It’s a common myth that God will always bring us back to repentance. This myth is debunked in the first letter of John. While John writes that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9), he also tells us that sometimes God never gives us another chance to confess our sins and be forgiven.
In 1 John 5:16–17, the apostle gives us the other side of the sin-confession-forgiveness coin:
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.
Put simply, there are sins that Christians commit that don’t lead to death—but there are some that do. Is John talking about a divine law of cause and effect, where a specific sin irrevocably results in death? Not exactly.
We can be certain that John has no specific sin in mind because he never names a sin in this passage. John is saying there may come a time when God has had enough of our sin, and then our time on earth is up. We cannot know when such a time might come—so we shouldn’t be in the habit of sinning with impunity.
When sin literally led to death
John had actually seen this happen. In Acts 5:1–11, Luke relates the incident of Ananias and Sapphira, who lied to Peter (and to God) about the proceeds from a piece of property they had sold. They were under no obligation to give any of it to the church but pretended that they had given all the money to the Lord’s work. When confronted by Peter, both of them collapsed and died on the spot. Luke writes that “great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11). No kidding.
No doubt this incident left an imprint on John’s mind. But John would have also known that there was Old Testament precedent for “sin unto death” as well. In Numbers 11, in response to the latest wave of complaining about their circumstances, the Lord sent the people of Israel meat to eat in the form of quails. “While the meat was yet between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck down the people with a very great plague” (Num 11:33). John’s message to believers wasn’t: “God doesn’t judge like that today.” Rather, it was: “Stop sinning, because there is a sin that leads to death.”
Lest we think God is horrible and negative, we would do well to remember that it was John who penned “God is love”—in this same letter (1 John 4:8). As with Ananias and Sapphira, removing a sinning believer from the church was (very) tough love. But the fledgling church was all the stronger and more committed for it.
Dr. Michael S. Heiser is a scholar-in-residence for Faithlife, the makers of Logos Bible Software. He is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and has taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.
This article is excerpted from Dr. Heiser’s book I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible.
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* Header image: Death of Ananias, by Raphael.
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