Question of the Week: What is the Sin leading unto Death?
The sin leading unto death is a topic that gets so much attention from Christian circles due to how little it is actually talked about. Very sincere people who are aware of their struggle with sin are drawn to this issue concerned about whether or not they are/have committed it. The good news for them is also the greatest source of frustration for those who want to know more about this topic. The sin leading unto death is only addressed once in scripture by the Apostle John, and does so as an exception to the point he was making, rather than the point itself.
Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him. If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death.
1 John 5:14-17 (NKJV)
The Apostle John begins the conversation that includes the sin leading unto death with the topic of intercessory prayer. To pray on behalf of someone else who is sinning is a topic that isn’t exclusive to John. Therefore, we would so well to note the common theme throughout the New Testament so we don’t miss the point they were all making. That is, it’s a demonstration of Godliness to pray for a struggling brother’s restoration from sin.
Brethren, if anyone among you wanders from the truth, and someone turns him back, let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save a soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.
James 5:19-20 (NKJV)
Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.
Galatians 6:1 (NKJV)
Moving on to his point about the sin that actually leads to death, it isn’t explained in any other terms apart from the exception to what should normally be the rule. If we were to look for examples of sin leading unto death in scripture, it would only be the case if we take the term “Sin leading unto death” as literally as possible. Ananias and Sapphira, Herod Antipas, and those in the Corinthian church who took communion dishonorably are examples of people who committed this sin. The only problem with these examples is that in one way or another, they fail the criteria John sets up when this topic was introduced in the first place.
1 John 5:14-17 addresses the topic of intercessory prayer on behalf of a sinning brother, and that the only exception to this would be if the sin they committed was one leading to death. Do the following examples fit that criteria?
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? While it remained, was it not your own? And after it was sold, was it not in your own control? Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” Then Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and breathed his last. So great fear came upon all those who heard these things. And the young men arose and wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him.
Acts 5:1-6 (NKJV)
In this scenario, Ananias and Sapphira were lying to the church about how much they had given to support those who had just become a part of it. After being directly questioned about the matter and given a chance to tell the truth, they are struck dead due to the level of accountability they were held to. Did Peter intercede for them in prayer? No. Was it because their sin was leading to their deaths? Perhaps but it is uncertain he was aware of this until after they continued to lie. A good parallel passage to this in the Old Testament is the incident with Achan in the book of Joshua. Were Ananias and Sapphira brothers and sisters in the church? Most believe yes. Given the questionable nature about the second and third factor, we can’t be dogmatic about whether or not this is what was meant by the sin leading unto death.
So on a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat on his throne and gave an oration to them. And the people kept shouting, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” Then immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God. And he was eaten by worms and died.
Acts 12:21-23 (NKJV)
In this passage, Herod Agrippa I is judged by God following a lengthy period of persecution of the church that culminated with him starving the people of Tyre and Sidon by cutting off their trade. Being island dwellers and human beings in need of food, begin to worship him as a god in order to get him to stop the lockdowns on their economy. In response to this worship, he receives it as he speaks. In response to this response, an angel strikes Herod dead. Did anyone intercede for Herod in prayer? No. Was it because his sin was leading to his death? Perhaps. Was Herod Agrippa I a brother in the church? Absolutely not. It would be awkward for a member of the church to take pride in his public execution of the Apostle James, and attempting to do the same to the Apostle Peter. He never claimed to be a believer in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And no historical source ever refers to him as a follower of the Jewish Messiah. Given that it fails to meet the context of John’s statement about the sin leading unto death, there’s no reason to associate this event with it.
Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.
1 Corinthians 11:27-30 (NKJV)
This scenario was one where members of the Corinthian church were taking communion disrespectfully. Surrounding passages clarify that the unworthy manner they were taking communion was for the sake of getting drunk on the wine rather than the intended remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice. For this reason, many people had gotten sick and even died. Paul doesn’t say this was coincidence either. He directly attributes that outcome to the actions they were committing regarding communion. Did anyone intercede for them in prayer? No. Was it because their sin was leading to their deaths? Not entirely. Some had gotten sick and hadn’t died yet. You could make the case that continuing in that sin would ultimately lead to their deaths, but that would be reading the topic into the text rather than directly taking it out of the passage. Were the people committing this sin brothers in the church? Yes. God wouldn’t hold them accountable to a standard they weren’t aware of or discipline them accordingly.
Given examples like Ananias, Sapphira, and the Corinthians, it would be appropriate to a degree to consider their actions a sin leading to death since their sin directly and plainly led to their deaths. However, this isn’t what John was focusing on when the matter was brought up. If 1 John 5:14-17 was talking about praying for restoration, then that is what we should take away from the passage. If our attention goes to a topic brought up in the passage that isn’t actually what’s being addressed, then we’re missing the point the passage is making.
A Reason For Hope is a ministry of Calvary Christian Fellowship of Tucson
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