A Sin Unto Death
By William R. Cunningham
The purpose of this lesson is to examine 1 john 5:16-20 and determine what the most probable meaning is. I say probable because no one at this point knows for sure what the sin that leads to death is. This sin is evidently an unpardonable sin that has not been identified by John. We will first try to understand the overall concept of sin and how it relates to our lifestyle and salvation. Understanding this will help us to understand the context and therefore the meaning of the subject scripture.
We must first gather enough information from the scripture before we can rightly discuss our subject text. Let’s look at the following preceding scripture.
John tells us of the confidence that we have in prayer. If we pray according to God’s will then he hears us and will answer our prayers. Now John immediately gives an application of this principle, which is given in the next verse.
There are some key terms in this scripture that should be evaluated before we attempt to decipher the meaning of this verse. It is also important that this verse be taken in context with the general topic at this moment. That is, this verse should be viewed in light of the verses surrounding it and not as a completely separate entity. The following questions should be answered in order to determine the meaning of the key terms and to help determine the meaning of the scripture.
The literal wording of this verse seems to imply that there is a sin for which we should not or will not pray for because it leads to death. It also implies that if we pray for our "brother" who sins a sin not leading to death, then life will be given to him. Watch the pronouns in this verse because they can distort the message of this scripture. Let’s examine the first three questions and then we will tackle the fourth. However, let’s first define the word sin since it is crucial to our understanding of this scripture.
What does the word sin mean? The Holman Bible dictionary defines sin as actions by which humans rebel against God, miss His purpose for their life, and surrender to the power of evil rather than to God. The Bible defines sin as unrighteousness (1 John 5:17). Sin also refers to a lifestyle or heart condition and not just the mere act of doing something wrong. It is a transgression against the lawgiver personally. The Old Testament and Judaism identify sin as transgressing God’s law. There was also a distinction of sins that were punishable by death and those for which atonement could be given. Examples of unpardonable sin in the Old Test are idolatry, incest, blasphemy, and breach of the Sabbath.
Sin may be best described as a willful rebellion to God’s WAY by a sinful act, i.e., unrighteousness.
The Christian and Sin
These two verses seem to imply that a Christian cannot sin. However, we know that this is not the case because all people whether Christian or not will do something wrong. The NIV better interprets this concept to mean a lifestyle of sin. Before we were born again we were living a life of sin. Our life was dictated by the sinful way because we didn’t have the life giving Spirit of God dwelling in us. Therefore, we were living according to the sinful nature that was in us. We have the Spirit of God abiding in us after we are born again and that Spirit gives us a new nature and we become a new creation (creature) in Christ.
Salvation brought new life and a seed to a new way of life. Therefore, a person that is truly born again cannot keep on sinning because there new nature takes them in a whole new direction of life (the repentant life). So a Christian will begin to live according to the Spirit of God and not according to the Old nature (the flesh). The book of Romans addresses this topic in great detail.
The fact that we have a new nature via the new Spirit does not mean that we will not give in to temptation. There will be times when we decide to do wrong instead of what is right. A true Christian will be convicted in the heart and repent of that sinful act and receive God’s forgiveness as well. A true Christian does not desire the old way, rather, he or she desires the new way of the Spirit of God.
What is a brother?
The term brother in the scripture lesson text can refer to two things.
The Greek word used in this verse for brother means a brother figuratively or literally. Therefore, the term brother could just as well apply to a fellow Christian as well as to a fellow human being. However, The first interpretation given previously introduces a problem with the doctrine of salvation. If brother refers to a Christian then a Christian can commit a sin that leads to death, which seems to imply that a Christian can loose his or her salvation (depending on our definition of death). This interpretation seems unlikely. Actually, the term brother in this verse has little impact on the meaning of the overall scripture. However, I think it is safe to say that the word brother refers to any human being.
Life and Death
The word life in the context of this scripture most assuredly refers to eternal life and not mere existence. The life that God gives the praying brother is that which leads to eternal life (thus salvation).
The word death may refer to three things.
It is most probable that the context of this scripture implies that death refers to the second death, which is the eternal separation from God the father.
Sin Unto Death
It is still uncertain what exactly John was referring to here. Depending on how we define death will determine what this sin actually is. Here are some opinions as to the sin, which leads to death.
The Greek for "a sin unto death" means a sin that tends to death, unless it was arrested; a sin that if it had its own course, would terminate in death (as in a disease unto death). A sin unto death is a sin of such character that it puts the person beyond the reach of God’s mercy and forgiveness and therefore cannot be pardoned. See Mark 3:28-29, Matthew 12:31-32. There are also some that believe that this sin unto death is referring to the practice of Gnostics, which rejected the deity of Christ and basic morals and self-control.
We should note that John never identifies this sin. He never tells us what this sin is and how we could know if someone has actually committed it. The Old Testament gives us some insight into this concept in Jeremiah 14:11 and 15:1.
The message of this scripture is not to identify the unpardonable sin. If we view this scripture in context, we will find that the message points more toward the power of prayer to save a lost soul. Note that John says that we would pray for the sinning brother and God would give him (the person praying) life. That is, praying for a lost soul (someone sinning) will bring life to that person just by the act of us praying for a sinning brother. That is power in itself and much to rejoice about. However, theologically speaking, John also mentions that there is a sin that we won’t or shouldn’t pray for because all hope would be lost for that person. This may be a person that has abandoned all morals, law, and righteousness. This may be a person that is pure evil.
It is important to remember that though there is a sin that leads to death, that we don’t know what that is or if someone commits it. Therefore it would be futile to try to focus on that aspect of the scripture. The scripture tends more to the power of prayer if we consider the verses of scripture before it.
Let’s look at our subject scripture one more time from a different translation.
We can only speculate as to what the unpardonable sin is. It appears from Jesus’ teaching that the unpardonable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. However, it is impossible for someone who is living to commit this sin because it is implemented or verified at death. If you die without believing in Christ then you have committed the unpardonable sin of unbelief. We however should concern ourselves with this because God is the judge anyway. Our goal is to be a light to the world so that those that don’t know Christ can come and believe in him and receive everlasting life.
Pray for people when you see them sinning. Note that by sinning I mean a lifestyle of sin. I don’t mean that if you see someone take an orange from an orange stand without paying that you should pray for that person because they appeared to have stolen something. Actually, you could never be sure of that. However, if you see someone living a lifestyle of sin then you should pray that they would be delivered from that sin and come to Christ. This applies to both "carnal" Christians and unsaved people. The concept of a carnal Christian is left for another study since it is well beyond the scope of this lesson. The bottom line is to pray for people because that is God’s will and God will give life to those that you pray for. Amen.
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