SIN UNTO DEATH
A Sermon preached by Mr S. Delves, 31 st May 1970, Crowborough `If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it.’ I John 5.16.
The obvious purpose in the apostle’s mind in this Scripture is to direct and encourage brethren in the Lord to pray one for another, when any act of sin has been committed, and the promise is that the Lord will be gracious to hear such brotherly petitions, and forgive and heal the one who has committed the sin. That, as I said this morning, is the general purport of this passage. But there is an exception. Although the apostle plainly indicates that, with regard to the prayers of brethren one for another, the Lord will certainly hear and answer, `there is a sin unto death,’ and no prayer will avail with regard to that sin.
I said this is a point that has caused very much concern to the brethren as to what that sin unto death is, and whether they may even have been left to fall into it. That point I will endeavour, as the Lord may help me, to set before you.
`There is a sin unto death.’ If this were the only reference in the Scripture to this sin which is unto death, we should be entirely at a loss as to understand what the expression means. It is not in this place at all explained. It is stated without any exposition, but then, it is explained in other parts of the Scripture. This is by no means the only reference to this particular unpardonable sin, and I will just observe that it is much the way of the Holy Spirit in Scripture, in some places to make a very brief reference and, in other places, to make that particular matter more clear and to explain it more fully. There is no needless repetition in the Word of God.
There are three kinds of death referred to in the New Testament. There is, first, that state of spiritual death in which all men are by nature born. Men, by reason of the sinfulness of their nature, are dead to God. They are born in that condition and death is predominant in everyone not born again by the Holy Spirit and savingly converted unto God.
With regard to spiritual and heavenly things they are in a state of entire death, and nothing can deliver them from that condition but the power of the Holy Spirit, according to that Scripture, `Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead’ (Ephesians 5.14). When the Holy Spirit clothes such a word with power, and makes it effectual, then there is an awakening out of that sleep and from that death in the soul. But I do not understand that to be the death intended in this expression,
`There is a sin unto death.’ For, in any case, men, as I have said, in their unregenerate state are dead as it is, and those that have been quickened by the Holy Spirit, possessing eternal life in and through Jesus Christ in their hearts, possess a life that can never die, anyway, when they possess it. Eternal life is eternal life and that life, once possessed, can never perish in the soul that possesses it. That is a most comforting, supporting and encouraging truth to the people of God, for, if it were not so, they could never be sure but what they might at some time commit a sin that would sink them back into their original state of spiritual death, and so all be lost. That is one meaning, death in the soul.
Another meaning of this expression is the death of the body, physical death. That also has come upon men by sin.
There is another meaning to the word in the Scripture and that is eternal death, `the second death,’ that state of hopeless despair, wrath and remorse that fastens upon all who live and die in unbelief and sin.
But which of these kinds of death does this mean, `There is a sin unto death’? You would be surprised, if you were to hear what various interpretations have been put upon this one expression. I should not think there is hardly a sentence in the Bible that has had so many interpretations put upon it, and there is no point in my endeavouring to bring them before you. In my mind I am quite certain that this sin unto death means unto eternal death, the second death, the death of the lost. I know that there is a sin unto physical death, but I believe the only cases of that in the Scripture are, first, Ananias and Sapphira who, by their attempt to deceive the apostle, and, in so doing, lie to the Holy Ghost, committed a sin which brought sudden death upon them. It might be said, of course, that in those two cases they did sin unto death. The same, I should feel, must be said in the case of Judas Iscariot, when, after he had so sinned in betraying innocent blood and instrumentally caused the apprehension and death of Jesus Christ by betraying Him to the chief priests, he committed a sin that was very soon to bring him into an awful death, for Judas went out and hanged himself. It might be said in such cases, perhaps, there is a sin unto death, but I feel they are exceptional and not at all to be taken as setting forth the nature and purpose of this expression, `There is a sin unto death.’
I understand it then (and I quite feel I am taking the right line in this matter), to be a sin unto eternal death, the second death of the soul, a sin that, inevitably, in every case where it is committed, will end in that eternal condition of endless despair.
But what this sin is which is unto death is rather mysterious. There are several references to it in the Scripture and, if they are brought to my mind, will be a guide to me in expounding this solemn and difficult sentence, `there is a sin unto death.’
Now I feel this is referred to, but not explained, in the 19th Psalm, where the Psalmist expresses himself thus, `Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall
I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression’ (verse 13). The Psalmist does not say exactly what he meant by the great transgression, but the very expression implies that it was no ordinary sin and that it was something that extended beyond presumptuous sins. The apparent meaning is that presumptuous sins led on to the great transgression, and the Psalmist desired the Lord to keep him back from presumptuous sins, so that he might be innocent from the great transgression. Presumptuous sins always appear in the Scriptures to be of a more hideous nature in the sight of God than other sins. There was no provision made under the sacrifices of the old dispensation for presumptuous sins, but that does not mean that there is no provision in the Gospel for the forgiveness of presumptuous sins, because presumptuous sins do not constitute the great transgression in themselves. There is a connection, however; presumptuous sins are exceedingly dangerous because they lead on to the great transgression, and the great transgression is great, because it is a sin inevitably `unto death.’ That is a great transgression which lands the soul certainly, and without any hope, in eternal destruction.
There is, then, the great transgression, the sin that stands out apart from, and far above, all other sins by reason of its awful nature and it is `the’ not `a’ great transgression, the one great transgression. There is no doubt in my mind that the great transgression of that Psalm is `the sin unto death’ in my text.
You will remember where the Lord Jesus Christ Himself gives a more clear instruction with regard to the nature of this sin unto death in the twelfth chapter of Matthew and the third chapter of Mark. The occasion was when the Lord had cast out devils from some that were possessed of them, and unbelievers and the Pharisees and such were so incensed at this that they ascribed the Lord’s wonderful power to the devil, and they blasphemed. They said, `This fellow doth not cast out devils but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils’ (Matthew 12.24). `It is the devil in Jesus of Nazareth that is doing this,’ whereas it was the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit was given to Jesus Christ without measure, and those miracles that the Lord
Jesus Christ performed, although they proclaimed His own essential divinity, were by the Holy Spirit wrought amongst men.
And, hearing this, the Lord Jesus gives that solemn instruction with regard to the great transgression. `All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men’ (Matthew 12.31), and again in v.32, `It shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.’
There is no forgiveness for that blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.
But what constitutes the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, because even gracious people on occasions when they are especially assailed by Satan have thoughts springing up in their minds or feelings in their
hearts that look dreadfully like it`? If any listening to me this afternoon have never been distressed with presumptuous thoughts, if they have been preserved from that particular temptation, that distressing way of the enemy, they have much to be thankful for. It is surprising what thoughts Satan can either inject into or stir up within the mind until it seems as though those thoughts really express the mind itself. If you have read John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding in which he speaks about his own experience in these matters you will see how that good man suffered on this very account; he was continually harassed by Satan to think and say certain things, until Bunyan hardly knew whether it was the devil or himself saying and thinking something of this kind, which so overwhelmed the poor man with distress that he went through deep waters on account if it, but yet that really was not John Bunyan – that was the devil.
I believe some of the Lord’s people have been grievously distressed because of the thoughts that have come into their minds about Jesus Christ and about the Holy Ghost, but these thoughts come from the devil. Some good writer, m dealing with these very delicate and very difficult matters, put it like this, `One can always tell whether the thoughts in the mind or feelings in the heart of this blasphemous nature come from the devil or whether they spring up from a condition of one’s heart and mind, this way.’ He said, `What comes from the devil always distresses, even though we may seem to fall in with it, and these thoughts springing up in the mind are distressing – they are painful – but thoughts and feelings that belong to the real state of the heart and mind are more pleasing and agreeable. It is agreeable to have such things and feel such things.’
Well now, I do not know whether there is any point or purpose in my speaking like this, for I sometimes think we ministers hardly know what our hearers do suffer in their minds about matters. If those very blasphemous thoughts should come up in the mind or in the heart it does not follow that that sin against the Holy Ghost has been committed and that there is no forgiveness for it. Now the Lord knows better than we do how the matter stands and whether, when evil, blasphemous thoughts and feelings spring up in our hearts, we are distressed, and would not have it so. The Lord knows we would not have it so. We would never have such feelings in our hearts, never have such thoughts in our minds as these, the Lord knows we would be thankful to have nothing but pure thoughts in our minds about the Holy Ghost and about Jesus Christ and more love in our heart to Him. Now, my friend, where there is that distress about the sinful and blasphemous thoughts, that praying to be forgiven for ever having thought such things, and that longing to feel more love to Jesus Christ and more love to the Holy Ghost, you can be quite sure that the unforgiveable sin has not been committed – that is certain – absolutely certain.
But now the same great transgression appears sometimes in other forms, and yet it is essentially the same, and more or less always a sin against the Holy Ghost. In that solemn 6th chapter in the Epistle to the Hebrews we have a description of such as `were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good Word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame’ (Hebrews 4.6). In other words apostasy is an unforgivable sin, for that is what apostasy is; it is falling entirely away -an entire falling away; not a falling in the ways of God. When a brother sins, he falls in the ways of God; he does not fall away from them; he falls in them. I have often felt how suitable that prayer is, `Hold up my goings in thy paths, that my footsteps slip not’ (Psalm 17.5). I say, when a brother sins, his footsteps have slipped in the ways of God, but he has not fallen away from them. Apostasy is a hopeless sin. For such, `There remaineth no more sacrifice for sins’ (Hebrews 10.26), because they have forsaken the only one. There is one Sacrifice for sin, a Sacrifice of infinite merit and virtue, but there is only one. No matter, in that sense, how often one turns in confession of sin and prayer to that Sacrifice, it avails always the same; no matter how often one has to turn with a fresh sense of pollution to the blood of Christ, it still divinely flows –
`A healing balm for all their woes.’
But, what if anyone turns away from it? What do they turn to then? They have turned away from the blood of Christ; what other Fountain is there? If they turn away from the cross, what other atonement is there? None, none. Well then, what remains? Nothing, but `a fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation’ (Hebrews 10.27).
But now, here again, we must be very careful, because, in backsliding, there is some resemblance to apostasy. By backsliding, I do not mean the inward backslidings of our heart from a gracious, humble, loving walking with God – that we backslide from that into a lukewarm state is only too sad – but that is not what I mean. I mean outward backsliding – giving up the ways of truth altogether and not outwardly walking in them at all. Well, backsliding and apostasy have the same appearance, but they are not the same. Backsliding does not put a child of God into such a condition as that there is no more renewing of him unto repentance. It can never be said of a backslider that he will never be renewed again unto repentance and restored again, because there are many instances of that – some in the Scripture – some out of it. How far some have been left to backslide until it would seem almost as though there was no more hope for them, as though it was a final forsaking of the ways of God, and then the Lord has delivered them! It is something like, if I might say, a top growth of a plant or a tree that is entirely cut
down and covered with the soil that there is nothing to indicate there was ever a plant there at all, but, presently, it may well be, it shoots up again. The root is there, but the top growth is all gone. Thus it is in the case of serious backsliding. The top growth – all that is to be seen – that has all gone – with, perhaps, nothing to show there ever was anything – but presently, if the root is there (and it will be there if it ever commenced with the new birth), the Lord will cause it to sprout again, as it is written, ‘There is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again… through the scent of water it will bud and bring forth boughs like a plant’ (Job 14.7 & 9). So it has been with some, ‘through the scent of water,’ the sweet influences of the Holy Spirit have come upon them again after long, dreary, dry years, and there has been a fresh springing up of repentance and sorrow and forgiveness, and it has been well at the last.
So I come to this conclusion – it is impossible to know whether anyone in a state of backsliding has committed the sin of apostasy or not, unless they shew a bitter spirit, a spirit of enmity and hatred against the ways of God and Jesus Christ.
There is another reference to this sin which is unto death in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the one who is guilty of it is said to have ‘trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace’ (Hebrews 10.29), for the unpardonable sin is really a sin against the Holy Ghost. It consists in doing despite unto the Holy Spirit.
But I must close. There is one other reference I wished to mention to clear this matter up. It makes all the difference whether this sin, this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, this doing despite to the Spirit of grace, this trampling under foot the Son of God and His precious blood, is committed in ignorance. Now, take this expression from the apostle Paul in his Epistle to Timothy, referring to his unconverted state, he said, I ‘was before a Blasphemer, and a persecutor and injurious’ (I Tim. 1.13). That expression ‘blasphemer’ is the point. Whom did he blaspheme? Jesus Christ, and, what is more, he compelled others to. ‘I compelled them,’ he said, ‘to blaspheme.’ Well, was not that the sin unto death? No, because the apostle said, ‘I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief’ (I Tim. 1. 13). Now, it is my firm conviction that the apostle would never have obtained mercy if he had not done it ignorantly in unbelief. ‘I obtained mercy because I did it ignoranfly.’ Not, of course, that ignorance is any ground for God’s mercy. There is only one ground for God’s mercy and that is the atonement of Jesus Christ for sin. What the apostle meant was, ‘I obtained mercy. That was not an unpardonable sin, although I was a persecutor of the church of God and a blasphemer against Jesus Christ, because I did it ignorantly; I did not know. I did not realize that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. I thought He was an imposter. My mind was so prejudiced I did not know
the truth about Him, but, when I knew the truth about Him I blasphemed no longer. My heart, my very soul fell at His blessed feet, and that atoning blood that flowed from His deep wounds and bleeding side, oh! then I understood how precious that blood was to me. I obtained mercy because I sinned ignorantly in unbelief.’
Now I must close the subject. ‘If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it,’ for no prayer can bring mercy for that unpardonable sin.
Now, the Lord preserve and keep us in these solemn ways and so hold up our goings in His paths that our footsteps may not slip. If they do, the Lord still preserve us in them, although we have slipped, and the Lord give us a heart, as brethren, and a spirit one toward another, not only to bear with another’s failings, but to pray for one another’s sins,