Is all sin the same? Not according to 1 John. There are sins and then there’s a SIN. Though James of course tells us that every violation of the law makes us guilty (James 2:10-11), that’s not to say God judges all sin the same. According to 1 John 5:16 there “sin that does not lead to death” and then there one that does.
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.
What specific sin is John referring to? That, of course, has been a thorny question. In the immediate context, John gives no clear indication as to what he might mean. Which has lead to differing opinions. Many, for instance, have found in this passage a reference to the “unpardonable sin” from Matthew 12:31-32 and Mark 3:22-30. But I disagree. I think 1 John does define this particular sin. We just need to expand our contextual horizon. Here’s how I read it.
1 John deals specifically with a division that has occurred in John’s church (1 John 2:18-19). Some have left, denying that Jesus’ had a physical body (1 John 4:1-3). The young men of the congregation (2:12-14) are zealous for righteousness and want no part with the world. They possibly see the older men of the congregation (i.e. the fathers, 2:12-14) as capitulating with the world. John emphatically agrees with the young men; no true Christian ever sins.
“No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God. This is how we know who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God…”
But then John turns his aim at those who claim to be without sin.
“…nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.”
By love, John isn’t talking about a feeling or an emotion. He’s talking about a concrete action with a material effect.
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
John stresses the fact that God loved tangibly in Jesus. The life that God gave in Jesus was able to be seen, handled and touched (1 John 1:1-2). The Anitchrists have denied that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:22, 5:1) which is to say they have denied that he is the Son of God (1 John 4:15, 5:5) which is to say they have denied that he came tangibly in the flesh (1 John 4:5). They believed he was water but not blood (1 John 5:6). And thus they practice what they believe, claiming to be spiritual without having to exhibit tangible, material love. And it is against this heretical belief and practice that John lashes out.
In 1 John 1:7-11, John tells his readers why he wrote this letter.
7 Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. 8 Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.
9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. 10 Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. 11 But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.
The command they have had since the beginning is that they “love one another” (1 John 3:11). The new command is that anyone who does not tangibly love the children of God is still in darkness. Their sins are not forgiven.
John states in 1 John 3:12-15,
Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
The “sin that leads to death” is thus revealed to be a lack of tangible love for ones brothers and sisters. When we tangibly love those whom God loves, the sin in our lives is muted. It proves we are no longer dead but have passed from death to life.
18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: 20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God 22 and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.
But when we lack tangible love it proves that we have “not passed from death to life.” This is the sin that leads to death.