After reading 1 John 5:16, “There is a sin leading to death; I do not say that he should make request for this,” it is logical to ask, “What is the sin leading to death?” To understand this difficult verse we must first read the full context.
14 And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. 16 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. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death (1 John 5:14-17, NAS).
It seems best to me that we understand the sin leading to death as the believer’s habitual resistance to the Heavenly Father’s chastening, which results in His choice of death as the ultimate form of discipline. Let me explain.
The immediate context contains instruction concerning how to pray for fellow Christians. After reassuring believers of the confidence we possess when praying according to the will of God, John tells us to pray for fellow believers when we are aware they are committing sin (v. 16a). We should, as John says, pray “God will…give life” to those committing sin, rather than death. In other words, we should pray the Lord will convict and lead sinning believers to repent of their sin so they might once again experience the vibrant life of fellowship with God, which is the main theme of the epistle.
However, as much as we would like restoration to fellowship with God and His people to always be the immediate result of our prayers, it is not reality. God’s commitment to love His children includes the necessity of discipline, which is sometimes severe (Prov 3:11-12; Heb 12:1-11). It is possible that even a Christian can become hardened in his sin to the point he will not respond to divine chastening and God’s ultimate discipline on such a believer is to take him home to heaven prematurely. This protects the testimony of Christ and limits the destructive consequences of his sin in the lives of those upon whom he has influence. This is God’s choice and we should refrain from praying for it since only God knows the extent of one’s hardness of heart; only God knows when a person has reached that point of no return.
All sin leads ultimately to death: for the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). Biblically speaking, all sin produces mortality. However, not all individual deaths are the result of a specific state of sin. Still there are biblical examples of God taking the lives of professing believers because He would no longer tolerate their sin. Here are three examples.
Believers who practiced deception (Acts 5:1-11) - Ananias and Sapphira were guilty of lying to the Holy Spirit when they donated a portion of the selling price of their real estate while claiming to have given it all. They were not obligated to give all, but chose to deceive the apostles in an attempt to gain favor in the sight of men. The result was that God immediately struck Ananias dead. Three hours later the same fate fell upon his wife. God used such severe treatment—His own execution of church discipline—to bring “great fear” upon the whole church. Thus, the believers as a whole grew in the fear of God, which includes hatred for sin (Prov 8:13).
Believers whose behavior warranted church discipline (1 Corinthians 5:1-5) - The church in Corinth included a man who was guilty of incest. Instead of removing the man from the church, the congregation boasted of its love and tolerance, which were actually manifestations of arrogance. The apostle’s response was to turn this unrepentant man over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh.
Believers who abused the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:27-30) - The same church was keeping the local hospital and funeral homes busy since so many were abusing the Christ-centered celebration of communion by turning it into a self-loving, gluttonous feast. As a result many were sick and others died.
These examples reveal that, even though God is incredibly longsuffering toward us as His redeemed children, there are times His patience runs out with some. When this occurs, death is the final act of His chastening hand. This seems to be the best understanding of the sin leading to death. May we all guard our hearts, and may the Holy Spirit keep us sensitive to sin and repentant, both of which flow from a broken spirit and contrite heart before our holy God (Ps 51:17)!
Related Reading: 10 Questions to Ask Before Confronting a Brother or Sister in Christ