Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The "Unpardonable" Sin: Part 2

The previous post dealt with the issue of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” from Matthew 12:31:32. Closely related to that discussion is the issue of the “sin unto death” which is discussed by the apostle John in 1 John 5:16-17.

The problem we have here is that people read the “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” into this passage, even though this passage never mentions the word “blasphemy.” So what is this sin that is “to death”? Apparently in John’s day and among his readers, this was a well-understood concept, because John doesn’t bother to explain it. But today it is more difficult to understand and the opinions vary widely on what is meant. There are four views that are prominent.

1. The first view is that John is referring to some particularly heinous sin which God will not pardon. That view became the origin of the Roman Catholic Church’s distinction between mortal and venial sins. But the difficulty with that interpretation is that it leaves us with no Scriptural foundation as to what that sin might be. We know that murder is not included because Paul was a forgiven murderer, as was David. So to specify some certain sin as being unforgiveable seems indefensible.

2. The second view is that John is talking about apostasy, or the deliberate repudiation of the Christian faith by one who once was a Christian. The supporters of this view apply it to the Gnostics whose heretical errors John was warning his readers about in this epistle. But the problem is, as stated in the previous post, that the Bible makes it clear that a true believer can never fall away; only false professors will apostatize. Since John is speaking here of a “brother”; that is, a Christian in sin, he cannot be speaking of apostasy.

3. The third view is that John is speaking of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, about which Jesus warned His disciples (Matthew 12:31-32), which is rejecting the truth with such force that one attributes God’s power to Satan. The major objection to this view is that it is hard to see how John could call such a hardened sinner a brother. While it is possible to use the term “brother” in a general sense rather than a specific sense to refer to believers, it would seem hard to do that, given the context of this letter.

4. The fourth view is that John is referring to physical death which comes about as the result of willful, deliberate, persistent sin in the life of a Christian. Such a view is consistent with God’s judgment in Acts 5:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 5:5 and 11:30. I believe this is the most defensible interpretation; that John is referring to any habitual sin in the life of a believer committed with a premeditated, defiant attitude toward God’s righteous standards. As it regards the ministry of intercession, John may be saying that in some cases God will not turn back a physical judgment on one of His disobedient children, no matter how much another Christian prays. So he does not command that prayer for that person must be made in such a situation, although he does not forbid it.

I’ve seen this happen at least once. A friend who claimed to be a genuine believer and seemed to give strong evidence of such in his life, continually fell back into patterns of terrible sin, having full knowledge it was wrong. He was repeatedly rebuked for his sin by his spiritual leaders, and yet he continued to allow that sin to consume him. The evidence of God's chastening discipline was evident in his life, but when that didn't cause him to turn away from his pursuit of his sinful lifestyle, he became ill and died unexpectedly. I discussed the situation with other elders who were familiar with the circumstances and we agreed that it seems to have been a 1 Corinthians 11 situation; His sinful pattern of life was such that God removed him from this earth so that he would no longer bring reproach on the name of Christ or His church. Only the Lord knows for sure.

In support of my view as expressed in point 4 above, it should be noted that in the Greek language, there is no indefinite article; only a definite article. Since the English language has an indefinite article, when the English translators came to this verse, they simply followed the rules of the English language and inserted it, even though it doesn’t actually exist in the Greek text. So when 1 John 5:16-17 says in your English language Bible that “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin leading to death,” in the Greek text, it literally says “if anyone sees his brother committing sin leading to death.” I think this gives us the better understanding of what John is trying to communicate. In other words, it is not referring to a specific sin, but rather to sin in general; that is, a pattern of willful, deliberate, persistent sin. The same thing applies to the phrase “there is a sin leading to death.” It should be read “there is sin leading to death.” Also, in verse 17 where it says “there is a sin not leading to death,” the Greek language literally says “there is sin not leading to death.”

Also in support of this view is the opening statement of verse 18, which says, “We know that no one who is born of God sins...” Now, every believer knows that he or she still sins, but the Greek verb here is a present tense active verb, which means that it is referring to continuing action. So it is proper to translate the phrase as “We know that no one who is born of God continually sins…” The true believer is being sanctified and is growing apart from sin. When he was saved, God released him from his bondage to sin, and made him a new creature. Therefore, it is expected that sin in his life will gradually reduce and he will achieve greater and greater victory over it. It is not to be a continual or habitual way of life as it was when he was an unbeliever. But, if a true believer does become trapped in a persistent lifestyle of sin and does not repent, God may take his life, as stated in verses 16-17. If God doesn’t discipline a person who claims to be a Christian, but lives a lifestyle of persistent, habitual sin, that is the evidence that that person is NOT a true believer. Hebrews 12:5-11 tells us that God will discipline and chasten every one of His true children who disobey Him. So if a person gets away with sin without God’s discipline (even to the point of death) in his life, he probably wasn’t a true Christian to begin with.

I am convinced that we too often and too easily accept someone’s claim of having professed faith in Christ, without calling them to examine their lives to see if there is any evidence that it was a genuine conversion. If their lifestyle, attitudes, and behavior don’t begin to change and continue to change over the long haul, he or she was most likely never converted in the first place. Genuine repentance is more than just turning to Christ; it is also turning from and forsaking sin.

So, given the wording of these verses in the original language, and support from other passages of Scripture, it seems best to me to see “sin leading to death” to be a willful, deliberate, persistent lifestyle of sin in a believer’s life; not a specific sin such as blasphemy.

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