In his first epistle the Apostle John assures believers of the confidence we have knowing that when we pray God hears us. In 1 John 5:14-17 we read:

14 Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him. 16 If anyone sees his brother sinning a sin which does not lead to death, he will ask, and He will give him life for those who commit sin not leading to death. There is sin leading to death. I do not say that he should pray about that. 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin not leading to death.

As we pray for one another within the Body of Christ, there are times that we intercede on behalf of those who have sinned. All through the Scripture we understand that sin is a serious matter. The wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). It is because we are sinners that Christ had to die in our place as our substitute, bearing upon Himself the wrath of God for our sin (2 Cor. 5:21). We understand then that sin is deadly.

Due to the grace and mercy of God given to us through Christ, we who have repented of our sin and believed on Jesus have our sins forgiven. But while the eternal consequence of sin has been removed by the death of Christ, we see that we will still die if Jesus does not return in our lifetime. We are forgiven, but we are still living in this fallen flesh, and we still sin while in this earthly body. And the wages of sin are still death. The way in which we obey or disobey God and His Word will have consequences here and now.

King David is an example we can examine. When he committed adultery with Bathsheba, he was grieved and guilty, and even after he had been confronted by the prophet Nathan and repented, there were still consequences. David was still a child of God, but the baby conceived by the act of adultery died, and David suffered division and rebellion in the lives of several of his other children. His sin tore the family apart and affected him and them for generations.

What we sow, the Scriptures assure us, we will reap (Gal. 6:7). And lest we be ignorant of the matter, there are differing degrees of sin in the eyes of our all holy God. Each and every sin is deserving of death and will bring consequences in our life and the lives of those around us. But there are some sins that are worse than others.

All sin is an affront to God, but He tells us that there are seven sins that He especially hates. Proverbs 6:16-19 tells us:

16 These six things the LORD hates, yes, seven are an abomination to Him: 17 A proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, 18 A heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil, 19 A false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren.

Looking at the list it is interesting that deceit is listed twice out of seven things God hates. “A lying tongue” and “a false witness who speaks lies” both earn a special hatred from the Lord. This makes sense when we understand that Jesus tells us that He is the truth (John 14:6). We also understand that the testimony of the Lord given in His Word assures us that every Word of the Lord is pure (Prov. 30:5), His Word is truth (John 17:17), and He will not lie because He cannot lie (Titus 1:2).

Also making the list are pride, murder, wicked intentions, a propensity to run swiftly into sin, and one who sows discord among brethren. This list is frightening when understood in light of the Sermon on the Mount, where Christ shows us that these outward acts are just as evil as the inward intentions behind them.

We also see in the Scriptures a number of examples of people in the church who sinned these types of sins and bore the consequences immediately. In giving instructions for observing the Lord’s Supper, Paul warns the church at Corinth that partaking in an unworthy manner has led some believers to be sick and others to die (1 Cor. 11:29-30). To celebrate the death of Christ for the forgiveness of sins all the while refusing to repent of sin, embracing and loving it despite the grace of God, is to sin a sin unto death, as the participant then literally eats the judgment of God.

The most powerful example is found in Acts 5 where we see Ananias and Sapphira lying to the Holy Spirit and to the Church, motivated by pride, devising wickedness in their hearts (Acts 5:1-3). It proved to be a deadly combination of sins that God hates! When confronted, Ananias fell dead at Peter’s feet.

Three hours later when Sapphira came into the church, not knowing what had happened, she was asked directly if she had been honest and she too lied right to Peter’s face. And she died immediately. The result was that fear came upon the congregation. God’s Word and His character were upheld and sin was exposed. This became a powerful example to the church about the dangers of sin.

Looking back at 1 John 5:14-17 then we see that John tells the church that there are sins that lead to death, and sins that do not lead to death. If the wages of sin is still death, and all sin deserves the penalty of death, then what does he mean by making this differentiation?

As he gives instruction and encouragement about prayer, we see that we can take confidence in the fact that when we pray according to God’s will, He hears and answers. So when we see a brother or sister in the Lord sinning, we are to pray for them. If they are not sinning a sin that is going to lead rather quickly to death, then God will hear, answer, and preserve the life of that believer. This would include granting them repentance and forgiveness as they confess this sin. So there are sins we commit, knowingly or in ignorance, that will not lead specifically to death as a consequence.

But there is a category of sins here that lead to death. When a believer sins these types of sins there will be no repentance granted and the consequence of death will follow rapidly. John tells the church that if they see a believer sinning the sin unto death that there is no need to pray for them! Why? Because if they have sinned the sin unto death, to pray for God to grant them repentance and to give them life is not praying according to His will. His will in this situation is the death of the believer. And no matter what we pray, His will is going to be done.

So there are sins that do not lead immediately to death, though all sin carries the death penalty. And there are sins that are considered worthy of death without delay. Apparently the church John was writing to could recognize the difference between the sins that lead to death and those that do not. He gives no further explanation. This has caused much discussion in the history of the church and those discussions often lead to confusion.

But God is not the Author of confusion. His Word is clear when it comes to telling us about sin and the consequences of disobedience. A pastor who mentored me once gave this explanation. God uses His Word to sanctify believers. That is to say He uses His Word preached, taught, and obeyed to conform us to the image of His Son Jesus Christ. If a believer persists in sin, especially an egregious sin without repentance and remorse, there will come a time when this sin prevents further transformation into the image of Christ and in fact brings shame upon Christ and His Church. At some point, when the sin unto death has been sinned, the Lord will cause the death of that person, basically taking them on to heaven where there will be no further hindrance to the transformation.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 tells the church that in the case of an immoral and unrepentant believer, the church in disciplining this member should deliver (turn over) such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh for the salvation of his soul. In other words, turn him over to his sin so that his sin might destroy him, leading to his death, and thereby freeing him from sin ultimately because of the salvation of his soul.

4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

Church discipline always has as its goal restoration. However, when restoration is rejected and prevented, the Word of God gives us steps to follow in order to maintain the purity of the church and to uphold the Word of God as our standard for holiness. Here as in 1 Corinthians 5, this would be an instance where the church recognizes that this fellow believer has sinned the sin unto death and so turns them over to the consequence of their sin through the process of church discipline for the ultimate good of the believer and to maintain holiness in the church.

When a believer sins, in pride asserting that they are right, justifying their actions and even trying to prove that their wickedness is not in fact wicked, when their hearts devise wickedness, their feet are swift to run to those things that God hates, they are angry at fellow believers without a cause being guilty of the motive of murder, lying to themselves, the church, and to the Lord, spreading false testimony, causing division in churches and even bringing division in families – when we see a professing believer living like this, then they must be warned that they may be sinning the sin unto death and may have made a false profession!

As the church, when we gather to pray, we need to understand that we must pray for each other, for preservation from sin, especially the sin unto death. For once we have taken a step down that path, the Scripture is clear, praying for such a one is useless. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah tells us that there are times we are not to pray for people because God will not hear. His Word is clear that to pray against His will is futile.

There are times when believers are sick and die and these things have nothing to do with a sin that leads to death. But we need to be diligent in seeking holiness, and we need to see that there are times that God will turn His people over to their sin for the destruction of their flesh, to remove that which hinders their being conformed into the image of Christ.

There is sin that does not lead to death. Praise God for His mercy. There is also sin that does lead to death. Praise God for His sovereign care for our souls, for saving us from sin, for saving us from eternal torments in the second death, and for saving us from ourselves.