RPM, Volume 15, Number 22, May 26 to June 1, 2013

The Sin Unto Death

1 John 5:13-21 [and Hebrews 6, 10]
(Series on 1 John: No. 17--Last)

By Robert Rayburn

Text Comments:

v. 16: John assumes that the chief use to which a Christian will put his right and power in prayer is on behalf of one's brothers and sisters in Christ. 'God' or 'he' as Greek literally reads. As James 5:20: '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!

v. 18: 'the one born of God', i.e., Christ. The one born of God, keeps all who are born of God.

v. 21: As often in Scripture: our salvation is due to the Lord's keeping us; but his keeping does not mean that we do not have also to keep ourselves. 'Work out your salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who is in you both to will and to work...' 'Resist the Devil...' but also, 'He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.' Our working, our faith, our obedience, are the instrumentalities God's sovereign grace employs to see us safely to heaven. 'Kept by the power of God through faith...'

This magnificent little book, full as it is of the love of God for his people and theirs for one another, ends, in a surprising, almost startling way, with this mention of the sin unto death. True, John's main point is that we should love our brethren by praying for them and that by such praying we can do one another great good, indeed, be the instruments of God's saving grace in one another's lives.

But still, it troubles us and has troubled multitudes over the centuries to hear of this sin which places a person forever beyond the pale of grace and salvation, a sin which makes a person eternally dead even while he is still living in this world.

John not only says that there is such a sin, he assumes that those who have committed it can, at least some of the time, be identified. He tells us that we are not obliged to pray for people who have committed such a sin. Clearly, he could not say that unless we could, at least in some instances, know that a person had, in fact, committed the sin which leads to death. He does not forbid us to pray for them; that would be too hard a thing to ask, and, no doubt, it will not always be clear to us who has and has not committed this sin unto death. But he says clearly that there is no point in praying for someone who has so sinned, for such prayers will not be heard.

Now Christian folk through the ages have agonized over this text and others like it in the Bible. And many sensitive and spiritually minded believers, wide awake to the greatness of their own sin, have sometimes passed through almost indescribable despair thinking themselves to have committed this sin and, thereby, to have placed themselves forever beyond salvation.

In a heartrending section of John Bunyan's spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, he describes a time, early in his life as a Christian, when he thought he had committed the sin which leads to death. In a genuine agony of spirit which lasted for weeks on end, he searched Scripture trying to find some clear indication that his case was not hopeless. He compared his case with Peter, but felt that his sin was worse than Peter's; then with Judas, and found that, in his mind, he had done exactly what Judas had done, and so he thought his lot must be the same Judas had earned for himself. He took his problem to an older Christian, explained what blasphemy he had uttered in his heart against the Lord, how he had succumbed to a temptation to deny the Lord; and the foolish old Christian told him that he also thought that Bunyan had committed the sin which leads to death. Light eventually came, but through what a torment he had to pass, because Bunyan took so seriously, though mistakenly, the Word of God, as we have it before us this morning.

On the other hand, many preachers and Bible teachers today, including some commentators on the Letters of John whom I read this week, are so unwilling to face the plain implications of John's words, that the full seriousness of his teaching is missed by Christian folk today. And so many Christians today are drawing near to this unforgivable sin, because no one is warning them against it.

No one should have to be convinced of the importance of understanding what John is saying; of having a clear understanding of this sin that leads to death. If there is a sin which, once committed in this life, places us forever past hope of salvation, you and I ought to know what that sin is! And if it can be committed by folks we are rubbing shoulders with in our own church, then brotherly love requires that we take pains to keep not only ourselves, but our brethren and our children as far away from such a sin as we can.

It is not that difficult a matter to understand. The Scripture speaks plainly enough and often enough for us to have a clear picture of John's meaning when he speaks of the sin which leads to death.

It is called other things in Holy Scripture. Here John speaks of sins which do not lead to death and sins which do. Long before, in the Pentateuch of Moses, we read of unintentional sins which can be forgiven and of defiant sins or sins committed with a high hand for which there is no forgiveness. The Lord Jesus spoke of the sin against the Holy Spirit which would not be forgiven. The author of Hebrews in chapters 6 and 10 speaks of folk committing a sin of which they will never and can never repent and for which they will never receive forgiveness. In all of these places, the Scripture is speaking of the same thing, of the same sin, the sin which John calls the sin which leads to death.

I. So, then, let us begin to identify this sin, first, by indicating what it is not. This sin against the Holy Spirit, this unpardonable sin, this sin unto death, has often been confused with other kinds of sinning and that confusion has led to all manner of unnecessary worry and mischief. There are many sins, many kinds of sinning which are not the sin unto death.

First, the sin which leads to death is not some particularly vile and evil act or class of acts. The Roman Catholic Church, historically, has distinguished between mortal sins and venial sins, and by mortal sins meant the particularly grave and evil acts which are so horrible, so terrible an affront to the holiness of God as to be beyond forgiveness. Murder, homosexuality, and so on used to be thought of as such sins.

But it is easy to show that Scripture is not referring to any specific sinful acts when it speaks of the sin which leads to death. David committed naked adultery and the most brutal and despicable of murders and yet he was forgiven. Peter betrayed the Lord with curses. Paul, before he was a Christian, organized and actively participated in the murder of Christians, and yet he became an apostle of the Lord. The man in the Corinthian church, lived in an incestuous relationship after becoming a Christian, and yet, upon his repentance, was forgiven and restored.

What is more, some of the worst sins, in Scripture's view, are sins far more polite than murder or adultery. The Pharisees were moral people religiously zealous; they were not adulterers or murderers, yet it was to them that the Lord issued his warning about the sin against the Holy Spirit which would never be forgiven.

And James, you remember, tells us that any sin, however small, is theoretically enough to earn us eternal death.

So, first of all, the sin which leads to death, is not one of a number of particularly foul acts. Christ's righteousness and God's almighty grace can cover the greatest of our sinful acts, and must cover them all, smaller and greater, if we are to be saved.

Second, the sin which leads to death is not any blasphemy against Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit. Jesus speaks of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as being the unforgivable sin; but, one must understand what Jesus means by that phrase. He does not mean simply the thinking or the uttering of blasphemous thoughts against God or the Holy Spirit. This is what Bunyan had thought that he had done and by so doing had committed the sin unto death. But Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1:13 that he was once a blasphemer against God and later in the same chapter he speaks of two Christian men whom he has disciplined in order that they might learn not to blaspheme.

Whatever the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is, it is not simply the thinking or uttering of curses against God or any other intentional indignity committed against the honor of God.

Third, the sin which leads to death, is not simply hardened opposition to God and his gospel. Such was the sin of many priests in the days of Jesus' ministry, yet we learn in Acts that many of these priests later believed and followed the Lord. Such was certainly the case of the Apostle Paul before he received the forgiveness of his sins.

Nor, in the fourth place, is the sin which leads to death, falling away into sin against the light after one has become a Christian. David did this, so did Peter, so did many others we know something of in the NT and so have many others since, including brothers and sisters we know, and, still more, including each one of us to some degree.

None of these sins, terrible and damnable as each one of them is, is the sin which leads to death. Everyone is capable of forgiveness, every one is and will be forgiven if, in faith and repentance, one comes to Jesus Christ and pleads for forgiveness from God through him. Thanks be to God!

II. Well, then, what is this sin which leads to death, this unpardonable sin, this sin against the Holy Spirit?

Comparing this passage in John with the other passages bearing on this theme in Holy Scripture, we may conclude that this sin has the following properties or prerequisites.

It is a rejection of Jesus Christ and the way of salvation through him. John does not explicitly say this in the bare allusion he makes to this sin here; but even here this is clearly his implication. He has been speaking earlier in this chapter of salvation through Jesus Christ alone: he who has the Son has life, and he who does not have the Son of God, does not have life.

And he has spoken of the witness which the Holy Spirit bears to the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only source of salvation; all of this in vv. 6-12. Here, clearly, is the identification of John's sin which leads to death with the sin or blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Spirit testifies about Jesus, and though he is the Spirit of truth, his witness is represented as false, a lie, by the one who sins in this way. Calling the Holy Spirit a liar for what he has said is true about Jesus Christ--that is what John is speaking of in verse 10 of chapter 5, and that is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, or the sin which leads to death.

And it is still more clearly the case that this rejection of Jesus Christ is what is involved in this sin which leads to death, if we compare John with the two passages in Hebrews. In Hebrews 6:4-6 the author is discussing the case of those who 'fall away from Jesus Christ' and who, in so rejecting him, 'crucify him all over again and subject him to public disgrace.' And, again in Hebrews 10:26-31, the discussion is of those who trample the Son of God under foot, which is, we read there, the same thing as 'insulting the Spirit of grace'...that is the Spirit of God who has born witness to Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior.

The same idea is in the forefront in the gospels when Jesus warns the Pharisees of the sin against the Holy Spirit, precisely in the context of their rejecting him and the salvation he was bringing.

The first thing we can say about the sin which leads to death is that it is a rejection of the testimony the Holy Spirit brings that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the only Savior of sinners. But, we must say more than this, because, of course, many who are now Christians, at one time rejected that testimony.

Secondly, to be the sin which leads to death, this rejecting of Christ and the witness the Holy Spirit bears to him, must be the act of one who belongs to the church and the Christian community. This rejecting of Christ is not simple unbelief--as non-Christians are guilty of; it must be apostasy for it to be the sin which leads to death. It must be a rejecting of Christ by one who before claimed to believe in him, who appeared to follow him, and who was regarded by the church as one of her members.

I think, myself, that this is implied in the way in which John has written his 16th verse: 'if anyone sees his brother commit a sin which does not lead to death...' Is not the plain implication that it is also a brother or a sister who will commit the sin which leads to death. And, of course, John has already introduced us to this thought in 2:19, which we considered some months ago. The letter was called forth by the influence of some false teachers and these false teachers and those who followed them deserted the church when they could not sway the church to their heretical point of view.

Now, it is perfectly clear that John is not saying that such church members who desert Christ and his way of salvation were really Christians. He said in 2:19: 'they went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had really belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.' And here in 5:18 he takes care to make the same point. There are those who commit the sin which leads to death, but 'we know that anyone who has really been born of God--that is John's point--does not continue to sin; Christ will keep his true children, his sheep, his elect, safe, and the evil one will never be able to lead a single one of the Lord's own astray.

And in every other passage in which the sin which leads to death is discussed in Holy Scripture, the context is the life and the membership, at least the outward membership, of the church. You have to belong to the church of Jesus Christ to commit the sin which leads to death.

Then, in the third place, this rejection of Christ and what the Holy Spirit has said about him, by one who has belonged to Christ's church, must also be a repudiation of truth that one has clearly heard, known, felt the force of and, at least at one time, claimed to receive. This is the implication in John's remarks here. These people who rejected their former commitment to Christ, were flying in the face of what the Holy Spirit had made clear and plain to them all. In order to charge them, as John does, with calling God a liar, John must be able to say, and is able to say, that they knew full well what it was that God, the Holy Spirit, has said about Jesus Christ, who he is and what he has done.

And this point is made still more plainly in the passages in Hebrews which deal with this irrevocable apostasy, this never to be undone rejecting of Christ by erstwhile Christians. In Hebrews 6:4-5, those who commit this sin are those who have 'been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the coming age.' And again in Hebrews 10:26 and 29, these people are those who have 'received the knowledge of the truth' and have been, at least in an outward way, 'sanctified by the blood of Christ.'

And this was, long before, the nature of the sin with the high hand, or the defiant sin for which the OT law provided no sacrifice and no forgiveness. The difference between unintentional sins or unwitting sins and high handed sins was not, as some have taught, that the former were committed accidently and the others on purpose. Some have held that unintentional sins were only such sins as accidently touching a dead carcass in a field and, without meaning to, thereby contracting ceremonial defilement. Whereas defiant sins were sins done on purpose.

But that is clearly not so. If you read, say, Leviticus 5:14-6:6, which is all about 'unintentional sins', or any number of other passages in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, you will find that 'unintentional sins' are often perfectly conscious and intentional in character: lies, theft, and the like. They are sins of human frailty, 'any such sin as people may do' is the way the Lord puts it in Leviticus 6:3. They are the sins you and I commit every day, which we commit not because we intend to forsake the Lord and reject him as our Savior and our Lord, but because we are weak and we give in to the inclinations of our flesh and the temptations of the Devil.

But defiant sins, literally sins committed with a high hand, are different. They are not different in the act itself, necessarily. They may be the same act of disobedience to some commandment. But they differ in the spirit and the intention. Sins committed with a high hand are those sins committed by those who intend to throw off the Lord's yoke, who wish never again to be subject to the Lord's rule. Nor do they treasure his grace and love as the hope of their eternal life. They are through with God and their sins are indicative of this rejection of him and of his covenant with them.

And so you see, wherever the Scripture speaks of this sin which leads to death, which forever puts someone beyond the pale of salvation, it is speaking of the sin of someone who knows the truth, who has claimed at one time to accept that truth, who has felt the force of it in his own soul, who belongs to the company of the Lord's people, and who deliberately, wilfully, and avowedly rejects Christ and his covenant, all that he has known and claimed to believe, to go another way. That is the sin which leads to death, that is the sin from which no one who commits it will ever be recovered, that is the sin against the Holy Spirit for which there is no forgiveness and which places a person forever beyond the pale of salvation.

All through the ages of the church there have been those who have committed this sin; and having committed it, they have often become the most implacable foes of the church and the gospel. The infamous Bass Rock, that forsaken little island in the Firth of Forth, not too 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!

In our own day, James Barr, the British NT scholar, has probably written more pure vitriol against evangelical Christianity than anyone else with so weighty a reputation, and James Barr was, in his student days, an evangelical himself, active in the British version of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.

And I know and perhaps you also know some people who, in our day and before our eyes have committed this sin. I can see a former minister in our church before my mind's eye. And I can see in such as I know, how graceless they have become, how far they have travelled from what they once believed and felt, because the Lord has so utterly withdrawn from their lives. The Bible is here teaching us about something we can observe both in church history and in our own experience. And that ought to solemnize us to this truth. This sin is committed, even today, and with the same final and irrevocable and horrible consequences.

And what ought we to do in light of this? What would John have us to do. Why does he introduce this melancholy and dismal note into this otherwise so happy conclusion to his beautiful letter? I believe he is saying to us, that if we see a brother or a sister taking even one single step in the direction which leads to a defection from Christ we ought to take every step we know to take, from confrontation to earnest prayer on his or her behalf, to ensure, as God helps us, that no second step down that fatal way will be taken. If we see a brother or sister, who knows better, going away from the Lord and the life his people are to live, we are to hurl ourselves in the way and stop them.

And still more, if we sense ourselves ever walking away from the Lord, taking steps and making choices in defiance of our own enlightened consciences, continuing to follow a course, when the truth of the Holy Spirit within us is crying out: 'You are going in an evil way', before we have gone too far ever to get back, we must force ourselves to hear what the Lord so plainly teaches us in his word about those in his church who finally reject him:

This from Hebrews 10: 'How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled under foot the Son of God, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant which sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, 'it is mine to avenge, I will repay,' and again 'The Lord will judge his people." It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.'

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.

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