“I have no idea what to write about this passage!” This was my first thoughts when I initially read the next section of 1 John in preparation for this month’s Real Meat for Real Men. Usually John’s words are easy to understand and packed with practical application that we can all learn and grow from applying to our lives. Then, when we almost get to the end of the book, John throws us a curveball with a passage of Scripture that left me scratching my head and reaching for my commentaries. What is this passage? Let’s look at 1 John 5
16 If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
At first glance, it looks like John goes against one of the key principles in men’s ministry, accountability. We stress to men over and over that we need to hold each other accountable and if we see a brother struggling, we should help him out. So why is John saying if we see a brother sinning, just pray for him. And what is with this sin to death stuff? If this isn’t confusing enough, John really has us scratching our heads after the next verses.
18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them. 19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
Anyone born of God doesn’t sin? How many of us feel now like we are not really Christians? After all, when I smacked my finger with a hammer, I must admit it wasn’t a Scripture verse that flew out of my mouth. So does this mean I am not a true believer?
As you can see, this is a tough passage. I will be honest, I almost skipped it and went to the last section of 1 John. But as I pondered this decision, I grabbed a commentary, and was able to wrap my mind around this passage a little bit. So I decided to plug away and finish the article.
So what is John saying? Let’s not start there. Instead let’s start with what John is not saying
1. John is not referring to the “Unpardonable Sin”
“Unpardonable Sin”…two words that have struck fear into the hearts of believers for centuries. The Bible refers to a sin which is unforgiveable. Many believe this sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. I know there was a time in my life where I feared whether or not I had unknowingly committed the unpardonable sin and doomed myself to an eternity in Hell. Then a wiser, older believer said something to me that was life changing. They said the unpardonable sin was when someone denied the Holy Spirit and his convicting power, and since I was worried about doing this, my worry showed a tenderness and a desire to yield to the Holy Spirit, the exact opposite of rejecting the Holy Spirit’s conviction. These words helped me greatly, and I hope they have the same effect on you!
2. John is not saying to avoid accountability
Why would John ever say such a thing? The answer is He wouldn’t. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons John wrote 1 John was to help keep the early church accountable. The early church was being overrun with the doctrine of Gnosticism which claimed Jesus was not the son of God. John wrote the book to hold the church accountable and make them see they had to stand firm to the beliefs that led to their salvation and reject the lies of the culture around them
3. John is not saying Christians are sinless, or never sin.
John is not trying to say if we sin, we are not Christians. This statement contradicts other passages in the book of 1 John. Take for instance I John 1:5:
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.
John says here if we confess our sins, he cleanses us from all unrighteousness. Remember, John is writing to believers. He is saying, “Our goal should be not to sin, but if our sinful nature slips through and we commit a sin, repent immediately and God will forgive you.”
So John is not saying if you are not sinless or perfect, then you aren’t saved.
So what is John saying? Well, to understand it more clearly, let’s look at the passage again.
16 If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death. 18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the One who was born of God keeps them safe, and the evil one cannot harm them. 19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one. 20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
I think the key words in this passage are “Continues to sin…” I believe what John is trying to say is this: “If you see a brother who is sinning openly against God, even after he has been confronted by other believers and has been presented with the sin and the convicting power of the Holy Spirit, then all you can do for this brother is pray. Pray hard. Pray that they stop ignoring the convicting power of the Holy Spirit. Intercede for them that they realize the error of their way and the damage their ongoing sin is causing them.”
Let me give you an example to help illustrate the passage. I have a friend who was leading a small group of men. One of the men in his group, a man who claimed to be a follower of God, was also having an affair with a woman who was not his wife. Every week, my friend would try and hold this man accountable and show him that his actions were sin and were causing separation between the man and God. Every week the man admitted he knew it was sin, but every week he continued on with the affair. Eventually the only choice my friend had was to stop letting this man’s sin control the group and dominate the discussion. He couldn’t get the man to stop the sinful action. All he could do was pray. So that was what He did. He stopped confronting the man and instead prayed about it and asked God to break through the hardened heart of this man.
This is what John is saying. It is tough meat to chew and swallow, but sometimes real meat is tough. John would be doing us a disservice if he fed us filet mignon at each meal and ignored the tougher parts. However, this teaching is necessary and timely for all men.
Is there someone in your life that you know is sinning against God while claiming to be His child? Have you beaten your head against the wall trying to get through to them? Maybe this article was meant for you to show you a new path to helping them, a path travelled on your knees in intercession.
Maybe you’re the one who is sinning and refusing to head the conviction of the Holy Spirit and the warnings of committed friends. If so, I hope this article softens the toughness of your heart. John clearly says some continue with this attitude until the day they die, and then it is too late. The tricky part of playing the “I’ll repent later before I die” game is no one knows when they will die, what if you don’t get that chance?
This is a tough article to write, and an even tougher one to read. It is hard to stop trying to help the one’s we love, but John isn’t telling us that. He is telling them to help in the best way possible, on our knees, interceding. It is what we need to do. Will you do it?