Today’s passage is a complex and perplexing one. It is controversial, with people on both sides of some doctrinal argument using it to defend their discord with the church. I want you to remember I am a lay person. I have no training in theology. But I do have the Spirit of God and I do trust His teaching.
Verses 16-17 read,
“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. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.”
Okay, I get that, we are to pray for our brothers and sisters when we see them sinning and God will give them life. But if they are already our brothers and sisters aren’t they already saved? Yes. So what does John mean that God will give him life? If we back up a few verses we read about Jesus giving us eternal life and about overcoming the world and living as a testimony to Him. Eternal life not only as living eternally one day in Heaven, but living for Jesus now filled with the Spirit. It is Jesus who gives us life. He is eternal life. Eternal life is lived differently than the temporary earthly life. Eternal life is the relationship we enjoy with God. 1 John 1:1-4 explains it this way.
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— 3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4 And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”
John 5:23-24 says,
“that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
So in my understanding, if we see a brother sinning in a way that does not lead to death, and we ask, God will give him life. God will restore Him and bring him back to a place where he is living victoriously as a witness to the awesome power and love of God. Revelation 2:5 reads,
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
Of course that brings up the next question. What is sin that leads to death and sin that doesn’t lead to death? Living victoriously, walking in the light or following Jesus means we have to confess our sins and repent. Repent doesn’t mean feel bad and keep sinning. It means recognizing, stopping and no longer doing it. It was when the church in Ephesus repented that they could glorify Christ the way they did when they first believed. John didn’t write to them to hide their sins, he said repent. We are not supposed to go around pretending to be perfect. We aren’t. Jesus doesn’t need to restore perfect people. We are to confess our sins to one another. 1 John 1:6-10 reads,
“If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
If someone can’t admit to their sin, they can’t repent. If someone wants to keep practicing sin then it is leading to death. They are living like a dead person, and they may very well be. But while they claim to be a believer the life they lead is not a testimony to the greatness of God which will bring people to life in His kingdom. It is a witness to a lie and will cause people to stay away from Jesus and keep down the path of death.
If someone can’t admit to their sin, our prayers won’t restore them because until they repent, they can’t have life. Life with fellow believers means we will know one another and love one another. It means we are going to be aware of sins. That means bringing them to light. When that happens we have choices. Shame and guilt hide sin. Godly conviction leads to repentance.
In 2 Corinthians Paul wrote to the church and mentioned a letter he had written regarding terrible sin that had been practiced by some of them. He knew it would cause them sorrow but he understood how they needed that sin brought out into the light so they could respond to it. 2 Corinthians 7:9-11 reads,
“As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.
10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. 11 For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.”
When they repented God restored them to life. He had already forgiven them but now The Spirit worked through their repentance and caused them to mature and glorify God even more. But for those who let guilt keep them from repentance they couldn’t enjoy that discipline and restoration.
So sin that leads to death is unrepentant sin. Today, examine your heart and life. Ask the Spirit to reveal to you the practices you may have been hiding from yourself. Listen to your brothers and sisters without defensiveness and if any sin is shown to you, repent.
All sin prior to salvation leads to death. If you see someone sinning without godly remorse, if they don’t think it is wrong, then don’t point it out to them, don’t pray for their forgiveness. It may seem harsh. But John says not to ask God for them. Let God be God and do what He will with them. You keep being Jesus and walking in Him. When they reach a point of repentance, God will give them life.