1 John 5:16-17
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.
All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.
My friends, this is a tough passage!
So many questions that seem to conflict with general Bible teaching, or at least my understanding of what the Bible teaches. Which is good, for we need to be challenged by the Word, and to have our minds renewed by it’s teaching. We should never be content with our current understanding, which so often veers from our original understanding.
Let’s try to answer these question in two posts. Our first post on this tough passage will dwell on the following two questions. (Taking the relatively easy questions first cause I’m a bit of a chicken on the last three!)
- Does this verse refer only to believers throughout its teaching?
- What is meant when the apostle speaks of death?
Our second post will consider the final three questions.
- What is sin not leading to death?
- What is the specific sin that leads to death?
- Why are we told not to pray?
So, let us begin with our first two questions.
Does this verse refer only to believers throughout its teaching?
Of the following questions, this one seems the easiest to answer, yet has had the greatest impact on my own Bible understanding when I let the verse speak for itself. It seems obvious that the apostle is instructing the believer to pray (or not to pray) for a brother, in both the act of sinning not unto death and of sinning unto death. No other person (i.e. a non-believer) is brought into the verse to suggest otherwise.
This is alarming, at least from a position of a “once saved always saved” adherent, since the passage states that a believer could enter into sin that leads to death. But I am getting ahead of myself, for we need to understand term “death” before we can try to understand what the apostle is trying to communicate to us.
What is meant when the apostle speaks of death?
When you hear the term death, what comes to mind? A grave? Sorrow? Non-existence?
A quick look into the Greek definition of θάνατος thánatos, reveals that the word typically means separation. The term generally refers to separation in two ways.
- Thánatos may refer to the separation of the soul of a man from his physical body, with the body returning to dust.
- Thánatos may be used in speaking of the spiritual separation of man from God, as a result of the original sin, or our own sinful thoughts and actions.
Generally, I understand this term in relation to either the physical or the spiritual realm. The Word speaks of both, as the following verses illustrate.
Physical death of believers in Corinth
1 Corinthians 11:27-30
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.
Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.
That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
Physical death of Ananias
Acts 5:3-5 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land?
While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.”
When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it.
Physical death of Sapphira
Acts 5:9 – 10
But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.”
Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.
Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death…
Ezekiel 18:20 The soul who sins shall die…
James 5: 20 …whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
How is spiritual death to be understood in relation to believers?
The previous verses imply that believers may experience spiritual death, since both verses were addressed to covenant people in a relationship with God. See Conditional Security – Romans 6:11-23 for further information on this particular topic.
I hope to look at Ezekiel 18:20 in an upcoming post.
Regarding James 5, I have written on this passage in an earlier post. (See Conditional Security – James 5:19-20). I do not understand the death this erring brother was close to experiencing to be simply physical death, and if of interest, check out the associated posting provided above.
Where does the unforgivable sin fit into all of our discussion? I tried to understand this topic in an earlier post. (See Book Look – Heaven’s Doors – Unpardonable Sin).
Currently, I am of the opinion that during the Lord’s time on earth, the unforgivable sin could, and was committed, but was directly associated with the generation the Lord was addressing at the time of His sojourn on earth.
Of course, the heart of the unforgivable sin (assigning an unclean spirit to the Spirit of God in Jesus) may be a very real possibility today. I would call it apostacy, but that word may be interpreted in various manners and may communicate different things to different people. Definitely worthy of a study on it’s own, but this particular post is getting a bit long in the tooth!
Ok, so with that review of who the apostle was addressing (believers) and a concept of what the concept of death communicates to us (separation) from the pages of the Word, I suggest we consider the impact of this conclusion. For myself, it raises conflicts in my mind that I truly need to resolve, but that I surely cannot do within this current post.
In our next post we will make an effort to address the difficult questions for this verse. Of course, as we venture through this passage, I look to my readers for thier understanding also.
Please take advantage of the comment box below to provide your thoughts.
No matter your position, the Lord has proven to us that He seeks to give us life and that life is in His Son. Look to Him for your hope and faith, knowing that His love is ever-present and never failing.
Look to Him.
In all your doubts and confusion, disappointments and concerns, look to Him.
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