Meditations in 1 John : 64 : Different Sins
1 John 5:16-17 If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him 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 he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
There are two primary issues that arise in these verses: that of sin, and that of being accountable for one another. Let’s start by considering the issue of sin. The general principle was stated by Solomon: “He who sows wickedness reaps trouble,” (Prov 22:8) and was reiterated by the apostle Paul: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life,” (Gal 6:7,8) who also stated, “For the wages of sin is death,” (Rom 6:23)
In our spiritual blindness, caused by the very fact of Sin in us, we so often think we can ‘get away with it’. In fact that was the very lie that Satan put before Eve that led to Sin entering the human race: “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman.” (Gen 3:4). Yes, Eve, you will, and now we all will. The truth is that sin always has consequences.
But is every sin the same? The Scriptural answer seems to be, no. For instance we find Jesus saying, “Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments,” (Mt 5:19) and later he chided the Pharisees, “you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness,” (Mt 23;23) indicating variety of significance of both commandments and therefore, by implication, of breaking them. There are differences in sins by the effect they have. Suppose on one occasion I steal a pen from a colleague at work – that is sin. But suppose I commit adultery with his wife. The ongoing implications are different for the two things, although they are both sin.
Now there is a sense whereby all Sin leads to death as Paul noted in Rom 6:23, which is why we need the work of Christ on the Cross, but when it comes to individual sins, as we’ve just noted, their effects may be different. Indeed John speaks of “a sin that does not lead to death” but he also says, “There is a sin that leads to death.” One part of the church speaks of ‘venial’ and ‘mortal’ sins, sins that can be forgiven and sins that cannot be forgiven, but Scripture seems to indicate that physical death is not necessarily synonymous with loss of salvation. For example, Paul writing to the Corinthians said, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.” (1 Cor 11:28-32) In other words, people were dying because of their wrong attitudes, but that did not seem to imply that they lost their salvation, in fact to the contrary they seemed to be taken prematurely to heaven to ensure their salvation and to prevent them slipping further into sin (and also as an example to the rest of the church, and prevent this sin spreading).
It is more probable that the only distinction between sins is, therefore, that in relation to spiritual death. Some sins don’t lead to spiritual death – and are simply dealt with by God’s discipline – while there is a sin that ensures ongoing spiritual death, and that, of course, is the ongoing denial of God and of His Son, Jesus Christ. The person who does that is lost and spiritual death is the outcome and involves the loss of eternal life. This ‘death’ involves eternal separation from God which is far worse than the mere passing from this existence into the next, which is what we normally think about when we speak of death.
The second issue raises by these verses is that of us being accountable to one another. John’s opening statement was, “If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life.” This lays a duty on each member of the body of Christ, the Church, to be there for one another, and at the very least to pray for one another when we see another falling into sin. Paul taught something similar: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens.” (Gal 6:1,2) God wants us to be there for one another, seeking to restore one another when we see a brother or sister going off the rails. Of course, John added, “There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that.” If we are right in our earlier assessment, if a person is set in their rebellion against God, we shouldn’t pray for that to be forgiven for it can only be so when that person truly repents and comes to Christ. There our praying will be different; it will be for them to be helped to turn to Christ from their unbelief.
He concludes these verses with a simple definition: “All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.” All wrongdoing is sin. It is that simple, but in that, as we’ve noted already there are some things that are still sin but they do not lead to death. Now I once remember hearing of a farmer who watched one of his cows trying to get its neck further and further under an electric fence to reach more and more grass without getting a shock. Does this teaching of these verses say we can sin and get away with it? That’s not the point. Stay away from all sin whether it is eternal consequences or simply spoils your walk today with God and with other people. Don’t differentiate: all wrongdoing is sin and so stay away from all wrongdoing!