Desert Hills Bible Church | The Sin that Leads to Death

The Sin that Leads to Death

In 1 John 5, John gives believers five convictions that arise from a certain knowledge that we have eternal life.

The first of those convictions is that Christians are heard by God. We should come into the presence of God with confidence and boldness to ask anything according to His will.

John, however, does not want us to focus merely on praying for ourselves. As is consistent with his theme of loving others, he directs us to pray for one another in verses 16 and 17. This passage is undoubtedly one of the most difficult texts in the New Testament, and interpretations of the meaning have varied widely throughout church history. The primary question is this: what is the sin that leads to death?

Some have argued that the sin that leads to death results in the physical death of the sinner. One illustration used to support this position is in Acts 5:1-11 when the Lord killed Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, for lying about how much they gave to the church. Their sin led to their deaths, leading to arguments that what John is talking about at the end of this letter is when God puts someone to death as a consequence of that person’s sin.

There are a few problems with this interpretation. First, it would make the qualifier somewhat pointless since obviously there is no reason to pray for someone who has died. Second, John has not been talking about physical life and death in the context, but spiritual and eternal life; and so, it would be an odd change of topic here to suddenly bring up physical death as a consequence of sin.

Others have said that the sin that leads to death is what the Roman Catholic Church calls a mortal sin, such as murder or adultery. The problem with this position is that the Bible does not classify sin with these distinctions. David was a murderer and an adulterer, but he was forgiven by God and not eternally condemned for his sins. And of course, many other Christians throughout history have been guilty of terrible sins; God mercifully forgives, restores, and sanctifies them. A person who trusts in Christ will always be forgiven for their sins – no matter how bad those sins may be.

Others have speculated that the sin that leads to death is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus condemned in Mark 3:29. The problem with this view is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was not a sin anyone could have committed at the time of John’s letter– and it’s not a sin anyone can commit today. That sin was specifically related to someone who saw the miracles of Jesus and concluded that He did them by Satanic power. The readers of John’s letter, just like us today, never saw Jesus’ miracles and so they could not have committed this sin – so it would be pointless to refer to it here.

The best view is to understand the sin that leads to death as the rejection of the sacrifice of Christ for our salvation. Specifically, in this context, that rejection happens by people who at one time had professed faith in Christ and were part of the church. John is writing about people who know the truth, who have seen the power of God, who have been part of the visible church and have witnessed what God does in the lives of sinners through Christ – and then turn away from Christ, reject His atoning work, and abandon the faith.

We have a parallel passage in Hebrews 10:26-27, where the writer talks about people who at one time claimed to be Christians and received a knowledge of the truth. These people understood the sacrifice of Christ and their need of salvation through Christ; they even made a profession of faith in Christ, but then they go on sinning willfully. The readers of Hebrews were being tempted to return to the Law and to all its sacrifices and rituals, primarily to avoid persecution. The writer of Hebrews warns them that if they turn away from Christ and think the sacrifices and practices of the Law will save them, the only expectation they have before them is the wrath of God. Once a person rejects the sacrifice of Christ, there is no other sacrifice for sin.

We see another parallel in Jeremiah 7:16-18, where God shockingly tells the prophet not to pray for Israel because they are apostate as a nation. Israel knows the true God, but they willfully and with full knowledge of the truth turned away from Him to serve idols. By their apostate, idolatrous worship, they put themselves beyond salvation. There was no hope and no reason to pray for them, leaving only the expectation that judgment was coming.

When we return to the passage in 1 John, we observe that John isn’t going quite as far as God went with Jeremiah. He isn’t telling us not to pray for someone who has willfully rejected Christ. John merely states he is not talking about praying for such a person, which makes sense because the context is praying according to the will of God – and we don’t know God’s plan for any particular individual.

What John is talking about is praying for brothers and sisters who still believe in Christ.

Here we see how we can love one another by praying for those around us according to the will of God. John brings up what is a common occurrence in our life together as sinful people saved by grace: seeing someone sin. The first step in church discipline, or whenever we have been sinned against or have seen someone else sinned against, is not confrontation but intercession.

This realization is vital because whenever we see someone commit a sin, we are tempted to respond poorly – especially if it is a sin against us, and our sinful hearts attempt to make us focus on our pain and our grievances. In order to ensure that our hearts are right when we talk to someone who has sinned, we should first battle in prayer. We pray for that person, and specifically, we pray that God would be merciful to them. That prayer reminds us that we need to show mercy, compassion, and grace to brothers and sisters who have sinned, giving us one of the most practical ways we can love one another in the church – because we all sin!

Now, when John says God will give the sinful person life, he is talking about spiritual, eternal life. He simply means the brother or sister will not be condemned for their sin but will receive the promise of God of life at the day of judgment, teaching us that our perseverance in faith is strengthened by the prayers of the saints. One of the means that God uses to help us when we sin is the prayers of other believers who love us and want to see us persevere through our sin to the finish line of eternal life. This makes the church so necessary in our lives because God has ordained the church as the place where believers pray for one another and uphold one another – even when one of us stumbles and falls into sin.

If we spend any significant time together, we are going to see our sin exposed, which means we will get lots of opportunities to pray for one another with confidence, knowing God is going to sanctify each one of us through our mutual prayers. We know that God hears us when we pray according to His will, and God’s will is for all of His children to persevere in faith to the end.

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