What is the Sin that Leads to Death?

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College Chapel

Louisville, Kentucky

February 14, 2019

Good morning. I am looking forward to being in chapel for several of these services during this term. I prayed and thought about what kind of theme would be appropriate, what kind of series, what kind of project. Such a series seems to serve both the preacher and the congregation focusing on something particular for a series of time. I’m calling this round one of a series called “Hard Questions.” Hard questions that arise in reading scripture. Hard questions from the Christian faith. The problem was, to be honest, that I have just a few preaching opportunities in chapel this term and there are more hard questions then can be fitted into a term. I think it’s very easy to come up with a round one round two round three round four and the way the Christian life is lived there will be successive rounds of hard questions. 

Evidently, God means for us to struggle with these questions. That’s why he made them hard. That’s why the church throughout the centuries has struggled with so many of these questions. What exactly is that? What does this verse mean? How do I understand this verse in comparison with that verse? Holding to an understanding of all Scripture is inspired by God, how do I understand this in its context? How do I unwind this? How do we untie this knot? And then when you look at church ministry, at least, as I was growing up in a very traditional church, a lot of these questions were implied, they were just never articulated. No one actually asked these questions. They hinted at them. They they came right up to the very edge of the question but they didn’t jump over the edge. 

The question I intend to address this morning is, “What is the sin that leads to death?” That question, of course, emerges from Scripture, from John’s first letter. 1 John chapter 5 – just for the sake of seeing the question let’s begin reading at verse 13-  “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward Him: that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us, and if we know that He hears us, and whatever we ask we know that we have the requests that we have asked of Him. 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. 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.” 

Well what do we know? We know that there is a sin that does not lead to death and we know there is a sin that leads to death. These are two clear propositional statements and it’s not as if we cannot understand the Greek nor any competent English translation. There is a sin that leads to death. There is a sin that does not lead to death. Well let’s just say we had better know what’s going on here! We better know what we’re talking about. We better know what John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is telling us here. We have to understand this in the context of all the Scripture we have to understand this. Given our knowledge of the gospel, we have to understand this with a biblical theology that is consistent, comprehensive, and whole. We have to understand this pastorally. That’s where the question most urgently arises. 

When I was growing up, this “sin that does lead to death” was simply known in Southern Baptist jargon as the “unpardonable sin,” and this is not just something unique to Baptists. Evangelicals asked the question, “What is this unpardonable sin what is this sin set apart from other sins that makes this the sin that leads to death?” Now I was troubled by this question. I found out later in ministry that this is a particularly excruciating question at two different points of the Christian life. It can be throughout the entirety of the Christian life, but it seems to come with intensity at two different periods of the Christian life. I can tell you it certainly frames a lot of the anxiety of Christian young people. Christian young people, especially teenagers and older children who come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, they are new Christians, they’re reading the Bible, and they come to understand this sin that leads to death in distinction with the sin that does not lead to death. They hear language of the unpardonable sin and their concern is, “I do not want to commit that sin! I don’t want to commit that sin, whatever that sin is, that is the sin that leads to death, such as the brothers and sisters will not even pray for me! I don’t want to do that!” 

But I also discovered as pastor, in a way that was unexpected to me, a young pastor in his early 20s, I discovered that this was a question that tormented many people at the other end of the age span. Afraid that they had committed the unpardonable sin. I had to go to the bedside of a man I did not know well, and in rural ministry, this is a this is not at all uncommon, where I was pastor of a small church in Trimble County, and every once in a while I would get a call that one of my church member’s cousin (which turned out to be an extremely elastic term) was in the hospital in Louisville. And so I think, in a lot of ways, they would have been glad to have had their pastor live in Trimble County. When I was a seminary student, I lived here, but here is where everyone was brought when it was a serious medical case. Yet they ended up in hospital in Louisville, and then everybody was somebody’s cousin. Well, I went to this elderly man’s bedside, and he was very glad to see me. He was very glad to see anyone; he was afraid that he was about to die and he was right. He wanted to talk to me about his salvation and that this man had been a Christian. I think if you looked at him you would just think it was the normal kind of say 90 year-old man that you would see sitting in a congregation. he was… he looked old, he had worked hard, it was all on his face, and his face was just incredibly troubled. So I asked him the questions that a preacher should ask, that any Christian should ask, in that situation. I wanted to find out where he stood in relation to Christ and the gospel. I was very reassured by the naturalness with which he answered the questions of how he’d come to know Christ and what he understood the gospel to be, and I just kind of tried my very best to affirm, as I could, the gospel and assurance in Christ, assurance in the gospel. I began to think that a lot of his anxiety was probably just a natural anxiety, even of a believer, troubled by the knowledge of impending death. But then, as I got ready to pray for him, he said, “Preacher, I got to tell you, I still don’t think I’m going to heaven.” I know that I didn’t know exactly what to say but, “Why?” He said, “I have committed the unpardonable sin.” Now, I didn’t think that he had, but I wanted to find out what he thought he had done that was the unpardonable sin. And he told me, and I simply looked at him. I said, “That’s a sin, but that’s not the unpardonable sin.” He said, “How do you know?” I tried to give him some scriptural reasoning. I didn’t have a paper prepared there, just reasoning from scripture. I said, “I don’t think at all that’s the unpardonable sin,” and then I said, “I think this is the unpardonable sin,” and I said “Where did you get the idea that that was the unpardonable sin?” He said, “Well, a preacher came through town when I was about 19 and said that that was the unpardonable sin.” 

Well here was a man seventy years later who had been tortured his entire life by the thought that he had committed the unpardonable sin, and yet he desired Christ and lived what, from everything I could hear and know, was a consistent Christian life. He was tortured by this. I’m glad we had that conversation. I’ve had people come to me after a loved one or a neighbor or someone has committed suicide. They say, “Well, you know, I’m just so sad, since they are in hell.” In a couple of cases, I said, “Why would you say that of someone who, by all appearances, had come to faith in Christ?” They say, “Well, that’s the unpardonable sin,” and I said, “Where did you hear that?” 

Some of this, as we shall see, comes from Roman Catholic tradition and speculation that still filters throughout the entire society and the idea of what the unpardonable sin is. Some have suggested that it’s a sexual sin. Some have suggested that it is murder. Specifically, some have suggested adultery. And others, I have found, cases in which people have said lying is the unpardonable sin. Suicide. Abortion. You know, the problem with coming up with the identity of the unpardonable sin as the specific breaking of a commandment is that it just doesn’t seem to fit the context to scripture. In the “Thou shalts” and the “Thou shalt nots,” in the context of the law, even as we read the Sermon on the Mount, it doesn’t seem that any of the sins that are enumerated there will fit the description of a sin that leads to death, in distinction to other sins. It just doesn’t make sense. A sin that would be beyond pardon. A sin that would be impossible to repent of.

 Before we go any further, let’s just be clear that the death here isn’t physical death, because all sin leads to physical death. Besides that is already decided for us in our federal headship and Adam. We don’t have to wait upon our own sin to die physically, for mortality to be God’s judgment on us. We sinned in Adam. That’s taken care of long before we can spell sin. So this is eternal death; that’s the only sense the passage makes. That raises the stakes entirely. We are talking about salvation, here. We’re talking about eternal destiny. We’re talking about everlasting life vs. the final death. There is a sin that leads to final death, but there are sins that do not lead to death. 

Well, here again I’ve got to go back to when I was a teenager, and I’ve gone back to this place many times. Just a few weeks ago, Mary and I physically were back in the place where we had spent her teenage years. We were back in South Florida, and you do what you do when you go back home. You go buy and your drive by your school and see how they messed it up. You look for the restaurants where you ate and they’re all gone and no one remembers them anymore. You can, but still you can see things that are meaningful. And you can go to places and remember where this happened. We can go right to the parking lot where I asked Mary to marry me, and wasn’t that romantic! The part that makes it much better is that it was staring right at the ocean with the moonlight on the water that makes it better. It’s still a parking lot, but it was a beautiful parking lot. We can go back to other places. 

I can go back to look at that school and and I can remember in high school. An awful lot of my life and later years goes back to theological questions and arguments that began when I was in especially the 10th, 11th, and 12th grades, because I was a part of a trio. This is the age of South Florida ridiculous liberal experimentation and education. Basically, we were set loose. There was a special program and some of us were chosen for it. We’re just kind of set loose to come up with our own curriculum, at least for a lot of the day, and do what we wanted to do. We actually did a lot of good things with it, but I was paired with a Jewish boy and a Catholic boy. A we’re not talking about a little bit Jewish in a little bit Catholic. We’re talking about Reform Judaism and we’re talking about pre-Tridentine Roman Catholicism. So this is like real Roman Catholicism, this is like Council-of-Trent-Catholicism in a 16 year old, and this is Reform Judaism in a 16 year old, and this is Southern Baptist 16 year old, and we are together every day, and we’re talking about things every day. I find out the reformed Jewish kid, who is the son of the rabbi, doesn’t believe in God, and neither did the rabbi. Eye-opening experience for the Southern Baptist kid who just assumed that rabbis believes in God. Meanwhile, on the other side, my classical Roman Catholic was sort of like having Benedict XVI for constant conversation. He had more answers than I had. Even when he didn’t have an answer, he came back the next day with the answer. He would come back with the Baltimore Catechism, which has since been replaced by a more modern catechism, but he had an answer to everything. It was the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and it was it was in enumerated paragraphs. I had Sunday School literature we threw away every quarter. I didn’t have anything like this. I had a Bible and a Sunday School quarterly. I did not have the Baltimore Catechism. He had the Baltimore Catechism; he was always ready with an answer; he had serious Christian, that is, Catholic parents; he had serious Catholic teachers; he went to a serious Catholic Church that thought all other churches were not seriously Catholic.

So we got into a discussion about these things. Somehow we got on the unpardonable sin. Now, my Jewish friend doesn’t believe in God, so sin becomes a non-theistic category of bad things which are incredibly elastic. But on the other hand my Roman Catholic friend, he had an entire set of theological categories I did not have. He said, “Oh, that’s quite simple!” He said, “Sin is not one thing; it’s divided into two different categories.” So I’m all ears. Well, I can see two categories right here in 1 John chapter 5: there is a sin that leads to death, and there is a sin that does not lead to death. He said, “Well, we have words for those: venial sin, that’s the lighter sins, less significant sins, the sins that do not lead to death; and mortal sins. Well, you can figure out mortal! Mortal is sin that leads to death.” I’m all ears because I want to know what’s on those lists. “I’m Baptist, I’m not Catholic, but if you’ve got a list, I want that list! Give me that list! Give me that list, now!” Then he said, “Well, there isn’t a list.” “Okay,” I said, “There are two categories of sins?” He said, “Yes, venial sin is lighter sin, which is a sin that’s less intentional and it has a lesser effect; it is sin of a less grave matter and it is sin without deliberate consent.” I’m thinking, Is this just the way you people talk? I said, “Well, what’s an example of that kind of sin?” and he said, “Well, my priest will say an example of that kind of sin is not mowing the lawn when you’re told to mow the lawn.” “Okay,” I said, “but that’s like disobedience.” He said, “Yes, but there can be circumstances that make it less intentional, where it’s not as deliberate, with less consent, and the consequences are less grave.” “Thank you. Okay, so give me a list of another one. What’s a mortal sin?” He said, “Murder.” I said, “Okay, I’m following you now. I’m following you now.” Even a cursory understanding of Scripture indicates that even as one sin is enough for us to suffer eternal condemnation and punishment and to face the wrath of God, we understand even in the Bible, sins are described in different ways with different effects and even from different intent. There are sins in the Old Testament that are referred to as abominations, which does set them apart from other sins. This is not to say that there is any sin that isn’t sin worthy of death. It is to say that there are some sins that, in their effect and in their distortion and corruption of creation, in their defiance of God, are more visibly horrible, and thus an abomination. Besides that, we know that even in the Bible, in earthly consequences, there are different consequences given for different kinds of sins. Even in the law! So, we can understand something like that. I can understand the difference. We would not put a kid who didn’t mow the lawn in jail and throw away the key. There’s no life sentence for not mowing the lawn, but for murder, well, yes, and even the punishment of death. Okay, so I get that. So I said, “Well, you said there wasn’t a list, but now you’ve given me a list.” He said, “Yeah, but it’s not a list because there could be deliberate intention with grave consequences for not mowing the lawn.” And I said, “Oh good grief, did you just put that one in the mortal list?” He said, “And there could be murder which is committed without deliberate consent.” There are three qualities necessary for a mortal sin, this again according the the official catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. I went and checked it in the current catechism to make sure this hadn’t changed. The three categories or conditions: 1) The object is a grave matter; 2) It is committed with full knowledge; and 3) It is deliberate in consent to the sin.

Well, I was beginning to catch on a little bit here, and so I said, “So in your distinction between mortal and venial sins, you don’t know what it is till you talk to the priest?” He said, “Bingo! That’s it! That’s it! You got to go to the priest and in the confessional, when you confess these sins, the priest will judge whether this was a venial or mortal sin.” I said, “Well, play this out a little bit.” He said, “Well, venial sins are sins that will not keep you out of heaven and will not put you in purgatory because they’re considered of less significance. But mortal sins, if unconfessed, if not taken care of with penance and absolution from a priest, means you will” -well, it turns out- “not go to hell, but spend an awful lot of time in purgatory.” But there is the risk of hell. There’s at least the risk of hell. It’s hypothetical for these sins that are mortal sins that have not been confessed and of which there’s been no absolution and no penance. This is where you understand that the Catholic Church lives in fuzzy. That’s why they have priests, because priests are there as the agents of telling you “what-this-really-means” and “what-you-then-have-to-do.” By the way, this is one of the reasons why we reject the Roman Catholic priesthood in its understanding of the sacrament of orders. It’s because we do not believe any human being is put in the position of being able to judge that way nor to be able to render any kind of forgiveness of sin by penance and then give absolution. We don’t believe any human priest can do that. We have a priest: Christ Jesus, our great High Priest. 

You can understand how this works. You can see the negotiation. I saw it constantly in the negotiation of the mind of my 16 year old friend, and sin in his life was a constant negotiation of figuring out how to do it in time to go to the confessional, in time to get absolution, in time to go to the mass, so that he was in a state of grace. This whole scheme of venial and mortal sin still is very much the official teaching in the Roman Catholic Church and there are people all around us who believe this. It is in our contemporary culture and kind of the oxygen. You know, you have little sins and then you have big sins. Even people who don’t want to think in any morally serious way, when confronted with something like a horrible crime, they understand, “Okay, I’m gonna consider that a grievous sin. That was a deliberate, grievous sin and a grave matter. But this other thing over here…” It is interesting to see how, in our society, personal sexual activity has now been rendered either sinless, or of no moral consequence, or just a venial sin. 

This entire structure, the Roman Catholic understanding of venial-versus-mortal sin, this was very much in place when the Reformation came in the 16th century. This was just a part of the theological air that they were breathing. And along come the Reformers, and along comes Luther- and this is great because Luther is so aware of his own sin- Luther’s problem is that the venial-versus-mortal sin category didn’t make sense to him when he was a friar, (he’s usually called a monk; he wasn’t really a monk, he was a friar, but that’s very monk-y, and… it does matter! You can call him a monk. It’s not a problem. So just say Luther the monk.) So, Luther the monk was tortured because when he thought about the definition of a venial-versus-mortal sin, and he looked at intent, and he considered the intent and consent (that is what define the mortal sin), well, that’s where Luther figured out that every single thing I do is of grave consequence! Every single sin I ever commit! How much is a little consent? How much is “not sufficient consent”? How much is real consent? Luther said, “I have consented to it all.” In Luther’s mind, all of his sin was mortal sin. Luther famously drove his confessor crazy, because he would say, “Okay, but what if I do not even do the sin but I imagine the sin?” and the von StuffIt “So, stop imagining the sin.” He said, “But I can’t stop imagining the sin! Trying to stop imagining the sin, I imagine the sin!” Well, you can see exactly how this works. It’s like Romans 7: “I don’t want to think about that. In order to make sure I don’t think about that, I make myself think about that, that I don’t think about that. And thinking not about that, I actually am thinking about that. I’m going to hell!” And that’s where Luther was. It wasn’t until Luther by the grace of God, driven by the Word of God, had begun to unfold the gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s when Luther came to understand not only all the “SOLAS”, but what we would simply celebrate as “Jesus paid it all. All to him I owe. Sin had left its crimson stain; he washed it white as snow.” But then along in the Reformation, he simply said, “That categorization between the venial and mortal sin is just wrong. It’s unbiblical. It is contrary to the gospel. It’s a part of papist imagination. Be done with it!” Calvin, in his own cooler way in Geneva, came along and dismissed that category distinction as “nonsense contrary to Scripture and to reason.” 

Well, okay, so that way of dealing with it is not going to work, so what are we going to do? You know, a part of the problem, by the way, in that Roman Catholic system was the subjectivity. Again, no list. We want to list! Not only that, if we look at the text, it says there is sin. It’s the sin. There is one sin. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, just one sin by word or by act, but there’s sin that leads to death. We need to know what it is. 

First of all, we just remind ourselves that all sin leads to death, and not just physical death, but eternal death. Ezekiel 18:20, “The soul that sins shall die,” not just physical death. Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” So there has to be something else here. We’ll see it in a moment. So what are the options? If you look at the history of Protestant evangelicals trying to wrestle with this question, there are several options. The first one, I’m going to mention but we’re not going to look at for long. The first suggestion is that this unpardonable sin, the sin that leads to death, is apostasy. Apostasy- someone who is a believer but commits apostasy denies the faith, declares herself himself no longer a believer; someone who was a Christian but is not now a Christian. But here’s a little commercial: a week from today, I’m going to preach on the hard question, “Can I lose my salvation?” The Bible does not allow for one who is a regenerate believer in the Lord Jesus Christ to be lost. It’s not just, as we shall see, what is often referred to as the security of the believers, the faithfulness of Christ; it’s the reality of regeneration. So, there are those who will argue that this sin that leads to death is apostasy. Many of them will claim that the context here in 1st John chapter 5 indicates that because of the use of the word, “brother” in verse 16, “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.” But here’s where we also need to know. It doesn’t say that the brother commits the sin that leads to death. The brother spoken of here is the one that commits the sin that does not lead to death. There are sophisticated, complicated questions here. I’ll try to deal more with those next week, but I have to mention, at least in this context, that apostasy, based upon Hebrews chapter six, which will be the key text to which we will turn next week, that they offer, that that’s the unpardonable sin. I’m just gonna suggest to you that, given the text of Scripture, given the context of this verse, given the assurance of the gospel that is demonstrated to us in Scripture, given the gospel itself and the promises of Christ, given a biblical theology that takes all of Scripture comprehensively, that can’t be the answer. If it is the answer, then you’re gonna have to have a different theological system and a different understanding of the gospel.

 Option number two is that this sin is some kind of unrepentant and unconfessed sin; some kind of besetting sin; a perpetual sin; sin that continues. Some of the Puritans and others suggested that this might be the meaning of this passage. Particular sins that we allow as friends. Sins that we take into our lives. Sins that are unconfessed. Sins of which there is no repentance. Again, there would be no list, because in any given individual believer’s life it could be a very different list. The problem with that is what does it mean that it’s the sin that leads to death. Here is where, if we’re not careful, we will have a Protestant version of a Catholic problem. I mentioned my Catholic friend, who timed his sin in order to fit the schedule so that he could, as quickly as possible, before he was likely to die, get to the confessional where he could be with the priest; he could receive the Sacrament of Penance. He could receive the declaration of absolution, he could then go to the Mass, and he could be in what he called and considered to be a “State of Grace.” He timed that very well, but you can understand if you are going to follow this why, if you’re gonna follow that very same scheme, approaching death you are in big trouble of sin that is not confessed. This is why, by the way, some people throughout the history of Christianity have delayed baptism until just before their death because they do not want any backlog of sins. Because the baptism, according to their sacramental theology, covers all of that sin, and so they just want baptism and then they’re gonna hope to die as quickly as possible after they’re in the state of grace so that they do not die outside of a state of grace. So even as you have the last rites, as they are often called, extreme unction, it’s like one final attempt to get a Catholic over the line, but there still is the terror of unconfessed sin. There are Protestants who sometimes have kind of the same logic. We understand that what it means to confess sin, to be forgiven sin, but what if we forget something? Or what if we commit sin, even a grievous sin, just before we die? Is this some kind of trick? Well, there certainly is in Scripture the warning that if there are patterns of repeated, cherished sins, then we better make sure we really are Christians. There are plenty of biblical warnings of that kind, but they don’t appear to meet this text. 

Option number three is that the unpardonable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and I believe this is the best answer to the question. What is the unpardonable sin? What is the sin that leads to death? It’s what Jesus said is the sin that leads to death. In order to understand this, look at Matthew 12:22. “Then a demon-possessed 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. If Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself. How, then, will his kingdom stand? 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 strongman? Then, indeed, he may plunders 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.” 

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This has often been defined as attributing, as you see here- that’s why the context was important- as those who accused Jesus, of casting out spirits by Beelzebul, denying the Holy Spirit, and attributing the Holy Spirit’s ministry to demons. That turns out to be a sin for which there is no possible pardon. It’s easy to remember the chapter. Look at Luke 12:8. “And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God. But the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God, and everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” It’s also found in Mark 3. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, in understanding this in a canonical shape, it also becomes very clear that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit would not be only attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to demons; it would be finally resisting the work of the Holy Spirit. Disrespecting and rejecting the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Spirit’s ministry of calling us to Christ. So one way you can understand this is that it is the final rejection of the gospel, the steadfast refusal to believe. 

Here again we have plenty of biblical evidence. We have Matthew 13 that follows Matthew 12, the parable of the sower and the soils, that will also become key to us next week. We have the example of Esau. Hebrews 12:16-17, the writer writes that “no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he saw it with tears.” He’d hardened his heart. The language of Scripture is clear in other places: God gave him over. His his heart was so hardened that he could not even find repentance. Repentance had become, for him, impossible. It is a horrifying biblical text. He wanted, in some sense, to repent, and sought it with tears, but his heart was so hard that he would not, could not, repent. Well there the writer of the book of Hebrews, “Don’t be like Esau.” I think, given the evidence we find in Jesus and the Gospels and the warning in 1st John chapter 5, this helps us to understand what is the sin that leads to death. But then, quickly, just look at the passage. 

Look at 1 John 5, and just put it in context, for a moment, of the entire letter, because the letter is actually all about our confidence in sin forgiven. We don’t have time to look at the prologue, but of course in verse 5, we read, “And this is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you: that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus, his son, cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins he is faithful and just,” faithful and  just, “to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I’m writing these things to you that you may not sin; but if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous.” Look at verse 12: “I am writing to you, little children because your sins are forgiven, for his name’s sake.” Look at chapter 2, just in the first two verses. Again, “I’m writing these things to you so that you do not sin.” But let’s go back, “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” That’s what drives the rest of this. Chapter 3 verses 4-10: “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning yet, or also practices lawlessness- sin is lawlessness- you know that he appeared to take away sins and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning. No one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.” Chapter 3, 19-24: “By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him. For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” Well, that’s a precious promise! Chapter 5, our text for the morning, most specifically, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” “We know,” “we know,” “we know;” The repeated pattern of John, here, in 1 John. 

But right here, he’s writing to those who know by the gospel that they have eternal life, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us, and if we know that he hears us, and whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have made of him.” What kind of requests will we make of him? Here it comes: “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.” Here, in the body of Christ and in the local church, Christian to Christian, when we see sin in each other’s lives, we are to pray for one another, knowing that Jesus saves. Knowing that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. And when we pray for our brothers and sisters in Christ, knowing that even as sin is a deadly, deadly thing that can only be remedied by the blood of Christ, we know that those who are his will be his, and their sins forgiven. They will never finally be separated from him. But there is a sin that leads to death. It’s a good warning. “There is a sin that leads to death. I do not say that one should pray for that.” And here, again, even Jesus in the high priestly prayer of John 17. Maybe there’s something like that when Jesus said, remember he’s praying not just for his disciples, he’s praying for all who are given to him by the Father before the foundation of the earth, “I pray for those you have given me.” “I pray for mine,” Jesus said in the high priestly prayer. “I do not pray for the world.” 

This doesn’t mean we don’t pray for people to come to Christ. It does mean we do not pray for those who are blasphemers of the Holy Spirit who have hardened their heart to escape the judgment that will surely come. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is a sin that does not lead to death. What is that sin? It’s the sin covered by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s the sin that paid for our salvation. It’s the assurance of pardon that comes through the saving grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, our great High Priest. The text continues. It doesn’t end where we ended. It continues through to the end of the letter. “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning.” This is good for us to know. “But he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.” Christ defeats Satan. “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies the power of the evil one. We know that the Son of God has come and given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in his son Jesus Christ. He is true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” So what is the sin that leads to death? I believe it is the final rejection of the gospel, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. We are to take every single sin with full seriousness, not trying to divide sin between lesser sins and greater sins and venial sins and mortal sins. Let that go. Turn only to Christ. Pray for your brothers and sisters. We pray for each other. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 

Let’s pray. Father, thank you for every word of Scripture. Thank you for giving us in your word all that we need to answer all of the questions we have. For all of our lives, may we continue to think, to reflect, to pray, and to struggle with these questions in order to live lives more holy, more faithful to you. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.