Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Love of God > Our Sin

In Romans 7, Paul lets you in on a little secret: Christians still sin. All the time. Even though we're "dead to sin, but alive in Christ",  we all still struggle with our former, sinful selves. What gives? And what do we do about it?

This is a lead-in to a passage we spent a while discussing in my small group, 1 John 5:16-17. Here it is within the immediate context.
13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
16 If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that.17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
18 We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him. 19 We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.20 We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true—even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
21 Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
After reading this admittedly-confusing, you should at least have two pressing questions: What is "a sin that does not lead to death", and "a sin that leads to death"? And why isn't Paul saying we should pray about the "sin that leads to death"? On the way I'll touch on some other issues regarding the security of our salvation that should nicely complement my thinking on Calvinism and Arminianism.

1. What is "a sin that does not lead to death?" What is "a sin that leads to death"?

This is what makes the verse so jarring to read. After all, Paul writes that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). And earlier in this letter John writes that no one who continues to sin really knows God or has life. Then how can there be a "sin that does not lead to death", and what is it? (I hope it's fun and easy so I can do it all the time!) I see three main possibilities for what John is talking about here.

  • The "sin that leads to death" is the "unforgivable sin" mentioned in Matthew 12:30-32, Mark 3:29, and Luke 12:10. As I mentioned in my post on predestination. the "unforgivable sin", blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, is not a sin that is too bad for God to forgive, but a sign that the sinner has willfully, deliberately, and completely removed him/herself from God's forgiveness and mercy. Blaspheming against the Holy Spirit means that you know the Spirit and recognize its work, but your heart is so completely hardened that you still denounce it not out of ignorance but out of knowledge. Again, it's not at all as if you can accidentally commit the unforgivable sin and then be screwed. If you are concerned about it, you haven't committed it. But anyway, I don't think this is what John is talking about, as he is talking about a "brother", someone who is (at least nominally) in the church, not someone who has completely walked away from Christianity. And the unforgivable sin does not lead to death so much as it indicates it with terrible certainty.
  • John is writing about sins that lead to God punishing people with physical death, as with Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. First of all, I would like to say that I think that God directly punishing people for their sins with physical affliction or death is extremely rare; the direct consequences of our sins, particularly in how they separate our souls from God, are usually "punishment" enough for those who are covered by Christ's blood. If your response to an affliction or hardship not obviously caused by some particular sin is "what is God punishing me for?", I think you are probably (not definitely) barking up the wrong tree. God actually physically killing someone as punishment for their sin means that not only has he completely given up on saving them, but that He wants them to stop doing any more damage with their behavior. Luckily  it is very rare for Christians to get this out of control, and I don't think this is what John is talking about. (Although the word John uses for death, θανατος, means "death" in general like the English word and could mean this)
  • John is writing about sin that leads to our spiritual death, that is, the loss of our faith and salvation. Not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that indicates we are already lost, but sins that point us in that direction, away from God, sincere faith, and the gospel. This is what I think John is most likely writing about. after all, God is "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), so a sin that leads to death also leads away from God. Also, consider the context of this passage. The immediate context is about being assured of our salvation and ensuing adoption by God as sons and daughters. The wider context of the book is an exhortation to live out a sincere, dynamic relationship with God through our love for Him and each other rather than deceiving yourself and living in sin. In light of this, the passage becomes a straightforward application of this lesson for others, watching out to be sure that they are remaining in a real relationship with God and not drifting away.
In light of this, we are ready to answer the first question: what is "a sin that does not lead to death"? A sin that does not damage our relationship with God, that we are able to submit to His saving grace and move past. In other words, the sins that Christians commit every day which, while wrong (see verse 17), do not indicate our home in Christ is in jeopardy or that we should wonder if we are really saved. This is the essential sweetness of the gospel--that through the life and death of Jesus we are declared righteous in God's sight and that he no longer counts our sins against us (2 Corinthians 5:19) or lets them ruin our relationship with Him! By God's grace we don't have to confess every single sin we commit (which is really another form of salvation by works), but the gospel covers all of our sins, recognized and unnoticed.

So I wouldn't draw a sharp line between particular sins that do or do not lead to death. The difference isn't in what we do, but why--the conditions of our hearts. Are we desiring to remain fully in Christ and willing to confess the sin if we realize it? Or is it "no big deal", or do you just want to keep going for a little longer, or you don't care what that guy with the Bible thinks about your habit? Specifically, I would give these four things to look for if you're wondering about something you see a brother/sister doing:
a. Does the person recognize it? Or does he/she not see it as sin, or try to downplay it, cover it up, say it doesn't matter, etc.
b. Is it deliberate/willful? Does the person realize it's not good but keep doing it?
c. Is there true regret?
d. Is there true repentance? (Different from simply regretting the sin--is there real desire and effort to change?
Anyway, on to the second question, about which I will be a bit less detailed...

2. Why is John not saying we should pray about sin that leads to death?

My answer to question 1 makes this even more baffling. If you should pray about sins that don't appear to be serious threats to someone's salvation, shouldn't you pray all the more about sins that are? If we aren't to pray for these situations (which would definitely be my first impulse), then what is left?

If this is how you read the passage, I think it might be the only time in the Bible we are told not to pray about something. This seems unlikely. I would read it as saying that in these situations, we should not only pray, but there is also definite action to be taken. I am not feeling pastoral enough to expound on what this action should look like, but I think Matthew 18:15-20 and 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 are applicable to dealing with unrepentant sinners in the church. The basic plan seems to be to confront them head-on about it, then if after several warnings they refuse to listen, just let them go. It's really hard, but then God doesn't force us to believe if we don't want to.

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