November 19, 2020

What Is a “Sin That Leads to Death”?

Nathan W. Bingham & Derek Thomas
What Is a “Sin That Leads to Death”?

Writing to the early church, the Apostle John describes "sins not leading to death" and the "sin that leads to death" (1 John 5:16). What should we make of this distinction? Today, Derek Thomas presents four views on this difficult passage and explains the interpretation he holds.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Calling in this week is Ligonier Teaching Fellow Dr. Derek Thomas. Dr. Thomas, in 1 John chapter 5, can you explain the difference between sins that lead to death and sins that don't lead to death? What's John talking about there?

DR. DEREK THOMAS: Yes, this is a really, really difficult question, but an important one since it relates to a couple of verses, in verses 16 and 17 of John's first epistle. And before I answer the question, I think I need to point out that once we believe that all Scripture is inerrant, that doesn't necessarily mean that all Scripture is equally clear, and it doesn't mean that all Scripture is equally clear to everybody. And this is one of those passages where Christians, and evangelical Christians, and Christians committed to the inerrancy of Scripture take different sides.

And there are four possible interpretations of this. And I may tell you which one I come down on. The first is that both are believers, that the believer commits both sins. One believer gets forgiven, but the other goes to the extent of apostasy. Therefore, it would be in the same category of thought as Jesus speaking of the sin against the Holy Spirit, or the unforgivable sin, that it's possible for somebody who makes a profession of faith and is therefore regarded as a believer in human terms, but sins a sin, which leads him into a state of apostasy. And somebody like Howard Marshall, the great New Testament scholar, would have taken that point of view.

Another point of view would be that an unbeliever commits both. So the first says a believer commits both the sin that isn't unto death and the sin that is unto death. In the second interpretation, an unbeliever commits both, but the second one experiences eternal death. So they're both unbelievers, but the second one experiences eternal death. And presumably the first unbeliever gets forgiven and converted and so on. And that would be the view of John Stott. The problem with that view is that in both instances, the term "brother" applies. And if they're both unbelievers, that's a little difficult to hold on to.

The third interpretation is that believers commit both, but the second one dies"dies in the sense of a physical death. And you remember, for example, in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul addressing the issue of the Lord's Supper, that God has come in judgment upon them because of their sins, and some of them are sick and some of them have died. And therefore, there is a sin, but God"you may be a believer"but God punishes you in the sense that He takes you out of this world, that you die. And that was the view of someone no less than B.B. Warfield.

And then the fourth view is that the believer commits the first sin and is forgiven, and an unbeliever commits the second one, and God does not forgive that sin.

So, the first interpretation would be that a believer commits both sins. The second one would be that an unbeliever commits both sins. The third is that the believer commits both, but the second one dies a physical death. And then the fourth one, a believer, commits the sin in the first instance and gets forgiven, and an unbeliever commits the second and God does not forgive.

And the view that I've held the longest is actually the first one, that you may reckon yourself to be a believer, but you can commit a sin that actually demonstrates that you were never truly a believer in the first place and that you end up as an apostate, and in the same category of thought, therefore, as the unforgivable sin.