16 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. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.” (I John 5:16-17)
Well, to say we have some work to do with these two verses is an understatement. What exactly is John referring to when he says there is sin not leading to death and at the same time a sin that leads to death? Is he contradicting himself? What does he mean and how do these verses apply to believers today?
Let us review the definition of sin. Sin (ἁμαρτίαν; hamartian) means to engage in wrongdoing. It is to do that which is contrary to will and the law of God. Sin is committing and being evil.
One of Dr. R. C. Sproul’s most often quoted statements is, “Sin is cosmic treason.” He elaborates by also saying, “Sin is treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign. It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward the One to whom we owe everything, to the One who has given us life itself. Have you ever considered the deeper implications of the slightest sin, of the most minute peccadillo? What are we saying to our Creator when we disobey Him at the slightest point? We are saying no to the righteousness of God. We are saying, ‘God Your law is not good. My judgement is better than Yours. Your authority does not apply to me. I am above and beyond Your jurisdiction. I have the right to do what I want to do, not what You command me to do’.”
The Apostle John explains to the church that if a brother in Christ observes another believer committing a sin not immediately leading to physical death that he should pray for that brother who is engaged in sin. In so doing, the promise is given that God will spare the willful, sinning believer.
The phrase, a sin that does not lead to death, means not punished by death. The distinction John makes is between sins for which physical death is a rapid consequence and sins for which it is not.
Dr. John Walvoord explains, “Verses 16–17 have been much discussed. But they should not have occasioned as much difficulty as they have. Sometimes a Christian may sin so seriously that God judges that sin with swift physical death: “a sin that leads to death.” Ananias and Sapphira are cases in point (Acts 5:1–11). But most of the sins which one sees a Christian brother commit are not of such a nature, as their common occurrence shows. For these, a believer ought to pray, knowing that any sin—if continued in long enough—is a threat to a fellow Christian’s life (cf. James 5:19–20; also cf. Prov. 10:27; 11:19; 13:14; 19:16). Thus the restoration of a brother may secure a prolonging of his physical life.”
Just because the Apostle John makes a distinction between sin which does not lead to death, and that which does, should not make any believer come to the conclusion they may sin with impunity. We must remember that sin, whether it results in immediate physical death or not, is cosmic treason.
Dr. John MacArthur concludes our devotional this morning by explaining that, “John illustrates praying according to God’s will with the specific example of the “sin that leads to death.” Such a sin could be any premeditated and unconfessed sin that causes the Lord to determine to end a believer’s life. It is not one particular sin like homosexuality or lying, but whatever sin is the final one in the tolerance of God. Failure to repent of and forsake sin may eventually lead to physical death as a judgment of God (Acts 5:1–11; 1 Cor. 5:5; 11:30). No intercessory prayer will be effective for those who have committed such deliberate high-handed sin, i.e., God’s discipline with physical death is inevitable in such cases as he seeks to preserve the purity of his church.”
May the Lord’s truth and grace be found here.
Soli deo Gloria!