Pastor David B. Curtis


Media #1027 MP3 Audio File Video File

The Sin that Leads to Death

(1 John 5:16-18)

Delivered 08/30/20

We are continuing our study of 1 John this morning. We are looking at the final section of this epistle. 1 John 5:13 - 21 constitutes the conclusion of the epistle. This closing context lists seven things that believers know.

We looked last week at the subject of prayer.

This is the confidence we have before him: If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 1 John 5:14 CSB

That’s the general principle, that if we ask anything according to God’s will, He hears and grants our requests. In 5:16–17 the author amplifies the theme of prayer by applying the general statements of 5:14–15 to the particular need of prayer for believers who fall into sin:

If anyone sees a fellow believer committing a sin that doesn’t lead to death, he should ask, and God will give life to him—to those who commit sin that doesn’t lead to death. There is sin that leads to death. I am not saying he should pray about that. 1 John 5:16 CSB

I’m using the Christian Standard Bible this morning because I believe it gives an accurate translation of these verses. It is texts like that this, with its many difficulties, that makes one want to do topical messages instead of verse-by-verse. No one would teach on this verse if he didn’t have to.

Before we get into the complexities of 1 John 5:16, I want us to see the simple exhortation that this verse gives. It emphasizes our need to pray for our fellow Christians if they get involved in sin. Notice what John said earlier:

Now this is his command: that we believe in the name of his Son Yeshua the Christ, and love one another as he commanded us. 1 John 3:23 CSB

Prayer for a sinning Christian is a concrete demonstration of love for that brother or sister. We are to help those in the Christian community who fall into sin.

Brothers and sisters, if someone is overtaken in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual, restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so that you also won’t be tempted. Galatians 6:1 CSB

One way we can help is to pray for others.

First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone. 1 Timothy 2:1 CSB

Notice what James says about a sinning believer:

My brothers and sisters, if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, let that person know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. James 5:19-20 CSB

How would you like to do this for a brother or sister?

If anyone sees a fellow believer committing a sin that doesn’t lead to death, he should ask, and God will give life to him—to those who commit sin that doesn’t lead to death. There is sin that leads to death. I am not saying he should pray about that. 1 John 5:16 CSB

Notice what John doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, "If anyone sees his brother sinning, go tell the pastor or call up all of your friends and tell them so that they can pray for them or shun them and judge them for their sin." What he does say is, "Pray for them."

With that said let’s see if we can break this down and understand what John is saying. As you look at verse 16, what questions do you have? I guess our first question would involve what the sin is that doesn’t lead to death? If the believer’s sin "doesn’t lead to death," why does God need to give him life? Are death and life in this text physical or spiritual or both? What is the sin that leads to death? Let’s look at the text and see if we can answer these questions.

"If anyone sees a fellow believer committing a sin""If" is a third-class conditional which means potential action.  Maybe you will and maybe you won’t.

The text says if you "see" another Christian committing a sin. This would indicate that the sin is observable and not just some internal attitude. It is a public or visible sin.  And it is "a sin that doesn’t lead to death." John draws a distinction between "sins that don’t lead to death" and "sins that do lead to death." What are these sins? And what does John mean by "death"? Is he talking about physical death or spiritual death? Can we tell from the context?

If anyone sees a fellow believer committing a sin that doesn’t lead to death, he should ask, and God will give life to him—to those who commit sin that doesn’t lead to death. There is sin that leads to death. I am not saying he should pray about that. 1 John 5:16 CSB

The subject here is a "fellow believer" who is committing a sin that does not lead to death. Are you with me so far? So, if the believer did not commit a sin leading to death, why does it say that in response to prayer God would give him life. If the sin he is committing doesn’t lead to death, he shouldn’t need to be given life, should he? If he had committed the sin unto death, then he would need life, but they were not even to pray for someone who committed the sin that leads to death. Do you see the problems with this verse?

Three times in this text we have the phrase "lead to death" which in the Greek is pros thanaton. Besides our text here, there is only one other place in the New Testament where the expression pros thanaton is found—John 11:4:

When Yeshua heard it, he said, "This sickness will not end in death but is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it." John 11:4 CSB

Here Yeshua responds to news of the sickness of his friend, Lazarus. Yeshua said that his sickness was not pros thanaton in the sense that its ultimate outcome was not physical death because Yeshua restored him to life.

So, John is the only New Testament writer to use pros thanaton and when he used it in the Gospel, it was referring to physical death. But if the believer’s sin was not pros thanaton, why did he need to be given life? And why would a believer need to be given life; they already have life:

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. The one who has the Son has life. The one who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 1 John 5:11-12 CSB

In our text "will give life to him," "will give"is a future verb. This would lead me to believe that the "life" that is given to the believer is physical life because he already has eternal life. Are you totally confused yet? We’ll come back to this but first let’s look at what John means by the "sin that leads to death." Apparently, John’s readers knew what he meant since he doesn’t explain it. Unfortunately, it is not so clear to us. There are four main views:

(1) Mortal Sins: The Roman Catholic Church teaches that there are two categories of sin. It divides sins into venial sins that can be forgiven and mortal sins that result in spiritual death. So, they would say that this sin unto death is a specific sin that comes under the category of a mortal sin. One has to go to purgatory to purge for it.

Tertullian taught something similar. He taught that some sins, such as murder, idolatry, fraud, denial of Christ, blasphemy, adultery, and fornication could not be committed by true Christians, and that God would not forgive these sins (cited by B. F. Westcott, The Epistles of St. John [Eerdmans], p. 211). The problem with this view is that the Bible makes no such distinctions; and if Tertullian’s list were applied to those in the Bible, David, Solomon, Peter, and Paul would all have perished.

(2) Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit:  This is based on Yeshua’s teaching in:

Therefore, I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the one to come. Matthew 12:31-32 CSB

I'm sure that countless numbers of people have read this in their Bibles and wondered if it applied to them. Yeshua clearly states, "but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven." The contrasting preposition, "but," is from the Greek "de." The use of the word "but" is showing that there is a contrast or an exception to the previous statement that "people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy." All sins are forgivable, but blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is not. That is why the word "but" is there, to show that there is a qualification, an exception to the first statement.

So, we really need to understand what "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit" is. The word "blasphemy" is a compound word made from the Greek words "to speak" (phemi) and "to hurt" (blapto). It describes the act of speaking of someone in a hurtful way.

Blasphemy is the opposite of praise and worship. Praise is to speak good of someone. Worship is to assign worth to someone. Blasphemy is to speak evil and to attempt to take worth away from one that is deserving of such. Blasphemy is speaking evil against God. This is a serious sin.

In context, the scribes had been given all of the evidence. They had seen the miracles. They had heard the teachings. And they still rejected Christ. They have just accused Him of performing miracles by the power of Satan. They have witnessed the power of the Holy Spirit, and they said, "That is Satan!" They pointed to the Holy Spirit and said, "Unholy and unclean!" They rejected the very One, Jesus, in whom it was necessary to believe in order to receive forgiveness. As a result, there remained no possibility of forgiveness.

So, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is witnessing Yeshua performing a miracle and then attributing that power to Satan instead of to the Spirit. They saw Yeshua do miracles and rejected Him. I think Yeshua would have to be in His earthly ministry for you to literally commit this sin. It's a definite sin related to a historical situation when our Lord was here on earth as the God-man.

(3) Physical Death for Heinous Sin. Thisapproach is to explain it in terms of the Old Covenant distinction between sins committed unintentionally and sins committed defiantly (Lev 4:2; Num 15:22–25, 30–31; cf. 1QS 8:21–9:2).

Under the Old Covenant, sinners who repudiated Old Covenant died physically because their repudiation represented a major rejection of Yahweh's authority. The writer to the Hebrews warned his readers that renouncement of the New Covenant would result in inevitable, "severer judgment."

The concept of sin resulting in physical death occurs occasionally in the Tanakh:

so that the people of Israel do not come near the tent of meeting, lest they bear sin and die. Numbers 18:22 ESV
But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, Deuteronomy 22:26 ESV

Sin resulting in physical death also occurs in the Jewish intertestamental literature:

Beware, lest thou shouldest walk in their ways and tread in their paths, And sin a sin unto death before the Most High God. Jubilees 21:22

We also see the sin unto death in (Jubilees 26:34; 33:13, 18). In all of these instances the concept involves physical death as a consequence of sin. Sin resulting in sickness or death is also mentioned a number of times in the New Testament:

"Ananias," Peter asked, "why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the proceeds of the land?… 5 When he heard these words, Ananias dropped dead, and a great fear came on all who heard. Acts 5:3, 5 CSB

Ananias and Sapphira were both slain by the Spirit for lying. They sinned, they died.

For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. This is why many are sick and ill among you, and many have fallen asleep. 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 CSB

Paul here mentions some who had died because they were partaking of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. The "sin that leads to death" could be teaching that some sins bring God's swift judgment and results in the premature physical death of the sinner. Others do not.

This view takes "brother" in the normal sense, but understands life and death as physical and not spiritual. Remember Yeshua’s statement about Lazarus in John 11:4. "This sickness will not lead to death" refers to physical death.

Is John saying that no one should even bother to pray for someone involved in a sin leading to premature death? That is not likely because we cannot know when a person has gone too far in their sin. We should pray for them.

(4) Spiritual Death for Certain Sins: This view says that when the author speaks of "sin that leads to death," he has the sin of the secessionists in mind. They are people who deny that Yeshua is the Christ come in the flesh and who disavow the significance of his atoning death. This would mean that they place themselves outside the sphere of forgiveness, and their sins become sins leading to death.

If we understand the "sin leading to death" as referring to spiritual death then it seems clear that the author could not have envisioned believers committing such a sin. The petitioner in 5:16 is instructed to pray for the fellow member of the Christian community who commits sin "not leading to death." Many interpreters assume that a member of the Christian community likewise could commit the "sin to death" but John does not say this.

Within the framework of Johannine thought, believers possess eternal life (John 5:24, 1 John 3:14a) while unbelievers remain in darkness, that is, in spiritual death (John 3:19-20, 1 John 3:14b). Thus the "sin leading to death" is a sin committed not by believers but by unbelievers. This sin unto death here is the denial of saving truth through the incarnation of Yeshua the Christ and the salvation that He has procured.

So, why does John say, "God will give life to him—to those who commit sin that doesn’t lead to death?" If believers already have life why do they need God to give them life for a sin they committed?

As I have said, this is a very complicated text. I think that views 3 and 4 could apply to this verse. I think it speaks of (3) Physical Death for Heinous Sin and (4) Spiritual Death for Certain Sins.I think that John is saying that believers that commit certain sins could die physically. That is why we are to pray for them. What John says here is very similar to what James says James 5:

My brothers and sisters, if any among you strays from the truth, and someone turns him back, let that person know that whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins. James 5:19-20 CSB

Throughout this whole letter James has exhorted the believers on how to save their lives from the damage that sin brings (very similar to what John calls abiding in Christ in 1 John), and now he adds that they can also be involved in saving the lives of others. He is telling them and us that we can be spiritual lifeguards.

"Strays from the truth"—the word "strays" is the Greek word planao. It means "to roam (from safety, truth, or virtue):- go astray, err, wander, be out of the way." "From the truth"is speaking of any departure from the truth as set forth in the Word of God, whether it be doctrinal or practical. Truth is not just something to believe; it is to be obeyed.

James says that there is every possibility that the members of the family of God will stray. As the hymn says, "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love." There is a tendency on the part of all of us to stray away from the truth. Do you understand this? There are many believers who don't. Many think that if someone is a true Christian, they will never stray form the truth. This is not biblical! Obedience in the Christian life is not automatic, and it is not guaranteed.

"And someone turns him back"—the King James Version says, "and one converts him." He is not talking about evangelism here; he is talking about turning around a straying believer. Who is to do this? Someone, anyone who is aware of it. This is every believer's responsibility.

"And someone turns him back" is not an exhortation to carry out this important duty, but rather, it assumes that the task has been achieved because someone cared. When we see a brother or a sister who is falling, it is our responsibility to go to him, to pick him up, to support him, to encourage him, and to turn him back to the truth.

The phrase that James uses here, "sozein ten psuche" (save a soul), is a standard and normal way of saying, "to save the life." Sin is very serious, and it can lead to death. To turn someone from sin to obedience is to save his life.

Now, those two actions—salvation from death and forgiveness of sins—are the actions of God. Only God can save a soul from death. And only God can forgive sins. And yet we are given the privilege of being co-laborers with God. We can do what He is doing in the lives of people and can share with him in the ministry of restoration.

James closes this epistle by saying that not only are we to walk in obedience (be doers of the Word) and save our lives from damage, but we also are to notice how others are doing so that when someone errs from the truth, we can go after him and turn him around.

I think this is what John is talking about when he says, "God will give life to him—to those who commit sin that doesn’t lead to death." Believers can’t commit the "sin that leads to death" which refers to eternal death, spiritual death. But they can sin to the point that God will physically take their lives.

"There is sin that leads to death. I am not saying he should pray about that"—this is something only an unbeliever can commit. It is the sin of rejecting Christ. I think we can be sure of this because of what John says in the beginning of verse 18:

We know that everyone who has been born of God does not sin, but the one who is born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him. 1 John 5:18 CSB

"We know that everyone who has been born of God does not sin"—how do they know this? They know because John is restating the same point that he made in 3:9:

Everyone who has been born of God does not sin, because his seed remains in him; he is not able to sin, because he has been born of God. 1 John 3:9 CSB

The Greek in 5:18 and 3:9 is exactly the same—παςογεγεννημενοςεκτουθεουουχ αμαρτανει. Since it’s been ten months since we studied this in 3:9 let me refresh your memory on what this means.

I’m using the Christian Standard Bible because I think it translates this verse correctly. The ESV says,

We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. 1 John 5:18 ESV

There’s a big difference between, "does not sin" and "does not keep on sinning." But what translation is right? Well, we could just pick the one we like the best. Or we could be Bereans and study this out. Because the Greek uses the present tense, it is asserted that this tense necessitates a translation like, "everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning" (ESV).

This would mean that those born of God may sin somewhat (how much is never specified!), but he may not sin regularly or persistently. But on all grounds, whether linguistic or exegetical, the approach is indefensible. It has been pointed out by more than one competent Greek scholar, that the appeal to the present tense invites intense suspicion. No other text can be cited where the Greek present tense, unaided by qualifying words, can carry this kind of significance.

Zane Hodges writes, "There is no doubt that in an appropriate context the Greek present tense can have a present progressive force like ‘he is sinning.’ But the introduction of ideas like continue to sin or to go on doing require more than the Greek tense to make them intelligible. For this purpose, there were Greek words available, words actually used in the New Testament."

and were continually in the temple blessing God. Luke 24:53 ESV

Here "continually" is the Greek word diapantos. This same word is used in:

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Hebrews 13:15 ESV

Hodges goes on to say, "The Greek present tense did not by itself convey the idea of continually or habitually or of a practice. If John wanted to say, No one born of God makes a practice of sinning he would have used the available Greek words to make his point. No first century Greek reader or hearer was likely to get a meaning like practice sin."

Smalley also unmasks this misuse of the present tense when he points out that, "5:16 uses the present tense to describe specific sinful acts, not chronic transgression. The present tense cannot bear the weight that the translation ‘keeps on sinning’ places on it."

Now that we know that the CSB has translated the text correctly, we know that John says, "everyone who has been born of God does not sin." This is saying that if you are born of God you do not sin. So, let me ask you something: Do you sin? Let me ask your spouse. Yes, you do sin. Then, according to this verse, you have not been born of God. How does that make you feel? Don’t go questioning your salvation just yet.

Pragmatically we have to question what is being said here because we all sin. This verse is not only a problem pragmatically; it is also a problem doctrinally. It does not fit with the primary rule of hermeneutics—The Analogy of Faith.

The Analogy of Faith is the rule that Scripture is to interpret Scripture. This means that no part of Scripture can be interpreted in such a way as to render it in conflict with what is clearly taught elsewhere in Scripture. Does Scripture anywhere teach that believers sin? Yes. It continually calls believers to stop sinning. What John wrote earlier seems to contradict what he writes here.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8 ESV

So, here he says if we say we have no sin we are deceiving ourselves. But in our text he says, "everyone who has been born of God does not sin."So, which is it? Look at what he says in1 John:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Yeshua the Christ the righteous. 1 John 2:1 ESV

Here Christians are told not to sin; but if they do sin, they have an advocate with the Father. So, which is it? Do Christians sin or do they not sin because they are born of God? When we read 1 John 5:18 in the Christian Standard Bible or in the KJV, we are faced with what seems like a blatant contradiction.

Does Scripture contradict itself? NO! There must be a way to reconcile these verses. But the means of reconciliation is far from agreed upon. Ten months ago I gave you eight different views of 1 John 3:9 which says the same thing our text says. (1) The Habitual Sin View, (2) The Sinless Perfection View, (3) The Not Real View, (4) The Absolute View, (5) The Projected Eschatological Reality View, (6) The New Nature/Old Nature View, (7) The Contradiction View, (8) The Specific Sin View.

Do you remember which view I said was the most popular? It is the Habitual Sin View. This is also the predominant view among those who hold to Lordship Theology because it supports that teaching. They argue that 3:9 and 5:18 are saying that those born of God cannot "keep on sinning." But as we have seen, the present tense cannot bear the weight that the translation "keeps on sinning" places on it."

To me the only view that makes sense is the Specific Sin View. John is speaking not of sin in general but of a specific sin. What is that sin? If we go back to the Fourth Gospel and look at how Yeshua uses the word sin, it may help us understand what John means in our text. Let's look at John 9:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? John 9:1-2 ESV

Yeshua responded to their question:

Yeshua answered, It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. John 9:3 ESV

Was Yeshua saying that the son and his parents had never sinned? No, he is saying that the blindness was not due to some specific sin.

At the end of this chapter, Yeshua said to certain of the Pharisees:

Yeshua said to them, "If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains. John 9:41 ESV

The word translated "guilt" here is the Greek hamartia. It should be translated as sin. Was Yeshua saying that if the Pharisees were physically blind, they would be sinless? No. Again, he is talking about a specific sin characteristic of the Pharisees—the sin of rejecting Christ.

In the Upper Room discourse Yeshua told his disciples:

If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. John 15:22 ESV

Is Yeshua saying that they (in context, this is the world) would be sin free if he had not spoken to them? No. He is speaking of the sin of rejecting Him.

In each of these cases, the terms are absolute. Some specific sin is in view. The same principle must apply to the language of 1 John 3:9 and 5:18 where John is also speaking of a specific sin. What is that sin? It is the sin of rejecting Christ.

By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Yeshua the Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Yeshua is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 1 John 4:2-3 ESV

Many writers have supported the idea that the "sin unto death" is the sin of unbelief or rejection of Christ—a major theme in the Johannine writings. If we connect 3:9 and 5:18, we see that the impeccability of the Christian, his not sinning, is seen in terms of the rejection of Christ. The "sin unto death" is the sin of unbelievers not of believers. This explains the statements that the one who is born of God "does not sin."

Having that as an understanding, let’s go back to the end of 5:16 which reads, "There is sin that leads to death. I am not saying he should pray about that." John does not forbid praying for someone committing a sin leading to death. He just says the focus of our prayers should be believers. Think about this: if the sin that leads to death was referring to physical death of a sinning believer, why would he say not to pray for them? But if this is referring to an unbeliever it makes sense because Yeshua himself did not pray for the world.

I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. John 17:9 ESV

When Yeshua prayed for his disciples, he specifically excluded "the world" from his prayer. With Yeshua’s own refusal to pray for the world as precedent, it makes perfect sense to understand the author of 1 John as discouraging his readers from praying for the opponents who belong to the world.

So, I see the "sin leading to death" in 5:16 as referring to the christological heresy of the opponents which has marked them as unbelievers and sealed their fate. Refusal to believe in Yeshua as the Christ, the Son of God, is the sin that leads to death.

All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin that doesn’t lead to death. 1 John 5:17 CSB

Here John restates and reinforces the distinction he made in 5:16 between sins that do and do not "lead to death."  Having implied that sins committed by believers (sins "not leading to death") may be prayed for and forgiven, John does not want to leave the impression that such sin is insignificant.

In all this, let’s remember John’s point: we should be praying for believers who are falling into sin. There's a mighty resource here in prayer for us as believers. Are we using it to help one another?

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