By Horatius Bonar
"If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him 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 he should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death." 1 John 5:16-17
The sin mentioned here is not the same as the "sin against the Holy Spirit." The people spoken of, as respectively guilty, are very different from each other. In the latter sin, it is the Scribes and Pharisees, the malignant enemies of Christ, that are the criminals; in the former, that is, the case before us, it is a Christian brother that is the offender--"If any man see his brother sin." We must beware of confounding the two sins and the two parties. The sin unto death is spoken of as that which a believer could commit; but no believer could possibly be guilty of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
This clears the way so far, or at least it narrows the ground, and so facilitates our inquiry.
But while removing one difficulty, does it not introduce another? Does it not assume the possibility of falling from grace, and deny the "perseverance of the saints"? We think not. But, as much depends on the meaning of the expression, "a sin unto death," we must first take up this.
Death may mean either temporal or eternal death; either the death of the soul, or that of the body. In the passage before us, it seems to me to mean the latter. The sin unto death, would mean a sin involving temporal death; such a sin as God would chastise with disease and death, though he would not exclude the doer of it from his kingdom. The difference between these two kinds of sins may be illustrated by the case of Israel in the desert. The generation that came out of Egypt died in the wilderness, because of their murmurings; yet many of these were believing men and women, who, though thus chastised, by the infliction of temporal death, and deprivation of the earthly Canaan, were not delivered over to eternal death. Moses himself (we might add, Aaron and Miriam) is an example of the same thing. In him we see a believing man suffering temporal death for his sin, yet still a child of God, and an heir of the heavenly Canaan.
But have we any cases of this kind in the New Testament? If we have, they will tend greatly to confirm our interpretation of the passage before us, and show that, in all ages, God's way of dealing with his saints has been the same; and that, while in some instances there was chastisement, in the shape of pain, or disease, or loss of property, or loss of friends, in others there was chastisement in the shape of death. In the case of Moses, we have this paternal chastisement, involving death; in the case of Job, we see it involving loss of substance, loss of family, loss of health--but stopping short of death; but in the New Testament, we shall see it in the infliction of death upon the saint.
The most remarkable instance of the kind is in the Corinthian church. That church was in many respects noble and Christ-like, "coming behind in no gift." Yet there was much sin in it, and many of its members were not walking "as becomes saints." Specially in reference to the Lord's Supper, there was grievous sin, as the latter part of the eleventh chapter of the First Epistle to that church intimates. God could not suffer such sin in his saints. They are not indeed to be cast away, nor condemned with the unbelieving world; but they are not to be permitted to go on in evil, unrebuked. Accordingly, God interposes. He sends disease on some of these transgressing members, and death on others. "For this cause," says the apostle, "many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep" (1 Cor. 11:30). Weakness, sickliness, and death, were the three forms of chastisement with which the Corinthian church was visited. Some were sinning sins which require to be visited with weakness; others were sinning sins which required to be punished with sickness; while others were sinning sins which needed to be chastised with "death;" for this the word "sleep" evidently means (1 Cor. 7:39, 15:18). Against these sins unto disease, these "sins unto death," the apostle warns these Corinthians, when he says, "If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged;" that is, we might have been spared these chastisements. If we had judged ourselves, and condemned our own sin, we should not have been thus judged by God. And then he adds, that even this judgment was in love, not in wrath--"When we are thus judged, it is the Lord chastising us, in order that we may not be condemned with the world."
We find the same solemn truth in the Epistle of James (5:14, 15)--"The prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him." Here sickness is spoken of as the consequence of sin--sin in a saint. The sick and sinning one is to be prayed for; and if his sin and sickness be not unto death, God will have mercy on him. The sin shall be forgiven, and the sickness taken away.
We find the same truth in 1 Cor. 8:11, "Through your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died" where the "perishing" is the infliction of temporal death.
These passages show the true meaning of our text. The sin unto death is a sin such as God chastises by the infliction of disease and death.
What this sin is, we do not know. It was not the same sin in all--but different in each. In the case of the Corinthian Church, unworthy communicating was "the sin unto death;" but what it was in others, is not recorded.
Thus the passage in John and that in James correspond strikingly, the one illustrating the other. In the case of the sick brother, spoken of by James, we have the very thing referred to in the first clause of our text--"If any man sees his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he (that is, God) shall give him life for those who sin not unto death." Thus the prayer of faith was to save the sick man from death, to raise him up, and to secure for him forgiveness of the sin which had produced the sickness.
But then the question would arise, How are we to know when a sin is unto death, and when it is not unto death, so that we may pray in faith? The last clause of the 16th verse answers this question. It admits that there is a sin unto death; which admission is thus put in the 17th verse--"All unrighteousness is sin; but all sin is not unto death." But what does the apostle mean by saying, in the end of the 16th verse, "I do not say that he shall pray for it?" If we cannot know when a sin is unto death, and when not, what is the use of saying, "I do not say that he shall pray for it?"
The word translated "pray" means also "inquire," and is elsewhere translated so--John 1:19, "The Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who are you?" (See, also, John 1:21, 25, 5:12, 9:2, 19:21.) If thus rendered, the meaning would be, "I say he is to ask no questions about that." That is to say, if he sees a brother sick and ready to die, he is not to say, Has he committed a sin unto death, or has he not? He is just to pray, letting alone all such inquiries, and leaving the matter in the hands of God, who, in answer to prayer, will raise him up, if he has not committed the sin unto death.
The passage now becomes plain; and while it remains as an unspeakably solemn warning, it does not teach us that there is some one mysterious sin which infers eternal damnation; still less, that a saint of God can commit such a sin. It maybe thus paraphrased--"If any one see his brother in Christ sin a sin, and see him also laid upon a sickbed in consequence of this, he shall pray for the sick brother; and if his sin be one of which the punishment is disease, not death, the sick man shall be raised up; for all sins that lead to sickness do not necessarily lead to death. And as to the difficulty, How shall we know when the sin is one which merely infers sickness, and when it is one which infers death? I say this, Ask no questions on this point--but pray, and leave the case to God."
Let us now come to the lessons of our text.
1. Don't puzzle yourself with hard questions about the particular kind of sins committed. Be satisfied that it is sin, and deal with it as such. There are sins unto death, and there are sins not unto death. Do not trouble yourself or others with questions on this point, which no man can answer. Remember that all unrighteousness is sin; and that it is simply with sin, as sin, as a breach of the perfect law of righteousness, that you have to do. It is not the nature or the measure of its punishment that you have to consider--but its own exceeding sinfulness.
2. Be concerned about a brother's welfare. "Look not every man on his own things--but look also every man on the things of others," as said the apostle. If any of you see a brother sin, do not let him alone, as if it did not concern you. Do not say, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Desire the spiritual prosperity of all the saints. Seek, too, the salvation of the unsaved. They need your pity and your effort. Leave them not.
3. Don't trifle with sin. Count no sin trivial, either in yourself or another. Do not dally with temptation. Do not extenuate guilt. Do not say, May I not keep my beloved sin a little longer? Part with it, or it will cost you dear. In what way it may do so I know not; but I can say this, that sooner or later it will cost you dear, both in soul and body.
4. Take it at once to God. Don't puzzle yourself with useless questions as to its nature--but take it straight to God. In the case of a brother, do not raise evil reports against him because of it--but go and tell God about it. In your own case do the same. Do not let it remain unconfessed a moment after it is discovered. It is unrighteousness; it is sin; it is breach of law. God hates it; you must hate it too. You must bring it to that God who hates it; and who, just because he hates it, wants you to bring it to him. Give it at once to him. He knows how to keep it, and to deal with it. If you keep it to yourself, it will be your ruin. It will be poison in your veins. It will eat as does a canker. It is not too great for him to deal with or to cover. The blood of his only-begotten Son will cover it. Let that blood prove its divine efficacy by the cleansing which it can administer to your soul. Rest not without forgiveness through the great propitiation. An unforgiven man is an unhappy man. Blessedness is the portion only of the forgiven. If you have not yet found the pardon, this blessedness cannot be yours. And if you but felt the misery of the unpardoned, and the joy of the pardoned, you would not rest until you had made sure of the forgiveness that there is with God, and tasted the reconciliation that they only know, who have settled the great question for eternity, at the foot of the cross.
There is such a thing as THE SECOND DEATH. And who shall deliver the doomed one from it? Who shall pray him up out of hell? The second death! Ah, when it has come to that, all is over! No Christ will do then; no blood; no cross! Oh, wait not until your sins have landed you in that! Take the offered pardon. God gives it to you in his Son. Take it, and live forever. He who died and lives presents to you the gift of the everlasting life--life that no second death can touch--life in Himself--life beyond the valley of the shadow of death, in the city of the Living One--from which no life departs, and into which no death can enter.