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1 John 5:16,17: The Sin Leading to Death

"If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death.

If anyone sees his brother (believer) committing a sin that does not (lead to) death (the extinguishing of life), he will pray and (God) will give him life (yes, He will grant life to all those whose sin is not one leading to death). There is a sin (that leads) to death; I do not say that one should pray for that” (1 John 5:16,17 AMP).

First, John draws a distinction between a "sin unto death" and a "sin not unto death." This seems, at first glance, to suggest that some sins are more serious than others, that in fact they are so severe that they cannot be forgiven but rather lead one into eternal death. “Sin unto death” is sin that carries a person into death's clutches, into the grip of the evil one (verse 19). And a child of God does not sin in that way, because one who is truly born of God will rather manifest that in confession of sin and dependence for forgiveness (1 John 1:9) upon the atoning work of Christ. But "sin unto death" is already evidence that one lives in the realm of death, in the world, under the control of the evil one, and not in the sphere of life and righteousness granted by God to those who trust in Christ's work on their behalf.

Verse 16: “If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that.”

This is one of the most difficult verses in the New Testament to interpret.

“John does not say, ‘If anyone sees his brother sinning, go tell the pastor so he can deal with it.’ Nor does he say, ‘If anyone sees his brother sinning, call up all of your friends and tell them about it so that they can pray.’ That is a thin spiritual cover for gossip. Nor does he say, ‘If anyone sees his brother sinning, he should shake his head in disgust and ask, ‘How could he do such a thing?’ That is called ‘judging your brother.’Rather, he says that if you see a brother in sin, pray for God to give life to him. While we all are responsible for our own sins, only God can truly deliver us from sin, because only God can impart life. So we’re dependent on God to deliver, but at the same time the sinning brother is responsible to turn from his sin and take the necessary steps not to fall into it again. Also, before we speak to a brother about his sin, we need to speak to God about the brother…” –Steven Cole

The Greek word used in this verse for brother is adelphos. It means brother or near kinsman, members of the same family, members of the same tribe, or countrymen. W E Vine summarizes adelphos as male children of the same parents, male descendants of the same parents, children of the same mother, people of the same nationality. Figuratively, adelphos describes members of the Christian community, spiritual brother, fellow Christian, fellow believer. Adelphós refers to fellow believers 30 times in Acts and Paul uses the term to describe believers 130 times. Therefore, the term brother could just as well apply to a fellow Christian as well as to a fellow human being. However, the term “brother” is never used of the unregenerate.

There are three possibilities:

The first possibility is the sin in question may be that of a non-Christian dying without Christ. In that case it would be the final rejection of Jesus Christ. To die without Christ is certainly an unforgiveable sin! (not THE unpardonable sin).

John 3:36, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

John 8:21, “Then He said again to them, “I go away, and you will seek Me, and will die in your sin; where I am going, you cannot come.”

John 8:24, “Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins.”

Revelation 21:8 NLT, “But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

The second possibility is the unpardonable sin. Jesus said there was a sin that could not be forgiven: the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. “Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation” (Mark 3:28,29). See also: Matthew 21:31,32; Luke 12:10.

“Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the only sin in the Bible that is given the status of unpardonable. In fact, Jesus prefaced His discussion of this sin by stating that, “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men,” except for blasphemy against the Spirit. “Blasphemy” is an anglicized form of the Greek term blasphemia, which scholars believe probably derives from two roots, blapto, to injure, and pheme, to speak. The word suggests injurious speech,” “speaking evil of,” it becomes clear that the sin described by Jesus was a speaking sin that the Pharisees had committed, or at least were dangerously close to committing. Jesus has just performed a miracle. A demon-possessed man was brought to Jesus, and the Lord cast the demon out, healing the man of blindness and muteness. The eyewitnesses to this exorcism began to wonder if Jesus was indeed the Messiah they had been waiting for. When the Pharisees saw that Jesus had performed a verifiable miracle, they could not argue with the fact that Christ possessed certain powers that others (including themselves) did not have. Therefore, in order to cast suspicion on the ministry of Jesus, they claimed that He was casting out demons by Beelzebub, the ruler of demons. hearing the talk of the Messiah, quickly quashed any budding faith in the crowd: “It is only by Beelzebul, (Satan) the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons,” they said (Matthew 12:24). The Pharisees were attributing Jesus’ power to Satan, and claiming that Jesus was Satan incarnate instead of God incarnate. It is this, and nothing else, that our Lord calls the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the “unpardonable sin.”

So the “unpardonable sin” is the attributing the works of Jesus to Satan! Can one commit this sin today? Jesus' comments were addressed a very specific situation unique to His time. My personal opinion is that this was committed once and cannot be committed in his age. For one thing Jesus is not physically present today performing miracles. Second, this sin is mentioned only in the gospels. There is no other mention of the “unpardonable sin” in any biblical passage written after the resurrection of Christ. None of the inspired New Testament writers refers to the sin in any epistle or in the book of Acts.

Is suicide the “unpardonable sin?” No, this sin was committed by the Pharisees when they charging Jesus with doing His work by the power of the Devil rather than by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Back to the “sin that leads to death.”

The third, and probably the possibility closest to the truth is that John is not referring to an unbeliever, but to a believer. Generally speaking, we conclude that there are sins that people can commit which God takes seriously enough so as to end their lives. There comes a point when God can no longer allow a believer to continue in unrepentant sin. When that point is reached, God may decide to take the life of the stubbornly sinful believer. The “death” is physical death. God at times purifies His church by removing those who deliberately disobey Him. The apostle John makes a distinction between the “sin that leads to death” and the “sin that does not lead to death.” Not all sin in the church is dealt with the same way because not all sin rises to the level of the “sin that leads to death.” Ananias and Sapphira died right in front of the church when they lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1–11). Paul wrote to the Corinthians concerning those who were abusing the Lord’s Table, “For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep [have died]” (1 Cor. 11:30). The sin is not one particular sin, but any sin that the Lord determines is serious enough to warrant such severe chastisement.

Through the Bible, teacher, J. Vernon McGee agrees with this view: “John is writing to believers, and the death he’s talking about is physical death. That is, if a believer commits that sin and persists in it, there will come a day when God will reach down and take that child of His out of this world by death. In other words, death would be the judgment of God upon him, removing him from the scene and place of witness. How do I know whether a sin is unto death? Is it a certain specific sin? No. For different men it might be different things, so when you see a brother sin a sin that you don’t know is unto death, you shall not sit in judgment on him, you should not criticize him for it, but you should go to God in prayer and pray that it might not be a sin unto death and that the Lord might keep him in the world. That’s the reason why the sin is not mentioned. As God’s children, He can’t let us just go on and on in sin because He must judge us. And when we will not be disciplined and will not turn from it, then He will finally reach down and call us home. For you it may be one thing, for me it may be something else. But when you see any child of God commit a sin not unto death, you should pray that the Lord would give that child of His another opportunity.”

Picture a little boy playing outside with his friends, when one of his playmates starts crying because he is being mean to her. Mom hears the problem and calls to her son, “son, stop that!” About five minutes later, the same problem arises, so mom again says, “son, stop that or you will have to come home!” Then it happens again, so mom says, “son, you’ll have to come home now I can’t trust you out there.” That’s like God when He sees His children constantly sinning, He will allow it for a while, then He will call him home because He can’t trust them!

No matter which interpretation you choose, John seems to be saying that there are times when prayer is useless. Sometimes a situation we are praying about is like that. The person is hardened and their future is determined.

Verse 17: “All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death.”

“Unrighteousness” in Greek is adikia is a condition of not being right with God, according to the standard of His holiness and righteousness or with man, according to the standard of what man knows to be right by his conscience. “All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin which does not [involve] death [that may be repented of and forgiven]” (AMP).

“All unrighteousness is sin against God and is deserving of death; yet all unrighteousness is not unto death, first, because of the grace of God, second, because of the blood of Christ, by which we are justified and freely forgiven and, third, because of the mercy of God. David’s sin, Jacob’s sins, Peter’s sins were not unto death. They enjoyed repentance unto life and a fresh application of pardoning grace. Weak believers may read the preceding verse and be overcome with despair, so John adds, ‘There is a sin which is not unto death’ (Hebrews 8:12; 1 John 1:9; 1 John 2:1).” Mahan's Commentary,

As we see the “last days” approaching more and more “church” people will be sinning the “sin that leads to death,” apostatizing!

2 Thessalonians 2:2-4, “Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first…”

Paul warns his son in the faith, Timothy about apostasy… “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith…” (1 Timothy 4:1). “[Some] Strayed from the faith…” (I Timothy 6:10,21). “[some will] Resist the Truth…” (2 Timothy 3:8). “[Some will] Turn their ears away from the Truth…” (2 Timothy 4:4).

“Apostasy” in Greek is aphístēmi, which is derived from apó, “away from” and histémi, “stand, departure, implying desertion;” literally, “a leaving, from a previous standing.”–Strong

It is generally defined as a “falling away.” But a better definition would be to “stand away,” apostasy is a definite, deliberate stand. It is not an accidental slip or fall. No one stumbles into apostasy! It is a defection from the faith, an act of unpardonable rebellion against God and His truth. The sin of apostasy results in the abandonment of Christian doctrine and conduct, defiance of an established system or authority; revolt, and rebellion; an abandonment or breach of faith. In the first-century world, apostasy was a technical term for political revolt or defection. And just like in the first century, apostasy threatens the Body of Christ today.

Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary defines the word “Apostasy” as, “An abandonment of what one has voluntarily professed; a total desertion or departure from one’s faith, principles, or party; esp., the renunciation of a religious faith.” And it states that an “Apostate” is, “One who has forsaken the faith, principles, or party, to which he before adhered; esp., one who has forsaken his religion for another; a pervert; a renegade.”

Apostasy refers to a departure from known or previously embraced truth. The subject of apostasy has little to do with the condition of the unsaved world, which has always rejected divine truth and therefore has nothing from which to depart. Rather, apostasy pertains to the spiritual temperature within God’s church.

An apostate is not someone who never knew the truth but someone who knew it and rejected it. He is not a true Christian! He may have even been involved in various religious activities. But because he never truly knew Christ, he was lured away by the enticing voices of idols and false religious systems.

Can a true believer apostatize and ultimately lose his salvation? Not if he is truly saved! So many have gone through the motions of salvation, but never really connected with Christ. True believers come into a saving relationship with Christ. “To Him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy”(Jude 1:24). God's power is able to keep the believer from falling. It’s up to God, not us! Our eternal security is a result of God keeping us, not us maintaining our own salvation. Philippians 1:6, “ Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”

Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand” (John 10:28-29b).

Our LORD Jesus Christ, and God the Father have a firm hold on us and will never let go! Who could possibly separate us from the grip of both the Father and the Son?

“Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39).

True believers are sealed: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). If believers did not have eternal security, this sealing could not truly be “for the day of redemption,” but only until the day of sinning, apostasy, or disbelief.

John 3:15,16, “Whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

If a person were to be promised eternal life, but then have it taken away, it was never eternal to begin with. If eternal security is not true, the promises of eternal life in the Bible would be in error. So, I conclude that apostasy pertains only to religious people, not true believers.

“Scripture often exhorts the church to expose false teaching. That kind of confrontation is not popular today. Many churches, in the name of love, want to forget disagreements and avoid being critical at all costs. Nonetheless, there is a biblical mandate to deal with false teaching. The battle lines were drawn in Israel and in the early church, and they must be drawn today too. Like Timothy we must be warned and instructed to understand what is behind false teaching.” (Apostasy, John MacArthur).

Therefore, an apostate is a defector from the truth-someone who has known the truth, given some show of affirmation to it, perhaps even proclaimed it for a while—but then rejected it in the end. The typical apostate may still purport to believe the truth and proclaim the truth; but in reality he opposes the truth and undermines it. He is a traitor to the faith and an enemy to the Truth. But he wants everyone to think otherwise. Most apostates seek to remain within the church and actively seek acceptance among the people of God. Because everything they do undermines faith and corrupts the Truth. Such people pose a grave danger to the health of the church, even though they usually bend over backward to appear friendly, likable, and pious. That is why Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Matthew 7:15).

When we see a “brother” in sin, John tells us the first thing to do is to pray for that person. All too often, prayer is the last thing we do, or the smallest thing we do in regard to our brother having a difficult time. God promised to bless the prayer made on behalf of a brother in sin. Perhaps such prayers have special power before God because they are prayers in fulfillment of the command to love the brethren. Surely, we love each other best when we pray for each other.

“Do we pray for these apostates? John is not saying that we must not pray for these people. By all means, if in doubt, pray! By praying, you are not sinning. Just because we have doubts personally does not mean that we have committed the offense that leads to death. What is condemned is deliberate rebellion or a hardened denial of the faith, not honest questions.” –edited and adapted from Bruce Goettsche,

**NOTE: Unless otherwise noted, the New King James Version of the Bible was used. Also The New Living Translation (NLT); The New American Standard Bible (NASB); The Message (MSG); The New Century Version (NCV); The Amplified Bible (AMP); The King James Version (KJV), The New Life Version (NLV); English Standard Version (ESV); J.B. Phillips New Testament; Easy to Read Version (ERV); Common English bible (CEB); NET Bible (NET) and The Living Bible (TLB).**

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