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. 1 John 5 16.
A BROTHER SINS
Mr. S. Delves
31st May, 1970
“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.” 1 John 5, 16.
A circumstance yesterday brought this word very much upon my mind, and in such a way that I felt I could not preach from any other word this morning. It is so, sometimes, my friends, a word fastens on the mind. I feel it is always better that the word should fasten on my mind rather than my mind has to fasten on the word. I have usually found that there is more power in preaching from a word that has been received in that way.
This is a very difficult text from which to preach. It is one of the most difficult. The particular expression in the text which has given it that exceptional effect upon the mind is, the reference to the “sin which is unto death.” “There is a sin unto death : I do not say that he shall pray for it.”
I feel sure that this sin unto death is the sin that is usually referred to as the unpardonable sin. It is a sin for which there is no forgiveness provided, not even in the gospel itself. It is unpardonable because God has so appointed that there shall not be forgiveness for that particular sin. Now the point that will cause concern if anyone is at all seriously interested in these things, will be, what exactly this sin unto death is. But I am not so much concerned with regard to an interest in the matter as I am for any who may feel, not only interested, but concerned about themselves, because I know from my long experience in speaking to friends about these matters, that this question of the unpardonable sin has been a deep and great concern to many. Some, when they are early brought into the way, are concerned about it. I know of a truly gracious young person who was held back from the ordinances of the gospel under the fear she may have committed it, which, in fact was not so. Sometimes this concern follows people to the end of their days. I remember some years ago visiting an aged saint towards his end. He was a godly man but under considerable darkness and heaviness of spirit, not enjoying, as he had done in former days, spiritual blessings. He could not feel the Lord to be near him to comfort and to strengthen his spirit, and he said to me one day, “I am afraid, Mr. Delves, I have committed the unpardonable sin.” Well, the good man need not have feared. Had he been left to fall into that deadly sin, he would not have felt the concern that he did. Besides which he proved it was not so, because he was brought out of that heaviness of his spirit before
he died, enjoyed peace again, and had a very comfortable departure to be with the Lord. Nevertheless, for a while, he was under heaviness of spirit, he was distressed with the feeling that it was because he had committed this sin unto death.
Now it is with such feelings as these that I am desirous to speak from this word this morning.
But we must, in the first place, see it in its setting and not tear it out of the verse itself. The passage, as is very evident, is a direction to brethren to pray one for another when any have been permitted in any way to sin. This is how the passage commences;
“If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death.”
The first proposition in the text is, that this applies to such as are truly brethren Â— brethren, that is, in a spiritual sense, it does not pertain to such as are still in an unregenerate and unconverted condition. Not that we should not pray for such; it would be a very sad omission if we never prayed for the conversion and salvation of such as are not yet called by the grace of God, but are still afar off from God and quite destitute of any spiritual life; but the point is, we could not properly pray that the Lord will forgive their sin while they are in that condition. In such cases we must, as we may be helped, pray that they may be convinced of their sin, given repentance towards God and faith in Jesus Christ, because there can be no forgiveness where there is no repentance. Whoever lives and dies unconverted, lives and dies in sin. There can be no forgiveness where there is no conversion, no repentance, no faith in Jesus Christ. Oh ! may the Lord give to any who are not yet converted, converting grace; who are not yet alive, quickening life; who have never felt any repentance, the Lord in His mercy impart that saving principle to their souls. “Gracious God, do Thou it for Thy name’s sake.” But the text applies to brethren, that is, brethren in a spiritual sense.
Brethren in a spiritual sense may be understood in two ways with regard to a verse like this. First, it applies to everyone who are truly converted to God, that is to say, who have been born again by that vital operation of the Holy Ghost, who have been brought to believe in Jesus Christ with all their heart. Such are “all the children of God by faith in Jesus Christ”, who have spiritual union with Christ in love, and, in that sense, they are in union with all who are truly His. For there is a real, vital, spiritual union uniting all who are the Lord’s because they are all united to Jesus Christ in faith and love. They are brethren. But I apprehend that this text intends brethren who are in personal union one with another. We cannot be in personal union with all who are born again everywhere because world-wide personal contact is impossible, but, where brethren are gathered together (especially in churches, but not exclusively so), in a personal way, and who feel a personal affection one toward another, their hearts joined together in the same faith, the same hope, the same love and the same precious Saviour, they are brethren in a personal sense. Such brethren know each other and walk together and, therefore, if one sees his brother
sin, he is conscious of it, because he is in personal contact with him. We could not possibly see any true brother sin if we were not in that close connection, if we had not that personal knowledge and observation one of another. So, to begin with, this especially applies to brethren who are brought into personal contact, and who more or less walk together in the same ways of God. And I make this observation, that the unity of the brethren, this personal unity I mean, is something very sacred and precious, for it is not like any natural unity or relationship, which can never rise higher than its own natural sphere, but this spiritual relationship is of a heavenly nature, it is eternal. It is a unity that will survive death itself, that will dissolve all other bonds. It is a union in eternal life. To feel union one to another is something very sweet; it is pure; it is of the love of Jesus Christ in the soul. The Lord grant to us who have been brought together in this way, grace, humility and love to cleave together and to walk in the truth that we believe and the love that we feel. There is nothing like it in this world Â— men who naturally would never have had any contact or any affection to each other, brought together, united together in a unity that will be eternal. There is nothing like true spiritual, brotherly unity ! It should be preserved by all lawful means. “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psalm 133, 1.) It is pleasant in itself; it is pleasant in the sight of God and it is pleasant in the feeling of it in all who walk together in that united spirit.
“If any man see his brother sin a sin.” It follows, then, that a brother, a real brother, a good brother may sin. Now to understand this, we must make a distinction between the sinfulness that is in our fallen nature, and some outward, visible, obvious, sinful act and practice. All are sinners in their fallen nature and, as long as we have fallen nature, we shall have sin in that nature. There is sin in our hearts, and if we are sensitive to it, we shall feel it in many ways; in the pride, covetousness, envy and the like that springs up in our inmost feelings. Perhaps we do not show it, (I hope we do not), but we feel it. If any say there is no pride in their heart. I should reply, “Man, you do not know yourself” and, if any one should say, “Well, I know there is pride in my heart, but I do not see that to be sin,” I should have to respond, “You must be deceived, if you cannot see that to be a sin which is an abomination in the sight of God.” But that is not what is meant here. “If any man see his brother sin.” We cannot see sin in a brother’s heart. I cannot see sin in the hearts of those that I love and esteem. If I did not know that these things are so from the teachings of the Word of God I should not think there is sin, necessarily, in your hearts, but you would feel it. You cannot see sin in my heart, as I see it in myself. These things are in our hearts, and our hearts know the secret bitterness of them too. It is very true, “The heart knoweth his own bitterness,” (Prov. 14, 10). the bitterness it feels sometimes because of the sin that dwells within. But my text is not speaking of that. “If any man see his brother sin.” It follows then that this sin is
something that can be seen, some outward word or deed, something in which it is clearly to be seen that a brother, who is a brother still, has actually sinned.
Is this merely a supposition, a hypothetical statement, or does it actually happen ? Do brethren sin ? There can be no question, it actually happens. Brethren who are really united in the things of God may indeed sin, and this is abundantly recognized in the Word of God. If we were always kept under the influence of the fear of God, if His grace was always so prevailing with us as to control every sinful tendency in us, we might live without sinning. We could not live without sin, because that is in our nature, but we could live without sinning in practice. But then the position is not like that. There are various reasons why brethren sin. The Word of God is a very clear guide in this difficult matter of the sinful acts of brethren. To begin with, the Word of God makes it very clear that the grace of God does not lead to sin, that the truth of the gospel believed, and especially felt, will certainly not cause any brother to sin. In an earlier part of this Epistle we have a word to the point, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not.” (1 John 2.1.) Now the whole teaching of the Word of God and the whole effect of that teaching in the heart is against sinning. Every precept and every promise, every command and every blessing of the Word is to the end that a brother should not sin. Nowhere in any place does the Word allow sin or excuse it. On the other hand, if a brother sin, the Word of God does not condemn him outright. “If any man sin,” John says in that passage, “We have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” (1 John 2, 1.) If any man sin, his case is not hopeless. It is not a sin unto eternal death, because there is an Advocate to take up his cause and put his case right again. There is something here very beautiful, that, if a brother sin, there is an Advocate with God to put the matter right that sin has put wrong. You see, sin in practice, or even if allowed in our hearts, will always put things wrong between our hearts and God. It will not alienate us again;
it will not separate us from His love; it will not cancel the previous work of His grace, but it will separate in regard to communion, comfort and a gracious and humble walking in God’s favour. Sin will always put our mind and spirit wrong with God, but, at the same time, the precious blood of Christ shed as a propitiation for sin on earth, and the mediation of Jesus Christ continually sustained at the Father’s right hand in heaven, keeps putting our case right again. This has been my experience time and time again, to feel that in some way my sin has put things wrong between my own heart and God, but then presently the truth seems to come again with renewed sweetness, enabling me to hope and believe that that sin is pardoned and that the Lord graciously favours me again. So it is our Advocate, the Lord Jesus Christ, who keeps putting things right that sin keeps putting wrong. Do you not feel it so ?
There are causes why a brother may sin, and we must recognize them, and I think, if we recognize them in ourselves, we
shall be more kindly disposed to recognize them in our brethren. For one thing, there are our constitutional weaknesses. Now we have them and they are not the same in all. One has a weakness one way and another a weakness in another way, and where a person’s natural constitutional weakness is, he is most likely to sin. That is where he most probably will be tempted and assailed, for our enemy knows our weakness, and perhaps we have more than once sinned in some particular way and we are almost sure to be assailed in that way again. We sin through our weakness.
“My weak resistance, ah ! how vain.”
May the blessed Spirit of God strengthen, keep and preserve us !
Some sin in their words. They are quick-tempered, and speak without thought. They say the wrong thing and, remember, that words are actions in the sight of God. Much stress is laid upon the importance of our words in the Scriptures. A brother may sin in something he says that is grievous, he may have spoken it in an angry moment. The enemy knows where his weakness is, and will prompt him to say it when he is off his guard and out of control of himself. This is sin Â— make no mistake about it. This is not something secret in the heart that no-one knows except the heart-searching God, but something a brother can see. Perhaps he has heard it, perhaps he has been hurt by it. “If any man see his brother sin.”
The same applies with regard to deeds and actions. A brother may through weakness commit some particular deed; it is not that he would willingly and purposely do that, but he has been overcome in that particular, he has fallen into some snare. Some temptation has been too much for him, and he has done the thing that is wrong, and, in that sense, a brother has sinned. So that by our weakness in different ways and the subtlety and power of temptation assailing us, (and often when we are off our guard), we do too often fall under this word and a brother may see us sin.
“If a 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.” What have we to do in this case, then, if we see our brother sin ? What are our brethren to do if they see us sin ? The Word of God is quite clear Â— pray about it; “Ask”. Do you not think this is more Christ-like, more gospel-like, than to add trouble to trouble in such a matter as this, by making the most of it, and spreading it abroad ? Is it not more Christ-like quietly and secretly to ask ? This is a direction. “If a man see his brother sin, he shall ask.” Now the Lord looks for this in us. He marks how we react to our brethren when they sin, whether we ask, whether it grieves us in such a way as prompts us to pray that the Lord will deal kindly and graciously with a sinning brother. “He shall ask.”
Here is a word which is not easy to explain. “He shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death.”
I think I should very briefly express what I feel this means.
It means he shall ask, and the Lord will forgive the sin and remove the consequences of it. That seems to me very simply to express it. The Lord will forgive the sin and remove the consequences. For we must remember this, very solemnly, that, although it says there is a sin which is not unto death, every sin in the nature of it is unto death. The end of all sin, of whatever kind and nature, secret or open, in the heart or in the life, in word or in deed, the tendency and the termination of all sin is death. There is no sin at all but what in the nature of it tends to death. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6, 23), not some particular sins, but all sin. “The wages of sin is death.” It should be laid to heart that all sin is of a deadly nature. But then it does not follow that all sin will necessarily end in death, because there is forgiveness. There is a gospel, a very blessed gospel, and in that gospel there is forgiveness for all sin if repented of and confessed, except the sin which is “unto death”.
Brethren, the grace, the mercy of God is such, and the precious blood of Jesus Christ is such, that “all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men.” (Matt. 12, 31.) There is a remedy for sin; although sin is deadly there is a blessed remedy and an effectual one. If I need to put this more simply, there are maladies to which we are physically subject and, in their nature, they would be fatal but, there may be and there are, methods of treatment and relief that afford cure. The condition itself would end in death, but the healing remedy, the treatment intervenes and prevents its fatal termination. So it is with sin. All sin is fatal to the soul in its nature. I am sure I do not know how Roman Catholics make a distinction between sin that is venial and sin that is mortal. I do not understand such teaching. The Word of God teaches me that all sin is mortal. But then, “He shall ask and he shall give him life.” If the Lord hears prayer in this matter from one brother for another and is pleased to forgive the brother’s sin, then if the sin is forgiven, the consequences of it are removed. The sin that God has graciously forgiven will never be unto death, for the blood of Christ has washed it all away; be it never in its nature so vile and evil. That sin will never end in death in the soul. The forgiveness of God in the gospel is no halfway forgiveness, no part pardon; brethren, there is forgiveness for all sin in the gospel through Jesus Christ Â— all. Secret sins, open sins, sins in thought, sins in word, sins in deed, past sins, present sins, the whole mass that we can never measure or remember, as the Psalmist said, “Mine iniquities are gone over mine head.” (Psalm 38, 4.) “But there is forgiveness with Thee.” (Psalm 130, 4.)
This, then, is how I understand the text. “He shall ask and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death”, that is, who have not sinned the sin for which there is no pardoning mercy and provision.
But we can recognize the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in such a text as this, that there is a recognition of what the Scriptures
teach in other places with regard to the sin which is unto death. Now, if I understand the mind of the apostle John in these words, and the inspiration of his mind by the Holy Spirit, I shall understand it something like this : pray for your brother, because, whatever he has sinned, there is forgiveness for him; that sin is not irrevocably fatal to his soul. Pray that he may be forgiven, pray that he may be restored, pray that this may be put right. However, the apostle would say, I must not proclaim forgiveness for all sin everywhere without exception, because there is a sin unto death. I must allow that. There is a sin unto death. Not in the sense that all sin is deadly in its nature, but that this sin will certainly end in death. “There is a sin unto death; I do not say that he shall pray for it.”
My time has gone before I have come to the heart of the matter, and I will just make this closing observation upon this word, “I do not say that he shall pray for it.” Mark how guardedly the apostle put this matter, how carefully he words it! “I do not say that he shall pray for it.” He does not say he “must not” pray for it, but “I cannot encourage him to pray for it, because there is no gospel ground to believe that that sin will be pardoned, but still, I do not say it will be wrong to pray even for that.” And this, I feel, is a very encouraging word and a very gracious consideration, because, as I was going to explain this morning, this sin unto death is exceedingly difficult to understand, and it is even more difficult to know whether anyone has committed it or not, so that we are on safe ground in praying for a brother that has sinned, unless there is unquestionable proof that he has sinned unto death. But then, you see, a brother, by the grace of God, would not be left to sin that sin which is unto death. The next verse touches that point;
“He keepeth himself,” that is, the grace of God enables him to keep himself, and so restrains the power of Satan that he is not so overcome by it as to sin that sin which is unto death. “That wicked one toucheth him not,” with regard to his spiritual state to cause him to sin unto death, so that the whole point seems to lead up to this. We can safely pray for one another, and especially if we feel anyone is a brother; we can feel that there is no sin they have committed but what we can pray the Lord will pardon it and make that matter right, right in his conscience, right with his God and right with his brother.
Second sermon on this subject we hope, G.W., to insert in next issue.