitually without consequence. John addresses this in chapter three, verses seven through nine. He says, “little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God.” 

So the Bible is saying they are true Christians. They’re going to make mistakes. They are going to stumble into sin. We’re not going to be perfect in this life. But he is saying there that no true Christian makes a practice of sinning. No true Christian is going to continue in habitual, unrepentant sin. And so John encourages his readers and us today to test the spirits because not every spirit is from God. In fact, John says of these false believers in chapter two, verse 19, “they went out from us, but they were not of us. For if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” So one of the truest marks of a true Christian is his perseverance in the faith and in the teachings of the apostles, not venturing into false doctrines or walking away from the faith. This is the doctrine of the perseverance of the faith, that those who have true faith in Jesus will be kept by God until the end. They will not depart from the faith. This is the context of 1 John. He’s writing to assure true believers of their salvation, as well as seeking to expose false believers. It’s in this context that John writes, “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.”

 Now we’ve considered the overall context of the book of first John, but we need to consider the immediate context as well, because it is incredibly important to help us understand what’s going on in these verses. You see, immediately before John writes about the sin that does and does not lead to death, he says this in chapter 5 verses 14 through 15. 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. Now I want you to notice the emphasis on prayer and confidence and certainty in those verses, because it relates to the verses that we’re considering on today’s episode. John says that if we ask anything of God according to his will, we can have confidence and certainty that not only does God hear us, but that he will grant our requests. So coming back to the verses in question, we are encouraged to do what? We’re encouraged to pray for a brother who commits sin, not leading to death. And if we do that, we can have confidence and certainty that God is going to grant that request, and in this case, he is going to grant that brother life. So the question is, well, what does this mean? We need to put all this together. We need to kind of dig in a little deeper here to understand what’s going on. 

You see, the Christian life is one of communion with God. We have life in and through Christ. The Bible says that the life we now live, we live through Christ. But the problem is sin. Sin interrupts that life and that communion with God. When we sin, we’re grieved not just by what we have done, but by the one we have hurt. Right? I mean, think about this, for example, if I sin in some way that hurts my wife, my life and my communion and relationship with her have been interrupted by my sin. Our communion and happy relationship have been affected by something that I have done. And yes, I hate what I have done. But more than that, I hate that I have hurt her and caused strain on our happy union. Well, in the same way, when we sin, our life with God is interrupted. Our happy union and communion with God is affected and strained. The fullness of that life with its happy union and untainted communion is restored through repentance, through turning from that sin and committing ourselves once again to God and His ways. And so in that way, life is restored. 

So let’s start putting all that together. The person in question here in the first part of verse 16 is called a brother. In other words, he’s a true Christian. He is a brother in Christ. And here’s what John is saying that the rest of scripture backs up. Every sin committed by a true Christian is a sin that does not lead to death. So if we’re looking at this and we want to say, okay, what are the sins that do not lead to death? Let’s say it again for everybody listening. Every sin that a true Christian commits is a sin that does not lead to death. And that’s because it cannot lead to death because a person who is a true Christian is someone who has been covered by the blood of Christ. Jesus died his death for him. Jesus took the Father’s wrath in his place. The Bible says in John chapter 11 that everyone who believes in Jesus will never die. So true Christians, though they fall into sin, it will be a sin that does not lead to death because they will never die a spiritual death. Every sin that they commit is a sin that does not lead to death. You see, what we have here in these verses are two different scenarios. And we’re dealing with the first one first. John is telling us that when we see another true believer struggling with sin or committing sin to first understand that it is a sin that does not lead to death, but second to understand our responsibility to each other. The Bible is literally telling us here that if we see a fellow Christian struggling with sin, we can pray for that person. And not only can we pray for them, we can have confidence, not just hope, but confidence and certainty that God will restore the life that has been interrupted by sin to that person. So Christians, do you understand how wonderful this is? I mean, think about how different the church would look today if we actually believed this and practiced this. God has given us such a powerful resource and such a comforting assurance. If I see any brother or sister committing sin or struggling with sin, I can pray and have absolute, 100% confidence that God will deliver him from that sin and restore his life to an uninterrupted state. His communion with God will be restored. Now, that’s not saying that when you pray for everybody who is sinning, that they’ll be delivered from that sin. We can’t know who true believers are. Only God knows that. But if we’re operating off the information we do have and we truly believe a person to be a brother or sister in Christ and they are struggling in sin or with sin, the Bible is saying here, you can pray for that person and have certainty that God is going to deliver that person from their sin and restore to them a communion with himself that is uninterrupted. Now, again, that promise is not immediate. It might not happen after one prayer. You might be praying for years, but you do have the confidence and certainty that God will deliver that brother or sister  and restore him to a life with God uninterrupted by sin. So that’s the first scenario in these verses, but there is a second scenario in these verses, and that’s the sin that does lead to death. You see, the first person is called a brother, but that doesn’t extend to this second scenario. 

John goes on to say there is sin that does lead to death. I do not say that one should pray for that. Now, something to notice first is that John is not prohibiting prayer for the one committing sin leading to death. He is just clarifying that he’s not urging us to do that here. That’s not his primary focus. His main focus, his main point is for believers to pray for other believers when they fall into sin. Now, the sin that does lead to death is a difficult topic, and many people read these verses and they try to identify a particular sin. What is the particular sin that leads to death, they ask, but I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think John has a particular sin in mind here necessarily. It’s more likely that John is thinking in terms of categories. So sin that does not lead to death are sins committed by true Christians. However, sins that do lead to death are all sins committed by non-Christians, by those who do not have true faith in Christ. Some would have had the false teachers particularly in mind here, those who had departed from the faith, who had drifted into false teachings and heresies of all kinds. He’s saying you can pray for them if you want to, but understand that when you do pray for them, you have no confidence and no assurance that God will deliver this person from their sin and give them life in Christ. That’s the point. It’s easy for people to put forward different theories and get lost in the weeds, but if we just remain focused on the context of the passage, we’ll get the point of the passage. The context is all about the assurance and confidence that believers have when we pray in accordance with God’s will. And you might be wondering, well, what is God’s will? Jesus thankfully plainly told us what the will of God is in John 6, 39. Jesus said, and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. So there it is. That’s the will of the Father, that Jesus would lose none of the people whom the Father has given to him. 

So if we know that someone is a true Christian and that brother or sister falls into sin, the Bible is saying here we can be sure that it is a sin not leading to death because Jesus will lose none of his people. More than that, we can have confidence and certainty that when we pray for the restoration of that brother or sister, that God will answer that prayer and restore them. However, we may pray for unbelievers or even for false believers, but since it’s not clear to us whether or not they have been given to the Son by the Father, their sin is a sin that leads to death. And though we pray for them, we can have no confidence or certainty that God will answer our prayers and give them life in Christ. And so to summarize, all unrighteousness is sin, all sin is deserving of death, but sins that do not lead to death are sins committed by true Christians who are covered by the blood of Jesus and will never be lost by the Son because we have been given to the Son by the Father. The sins that do lead to death are sins committed by all non-Christians. And John’s point is that if we pray for our brothers and sisters who have fallen into sin, we can be sure that God will restore them to a life uninterrupted by sin. But even when we pray for non-Christians, we can have no confidence or certainty that God will answer those prayers and give someone life in Christ. 

So that’s what the sin that leads to death and does not lead to death means. And I hope that this answer has been helpful. And please remember, pray for your brothers and sisters in Christ because we have a great promise here that God hears those prayers and God answers those prayers. Thanks for the question and I look forward to answering more in the future.