Question: Comment on the “sin leading to death” and the “sin not leading to death” mentioned in 1 John 5:16-17.
“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.” 1 John 5:16-17 NKJV
Answer: In the absolute sense, Romans 6:23 tells us unequivocally that all sin leads to death: “The wages of sin is death.” Through the prophet Ezekiel God had declared, “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). And according to 1 John 5:17, “All unrighteousness is sin.” Obviously then, in making a distinction between a sin that leads to death and one that does not lead to death, God is not speaking here of death as the common portion of sinful man, nor of eternal condemnation, but of something altogether different.
In His ways of moral government upon earth, God may use physical death to chastise one of His people for a sin of such a character or committed under such circumstances that He, the righteous Judge, must make a severe example of it. Let’s look at a few such cases in Scripture.
In 1 Kings 13, the Lord told the man of God not to eat or drink at Bethel. But he disobeyed, ate with the old prophet who deceived him, and was told by the Lord that he would not get home alive. And he was killed by a lion under circumstances totally contrary to nature.
Ananias and Sapphira each deliberately lied, not merely to Peter but to the Holy Spirit, about what they were giving from the proceeds of the sale of their possessions. Each was immediately struck dead by God.
For the Corinthians’ unworthy, disorderly conduct at the Lord’s Supper, they were told that “many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (1 Cor. 11:30). Refusal to judge themselves had led to God taking the matter in hand and dealing in chastening with this assembly.
When we look at these sins, they are sins that we could easily commit – in fact, in all likelihood we have transgressed in similar manner. Have we ever disobeyed the Lord’s clear command, like the man of God in 1 Kings 13? Have we ever committed hypocrisy and lying, like Ananias and Sapphira, to impress people with our devotedness? Have we ever, like some Corinthians, failed to examine ourselves and thereby take the bread and wine in “an unworthy manner”? Who of us can plead innocent of such offenses? Yet in their setting, aggravated by special circumstances of affront to God in private or public, these seemingly “ordinary” sins became sins unto death.
An individual may recognize God’s hand in a sickness or an accident and bow to God’s chastening judgment. Others too might recognize God’s governmental judgment in a situation and not feel free to pray that God would remove His discipline. But let’s take warning from the story of Job and his friends, and not jump to the conclusion that sickness, injury, or even death is necessarily a result of sinning a sin unto death.
Another situation that may be considered in this connection is that of an individual sentenced to die for murder or other capital crime. Sometimes such individuals have accepted the Lord while awaiting execution. Thank God for His great mercy. There is no such sin that He will not forgive a repentant sinner. But receiving salvation by God’s grace in no way changes the ways of God in His moral government. Christians are under no responsibility to pray (or petition the authorities) to spare the life of such a new brother or sister.
In ordinary cases of sin we should pray for one another, seeking the restoration of the offender. And one final thought: even where God has to deal with one of His own with death – where He cannot righteously leave him on earth any longer – this death is mercy and brings the person home into the presence of God. No longer will it be possible for him to dishonor the Lord so signally. Such solemn chastening by the Lord is “that we may not be condemned with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32). What a God we have!
By Eugene P. Vedder, Jr.
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA.