1 John 5.16-17


When I was a younger Christian, in High School, I had quite a number of Christian friends,
and each of these friends were trying to work out how to understand what the Bible was saying and how we should live the Christian life.
When I was in year nine, I remember one friend of mine admit to me that the way he spoke and behaved showed that he was not a Christian.
He did, however, go to a church every Sunday evening,
and the service he went to seemed to really energise him in the Christian faith.
It appeared as though every Sunday he became a Christian
and as soon as he went to school on Monday he gave up his faith.
He commented to me that, if he was to go to heaven,
then he hoped that he would die on a Sunday night after church
- because that was when he was a Christian.
Now fortunately he eventually saw the problem with this
and made some form of permanent commitment later on.

I find it interesting that when I consider the Bible's teaching on the Christian life,
I always find myself thinking back to my high school days,
in those first few years of my Christian life
- I became a Christian when I was 13 years old.
And it is quite amusing to remember some of the theological things we discussed.
I remember another friend of mine coming up with a very deep theological question
- what happens if you're a Christian and you're having adulterous sex with the most beautiful girl you've ever met,
and then Jesus returns while you're doing it.
Where do you go?
Do you go to heaven or do you go to hell?
It's an amazing question because it show both
the struggle of a teenage mind to understand theology,
while at the same time showing the effects of rampant hormones.

And yet such a question is not as unimportant as it sounds because behind it lies a very important question about the Christian faith
- what happens when Christians sin?
It is the same question that underpins my friend who hoped to die after church so he could go to heaven.
What happens when Christians sin?

Now I say all this because the passage we are looking at today is one of those which addresses this issue.
It is a verse that shows that sin and belief can co-exist,
and that sin does not take away a Christian's promise of eternal life.

The way I'm going to do this is first I'm going to go through and explain what the verses say.
These verses are quite confusing
and I've had to try to understand all the different interpretations of them before choosing one which,
I believe,
fits in with the Bible's teaching best.
I'll examine some of these different interpretations
and show you where such interpretations can lead in terms of practice.
After I've explained these verses I'll then attempt to apply them
- to show how they can make us stronger and more faithful Christians.


Let me read to you again 5.16-17:

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 we should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death. (NIV)

Now John here has presented us with a doosie.
He is again using words that need to be examined carefully,
and he is using words that need to be kept in context with his whole letter,
as well as the whole Bible.

I've pretty much been beating you all with a stick over the past few years about how to read 1 John properly.
John wrote the letter to churches that had been influenced by false teaching.
These false teachers taught that Jesus did not have a body,
they taught that his death on the cross did not atone for our sins
and they taught that it was possible to live a sinless and perfect life.
Those who have studied 1 John over the decades have come to this conclusion by examining what John said in this book.
John himself thought these teachers were so bad that he labelled them antichrists in Chapter 2.

What John is partially addressing here is one of the teachings of these antichrists
- that once a person has come to faith then they can live a sinless life.
What does John say in verse 16?
If anyone sees a brother commit a sin...
Notice that John refers to a Christian who sins.
He does not say "If he sees an unbeliever commit a sin",
he speaks about a brother sinning.

Notice also what John says in this phrase in verse 16.
If anyone sees a brother commit a sin that does not lead to death.
While the phrase by itself is hard to understand,
what it does say is that when a Christian sins,
those sins do not automatically disqualify a person from salvation.
How do we know this?
Well, it is because the sin they are committing does not lead to death
- it does not lead to judgement or hell.
They sin, but their sin does not mean their salvation is lost.

But let's look at the entire sentence -
because this one is hard to understand.
If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life.
Now on the surface it seems to say this:
You see a Christian sinning, so what should you do?
You pray for them
- you pray for their forgiveness.
God will hear your prayer and God will give that sinful Christian life.

That's not what it says - believe me.
If it did then it would mean that a person's salvation is not dependent upon God,
but upon our prayers for them.
In other words, if you sin and a Christian does not pray for you
, then your sins remain unforgiven.
In the wider context of the Bible's teaching that idea makes no sense.
So what does it say?

It simply says this.
You see a believer sinning.
That's a bad thing to see.
So what should you do?
You should pray for them,
but you should pray for them knowing that God has given them eternal life.
You're not praying for them to be re-saved.
You're praying that God will make their sin clear to them so that they may repent
- knowing all the while that their sin, while bad, has not affected their eternal future.

But why does John word the sentence in such a strange way?
Remember that he is speaking to churches that are being influenced by false teachers.
Many Christians and church members would have been influenced by these teachers,
and any Christian who began to follow some of their teaching was in a serious situation
- they were sinning by following this wrong teaching.
But what John is saying is that, despite this sin, these people were still brothers in Christ.
More than that, we should treat them as such by praying for them
and asking God to discipline them,
to make them more faithful Christians.

But John goes on.
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.

Now here John is being a little bit more specific.
Why does he say "I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death"?
We might think that this has something to do with the unforgivable sin that is mentioned in Matthew 12
- blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
That was my initial thought
- after all, we can sort of assume as much given that he is speaking about those whose sin does not lead to death,
rather than those whose sin does lead to death,
as though there was a sin that Christian could commit that made them lose their salvation.
Fortunately, the unforgivable sin, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, is not being looked at here.

But what is?
Remember that there were false teachers and there were those who were influenced by them.
Those whose sin does not lead to death were specifically those Christians who had been influenced by this false teaching,
although they had not fully embraced it.
But John goes on to say in verse 16

There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying we should pray about that.

What he is talking about here is not the followers, but the teachers themselves.
These false teachers were described by John as antichrists.
In 1 John 2.19, John admits that these false teachers came from within the church,
but their lives and their teaching prove that they were not truly believers in the first place -
If they had been of us they would have continued with us John says.

What this teaches us is very disturbing.
John says that these false teachers are going to hell
- their sin leads to death.
John has made a judgement call on these people and it is not a good one
- these people who are leading the church away from God are ultimately heading to hell.

Now if that is disturbing, then so is what he says next -
I am not saying we should pray about that.
Now there's a lot of conjecture about what John is saying here
because he seems to say it in a rather off-hand style,
as though he just wants to avoid talking about it.
What he seems to say is that we should not pray for these false teachers.
While we should definitely pray for those Christians who have been influenced by their teaching,
we should not pray for the teachers themselves.

It was this situation that caused me to do a bit more research into this issue where I found something quite astounding.
It all revolves around the word "ask".
For us in English it is a fairly straightforward word.
But in the Greek there are two forms of the word "ask"
- which is the word used often for our praying to God for things.

It goes like this.
The first form of the word "ask" refers to pleading
- it is the word used for a person of lesser station begging for something from someone of a higher station.
The beggar in Acts 3 asked Peter and John for money
- he begged for it,
he pleaded for it,
he saw those he begged from as being superior to him.
The second form of the word "ask" has more equal footing to it.
In this form of asking, the questioner has the same status as the person questioned.
In Luke 14, Jesus gives an example of two kings who are about to go to war,
one of whom asks for peace
- the word ask here refers to asking someone of equal status.

As an aside, in John 14-16 Jesus mentions quite a few times that he will "ask" the Father on the disciples' behalf. One example is John 14.16 "I will ask the Father and he will give you a helper to be with you forever - the Holy Spirit". The word used here is asking on an equal footing. This indicates that Jesus did not see himself as being inferior to God the Father, which is additional support for the idea of Jesus being God.

But what we have here in verse 16 are two asks.
When we ask God about the brother who sins,
we are pleading with him.
But when John says we should not ask about those whose sins lead to death,
the asking referred to here is one of equal footing.

I think what is being said here is that praying for those whose sin leads to death
- specifically here these false teachers and antichrists
- is actually an act of presumption.
It's one thing to walk up to a king and plead for your life or for the life of someone else.
It's another thing to walk up to a king and ask him for a million dollars.

All this seems to be proving the point that John is asking the church to NOT pray for these false teachers.
It may seem a rather strange thing to do,
but this is not unusual.
In Jeremiah 7.16-18, God says to Jeremiah about Israel
"Do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with me, for I will not hear you".
Amazing words.
What they indicate is God's judgement
- that God is so angry with the sin of Israel that he commands the prophet to stop praying for them.
God says the same sort of thing in Chapters 11 and 14 of Jeremiah.

Now what about verse 17?
All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
All John seems to be doing here is re-stating what he's already said.
Christians are capable of sin and wrongdoing,
but these sins do not lead to a loss of salvation.

So, what can we summarise so far?

What John is saying in these two verses is, essentially, quite simple.
If you see a Christian sinning,
pray for them knowing that they have not lost the promise of eternal life.
Do not, however, pray for these false teachers
because they are opposed to God and God is sick of them
and will bring them to death and destruction.


So that is what the passage means.
We've gone through all that painful process.
How should we apply it to our lives today?

There's five things that we can glean from this passage about God that is important to learn.

1. That God is the one punishes unbelief with spiritual death.

Firstly, we learn that God punishes unbelief with Spiritual death.

This is not the main thrust of the passage, but it is certainly important in understanding it.
We have to remember that there are essentially two types of people in the world
- those who are headed to eternal life and those headed to eternal death.

Who goes to hell?
We might want to think that it's all those horrible murderers and paedophiles and so on.
But the simple fact is that anyone who does not have their trust in Christ is headed to hell.
Why is this so?
It is because hell
- the lake of fire mentioned in Revelation 20
- is where all sinners go to be punished.
And because all people sin, we know that everyone deserves to go to hell.
Now the language in Revelation is quite symbolic
- hell is not literally a lake of fire
- but it does give us the message that hell is the worst place to be.
How do we avoid hell?

2. That God is the one who grants eternal life.

Well the second point of application is that God is the one who grants eternal life.
We have to remember that we cannot escape God's judgement through anything we do.
It is God who grants us eternal life.
It is he who sends his Spirit on us and breathes new life into us,
and it is the Holy Spirit in us that causes us to repent and trust in Christ as He uses the message of the Gospel that we hear.

Romans 6.23 describes this situation well.
The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What this tells us is simple
- what our sins earn is death.
We deserve death for our sins.
Death is not our reward for sin, it is our right
- we earn it.
But eternal life is not earned
- it is a gift from God.
John says here in verse 16 "God will give him life"
- God is the one who brings us life.

And how do we get this life? How are our sins dealt with?

3. That God forgives the sin of all believers.

The third point of application is that God forgives the sin of all believers
- all those who are his have had their sins forgiven.
Now this is probably the major point of these two verses.
All who belong to God have eternal life
- which means, of course, that their sins have been forgiven.

John explained this in greater detail way back in Chapter 2.
There he states that Jesus' death on the cross was a sin sacrifice
- he died in our place and took upon himself the punishment from God that we deserved for our sins.
And because this punishment had been transferred to him,
we are now declared innocent.
Even though we are still living in the sinful world,
and even though we still sin, we have been forgiven.
In Chapter 1 John says that Jesus' blood cleanses us from all sin.

It is a testimony to the effectiveness of Jesus' death that all subsequent sins we commit after our salvation are dealt with as well.
You see, if this was not the case
- if we commit sins after our salvation and therefore lose our relationship with God
- then it means that the cross is not what saves us,
but our continual obedience to God's rules,
which is, of course, impossible.
If this were our situation,
then Christ's sacrifice would merely be a temporary solution to our problem.

For us this means joy!
It means the realisation that our Christian life, while hard, ultimately does not depend on us but upon God.
We've all sinned.
We have all sinned despite the fact that we have turned to God in repentance and faith.
Is this sin wrong? Yes.
Is this sin serious? Yes.
Should we do all we can to avoid sin? Yes.
Should we lose heart? No, absolutely not.
Why? Because even though we sin while being a Christian, we can know that God has forgiven us.
Why do we repent?
Why should we be sorry for our sins? We do so because we're Christians.

4. That God listens to our prayers and acts.

The fourth point of application is that God listens to our prayers and acts.
There is nothing wrong with coming to God with important things.
It pleases God to hear our requests and answer them.
In the context of this passage,
it means that when we pray for believers,
we should pray that God will lead them away from sin and error.
We should pray for our fellow believers who reject or ignore parts of God's truth,
so that they may please God and be strengthened in their faith.
And we pray for them knowing that God will not take away their salvation.

All this fits in with the previous three verses - verse 13-15.
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if he hears anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us - whatever we ask - we know that we have what we asked of him.

When we pray for believers, we can be confident that God is working in them to strengthen them and make them holy.
We know this is the case because it is God's will that this be so.
Verses 16-17 -
what we're looking at today
- are an example of how we should pray.
We should pray and God will give them (the sinful Christian) life.

What this verse teaches us is that we should always keep our Christian brothers and sisters in mind when we pray.
It teaches us that another person's faith is our business.
We don't keep our faith to ourselves
- it is not something private.
And when we see a fellow Christian brother or sister who sins,
we should pray for them.
Of course we should rebuke them, correct them, encourage them and so on
- but we need to remember that none of this is effective without the work of God,
which is why the first resort always is to pray.
We may prefer action,
but no action is of greater benefit than to pray for someone first.

5. That God takes bad theology and false teaching very seriously.

The fifth point of application is a very serious one - God takes bad theology and false teaching very seriously.

Now I know that over the years I've got up here and named names and discussed certain types of belief that is bad.
One of the curses that God has given to me while studying 1 John is the realisation that bad theology and false teaching is something that God hates.
And although I want to be nice to people,
although I want to say that God works in different ways in different churches
and that God doesn't mind differences of opinion,
I can't - I just can't.
When you read the Bible with the understanding that it is God's word,
and then you hear or read about what some Christian leaders are saying,
and when you realise that what they are teaching is different to what the Bible is teaching,
then you have no choice but to speak up.

It really is a curse.
I have become less tolerant and more worried about the state of the church since I began preaching through 1 John on the 4th of March 2001 at the Redhead Presbyterian church.
I desperately want to believe and say that things are alright,
that doctrine and theology don't really matter,
and that we're all one big happy family.
But I can't.
1 John compels me to be negative at this point.

In 1 John, God has been teaching me about these false teachers.
He has been teaching me that false teachers distort the message of the gospel.
False teachers downgrade the importance of solid biblical theology.
God has taught me that those who reject the notion that Christ died on the cross as a sin substitute are wrong.
And more than that. God has taught me that such false teachers are not really members of the church,
that they are unbelievers.
These false teachers are heretics
- they are teaching things contrary to scripture.
He has taught me that these people are antichrists
- people used by Satan to destroy the church.
And in these verses today God has taught me that these false teachers have nothing but eternal damnation to look forward to.

And who have I named as I have preached through 1 John?
Who are some of these false teachers, these heretics, these antichrists, these people who are destined for eternal damnation?
Samuel Angus, Presbyterian New Testament Scholar at St Andrews Theological College in Sydney during the 1920s and 1930s.
A man who taught that Jesus was not God, that his death on the cross was not for our sins.
I have named Peter Carnley
- current Anglican Bishop of Perth and Primate of the Anglican church in Australia.
A man who denies the physical resurrection of Christ,
a man who has used his influence to prevent others from preaching the substitutionary atonement.
I have named Bishop John Spong,
formerly Anglican Bishop of New York,
who has rejected the resurrection of Christ and promotes homosexuality as a God-given gift to people.
I have named faith healer Benny Hinn.
A man who denies the Trinity,
a man who has claimed to speak directly from God and yet none of his prophecies have come true.
A man who uses his popularity and the gullibility of a large section of the Pentecostal church
to line his own pockets and fill his bank accounts.

Samuel Angus is in Hell.
Peter Carnley, John Spong and Benny Hinn will join him there one day.

During the 19th century, in America, there was a man named Charles Finney.
Finney was an evangelist.
Thousands were converted during his crusades.
His influence was so great that he is considered the most influential person in the life of the American church.
Evangelist Billy Graham, Christian musician Keith Green and a whole host of others have all spoken highly of Finney
and his influence upon them and their ministry.

When Finney was alive,
he gave a number of lectures on theology.
In one of these lectures he answered the question
"Does a Christian cease to be a Christian when they sin?"
That's what we've been looking at today.
What was Finney's reply?

Whenever he sins, he must, for the time being, cease to be holy. This is self-evident. Whenever he sins, he must be condemned; he must incur the penalty of the law of God.... The Christian, therefore, is justified no longer than he obeys, and must be condemned when he disobeys; In these respects, then, the sinning Christian and the unconverted sinner are upon precisely the same ground.

What is Finney saying?
He is saying that a Christian who sins loses his salvation
- the opposite of what the Bible is saying
- what this section of 1 John is saying.
What else did Finney say?

The doctrine of an imputed righteousness, or that Christ's obedience to the law was accounted as our obedience, is founded on a most false and nonsensical assumption, for Christ's righteousness could do no more than justify himself. It can never be imputed to us.... It was naturally impossible, then, for him to obey in our behalf. Representing the atonement as the ground of the sinner's justification has been a sad occasion of stumbling to many.

What is Finney saying here?
He is saying that when Christ died he did not die for our sins.
He is saying that Christ's atonement
- his death on the cross
- is not the basis of our salvation.

In Galatians 1.9, the Apostle Paul says
"If anyone is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned".
Was Charles Finney preaching the Gospel? No.
He was preaching a false gospel.
He denied the fact that Jesus died on the cross for our sins.
He denied that our salvation depends on God's work.
He preached that we alone are responsible for our salvation.

Finney was a false teacher.
He was a heretic.
He was an Antichrist.
He taught a different gospel and has been eternally condemned.
And yet he is lauded as the greatest influence on American Christianity.
Have you ever wondered why the church is so sick?

I truly am sorry that I can't be nicer.
It is not that I'm in a negative frame of mind,
but I honestly feel that the word of God is compelling me at this point.
In the past I would have qualified my remarks about these false teachers,
but we have to understand that John doesn't do that here.
He doesn't say "these false teachers are heading for hell if they don't repent".
He doesn't say "there is a possibility that God will condemn them if they continue on teaching this stuff".
No. John says "there is a sin that leads to death". A
nd John is so hard on these false teachers that he even instructs us to not pray for them.
How arrogant is that?
How hard-line is that?


We should finish.

I don't want to finish today in a negative frame of mind.
The Apostle John, despite his firm teaching, is not hopeless in this situation.
Instead, he is quite hopeful.
Why is that?
It is because the Christian life is one in which we enjoy God's forgiveness.

God gives life to all those who trust in him,
who have repented and placed their faith in the death and the resurrection of Christ.
Our salvation is not up to us,
it is up to God.
God saves us.
God maintains our salvation, despite our sin.

We all know that sin is something we have to take seriously,
but the passage we've looked at today gives us great encouragement. Why?
Because despite the seriousness of sin,
we can trust in God's activity to save.

And this is why we should be wary of false teachers,
and why we need to be discerning,
and why we need to call a spade a spade
and call a heretic a heretic.
We do it because The Devil is desperate for the church to be confused about the faith.
We do it because it is The Devil's desire for the Gospel of grace to be hidden,
to be denied,
to be forgotten.

If we lose our salvation every time we sin,
then the death of Christ is useless, and our eternal state depends not on what God has done,
but upon what we do.
Praise God that this is not the case.
Praise God that he has brought us from death to life.
Praise God that he keeps us safe.
Praise God.

From the Kerygmatic Department

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

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