The Sin Unto Death
June 6th, 1982 @ 8:15 AM
1 John 5:16-17
THE SIN UNTO DEATH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I John 5:16-17
6-6-82 8:15 a.m.
And welcome the great multitude of you who are listening to this service on radio. This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas delivering the message the message entitled The Sin Unto Death, “The Unpardonable Sin.” This is a series, the second in the section on soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. And of course, it is like looking into the abyss, into very damnation in hell itself, to assign such a subject at this solemn hour. And what I’m doing is this: it is of such consequence that I dare not trust my own judgment or persuasion. We shall see what God says and that is the message. It will be entirely the revelation of God in Holy Scripture.
Our background text is 1 John 5:16-17; 1 John, toward the end of your New Testament, 1 John chapter 5, verses 16 and 17. And we are going to leave out the article; the article is not in Greek, so let’s leave it out. And it reads like this:
If a man see his brother sin a sin not unto death, he shall ask, and He shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.
All unrighteousness is sin: and there is sin not unto death.
[1 John 5:16-17]
And our text: “There is sin unto death” [1 John 5:16].
If you study the commentaries and the expositors and the grammarians and the exegetes, you will find them sharply divided into two groups as they seek to explain the meaning of that text. Half of them will say this death refers to physical death. And they say that because the passage reads, “If any man see his brother sin, then you pray for him.” Being a Christian brother, they conclude it would be impossible that he commit the unpardonable sin, the sin unto death. Therefore they say this word “death” refers to physical death; the judgment of God upon sin that results in the dissolution of this body, physical death. There will be an equal number who will say that that word refers to eternal death, to damnation, to spiritual death, sin unto death. And they say that the word “brother” here does not mean the man is a child of God, he is a brother only in appearance; he is actually dominated by the world, he is not saved. And they further avow that the word “death,” thanatos, and the word life, zōē, are used without exception by the apostle to refer to eternal death and eternal life. And there is no exception to that in all of the writings of John, in the Gospel, in these three epistles, in the Revelation; John without exception uses thanatos to refer to eternal damnation, and zōē to refer to eternal life.
Now, what I have done is, in reading the Scripture and studying it to the best of my ability, I believe I’ve come to the conclusion that it refers to both; the “death” refers to physical death – there is sin unto physical death – then there is sin unto eternal death. I find that in the beginning – both of them. The Lord God said to our first parents, “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” [Genesis 2:17].
“Now God didn’t mean that; God is too kind and too good to damn anybody to death. That’s foolishness; that’s idiocy!”
Just look around you. God is a God of judgment, and the wrath of God is as surely realistic as the mercy of God. The judgments of God are terrible. “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” [Genesis 2:17]. And that day when they disobeyed they died, spiritually [Genesis 3:1-6; Romans 5:12-21]. And in that day of the Lord, they died physically. God’s Word says that a day with the Lord is a thousand years [2 Peter 3:8]; and it is a strange but pertinent fact that no one has ever lived beyond that thousand year day. So, taking it both ways, as I read it in the Bible, we shall speak of sin unto physical death, then sin unto opportunity death, and then sin unto eternal death, the unpardonable, unforgiven sin.
First, sin unto physical death: the sin of covetous disobedience that results in physical death [1 John 5:16]. In the [seventh] chapter of the Book of Joshua, there is told the story of Achan. God said all of the spoil of Jericho is devoted; it is not for these who conquer the city to divide among themselves, it is devoted to God [Joshua 6:24, 7:1]. God gave the victory. But Achan, when he saw a Babylonish garment, and shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold, hid them away [Joshua 7:19-24]. And God judged him and he died. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned him and his family with fire [Joshua 7:25]. “There is sin unto death” [1 John 5:16].
Now in every instance we’re going to see the same thing in the New Testament. In chapter 5 of the Book of Acts, Ananias and Sapphira lie to the Holy Spirit [Acts 5:1-7]. First, Ananias, and he is dropped dead; then Sapphira his wife agrees to the lie, the covetousness of saying, “We gave this to the Lord,” and they kept it back for themselves”; and straightway she fell down dead [Acts 5:8-10]. There is sin unto physical death: covetous disobedience [1 John 5:16].
Look again; there is ritual, ceremonial sin, disobedience unto death. In the tenth chapter of the Book of Leviticus, “And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, offered strange fire before the Lord, which God commanded not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord” [Leviticus 10:1-2]; sin unto death. I turn to the New Testament, in the first chapter . . . in 1 Corinthians, the eleventh chapter, when the Lord revealed to the apostle Paul the sanctity of the memorial supper, the Lord’s Supper, Paul writes:
But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat, and drink. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.
[1 Corinthians 11:28-30]
That is Paul’s way of saying they have died. There is sin unto death [1 John 5:16]: ritual sin, ceremonial sin. “Many sleep,” they have died because of their contemptuous unspiritual attitude toward the Holy Supper [1 Corinthians 11:28-30].
We look again in the Bible to servant death. In the thirteenth chapter of 1 Kings there is a prophet in Judah who is sent to Bethel, to Samaria, to the Northern Kingdom, to denounce the iniquity and the wickedness of the Northern Kingdom. And God says to the prophet, “You are not to stay, you are not to break bread; after you have delivered your message you are to come back immediately” [1 Kings 13:1-9]. But the prophet was enticed by a man who lied to him and he tarried. And when he left, a lion met him by the way and slew him and his carcass stood – and his carcass was cast in the way and the lion stood by it, didn’t eat it. And when the prophet that brought him back, who lied to him, heard thereof, he said, “It is the man of God, who was disobedient unto the word of the Lord: therefore the Lord hath delivered him unto the lion, which hath torn him and slain him” [1 Kings 13: 11-26]. There is disobedience unto death: sin unto death [1 John 5:16]. And when I turn in the New Testament to a like condemnation, the Lord says to the church at Thyatira, “You do not repent, therefore I will kill your children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am He which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works” [Revelation 2:21-23]. There is disobedient sin unto death [1 John 5:16].
We look again. There is sexual sin unto death. In the Book of Genesis, “Er, Judah’s firstborn, was wicked in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord slew him. And Judah said unto Onan,” that is Er’s brother, and this is the law of the levirate marriage, “Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother” [Genesis 38:7-8]. That is to keep the families from dying out. If a man’s brother died, his brother is to go raise seed to him, the levirate marriage. “And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother” [Genesis 38:9]. He wanted all the inheritance for himself. “And the thing which he did displeased the Lord: therefore God slew him” [Genesis 38:10]; sin unto death [1 John 5:16].
I read the same thing in the first chapter of the Book of Romans. “God gave them up” – talking about the Greco Roman cultural life – which is not translated it is so filthy and dirty. You think we’re wicked today, just go back and read that literature in that day. It is not translated; it lies in its filth. “God gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves [Romans 1:24] . . . For this cause God gave them up,” three times it says that, “God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and they receive in themselves the recompense of their error which is meet” [Romans 1:26-27]. There is sin unto death [1 John 5:16].
I’ll never in the earth forget the strange feeling I had, awesome, terrible, there lay before me the corpse of a young woman that they brought back from California; and placed in my hand a note. She’d committed suicide, and the note was that her body was to be brought back, and she wanted me, and called my name, to bury her. And what had happened was, she had contracted a venereal disease. And when it began to eat, to destroy the soft membranes of the eye, she was going blind. And rather than face the awesome sentence, she committed suicide – she took her own life. There is sin unto death [1 John 5:16].
There is sin unto death: violent disobedience. “The days of David drew nigh that he should die; and he charged Solomon his son, saying, You know what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, and how he slew the two captains of the hosts of Israel, Abner and Amasa. Now therefore do not let his hoar head go down to the grave in peace” [1 Kings 2:1, 5-6, 9]. So Solomon commanded Benaiah to slay Joab; sin unto death. “And Joab went into the house of God, and caught hold on the horns of the altar” [1 King 2:28], and Benaiah didn’t know what to do. So he came to the king, and the king said, “Fall upon him, slay him.” And Benaiah fell upon him, and slew him,” there at the altar of God [1 Kings 2:29-34]. There is sin unto death, violent sin [1 John 5:16].
I read from God’s Holy Word, the wonderful Word of our Lord in its awesomeness, Matthew 26:52, “He said to Simon Peter, Put up your sword: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” There is sin unto death [1 John 5:16].
I think of the Falkland Islands that we read about every day. All that it would have taken would be for the Argentine government to sit down with the government of Margaret Thatcher and say, “We’re going to work this out,” and it would have been worked out. But “they that take the sword,” there is violent disobedience. God is not in that. The Argentine government, seeing itself shaky, says, “We will keep our power and our office by cementing our people in a great patriotic adventure. We’ll go over there and we’ll take that.” And sword meets sword, and blood meets blood; that is God.
Same thing about the PLO. I’ve been over there seven times. I saw those people when they were first driven out. West Germany, a thousand other places, have absorbed their refugees of war by the millions of them. The Arab nations will absorb none of them. And they are a festering sore. And by terrorist activities, they think they’re going to win a place for themselves in the sun. It but breeds violence and blood and war; that’s God! You don’t mock God. You don’t read His Word and turn aside as though these things were not true.
We must continue. There is death; there is the sin unto the loss of opportunity. I read in the Book of Numbers, Israel comes to Kadesh Barnea, in the fourteenth chapter of the Book of Numbers, “And God said, I give you the land, take it; it is yours, and I will go with you. And I will deliver every high place and every low place, every city and village, it is all in your hands, it is yours. For the day is come to judge the Amorite and the Canaanite; I have given them up” [Exodus 23:23]. So Israel comes to Kadesh Barnea, and sends spies [Numbers 13:2-25], and ten of them say, “They are giants, and we are grasshoppers in their sight. We cannot take it” [Numbers 13:26-29, 31-33]. And two of them, Caleb and Joshua, say, “But we can, for God is with us” [Numbers 13:30, 14:6-9]. And the people listen to the report of the majority [Numbers 14:10]. And they weep and say, “We want to go back into Egypt, into the land of bondage and darkness and slavery and night” [Numbers 14:3-4]. And God says, “Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness.” Then He repeats it, “Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness. According to the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, you are going to wander for forty years, and then die” [Numbers 14:28-35]. Then the next verse says, “And a fire went out, and a plague from the Lord, and slew the ten spies; and they died before the Lord” [Numbers 14:36-37]. Then the people said, “We repent; we have sinned. And they mourned greatly, and they said, Now let us go.” And the Lord said, “No, no, I will not go with you.” But they said, “We are going anyway.” And they presumed to go up into the land of promise, and the Canaanites and the Amalekites smote them [Numbers 14:39-45]. The sin unto death; you had an open door before you and you refused it. It is lost forever.
I haven’t time to read in the New Testament:
The Holy Ghost saith, Today if you will hear His voice, Harden not your heart, as in the day of Kadesh Barnea, in the days of the temptation and trial in the wilderness: When your fathers . . . proved Me . . . and I was grieved with that generation . . . and I sware in My wrath, They shall not enter into My rest.
The day is gone; it is gone forever; the sin unto death [John 5:16]. One other out of a thousand that I could have chosen: “And Jacob sod pottage,” in the [twenty-fifth] chapter of Genesis:
And Esau came, and he was faint, and hungry: And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee . . . And Jacob said, I will if you will give me your birthright. And Esau said, I am at the point to die: what good is my birthright to me? And Jacob said, Swear to me this day that you will give me your birthright; and he sold his birthright unto Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage; and he did eat and drink, and he went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.
Now the New Testament: in Hebrews :
Esau, for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.
That is one of the saddest stories in the Bible. When time came for him to receive the blessing, he was refused, he’d sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. And the Scriptures say, “And he cried exceedingly, but he found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears” [Hebrews 12:17]; his great opportunity had gone, sin unto death.
In a revival meeting in the little town in which I grew up, in a tent in the middle of the little town, down the aisle I went and gave my life to be a preacher. I was barely twelve years of age. I’d felt called of God to preach as far back as I could remember; and when I was twelve I made that announcement public. And then right back of me came the old farmer – old “Brother Walley,” we called him – he was the brother of the evangelist. And he came down and fell into the arms of his brother, and he said, “God called me to preach when I was a youth, and I refused. But now I am answering God’s call.” And everybody rejoiced, and they wept, and they were happy, and they hugged him. The next Sunday afternoon at two o’clock, under that tent in the middle of the little town, it was announced, “Old Brother Walley is going to preach his first sermon. He’s finally offered himself in answer to God’s call.” So we were all there, and I was seated on the front row, listen to old Brother Walley preach, a farmer out there near our farm. And he stood up there in his awkwardness and in his unknowledge, and he tried. Man, I never forget that! So far as I know, that is the last sermon that he ever preached; “for he found no place to change, for repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears,” sinned away his opportunity.
Finally, there is sin unto death, the eternal sin, spiritual death [1 John 5:16]. First, in the Old Testament, sixth chapter of Genesis:
When men began to multiply on the face of the earth, they were wicked in the sight of the Lord [Genesis 6:1, 5].
And it repented the Lord that He had made, created the man [Genesis 6:6].
And God said, My Spirit shall not always strive for man; I give him a hundred twenty years [Genesis 6:3].
And at the end of the hundred twenty years, God destroyed them from the face of the earth [Genesis 7:23].
Did it ever occur to you, a thousand times I’ve seen pictures of that ark, you know, an artist’s conception. And the waters are rising, and there are people, there are people all around that ark, and some of them are pounding on the door, and some of them are lifting up their arms in despair, and some of them are calling. Well, why doesn’t Noah open that door of the ark? Why doesn’t he? God says in His Book He shut the door; He shut the door [Genesis 7:16]. “God wouldn’t do something like that; kind and good and soft and flabby and easy as He is, He wouldn’t do something like that. The Holy Book says God shut that door. God shut it. “My Spirit shall not always strive with man” [Genesis 6:3].
There is a time, I know not when,
A place, I know not where,
That marks the destiny of men,
To glory or despair
There is a line by us unseen,
That crosses every path;
The hidden boundary between
God’s mercy and God’s wrath
[“The Hidden Line,” Joseph Addison Alexander]
God shut that door. “My Spirit shall not always strive with man” [Genesis 6:3]. And listen to the most foreboding and awful words I know of from the lips of our Lord:
I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit shall not be forgiven unto men.
Whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.
He has committed an unpardonable and eternal sin. Or as the Lord told the story in Matthew 25, of the ten virgins: five of them entered in, and God shut the door. They knocked, saying, “Open to us, open to us!” But Jesus said, “God shut the door; God did it” [Matthew 25:10-12]. If a man refuses God the Father, maybe he can find Him through the Son. If a man refuses God the Son, maybe he can find Him through the Holy Spirit. When a man refuses the Holy Spirit, there is nothing remaining but death; eternal, unending damnation [Matthew 12:31-32].
Just one more time to look at this: in the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Numbers, here is something about sacrifice in the Old Testament that most of our people are never aware of. “If a man sins unwittingly or through ignorance, he can bring a sacrifice, a sin offering. But the soul that doeth aught presumptuously,” the Hebrew of that is “with a high hand,” raising his fist in defiance to God, “the soul that sins in defiance to God, whether he be born in the land, or he be a stranger, the same reproacheth the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off. Because he hath despised the Word of the Lord, and hath broken His commandment, the soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall rest upon him” [Numbers 15:27-31]. There is no sacrifice in the Bible for defiance, for willful transgression; there is no sacrifice [Hebrews 10:26]. And I read it in its awfulness, in the tenth chapter of the Book of Hebrews:
For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a fearful looking for of judgment . . . that shall devour the adversary. He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment . . . shall he be thought [worthy], who hath trodden under foot . . . the blood of the covenant, and hath counted the sacrifice by which He sought to save us as an unholy thing, and hath done despite to the Spirit of grace? For we know Him that saith, Vengeance belongeth unto Me, I will repay, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge His people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Or as he closed the twelfth chapter, “For our God is a consuming fire” [Hebrews 12:29]. Great God! Great God!
If a tree could somehow seize itself and pull itself up by the roots, all nature fights against it to kill it. It sucks out its juices, it dries up its veins, it withers its leaves, it rots its branches and its very heart. If a building could seize itself and pull itself from its foundation, all the laws of the universe fight against it: the law of gravity, every law of physics seeks to destroy the building. If a mariner on the sea refuses the guidance of the stars, and the maps and the charts, all the winds and the waves dash it against the reefs and the rocks. So it is with our souls: when we turn aside from our only avenue of forgiveness and hope and salvation, nothing remains but the judgments of Almighty God.
What is needed? What is needed is to turn, to turn, turn. That is the word “repentance,” metanoeō, turn, turn. What is needed is a response. In the third chapter of John, speaking of that disaster of the people of God in the Book of Numbers, when they were bitten by snakes [Numbers 21:6-9], “Look, just look, look and live, my brother, live. Just look” [John 3:14]. Or again, the thief on the cross, just turn: “Lord, remember me” [Luke 23:42]. Turn. Or as Romans 10:9-10 avow: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that He lives, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart one leans upon Jesus, looks to Jesus, trusts in Jesus; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation”; a response, a response.
I don’t know that I was ever more moved in my life than one day here in this church. At a morning hour when I had preached and pressed the invitation, down the aisle, that aisle there, down the aisle came a man helping a very crippled man down here to me. And when both of them stood down here, the man helping the other one, the man said to me, he said to me, “Sir, I am a stranger in the city. I’m a stranger here in the church. I’m a visitor in the church, and I was seated back there underneath the balcony.” And he said, “This man seated next to me, this crippled man, turned to me and said, ‘Sir, would you help me down the aisle to the pastor? I am crippled and have difficulty walking. Would you help me down the aisle to the pastor? I want to confess my faith in the Lord Jesus. I want to be saved. Would you help me?'” And down the aisle that stranger came, helping that very crippled man who wanted to confess his faith in the Lord Jesus. That’s it. As long as my heart is hardened and my will is defiant, I can never be saved, never. But if I will turn, if I will look, if I will ask, if I will respond, if I will confess I can be saved.
May we stand together?
Our Lord, we face such solemnities in our lives, oh the judgments of God upon iniquity and transgression! And when we harden our hearts, and when we defy the loving invitation of God and the provision and the mercies of our Lord, O God, what tragedy overwhelms us! Our Savior, thank Thee for the mercy that reached down to me when I was a boy. And thank Thee, Lord, for the thousands and thousands of times I’ve seen God’s goodness extended to Thy people. And thank Thee Lord that the mercies of God ever reach out toward us, wayfaring sinners as we are.
And while our people pray and wait in the presence of the Lord this moment, to give your soul and heart and life in trust to Jesus, would you come and stand by me? “Pastor, I’ve heard the message from God this day, and I’m finding refuge and forgiveness and salvation in our blessed Lord; and I’m coming.” A family you, to put your life with us in the church; a couple you, or one somebody you, in the balcony round, down one of those stairways, and there is time and to spare. In the throng on this lower floor, into one of those aisles and down here to the front, “Here I am, pastor, and here I come.” And thank You Lord for the moving, convicting power of the Spirit that brings us to our Savior. In His wonderful name, amen. While we sing, and welcome, and welcome.
divided regarding this text
death; “brother” refers to a Christian brother
Spiritual death; “brother” refers to one who is a brother only in appearance
the Scriptures, “death” refers to both physical and spiritual(Genesis 2:17, 2 Peter 3:8)
II. Physical death – the destruction of
Covetous disobedience(Joshua 7:10-26, Acts
Ritual disobedience(Leviticus 10:1-2, 1
Servant disobedience(1 Kings 13:23-26,
Sexual disobedience(Genesis 38:7-10, Romans
1:24, 27, 32)
Violent disobedience(1 Kings 2:5-6, 28-35,
III. Opportunity death
open door, closed(Numbers 13:25-33, 14:29-45,
Despising God’s gifts(Genesis 25:31-34, 27:34,
IV. Eternal death – the death of the soul
rejection (Genesis 6:3, 5, 7:16, Matthew
Willful defiance(Numbers 15:27-31, Hebrews