“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” (I John 5:16-17).
A Definition of Sin
There are multiple words in the scripture that are used to communicate the idea of sin. These words include sin, lawlessness, transgression, and iniquity.
Sin is disobedience to God. We sin by disobeying God’s written word, or the conviction he gives us regarding our behavior or his will for our lives, or by violating our conscience.
Lawlessness is transgression of God’s law, either by omitting to do what God’s law requires or by doing what it forbids.
“Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (I John 3:4).
The word, transgression, implies a boundary that someone crosses wrongly. The boundaries in the Bible include the Mosaic Law, God’s character, or standards of God’s calling or will.
God’s character is the ultimate standard we violate. All of God’s law is based upon his character which he passes on to us in the Adamic covenant in Genesis 1:26-28.
“God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
In that covenant God created man to be like him, to be his image. Sin, therefore, is also the violation of the image of God. We see this directly in God’s covenant renewal with Noah.
“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6). Here we see a direct tie-in between the image of God and sin.
So, sin is any feeling, thought, or action that violates God’s character, will, law, or standards. Some passages make it easy to define what a sin is. Exodus 20 is one such example. These are laws that forbid certain things. However, sin also violates standards. We see this in Genesis 1. Even though at that time there was no stated law forbidding murder, we may imply the sin of murder by someone acting contrary to multiplying by killing someone so they cannot multiply.
Types of Sin
In general, there are two types of sin typified in the Mosaic Law: Intentional sin and unintentional sin. God’s law dealt with these kinds of sins differently.
Unintentional sin is to commit a violation of God’s law or standards without forethought or malice. For instance, in a moment of frustration someone may curse. They didn’t plan on cursing; it just came out. Another example is someone who may cause harm to another by what they say, making a false accusation or damaging someone’s reputation with wrong information. There may be no malice involved, it may just be a mistake. But a sin has been committed, nonetheless.
Sacrifices according to the Mosaic Law were made to pay for unintentional sins.
“If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them…then he shall offer for the sin that he has committed a bull from the herd without blemish to the Lord for a sin offering” (Leviticus 4:2-3).
Intentional sins were different. There were very few sacrifices available for intentional sins. But we do see one in Leviticus 6:2.
“If anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the Lord by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery…And he shall bring to the priest as his compensation to the Lord a ram without blemish out of the flock, or its equivalent, for a guilt offering” (Leviticus 6:2,6).
Specifically, this provision only covers acts of robbery. It doesn’t cover, as an example, murder.
Of course, no sacrifice would be acceptable to God without repentance. This is why Moses referred to this offering as a guilt offering. The violator recognizes his guilt and repents. Part of his repentance according to verse 4 is restitution. But this doesn’t cover other sins. How would you restore something after a murder, or rape, or adultery? You can’t. This is why King David said after his affair with Bathsheba:
“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering…” (Psalm 51:16).
The exception is that the annual sacrifices of Passover and the Day of Atonement would cover national sin. Jesus is our Passover and Atonement. Thankfully, all sin, unintentional and intentional, is covered by the blood of Christ.
The Origin of Sin
The first sin: pride, committed by Satan.
“Your heart was proud because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor” (Ezekiel 28:17).
Satan was corrupted by his own beauty and decided that he wanted to be like God.
“You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High’” (Isaiah 14:13-14).
Human sin: Adam and Eve.
Ironically, Adam and Eve committed the same sin as Satan, just in a different way. Satan tempted Eve saying that if she ate of the forbidden fruit she would become like God.
“The serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’” (Genesis 3:4-5).
The scripture records that Eve was the first to sin. She was deceived by Satan and ate the forbidden fruit. But the scripture also says that sin was passed on to us through Adam, not through Eve.
“Because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man… one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (Romans 5:17,18).
This is because Eve sinned by being deceived. She thought she was doing someone acceptable. But scripture does not portray Adam this way. Adam was not deceived. His sin was committed in rebellion. And in fact, all of the sin that we commit is also in rebellion against God.
Human sin: Us.
The Bible teaches us that we have a sin nature. We have a natural proclivity to sin. It is in our nature (“You who were once slaves of sin” Romans 6:17). As such, the person who is without Christ naturally chooses to commit sin. If we want eternal life, then we must confess our sin to God and repent of it (turning around).
Ultimately, sin is about supplanting God. We want lordship of our own lives. We want lordship over others. Only Jesus Christ occupies this dual position of Lordship over himself and over others.
All sin is committed in relationships. Every sin that is mentioned in the Bible is either a sin directly against God or against other people.
The Effects of Sin
Because all sin is committed in relationship sin always violates and interrupts relationship. Sin separates persons. Sin separated man from God, and it also separates us from one another. Adultery is probably the best example of this. By violating the marriage covenant, a husband and wife are separated in relationship either permanently through divorce or unless forgiveness is granted and there is restoration.
God told Adam that on the day he ate the fruit he would die. To put it more bluntly, God essentially warned Adam that he would kill him for his sin. So, when Adam sinned, two things happened.
First, Adam and Eve died spiritually. This means that their relationship with God was damaged, and they became separated. By casting Adam and Eve out of the garden he was illustrating this change in their relationship. The garden was God’s sacred space where he was to enjoy relationship with man. Sin destroyed that uninterrupted blessing between God and man.
The second thing that happened was that God killed an animal instead of Adam and Eve so that the requirement of judgment would be met. The scripture says that God killed an animal to make clothes of skin for the first couple. This symbolized the coming Savior, who would be killed as final payment for our sin. But it also symbolized the covering of our sin by the blood of Christ. Just as Adam and Eve acquired skins to cover their shame, so too, we “Put on” Jesus, as the permanent covering of our sin.
“Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14).
“All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (NIV, Galatians 3:27).
The Necessity of Sin
This is not a subject that most Christians have really thought about. But it is an important one because it tells us something about God’s nature that we would not know otherwise.
Let’s make this very simple. In eternity past, before there was a creation, when only God existed in his triune form, there was something missing from God’s expressions of himself. Though the three members of the Trinity enjoyed unbroken fellowship and love between them, there were certain character attributes of God that were not only unexpressed, they could not be expressed without the existence of sin.
Mercy. Forgiveness. Grace. Wrath. Anger.
Since there was no sin among the Godhead there was no expression of forgiveness or mercy or wrath. In order for God to experience the expression of these attributes, God planned for sin to come into existence so that these things could be expressed, especially forgiveness.
Now, this does not mean that God is author of sin. The scripture denies this. But God did plan for sin’s existence by giving both angels and people the ability to choose rebellion so that all of his attributes could be expressed.
The Elimination of Sin
Finally, at some point in the future, sin among God’s people will be done away with permanently. People who go to hell will still experience sin and their sin will be eternally condemned, but God’s people will eventually have no more sin.
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Because death will be no more, and death is the result of sin, we can surmise that sin will be done away with.
“Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isaiah 65:17).
Answering the question: What is the sin that doesn’t lead to death?
This is a hard passage to understand because it appears that John does not define for us what the sin is that does not lead to death, and what is the sin that does lead to death. Doesn’t all sin bring about death? What could this mean? I think there are two hints in the context of this passage that if carefully examined, will give us the answer we seek: (1) the context of the chapter, and (2) that little word, “Brother.”
First, let’s deal with, “Brother.” John is not referring to any person regarding a sin that does not lead to death. First, all sin brings death in a general sense. But we are freed from eternal death by Jesus’ work on the cross. So, by using two phrases, “Brother,” and “Sin that does not lead to death” we see that John is referring to a Christian. He is not referring to an unbeliever whose sin brings death. If a Christian sins, since he has already been given forgiveness by Christ, then his sin will not lead to death. He does not lose his salvation (as we discussed last week). But he must still repent. That is why John encourages us to pray for that person.
Second, the whole context of I John 5 needs to be taken into account. Notice what John talks about. First, he defines a Christian by what they believe about Jesus (5:1-2). Then he says the Christian obeys Christ’s commands (5:3). Then he says Christians have overcome the world (5:4-5). Later he says that Christian has eternal life (5:11-13). Then look what happens.
In verse 14 and 15 he says, “This is the confidence we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.” So, we are Christians, we’ve overcome, and God answers our prayers. It is then that John tells us what to pray for, the thing that God will answer in verse 16, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life.” IE, he will be forgiven. How do we know he will be forgiven? First, because the person committed to Christ has already obtained general forgiveness of sin, as John touched upon earlier in this chapter. But then he goes a bit further in verse 18 and says, “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning.” The believer, the true believer, at some point, will repent because the Spirit will convict him through the prayers of the believer.
So, then, what is the “Sin that leads to death?”
Since all sin leads to a judgment of death, but the Christian is spared from that punishment, then this passage must refer to the thing that makes a person a Christian in the first place. But again, notice the context of the passage, the usage of the word, “Brother.” If someone claims Christ has his own, but then turns away from Christ, he commits a terrible sin that can only lead to his eternal death. This is similar to the passage in Hebrews 6 that we talked about last week. This is, essentially, a pretend brother. One who claims Christ and experiences the good things of God but isn’t truly commit to Jesus with his whole life. Once a person has crossed that threshold no amount of prayer will help him, as John hints at when he says, “There is sin that leads to death. I do not say one should pray for that” (v.16). The one who plays at being a Christian, or who is part of the covenant community, but hasn’t made a real commitment to Christ is in terrible danger if he abandons Christ after having received such great benefits.
By way of application, there are three things we should do when confronted with the temptation to sin.
Scripture tells us to resist temptation and that God provides the Christian with the power needed to do just that.
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (I Corinthians 10:13).
Just before going to his crucifixion, Jesus told his disciples to pray so they could avoid temptation.
“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38).
When we sin, we need to confess our sin to God. God promises to forgive confessed sin.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).
We’ve already seen that when we confess sin, God forgives us. When we confess we can experience God’s love and forgiveness. But if we do not confess, then our relationship with God is impeded.
The hardest part of forgiveness is to forgive others.
I was once falsely charged with a crime. The person who filed the complaint was hoping to have me put in prison. In fact, I could have faced as much as 10 years in prison if I had been found guilty. Things went all the way to the prosecutor who, thankfully, told me that it was obvious that I had not committed the crime and the whole thing would be dropped.
After it was over the people that I worked with urged me to file a suit against my opponent to see her punished for what she tried to do. However, I refused. It took me a while, but eventually I knew I had to forgive my opponent and wish her well. And I had to do it from my heart. From the very seat of my emotions. Jesus talked about this in Matthew 18:25.
“Forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:25).
True forgiveness always has an emotional component to it. Imagine Jesus on the cross, forgiving his killers. Do we think that Jesus only forgave his killers intellectually, or from his heart? He asked his Father to forgive them. In other words, to not hold this sin against him. Some say that Jesus was God, and therefore, he could do that. But we are only human and can’t. But they forget that Jesus was also human. And he was our example. We are to think the things he thinks, feel the things he feels, and do the things that he does.
The ultimate test of forgiveness is in whether nor not we are willing to forgive others from our heart. It may take time, but that is the direction that God wants us to go.
Someone you know may need to read this. Please share.