We considered vv. 13-15 two Lord’s Day mornings past and their great encouragement to prayer. Here we learn that John assumed that a great object of our prayers would be the spiritual welfare of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Much of Christian prayer will be Christians praying for other Christians. Prayer enables us to be the instruments of God’s grace in the lives of others. Wonderful!
Perhaps that point is made even more strikingly than may first appear. The word “God” in the phrase “God will give him life” is not actually present in the Greek text. It is an interpretation on the part of the translators of the ESV rather than a translation. What John wrote was: “If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and he will give him life.” There is ample reason to think that John meant that the man who prayed for his friend would, by that means, give him life. We read in James 5:20, for example, “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his ways will save him from death…” Just as we can be guilty of the blood of others, so, as the instruments of God’s grace, we can “save” them, instrumentally, of course, only.
I want to begin this morning by telling you a true story. It concerns a man virtually none of you will ever have met or know anything about. The few of you who may have known him will probably, after so many years, not remember his name. No need to try; the identity of the individual is not important.
Years ago a new minister was called to one of our Presbytery’s churches. He was a gifted man, indeed, a man of remarkable intellectual and oratorical gifts. He came from an extraordinarily talented family that was world renown for its talent. He was already a Presbyterian minister so his examination in the Presbytery was of a different kind than would be given to a man who was seeking ordination for the first time. He was simply seeking the transfer of his credentials from one presbytery to another, actually, in his case, from one faithful Presbyterian denomination to another. But even in such an exam as that he was still asked to give an account of his spiritual pilgrimage: how he became a Christian, the story of his experience as a follower of Christ since his conversion, and so on.
Well, this was the story he told. He had been converted while in Europe – I can’t remember whether he was studying or simply traveling in Europe – through the offices of a well-known Christian ministry. He had come home to the United States a Christian – the only Christian in his family – had married a Christian woman, and had lived as a Christian for several years. Then he apostatized, left the Christian faith, said that he no longer believed it. Then, a few years later, he came back to the faith, went to seminary, and entered the Christian ministry.
I was astonished by his testimony. I remember very well my disquiet and my asking him on the floor of Presbytery: “Surely you mean that after several years living as a Christian you backslid, you lost your zeal, you grew spiritually dull and indifferent. You don’t really mean to say that you rejected the faith, do you? You don’t really mean that you committed apostasy in the formal sense; that you willfully rejected the faith you once claimed to believe?”
And he answered, before us all, “No, I committed apostasy. I rejected the faith and turned my back on it.” I remember saying publicly, in some confusion, that I found this account troubling, because according to my reading of the Bible, apostates never return, never come back. My understanding of apostasy is that it is the sin that leads to death, or, as we read in Hebrews, the sin from which no one is ever restored to repentance, or, as the Lord Jesus called it, the sin against the Holy Spirit that cannot be forgiven. In other words, if a man had become a Christian and then, with the full knowledge of what he was doing, turned his back on the Christian faith, rejected it as untrue, that man would never return to genuine Christian faith.
I regret to say that I did not that day have the courage of my convictions. I did not argue against his being received. I didn’t even vote “No” when it came time to approve the motion to receive him and install him as one of our pastors. Who was I, I felt, to refuse to admit a man who now for some years had been serving as the pastor of a conservative, orthodox, Presbyterian church?
We discovered only later that even as he was answering our questions on the floor of presbytery, he had already fixed his gaze on a young woman in the congregation – not his wife – and before long we had to remove him from his position and depose him from the ministry. He and his dear and faithful Christian wife subsequently moved to another city where he attended one of our churches until further sin led to his excommunication.
Even that did not end the saga. Some years later and completely out of the blue I got a call from this man. He was, he said, interested in restoring his Christian faith and his place in the church. He asked if I and several others among his former minister acquaintances would be willing to meet with him on some regular basis by teleconference to talk about his life and his faith. With some reservation I agreed to do that, but it came to nothing. One of the ministers in this small circle who knew him better than I called to tell me that the man himself had decided that he didn’t want to proceed as he had decided that he didn’t really believe the Christian faith after all. I tell you that story to remind you that the sin that leads to death is not a theory and John’s reference to it here is not simply rhetorical, some attention grabber. It is a fact of life in the church of God; always has been and is still today.
I know other people who have committed the sin that leads to death, the sin which, once committed, leaves a man or woman without hope of repentance or of salvation, but my experience with this man placed in the sharpest focus the terrible reality of which John speaks here and of which a number of other biblical authors speak. There is a sin that forever places a man or woman past the point of no return and so beyond any hope of salvation no matter how many years that man or woman may continue to live in this world, no matter how many Christian shoulders they may continue to rub. He can’t repent even if, at a certain level and for a time, he thinks he might want to!
It is a striking finale to John’s letter, is it not; somewhat jarring, unexpected? Does it not surprise you that a letter so full of the love of God for his people and our love for him, a letter that is all about our assurance of salvation, should end with this solemn and uncomfortable mention of the sin that leads to death. But remember: the letter was prompted in the first place by the apostasy of some of the teachers and perhaps some of the members of these churches to which John is writing. They had turned their backs on the faith as the apostles had taught it; they had rejected it for another faith, another gospel, another religion, very different from apostolic Christianity. By mentioning the sin that leads to death at the end of his letter, John is bringing his readers full circle. It is not a theoretical note that John appends here at the end of his letter; he is telling them what their former brethren had done and what the consequence must be for them. And, in the same way, he is warning his readers not to follow them in their rejection of the faith. There is a fatal, irremediable consequence to apostasy.
And John not only says that there is such a sin that leads to death, he assumes that those who have committed it can, at least in some cases, be identified. He says that we are under no obligation to pray for such people, a statement he could hardly have made if we were unable to distinguish those who have committed this sin from those who have not. He does not forbid us to pray for them. That would be very hard to do in many cases. I know very well that I have kept to myself the fact that I believe that the husband or wife of someone I know, some son or daughter, some friend has committed the sin that leads to death. It would be simply too hard for these people to hear me say it; too painful. And I have never considered it my duty to disclose this fact. John speaks of what a person may do, not what he must do. Still, John clearly assumes that it is possible at least in many cases to know that a person has committed this sin and is beyond hope of salvation.
Now I know very well that through the ages and still today Christian folk have agonized over this statement and others like it in the Bible. Sensitive, spiritually minded believers, wide awake to how much they remain sinners even as Christians, have sometimes passed through nearly indescribable despair thinking themselves to have committed this sin and thereby to have placed themselves forever beyond hope of forgiveness.
In a heartrending section of John Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, he describes a time, early in his Christian life, when he thought he had committed the sin that leads to death, the unforgiveable sin. In genuine agony of soul, for weeks on end, he searched the Scriptures trying to find some clear indication that his case was not hopeless. He compared his case with Peter, but concluded that his sin was worse than Peter’s; then he compared his case with Judas, but found that, in his mind, he had done exactly what Judas had done and so concluded that his destiny must be the same as Judas’. He finally took his problem to an older Christian, someone he felt would have more experience than he, would know the Bible better than he, and he explained what blasphemy he had uttered in his heart against the Lord, how he had succumbed to a temptation to deny the Lord, and how he felt the Lord then must have denied him. And the foolish old Christian told Bunyan that he also thought Bunyan had committed the sin that leads to death. Light eventually came, but through what torment he had had to pass because he took so seriously, however mistakenly, the statement of the Word of God that we have before us this morning.
Or take this account from the ministry of Donald Cargill the Scottish covenanter and martyr. He had been the pastor of a Scottish parish before he ran afoul of the authorities. There was a certain woman in his parish who had come to feel that she had committed the unpardonable sin. She had been known for years as a devout Christian, a woman noteworthy for godliness but she came to be sure that she had denied Christ and he had therefore denied her. On several occasions in this state of mind she had attempted suicide. Cargill visited her on several occasions and tried to reason with this woman, but each time he left her in the same state she was in before, convinced she had committed the sin that leads to death.
Finally, he hit upon a course of action that he thought might work with this woman. He visited her again and, after they had sat down in her front room, very formally he stated her name and then continued this way:
“Mrs… I have this day a commission from my Lord and Master to renew the marriage contract between you and him; and if you will not consent to renew it, I am to require that you sign on this Bible that you are prepared to give up all your rights and your interest in the Lord Jesus.”
She was stunned. She thought for some time, realized that she could never do that, and finally cried out, “O, salvation is come unto this house!” And from that time she no longer had any fear of having committed the unpardonable sin. [Howie, Scots Worthies, 386]
Because this matter of the unforgiveable sin, or the sin that leads to death, has so often been misunderstood to the great distress of Christian people, it is very important that we are clear as to what this sin actually is and what it consists of. If there is a sin that leads to death, if there is a sin that once committed places us forever beyond the reach of prayer, of repentance or forgiveness or salvation, then you and I ought to know precisely what that sin is!
- First, the sin that leads to death is not simply a very bad sin, some especially serious breach of God’s law.
Roman Catholics distinguish between so-called mortal and venial sins, mortal sins being sins that are more or less deadly, but there is much disagreement in Catholic circles as to what constitutes a mortal sin and how deadly such sins actually are. But the Bible does not speak of categories of transgressions, as if some violations of the ten commandments are more deadly than others. The sin that leads to death is not simply a particular terrible crime such as murder or adultery made worse by aggravations. In the Bible as you know, we find God’s forgiveness being extended to terrible murderers and adulterers.
The sin that leads to death is not simply a particularly bad sin or some especially egregious moral fault. Very bad men have become children of God and the children of God have done some very bad things. The sin that leads to death is a very specific sort of sin, not a sin of greater degree.
- Second, the sin that leads to death can only be committed by a professing Christian.
It is striking, is it not, that John speaks as if it is a brother who may commit the sin that leads to death. “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin that does not lead to death…” The implication is certainly that the sin that leads to death will also be committed by a Christian brother. He may not, in the final sense, have ever been a Christian, for, as John wrote in 2:19: “if they had been of us they would have continued with us.” But the person himself thought he was a brother in truth, perhaps for years thought so, and we thought he was as well.
In every case, whether in the teaching of the prophets of the Old Testament, the Lord Jesus in the Gospels, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, or the Apostle John, the sin that leads to death is a sin committed by a member of the church, a person who has belonged to the household of faith, someone who was thought to be a follower of Jesus and someone who thought himself or herself to be a follower of Jesus.
The sin that leads to death in the nature of the case cannot be committed by an unbeliever. That in itself is further proof that it is not simply some particular violation of the law of God, such as murder or adultery or even blasphemy. Unbelievers are blaspheming God all the time, but they are not committing the sin that leads to death.
- Third, the sin itself is everywhere identified as the willful, knowledgeable, intentional rejection of the faith by someone who has claimed to believe it.
In Hebrews 6 this is made particularly clear, but it is clear enough even here in 1 John 5. In Hebrews we read this:
“For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” [6:3-6]
And later in chapter 10 of Hebrews the same point is made:
“If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins remains but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” [10:26-27]
When he says “if we deliberately keep on sinning…” he is not denying the continuing sinfulness of every Christian, man or woman. He is talking about the sin of unbelief, the sin of turning one’s back on the gospel, the very sin that was the occasion of the writing of the Letter to the Hebrews as it was the occasion of the writing of First John. If a person follows through on rejecting the faith after he had received the knowledge of the truth, that’s the idea.
That is, the one whose sins place him beyond the possibility of repentance is the one who having confessed the faith, having experienced something of the reality of God’s grace, having felt in his or her own life the power of the Holy Spirit and then having lived as a Christian turns away from the gospel and rejects it and leaves all of that behind. That is apostasy in the biblical sense of the term and that and only that is the sin that leads to death.
Here is Thomas Boston’s definition of the sin that leads to death.
“It is a rejecting, opposing, and blaspheming of Christ and the way of salvation through him, after a man hath been clearly convinced of the truth, and tasted the goodness thereof, by the inward operation of the Holy Ghost, and that deliberately, and willfully, and avowedly, out of malice and despite against Christ and his Holy Spirit.” [Works, I, 535]
Again, the same point is being made: one has to have been a Christian first, someone who was taken to be and took himself to be a Christian, in order to commit the sin that leads to death. Apostasy is falling away and so one must first be in the place of a Christian before he can fall away from it.
So one must first have been a Christian and then one must have given up the Christian faith. That is the sin that leads to death. So we are not talking about backsliding, or a period of rebellion in a Christian’s life. Nor are we talking about a great sin that a real Christian might commit, as David did when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband, as Peter did when he denied the Lord three times, or as the Corinthian Christians did when they indulged various sins to such an extent that the Apostle Paul had to write a letter admonishing them and warning them that their conduct must change or else, which, thankfully, it then did. We are not talking about those sorts of sins. We are talking about turning one’s back on the gospel of Jesus Christ, the gospel someone once professed to believe; believing it no more, saying so, and living accordingly. We are not talking about struggling with doubts, we are not talking about a gradual loss of interest, and we are not talking about being for some time deluded by some false teaching. The sin that leads to death is the willful desertion of the gospel, the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, by those who once claimed not only to believe but to love the Savior and his message.
That is why whenever I have counseled people who have had fears that they may have committed the unpardonable sin I have told them that if they are worried about having committed this sin, then, in the nature of the case, they have not committed it. It is not committed, cannot be committed, by those who still want to be Christians. It is rather the sin of not wanting to be one any more!
All through the ages there have been those in the church who have committed this sin and have often become, as a result, implacable foes of the Christian church and its message. The infamous Bass Rock, that forsaken little island in the Firth of Forth, not far from Edinburgh, upon whose windswept few acres the flower of Scottish Christianity suffered imprisonment during the days of the covenanters, was bought and turned into a miserable prison for faithful Christians by John Maitland, the Duke of Lauderdale, who had once been a covenanter himself!
Two of the most persistent and harsh critics of the historic Christian faith in our English speaking world today are James Barr, the British biblical scholar, and Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Both of these men were earnest Christians earlier in their lives, either involved in Christian ministries in College, as Barr was involved in the equivalent of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship at his British University, or studying at Christian schools, as Ehrman did, first at Moody Bible Institute and then at Wheaton College. But both turned away from the faith and now take delight in pouring scorn on the biblical convictions of Christian people. It was not enough for them to leave the faith, they needed to justify their departure and, if possible, persuade others to join them: the power of a guilty conscience at work. In that they were very like the men against whom John wrote his first letter.
I know personally such people; I suspect some of you do as well. I can see their faces before me in my mind’s eye. What a solemn and terrifying fact: that they are already lost. To know they will never repent, never return; that there is no sacrifice for sin for them and so they must die in their sins. What a miserable fact: that this sin has such irrevocable and eternal consequence!
And what are we then to do with this truth to which John alludes as he speaks of prayer in these closing verses of his letter? What would he have us do? After all, he is writing his letter, he just said, that we might know that we have eternal life, not that we might know that we do not have it.
Why introduce this melancholy note to his otherwise happy conclusion to this beautiful letter? I believe, in context, he is telling us that if we see a brother or sister taking even the first, halting step on the road that leads to defection from Jesus Christ, we ought to take every step we know to take, from earnest prayer to personal confrontation, to ensure that, God helping him or her, no second step is ever taken down that road. If we see a brother or a sister, who knows better, going away from the Lord and from the life of his people, we are to hurl ourselves into the path of that man or woman and stop them.
And, still more, if we ever feel ourselves slipping away in that direction, taking steps and making choices in defiance of our own enlightened mind, of our own well instructed conscience, of our own heart of faith and love for God and for Christ; when we hear the Holy Spirit of truth speaking to us and saying, “You are going in an evil way,” before we have gone too far ever to get back, before we have risked our everlasting lives, we must catch ourselves and take heed of what the Lord had said so clearly in his Word.
There is a sin that leads to death that will make you everlastingly dead while you are still alive in this world. There is a sin that renders a man or woman beyond the help of prayer. That is a sin not to be toyed with; that is a sin never to be committed.
How comforting to know that John was entirely confident that his readers had not committed that sin and would not commit it and could know for sure not only that they had eternal life now, but would always have it. For they loved Jesus and they loved the life to which he had called them, and they loved one another because Christ had made them brothers and sisters in God’s family.