This week, a brother in Christ asked me this question. So, I thought I would pass on my brief answer. First John 5:16 is a difficult verse. However, before explaining its meaning, 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 being the ultimate form of God’s discipline of a believer. 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 instructs 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 them to repent of their particular sins, so they might once again experience the vibrant life of fellowship.
However, as much as we would like, this will not always be the end result. God’s commitment to His children includes discipline, which is sometimes severe (Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:1-11). It seems possible that even a Christian can become hardened in sin to the point that he will not respond to divine chastening, and God’s ultimate discipline on such a believer is to take him home to heaven in order to protect the testimony of Christ, and limit destructive consequences in the lives of those whom he influences. 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 to death, ultimately, for the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). In other words, biblically speaking, all sin is mortal. However, not all deaths are the result of a specific state of sin. Yet there are examples of God taking the lives of 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 man’s favor and praise. The result was that God immediately struck Ananias dead. Three hours later, the same fate fell upon his wife. God used such severe treatment to bring “great fear” upon the whole church (v. 11).
- 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. 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 (Corinth) was keeping the local hospitals and funeral homes in business because so many were abusing the Christ-centered celebration of communion by turning it into a self-centered, gluttonous feast filled with contention. As a result, many were sick and others died.
These examples reveal that, even though God is exceedingly long-suffering, there are times His patience runs out with some believers. 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 the Holy Spirit keep all of us sensitive to His conviction, and repentant in our own spirit!