If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death. 1John 5:16-17
If the Bible is the word of God to men and women, why does it contain things which men and women find it almost impossible to understand? (There’s no denying that this is so - just take a look at 2 Peter 3:15-16, where the Bible itself tells us that the Bible isn’t always clear!)
In our passage John draws a clear distinction between sin that “does not lead to death” and sin that does. What he says is clear enough: but what does he mean? What is this sin “that leads to death”, this “deadly” sin, for which he doesn’t recommend prayer?
Well, the church has existed for two thousand years, and nobody yet has come up with a totally convincing answer to those questions. So I rather doubt if I, or you, are likely to do so! But it can only be good, given that this is part of God’s word, to try and make some kind of sense of it.
There are two other New Testament passages which may shed light on John’s puzzling statement.
First, there is Jesus’ word about “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 12:31-32). Says Jesus: “... every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” Both Jesus here and John in 1 John 5 seem to be in agreement that there is one - and only one - “unforgivable sin”. (The idea of “seven deadly sins” is a much later invention of the church, and has no foundation in scripture.)
So far, so good. But it doesn’t really help us all that much, because it just leads to another question: what exactly did Jesus have in mind when he spoke about the blasphemy against the Spirit?
The second passage that might link with 1John 5 is Hebrews 6:4-6. The writer there is talking about the sin of “apostasy”: that is, the sin of someone who turns away from God and hardens their heart against him after having actually first come to know him. It is “impossible,” he says, for such a person to be “brought back to repentance”; they have, it seems, gone beyond the point of no return.
My own inclination is to regard the link with the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the more likely one. And the best way to understand what is meant both by Jesus and by John is that they are talking about a state of such spiritual deadness that all hope is gone. The person in question is so sold out to falsehood and the devil that only judgment can await them. Grim.
Three thoughts come to mind.
1. It has often been said - and rightly said - that if anyone is worried that they might have committed the “blasphemy against the Spirit”, or the “sin that leads to death”, then the very fact that they are worried is a sure sign that they haven’t. They still have a conscience; they still have a fear of God. So they obviously haven’t gone beyond the point of no return.
Let them take comfort , then, from the fact that the New Testament teems with passages where the mercy and forgiveness of God are stressed. God loves to forgive! - and there is no sin beyond the scope of that forgiveness - apart from this one tragic state of total, hard-hearted rejection.
Is this a message of comfort you need to receive today?
2. Having said that, the fact remains that sin matters. In verse 18 John writes that “anyone born of God does not continue to sin” - in other words, sin is an alien presence in the life of a Christian.
True, we will never be totally free from sin until we are perfected in glory: but we should be fighting for a gradual victory over sin in our daily lives here on earth. The key thing is not to be casual about it. Sin matters. It is important. It destroys. And we must hate it with all our hearts.
Have you and I become a bit blasé about sin?
3. Going back to my question at the beginning: why are these puzzling passages in God’s word? Here’s a suggestion... Could it be, partly at least, in order to keep us humble? To teach us that there are times when it’s perfectly all right to say, “Sorry, I just don’t know”?
Oh, that leads to a further thought... If you ever hear someone preach on these tricky passages with total confidence and certainty about their interpretation, I suggest you take pretty much everything they say on any Bible passage with a lorry-load of salt. Do they really know better than some of the wisest and most godly people over two thousand years of Christian history?
One day all things will be clear. But it may not be in this earthly life...
Lord Jesus, thank you for the victory you won on the cross over sin and death. Please give me a holy hatred of every form of sin in my life, so that I can rejoice in your forgiveness while never taking it for granted. Amen.