The Sin Unto Death
June 6th, 1982 @ 10:50 AM
1 John 5:16-17
THE SIN UNTO DEATH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1 John 5:16-17
6-6-82 10:50 a.m.
And welcome, the great number of visitors who are here this day, and welcome, the uncounted multitudes of you who are sharing this hour with us on radio and on television. This is the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, delivering a message that makes me tremble. It is like looking into the awful judgments of Almighty God, like beholding the pit of the damned and the abyss of hell itself. The title of the sermon is The Sin Unto Death, the unpardonable sin.
And our reading is in the last chapter of 1 John, toward the end of your New Testament: The First Epistle of John, chapter 5, verses 16 and 17. And we are going to leave off the article before the word “sin.” We are going to read it as John wrote it in the Greek text:
If any man see his brother sin, 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: there is sin not unto death.
[1 John 5:16-17]
“But there is sin unto death” [1 John 5:16], and that’s the title of the doctrinal message, the second in the series on salvation, The Sin Unto Death.
When you read the exegetes, and the commentators, and the scholars, and the commentaries, and the messages delivered on this passage, you will find them divided into two groups. There are those who say that this death is physical death. There is sin unto physical death. And they speak of that because John uses the word “brother”: “If any man sees his brother” [1 John 5:16], that is, a Christian brother, “if he sees a Christian sin, he shall ask life for him. There is sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.” Their interpretation of that passage is that a Christian can sin, and the judgment of God destroys his human life, his physical life; the death is physical death.
There are also those who say that that the word “death” refers to spiritual death, eternal death. There is sin unto damnation, eternal condemnation and judgment, and they would say that the word “brother” here refers to a man who is a “brother” only in appearance [1 John 5:16]. He’s dominated by the world. And these exegetes say that the use of the word “death” and “life” in this passage is in keeping with the uniform use of the apostle John. Whether he’s writing in the Gospel, or in these three epistles, or in the Revelation, John always uses the word thanatos to refer to eternal death, and he uses the word zōē to refer to eternal life. So, those men would say that this sin, concerning which John says you are not to pray, concerns sin unto eternal damnation: the unpardonable sin.
As I studied the Bible and the message this morning, because I don’t dare intrude, it is too awful and too awesome for me to enter my own personal judgments, it will be from an – it will be altogether from what God says, altogether. But as I read the Holy Scriptures, in the best of my knowledge and understanding that word “death” refers both to physical death and to eternal death: there is sin unto death, the death of the body; and there is sin unto eternal death, the death of the soul.
I find that in the first judgment of God in the Bible. The Lord said to our first parents, “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely, surely die” [Genesis 2:17], and they died that day. “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” [Genesis 2:17]; in that day of disobedience [Genesis 3:1-6], they died spiritually. They were separated from God, they became a fallen family, and they died physically in that day.
The Scriptures say that a day before God is a thousand years, a thousand years is a day [2 Peter 3:8]. And one of the strange coincidences in the Bible is this: there has never been one, neither Adam, nor Methuselah, nor any other, who has ever outlived that “one day” of God. So the word thanatos, “death,” refers to both physical death and spiritual death. “In the day that you disobey, you shall surely, surely die” [Genesis 2:17].
And we’re going through the Bible, and we’re going to look at the judgment of God upon the sin unto death. First, physical death, the death of the body; second, opportunity death, the taking away of an open door; and third, spiritual death, the eternal death of the soul, the sin unto death.
We speak first of physical death. There is sin unto death [1 John 5:16]: the destruction of the body. In the [seventh] chapter of the Book of Joshua is told the story of Achan. And in covetous disobedience, he took from the spoils of Jericho and hid it away [Joshua 7:1, 20-24]. And the Lord God pointed him out [Joshua 7:10-18]. And under God’s direction, in verse 25: “All Israel stoned him with stones, and burned his family with fire . . . [Joshua 7:25]. And they call that place the Valley of Achor,” of trouble, “unto this day” [Joshua 7:26]; sin unto death.
And in every instance, we’re going to find the same judgment in the New Testament; covetous disobedience. In the fifth chapter of the Book of Acts, Ananias and Sapphira come before Simon Peter in the church in Jerusalem. And there they say, “We sold our property and we are making a gift to the Lord, all of it.” And the Holy Spirit said, “They are lying to Me. They are keeping back part of it.” And Simon Peter says, “Is that what you have done?” And he dropped dead [Acts 5:1-6]. And Sapphira, his wife, came in. And Simon Peter asked her, “Did you sell your property for this?”
“And is this all of it? And you are giving all of it to God?”
And Simon Peter asked, “Why have you conspired to cheat, and to covet, and to keep for yourself, and to lie to the Holy Spirit?” And she fell down straightway and died, yielded up the ghost [Acts 5:7-10]. There is covetous disobedience that leads to death; sin unto death.
We look again at ritual, ceremonial disobedience in the both the Old and the New Testaments. In the tenth chapter of the Book of Leviticus:
And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron . . . offered strange fire unto the Lord, which He commanded them not.
And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.
Then, in the eleventh chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul, writing of the Lord’s Supper, the memorial supper:
Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.
For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily – in an unworthy manner – 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 – many have died.
[1 Corinthians 11:28-30]
“Sleep” is a word for death. “There is sin unto death” [1 John 5:16]. This is ritual, ceremonial disobedience: looking with contempt, an unholy spirit and attitude toward this sacred memorial supper; sin unto death, bodily death.
We look again, at servant death. In the thirteenth chapter of 1 Kings, there is a prophet from Judah who is sent to cry against the idolatry of Bethel, the Northern Kingdom [1 Kings 13:1]. And God said to him, “You go and deliver this message of warning and condemnation, then immediately turn back. You are not to tarry. You are not to eat bread. You are to come back immediately” [1 Kings 13:8-9]. But a prophet in Bethel lied to him, and deceived him, and persuaded him to stay, and when finally he turned homeward, a lion met him in the way and slew him, and his carcass was cast in the way. And the lion stood by it, a judgment of God; the lion never touched it, never ate it. And when the prophet that brought him back heard, he said, “That 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], sin unto death – physical death.
And in the New Testament, in the second chapter, in our Lord’s word to the church at Thyatria, “Because you do not repent:
I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am He which searcheth the reins and the hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.
I tremble at some things, and this is one of them. When I read of the decimation of the church in Russia that conspired with the czars, and was used as an agency to spy for and to oppress in behalf of the czarist government, I tremble at the judgment of God upon His churches.
There is also sexual disobedience; the sin unto death [1 John 5:16]. In the thirty-eighth chapter of 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, Go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother.
That’s called in the Bible the “levirate marriage.” In order for a man’s family line not to die, if a man dies, his brother is to take his brother’s wife and rear up children that the name may continue [Deuteronomy 25:5-6]. Now:
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. –
He wanted the entire inheritance for himself –
And the thing which he did displeased the Lord; Therefore God slew him.
Sexual disobedience: and I read in Romans, chapter 1, “Wherefore God gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves” [Romans 1:24]. Then again, “For this cause God gave them up” [Romans 1:26].
Whenever you think we are vile this day, all you need to do is to read the literature of the uncleanliness, the sexual promiscuity, the filth and dirt of the Greco-Roman culture. So much of what they wrote is not translated. It lies in its own filth and ungodliness.
God gave them up. God gave them up to vile affections: for even the 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 toward one another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.
“There is sin unto death,” sexual disobedience.
I can never in the earth forget the feeling that I had when before me lay the corpse of a young woman who belonged to our church. Moved to California, took her own life there, and as they brought the corpse and laid it before me, they also placed in my hand a suicide note that she had written. After describing what she was doing, taking her life, then she added, “Will you ask . . .” and called my name, that I conduct the memorial service. What had happened was syphilis, venereal disease, had begun to attack the soft membranes of her eyes and she was going blind. And rather than face the darkness of such a judgment of God, she took her own life. There is sin unto death. It’s in evidence everywhere.
“There is sin unto death,” violent disobedience; in the second chapter of 1 Kings:
Now the days of David drew nigh that he should die; and he charged Solomon, saying . . .
Thou knowest what Joab the son of Zeruiah did, and how he slew the two captains of the hosts of Israel, Abner the son of Ner, and Amasa the son of Jether . . .
Let not his hoar head go down to the grave in peace.
[1 Kings 2:1, 5, 6]
And in keeping with the king’s request, Benaiah, the captain of the hosts, caught Joab as he fled into the house of God, and caught hold of the horns of the altar [1 Kings 2:28]. And Benaiah went to the king and said, “He is in God’s house, holding the horns of the altar. What shall I do?” And, the king said, “It is the judgment of God. Fall upon him.” And Benaiah fell upon him and slew him [1 Kings 2:29-34]. ” There is sin unto death” [1 John 5:16]; violent sin.
And then in the New Testament, the Word of our Lord in Matthew 26:52: “Simon Peter,” said our Lord, “put up that sword, put it up in its place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” [Matthew 26:52; John 18:10-11]. There is sin unto death.
We read it every day in these black, dark headlines of our newspapers. Argentina needed but to sit down with Margaret Thatcher and the British government and work out the problem of the Falkland Islands. Instead of that, without any announcement to anyone, Argentina seizes it by the sword, by force. “They that take the sword shall perish with the sword” [Matthew 26:52]. They face a bloody battle and a vicious encounter, the judgment of God upon the government of Argentina.
Or take again the PLO, who have given themselves to worldwide bloodshed and terror. And in every newspaper we read of the violence and the blood and the war and the fire from that awesome confrontation; “there is sin unto death,” that’s the judgment of Almighty God.
Not only is there physical death, but there is opportunity death: God closes an open door forever. In thefourteenth chapter of the Book of Numbers – God has said to His people, “The land lies before you; a goodly land flowing with milk and honey. And its cities and its orchards and its farms and its houses, all I have given you. The day of judgment is come upon the Amorite and the Canaanite, and you are to inherit the goodness and the mercy of God. The land is yours, as I promised to your father Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” [Numbers 13:1-2, Deuteronomy 1:8].
So God delivers His chosen people out of the darkness and slavery and bondage of Egypt, and they come to the edge of the Promised Land, to a place called Kadesh-Barnea. From there, they send twelve spies [Numbers 13:3-25], who come back and say, “The half hath not been told. But there are giants in the land, the sons of Anak are there, and we were in their sight but as grasshoppers, and so we were in our own sight” [Numbers 13:32-33]. “We can’t take it.”
Joshua and Caleb, the two other spies said, “But God is with us. The battle is His” [Numbers 14:6-9].
“Nay,” say the other ten, “we shall be destroyed if we seek to enter that land.” And the people lifted up their voices and wailed and mourned and cried and said, “Let us make a captain and go back into the land of Egypt, into slavery and bondage” [Numbers 14:4]. And the Lord God said, “Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness.” And then, He repeats it again:
As for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness . . .
After the number of the days in which ye searched the land, even forty days, each day for a year, you shall wander forty years in the wilderness, until you be consumed, until you die.
And those ten spies were slain from before the Lord –
And when the people looked upon it, they mourned greatly and they said, We have sinned. Come, let us rise up and enter the land!
But the Lord God said, “Not so. Not so.” And when they presumed to go up anyway, the Amalekites and the Canaanites smote them [Numbers 14:41-45]. They had sinned away their day of grace. “There is sin unto death” [1 John 5:16].
And I haven’t time to expatiate upon the Book of Hebrews 3:7-13: “Today if you hear His voice, harden not your hearts, as in the day of that trial at Kadesh-Barnea in the wilderness” [Hebrews 3:8]; once again, opportunity death.
Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, faint: and Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee . . . Jacob said, Sell me your birthright. And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright be to me?” And Jacob said, Swear . . . and he swore: and he sold his birthright. Then, Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage; and Esau did eat and drink: thus Esau despised his birthright.
Then follows the story: when time came for him to inherit the blessing, God refused him. And he lifted up his voice and cried with an exceeding bitter cry [Genesis 27:34]. He’d already given his birthright away. And in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Hebrews, verses 16 and 17:
Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright.
And you know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.
“With an exceeding great and bitter cry” [Genesis 27:34]; it is all over, it is done. “There is a sin unto death” [1 John 5:16].
When I was a boy in a little town, an evangelist came and put his tent in the middle of the town. And, at a service in that revival meeting – I was twelve years old, all of my life I had felt God call me to be a minister of the gospel, to be a preacher, to be a pastor – and at the invitation, I went down, and I gave that evangelist my hand, saying I was giving my life to God in answer to a call I felt in my heart to be a preacher.
Down that same aisle came an old farmer, old Brother Whaley; he lived right next to us. He was the brother of the evangelist. And he said to his brother, “God called me to preach. He called me when I was a youth, but I have refused the call of God. But, now, I’m coming, answering God’s call to be a preacher.” Old Brother Whaley lived on the farm right next to us. And on Sunday afternoon, it was announced, “Brother Whaley is going to preach his first sermon.” And we were all there, the whole town and countryside. And I sat there on the front row, listening to Brother Whaley, old Brother Whaley, preach his first sermon.
He stood up, awkward, ungainly, untaught – agrammatoi. I suppose the last sermon that he ever preached, for he found no place for change, for repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears. There is sin unto death. The door is closed.
A father in a drunken orgy, with his own hands breaks the back and the spinal cord of his baby boy and mutilates the face of the child. And the lad grows up misshapen and disfigured. And the father is converted and becomes a Christian. And he looks upon his boy, his own son, misshapen, tortured, disfigured. And he looks upon that boy every day of his life: “This is what I did. God, damn these hands that broke that boy. God, damn this mouth that drank so much. God, damn these eyes that look upon such sorrow. God, damn my life that I caused such hurt to my boy.” He found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears. Sin unto death: what you can’t undo.
And that leads to the last eternal, unpardoned sin: the death of the soul. In the sixth chapter of the Book of Genesis:
When men began to multiply on the face of the earth . . .
God saw that the wickedness of man was great, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually . . .
And the Lord said, My Spirit shall not always strive with man . . . his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.
And after that, the judgment shall fall, “My Spirit shall not always strive with men” [Genesis 6:3].
Tell me, haven’t you, as I – haven’t you seen a thousand pictures of that ark floating on the bosom of the water and those souls outside, floundering in the water, lifting up their arms in piteous appeal? Maybe some of them pounding on the door of the ark, crying unto Noah? And when you see that picture, why doesn’t Noah open the door of the ark? Why? Because the Book says God shut that door! [Genesis 7:16]. God shut it. The day has passed. The harvest is past. The summer is ended. The day of grace has been taken away; the judgment of Almighty God:
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]
There is sin unto death [1 John 5:16].
And the most solemn and awesome and terrifying of all of the words of our Lord in the New Testament, repeated three times; I read from Matthew 12:31-32:
Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost 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, nor in the world to come.
And he illustrated that in the twenty-fifth chapter of the Book of Matthew, in the tenth verse. In this parable of the ten virgins, five of them go in and five of them are shut out. And they knock at the door: “Let us in” [Matthew 25:11]. And why doesn’t God let them in? The Book says, “God shut that door.” God shut that door. God shut it [Matthew 25:10].
When a man refuseth the Father, maybe he can be saved through the Son. When a man refuses the Son, maybe he can come to know God through the Holy Spirit. When a man refuses the Holy Spirit, there is no other recourse. He is lost forever and ever and ever [Matthew 12:31-32]. I can’t judge. I don’t know. That’s His prerogative. But I have seen that ten thousand times ten thousand times. They are never going to be saved, never ever.
It is an awesome thing when a man does despite to the Spirit of grace [Hebrews 10:29]. In the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, there’s something in that system that I’ve never heard anybody refer to; rarely is it ever mentioned. It is simply this: the sacrificial system of the Old Testament covered sins of inadvertence, of accident, of ignorance. But if a man willfully defied God, there was no sacrifice, none at all; there was no appeal.
Let me read to you out of the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Numbers. At verse 27 it says, “If any man sin through ignorance, well, he is to bring an offering” [Numbers 15:27]. Now the thirtieth verse, “But the soul that doeth aught presumptuously” [Numbers 15:30]. The Hebrew of that is “with a high hand,” that is, with a fist raised in defiance to God. “You say to me I am to repent? You say to me I am to believe? You say to me I am to be baptized? You say to me I’d be a Christian? You say to me I am to open my heart to Jesus? Defiant, I will not!” “But the soul that doeth aught presumptuously” [Numbers 15:30], with a closed fist in defiance to God, “whether he be born in the land, or a stranger, the same reproacheth the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Because he hath despised the word of the Lord, and hath broken His commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him [Numbers 15:30-31].
Now, is there such a thing as that in the New Testament? Let me quote for you the tenth chapter of the Book of Hebrews, beginning in verse 26:
For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,
But a certain [fearful] looking for of judgment . . . that shall consume the adversaries.
He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses:
Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace, and hath counted the blood of His sanctification, as though it were nothing, an unholy thing.
For we know Him that hath said, Vengeance is Mine, 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.
And the last verse of the next chapter:
For our God is a consuming fire.
“I don’t believe in that kind of a God.” My brother, look all around you. Look at the death and the judgment visited upon families and people and nations. It is a world of blood, and of tears and of judgment because of their defiance of Almighty God!
If a building could seize itself and tear itself from its foundation, all of the laws of gravity would work against it to destroy it. If a tree could seize itself and pluck itself up by the roots from the Mother Earth, all nature would fight against it, to kill it. Its juices would be sucked out; its veins would be dried up; its leaves would be withered; its branches and its very heart would be rotten. If a mariner on the sea were to despise the stars and the maps and the compasses, the very winds and the waves would fight against it to dash it to death on the reefs and the rocks.
It is so with a man’s life. When a man defies God and he says no to God, he inevitably faces an inexorable judgment. It is sin unto death! What is needed is a turning. “Lord, Lord, take away this hard heart. Take away this spirit of rejection and unbelief. Lord, Lord, be merciful to me!” What is needed is a response. In the third chapter of the Book of John, in the fourteenth verse, our Lord said as it was there in the day of Moses [John 3:14], when serpents, because of the sins of the people [Numbers 21:5-7], was destroying the nation, he raised a brazen serpent, and if a man bitten, if a man sin, he could look and live [Numbers 21:8-9]. But he has to look. He has to look.
There is life for a look at the Crucified One.
There is life at this moment, for thee.
Then look, sinner, look unto Him and be saved!
Unto Him who was nailed to the tree.
[“There Is Life For a Look at the Crucified One,” A.M. Hull]
To look! To turn! One of those malefactors was nailed by Jesus on the cross. All he could do was to turn his head, but he turned his head, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom. And Jesus said, Today, semeion, this day, not some future day, this day, this hour, this moment, this day, you will be with Me in Paradise” [Luke 23:42-43]. But you must turn! “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in thine heart that He lives, thou shalt be saved” [Romans 10:9]. “For with the heart one believeth in acceptance and trust and committal, and with the mouth, confession is made unto salvation” [Romans 10:10]. But you must confess. You must open your heart. You must respond.
I don’t think, in the thirty-eight years I’ve been undershepherd of this dear church, I was ever more moved than something that happened right here. Down that aisle, down that aisle, came a man that I never had seen before; and by his side, another man that I had never had seen before. And the other man was very, very crippled; he walked with exceeding difficulty. And when both of those men stood there in front of me, the first man said, “Sir, I’m a stranger in the city. I’m a visitor here in the church. And this man sat by my side, underneath the balcony and when you gave the appeal he turned to me and he said, “Sir, would you help me down the aisle to the pastor? I want to tell him that today, I accept the Lord as my Savior.” And the stranger said, “Sir, I have helped him down the aisle, to God and to you.”
What a simple thing, “This day, I look! This day, I believe! This day, I respond! This day, I answer with my life!” My brother, look around you! There are at least three thousand of us here today, and all of us came into the Lord’s mercy, just like that. Had God said, “Buy it,” some of us are too poor. Had God said, “Be wise for it,” some of us are too unlearned and uneducated. Had God said, “Be strong and achieve it,” some of us are too weak. Had God said, “Do some great and mighty thing,” some of us could never have achieved it. But anybody can look. Anybody can turn. Anybody can ask. Anybody can come. That’s God’s mercy reaching down to us. Lord, save us! Without loss of one, save us! May we stand together?
Our wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Lord, who, seeing us in our lost and condemned condition, came into this dark, dying world and paid the penalty for our transgressions [1 Corinthians 15:3]; died in our stead [2 Corinthians 5:21], rose for our justification [Romans 4:25]. And to those who will look, in faith, in trust, in acceptance to Him; there is life for that look. There is salvation for that trust. There is a new and wonderful life for that confession [John 3:14-17; Romans 10:9-10]. While our people pray and wait, just for you, to give your heart to the Lord Jesus, “Pastor, here I stand, I’m coming this morning.” A family you, the whole family, coming to put your life with us in this dear church; a couple, just the two of you; or one somebody you, make the decision now in your heart, and in a moment when we sing, down that stairway if you’re in the balcony, down this aisle if you’re on this lower floor, “Pastor, we’ve decided for God and here we stand.” And our Lord, thank Thee for the office work of the Holy Spirit of God that draws us to Jesus [John 6:44]. And we thank Thee for the promise of Thy help in this pilgrimage, and in that wonderful world You have prepared for those who love Thee [1 Corinthians 2:9]. Give us, Lord, a gracious harvest, in Thy saving name, amen. While we sing, welcome. Welcome.