Q&A: What is the sin that leads to death?

What is the sin that leads to death?

Question

What is the sin that leads to death in 1 John 5:16? Is it related to blasphemy of the Spirit in Matthew 12:22-32?

Answer

We receive a lot of questions regarding the sin that leads to death and blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Individuals are concerned and are wondering if they have committed such a sin. Actually, no genuine Christian can commit blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. They may blaspheme God the Father or God the Son, but only unbelievers can commit the sin that leads to death, which is blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

Let me assure you from the outset if you are burdened that you have committed this sin, just your unease is fairly convincing evidence that you have not. Why? The apostle Paul states that the unbeliever is hostile to God, doesn’t and can’t submit to God’s law, and can’t please God (Rom. 8:7-8). So, if your heart were so hardened as to commit such a sin in the first place, you wouldn’t and couldn’t be genuinely concerned about your eternal state now!

Let’s look at our text in 1 John 5:16:

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.

Christians are supposed to pray one for another. To do this they must be in community actively sharing with one another and praying for one another. There has to be openness and honesty about sin (Jas. 5:14-16). All wrongdoing is sin (1 John 5:17) and should be confessed (1 John 1:9; cf. Psa. 32:5), forsaken (Prov. 28:13), and put to death (Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5). Listening and prayerfully bearing one another’s burdens is an imperative (Gal. 6:1-5) to each Christian and to the church as a whole. In love, we are to earnestly help one another in this respect, though it can be difficult and messy. Unfortunately, this godly principle gets overlooked or ignored even though it is part of sanctification.

But why is John saying we are not to pray for the sin that leads to death? First off, notice he is not forbidding this. It's more a matter of being cautioned that it may be a waste of our precious time.

This sin that leads to death is a difficult and debated topic. I’ve personally studied it for years and don’t consider my investigation and comments complete. I offer below what I believe it is, but the ultimate teacher on this issue, as with every other, is the Holy Spirit.

Let’s first state what it is not. Roman Catholics have historically distinguished between mortal and venial sins. In this philosophical mindset, mortal sins are essentially what are considered very serious sins (murder, adultery, rape, incest, perjury, homosexuality, etc.), while venial sins are considered less serious. So, for Catholics, the sin that leads to death is a mortal sin. The Bible does not use the categories of mortal and venial sins. Simply put, all sin is serious and warrants eternal death (Rom. 3:23; Jas. 2:10). David literally committed adultery (2 Sam. 11:3-4) and set up a murder (2 Sam. 11:15), and yet he was forgiven (2 Sam. 12:1-15) and recognized as a man of faith (Heb. 11:32-34). Before becoming a follower of Christ, Saul/Paul actively participated in the murder and persecution of Christians (Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2). Yet he was converted (Acts 9:3-7), immediately preached the gospel (Acts 9:20-22), and in time became an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1, et. al.). How then are the sins of David and Paul mortal sins that lead to death? I believe the Catholic view is in error.

Although some would disagree, most believe the sin which leads to death is probably related to the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. [1] Let's look now at what Jesus says in Matthew 12:22-32 and the mention of the unforgivable sin of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit:

Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

The text tells us the Pharisees actually attributed the works of the Spirit through the Son of God to Satan himself. Does this mean blasphemy is just uttering blasphemous thoughts against the Holy Spirit or Jesus? What constitutes the warning "will not be forgiven?" Is it merely attributing the works of the Holy Spirit to Satan, or even the works of the Spirit through Jesus to Satan? Must this all involve demons? Can only those in leadership commit such a sin? There are many unanswered questions here.

What we do know is that it doesn’t include all blasphemy. The limitation is revealed by the fact that even Peter, who denied even knowing the Lord on the evening of his arrest (Luke 22:54-62), was later forgiven by the resurrected Christ himself (John 21:15-19). Paul wrote that he was once a blasphemer and was forgiven (1 Tim. 1:13). And in 1 Timothy 1:20, there was hope that Hymenaeus and Alexander could learn by Christian discipline not to blaspheme. So, some types of blasphemy are forgivable. But how to exactly distinguish these from what Jesus specifically spoke of is not entirely clear.

As evidenced by Paul’s life, the sin which leads to death is not simply some hardened opposition to God and his gospel. And it is not simply sinning after one becomes a genuine Christian, as this is forgivable as well (1 John 1:8-10). While all the foregoing sins are indeed terrible and in and of themselves damnable, none of them specifically describes the sin which leads to death.

In Matthew 12:22-32 above, Jesus said, "either in this age or in the age to come." Well then, what is this sin which leads to eternal death? [2] I believe John has already told us or at least given us some substantial hints. Let’s read what he states:

1 John 2:22-23 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.

1 John 4:2-3 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

2 John 1:7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.

These verses include two particulars: (1) denial that Jesus is the Christ who has come in the flesh and (2) the antichrist.

From the overall context of 1 John, it appears that the sin that leads to death applies to someone who is once a member of a church but then denies that Jesus has come in the flesh and is the Son of the living God. [3] This is the spirit of antichrist, which also seems to be the same spirit operating in Matthew 12:22-32 concerning blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Notice the Pharisee denial that Jesus is the “Son of David” (Matt. 12:23, 24) — that is, the Messiah who came in the flesh (John 1:14; Gal. 4:4; Phil. 2:7; Heb. 2:14; 2 Pet. 1:16; 1 John 1:1; cf. 2 Sam. 7:12-13; Matt. 1:1; 9:27; 15:22; 20:30; 21:5, 9). Jesus was confirmed as being God by the Holy Spirit through miracles (Mark 2:10-12; John 3:2; 5:6; 10:37-38; 14:10-11; 20:30-31; Acts 2:22-24; cf. John 1:47-51; 2:11, 23; 4:48; 6:14; 9:16, 25-33; 11:4, 15, 40-48; 12:9-11; Luke 7:16; Acts 1:3; 2 Peter 1:16-21). But in Matthew 12:22-32, the Pharisees denied that Jesus is the Christ and had come in the flesh and were therefore acting in accordance with the spirit of the antichrist.

The unbelievers in 1 John 2:16 are apostates. [4] By the word apostate, I’m not speaking of someone who was at one time genuinely saved and later was genuinely lost. This is not a possibility because the true believer “has” eternal life (John 6:47; cf. John 5:24; 6:27, 40; 1 John 5:12). Eternal life for the believer is present tense. It is now. Eternal life is forever and, by definition, it can never end! We're talking here about persons who at one time merely confessed Christ, but Christ never possessed them (cf. John 14:20). Jesus was never Lord of their hearts (John 20:28; Acts 2:36; 10:36; cf. Luke 6:46; 1 John 2:5). Their mouths were saying one thing, but their hearts were always believing something else (cf. Matt. 7:21-23; 12:34). These same people “went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). [5]

In the greater context, John has been writing so that the church may know that they have eternal life (1 John 5:13); “Whoever has the Son has life …” (1 John 5:12). Those who don’t and can’t (cf. Rom. 8:7-8) genuinely acknowledge from their heart (Rom. 10:9-10) that Jesus has come in the flesh don’t have life (Rom. 8:9-11). So, those who reject the testimony the Holy Spirit brings that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and is the only savior of sinners are part and parcel of the sin that leads to death.

But there is more. It’s not simply a lack of faith, as even Christians have this from time to time (i.e. David, Peter, Thomas). It is the continuous rejection (Heb. 6:4) by one who once before claimed to believe in Christ, who appeared to follow him (Heb. 6:5), and who was regarded by the church as one of her members (Heb. 5:11-14). It is these that fall away from Jesus Christ that crucify once again the Son of God afresh (Heb. 6:6) and insult the Spirit of grace (Heb. 10:26-31). So, in 1 John 5:16, the text is speaking of apostasy. And we know genuine Christians can’t apostatize; as they will not persist in such unrepentant sin (1 John 5:18).

The spirit of the antichrist desires that God not receive glory for the resurrection of his only begotten Son from literal death (Matt. 27:63, 64). Paul clearly shows this was the assault of that time in history upon the church and it continues to be the assault even today (1 Cor. 15:3-11, 14). But true believers will confess Christ (1 John 3:23, 24; 4:2, 15; 5:1, 5); “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).

Footnote

[1] Robert Yarbrough suggests a variation of this view saying, “. . . the sin unto death will amount to specific manifestations of unregenerate conduct for which ‘blasphemy against the spirit’ serves as an umbrella rubric.” Robert Yarbrough, 1-3 John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), p. 308.

[2] Based on certain texts (Num. 15:30-31; 18:22; Psa. 19:13; Acts 5:1-10; 1 Cor. 11), some suggest that John is speaking of physical death and not eternal death. However, this is not consistent with the remainder of the book of 1 John which focuses upon the central theme that we “may know that we have eternal life” (1 John 5:13; cf. 1 John 1:2; 2:25; 5:11, 20).

[3] John Murray maintains that only the one who commits a sin unto death is not a believer (cf. John 9:41; 15:22; 1 John 4:2-3; 5:1). He asserts that the nature of the sin unto death is "the denial of Jesus as come in the flesh." He states:

In 1 John 4:2, 3 the apostle propounds the test of Christian faith. It is the confession that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. John's antithetic incisiveness appears here again. "Every spirit that confesseth Jesus Christ come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that confesseth not Jesus is not of God." The force of verse 3 is that every one that does not confess Jesus, in the identity defined in verse 2, does not confess Jesus at all. We must infer that the sin a regenerate person does not commit is the denial of Jesus as come in the flesh or indeed the failure to confess Jesus Christ as come in the flesh. Speaking positively, everyone begotten of God believes and confesses that Jesus as come in the flesh is the Christ (cf. 1 Jn 5:1). This is the faith that overcomes the world, and this victory is the mark of every regenerate person (cf. 1 Jn 5:4). The upshot of these propositions is simply that the believer confesses Jesus as come in the flesh, believes that this Jesus is the Christ and that he is the Son of God, and cannot apostatize from this faith. The believer is the one who has secured the victory over the world, is immune to the dominion of the evil one, and is no longer characterized by that which is of the world, "the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life" (1 Jn 2:16). It is, therefore, in these terms that we are to interpret the sin that the person begotten of God does not commit and cannot commit. (John Murray, "Definitive Sanctification," [https://thirdmill.org/magazine/article.asp/link/joh_murray^Murray.Definitive.Sanctification.html/at/Definitive Sanctification]. Last Accessed 19 Oct. 2020).

[4] An apostate is someone who has totally abandoned or rejected their religion. There are different senses in which the term is commonly used. Some say it is conversion and then deconversion; once I was saved and now I’m lost. However, another definition is the falling away from a once professed but not possessed faith. This later definition is accurate and the one I and numerous others maintain.

[5] In 1 John 2:19, the imperfect tense is used twice indicating that those who depart were not real Christians in the past.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).