by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
"If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death" (I John 5:16-17)
In this passage, John divides all sins into two categories: sins that lead to death and sins that do not lead to death. John tells us we should pray for those whose sins do not lead to death. However, for those whose sins lead to death, we are not to pray on their behalf. If we are to understand who we are and are not to pray for, we need to be able to distinguish between the two groups of sins.
Let us start by determining what kind of death is John talking about. In the Scriptures, there are two kinds of death: the physical and the spiritual. Sins that lead to physical death would be things like suicide, drug use, and drunk driving. If we assume that John is talking about sins that lead to physical death, we find ourselves having difficulty explaining the actions of some men in the Bible. For example, both Jesus and Stephen prayed to God to forgive those who were killing them because the people did not understand what they were doing (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60). If John was talking about physical death, then Jesus and Stephen would have been praying for people who were committing sins leading to death. This does not ring true.
However, in Romans 6:20-23 Paul tells us that the wages of sin is death. The death is contrasted to the gift of God, which is eternal life. From this, we conclude that Paul is talking about spiritual death. It seems that John too is speaking of spiritual death. However, at first glance, it would seem from Paul's statement that all sins lead to death. The answer is yes and no. Not every sin committed ultimately leads to death. When we sin and then repent (turn away from those sins), we will no longer be heading towards death (Galatians 6:1). Similarly, when we see ourselves in sin and are willing to acknowledge our wrong-doing before God, then we will no longer be heading towards death (I John 1:8-2:2). If we recognize our faults and pray to God for forgiveness, He will remove our sin (James 5:15-16; Hebrews 8:10-12).
Well, if we can be forgiven of our sins, then what possible sin is there that leads to death? Actually, the Bible is filled with many examples. A person who willfully sins - in other words, a person who consciously chooses to sin, does not care about the consequences, and so refuses to repent - is impossible to bring back to God (Hebrews 10:26-31). Such an attitude is called blasphemy (Numbers 15:30-31). Notice that not only is the person cut off from God's people, but his guilt remains with him. Korah's rebellion against Moses is an example of this type of attitude (Numbers 16:1-35). Korah and his followers died because they chose to break God's Law and would not turn from it, even though they were warned.
Another passage in Hebrews also speaks to this point. When someone is taught God's Word and then turns their back on their only source of salvation, there is nothing left to bring them back to God (Hebrews 6:4-6). Peter, when discussing this same point, says leaving is worse than never finding the truth (II Peter 2:20-22). The reason is simple, if you have never learned, there is a hope of teaching you about the truth, but if you have already learned the truth and have rejected it, what more can anyone do?
Remember the definition of blasphemy in Numbers 15:30-31? It is the willful rejection of God after a person has learned better. Jesus told his audience that they could reject him and his teachings, but if they blasphemed the Holy Spirit - rejected the Spirit's teaching - it would not be forgiven (Luke 12:10; Matthew 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30). It was the work of the Holy Spirit to confirm the teaching of God's word (Mark 16:20; Hebrews 2:3-4). If a man rejects the proof offered, how can the Bible be proven? The Holy Spirit also delivered the word of God using the apostles as the vehicle to write down the words he delivered (John 14:25-26; 16:12-14; I Corinthians 2:12-13). If a man rejects the work of the Holy Spirit - the Bible - and rejects the proof that His work is true - the miracles done - then what hope is there for that man to be saved?
It is not that God wants to punish a person. God desires that everyone would be saved (II Peter 3:9). However, there comes a time to acknowledge that many people will reject God's gift of salvation and without that gift, there is no hope.
While there is still hope, we are to intercede on the behalf of sinners before God. We should pray for the forgiveness of brethren who have sinned (James 5:15). It is something God has always required. Job had to pray for his friends before God would forgive them of their bad advice (Job 42:7-9). Abraham had to intercede for Abimelech (Genesis 20:7). Moses prevented the destruction of the nation of Israel by praying on their behalf (Psalm 106:23). Hezekiah prayed for those who did not worship God properly (II Chronicles 30:18-20). Amos interceded on Israel's behalf (Amos 7:1-3). Later, God desired for someone to intercede on Israel's behalf, but no one could be found (Ezekiel 22:29-30). Sin was so widespread, there was no one left who desired to serve God in this manner.
However, sometimes a person's sins are so firmly entrenched that God will not listen to prayers on behalf of that person. In the last days of Judah, God told Jeremiah repeatedly not to pray for the nation because He would not listen to their pleas (Jeremiah 7:16; 11:14). There was only one option left for the nation and that was death (Jeremiah 15:1-2). All the prayers of intercession would not change the sentence God had made.
What made the Israelites different from the people in earlier times? These people remained stubbornly in their sins, despite the repeated warnings from God. They refused to turn back to God, even in their distress. They had given up on God and so there was no hope for them.
Because you are reading this, searching for answers to better serve God, I know there is still hope for you. God's offer of salvation remains open for all who will accept it. However, you cannot delay forever. We would love to have you join us, not as you are, but as a full brother in Christ. Will you not consider God's offer this day?