16 If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. 1 John 5:16-17
I am convinced that people, for all eternity, have read this passage and asked the same questions: There is a sin that leads to death? There is sin that doesn’t lead to death? What are they? What does that even mean?
I’ve done some legwork for us- here is what other people with degrees more advanced than mine say:
“…the sin that does not lead to death (that is, eternal death or damnation — which is what I think John means) is any sin that we commit that we are, by grace, capable of truly confessing and repenting from...It’s not a particular sin, like some particular ugly act, but a particular depth or degree or aggravation or persistence in sin to the point where authentic confession and repentance have become impossible.” John Piper
“The context and word selection point to the conclusion that the individual "committing a sin not unto death" is an unsaved man who professes to be a believer, but who is, in actuality, in need of salvation.” Irvin A. Busenitz, Professor at Master’s Seminary.
“On the other hand, there is a sin that leads to eternal death, which is the sin of unbelief, and this sin cannot be forgiven through our intercession. We have no hope that the Lord will grant our petition that someone be forgiven of their sin of unbelief. The Lord cannot grant such a request.” Verse by Verse Ministries.
So, maybe something in there is right, but ultimately, we have to accept that we might not know- especially since all of these sources don't seem to agree on what this "sin leading to death" is. If they can't agree, then how are we supposed to figure it out?
When something like this happens, I need to remember and hold fast to the things that I do know: I know that God doesn’t like sin. I know that He doesn’t want myself, or other believers, to engage in it. John does say that all wrongdoing is sin, and personally, I don’t want to find the line between what sin is eternal death and what sin is not, if I can help it. I would much prefer to stay far, far away from it.
John does say that we should pray for our fellow believers and for their salvation, and if we aren’t sure if their sin is “leading to death” or not, then we should probably just pray for each other as friends and siblings in Christ anyway.
I think often, as Christians, we need to learn to be okay with holding two things that feel different, or better yet, holding things that we don’t completely understand. There is a humility in admitting that we don’t know all the answers, but that we are trying our very best to understand what God is telling us. There is humility in saying, well, these two idea don't seem to be able to both be true, but God says they are, and so I'm going to choose to believe him.
There was a man I met once who was so good at this. I was at a conference, and he was an acclaimed Bible teacher who wrote the go-to commentary on the Gospel of John. Everyone knew he was going to bring it when he gave the keynote speech that night, and at the beginning of his talk, this little old man stood on stage and asked everyone to pray with him before he started.
The room quieted, and hundreds of people bowed their heads, waiting for him to begin.
He was silent. Finally, after twenty seconds, I heard his voice. "Dear God," he started, and then he said with complete earnestness, "Help. Amen."
I love that even the best of the best can know that without God and his divine wisdom, all of our earthly guessing is nonsense. No matter who we are, when it comes to understanding scripture, we need His help.
I pray that we would ask for divine wisdom from God to seek what He wants to tell us, even in places where we don’t understand, or it feels like he wants us to walk in two different directions at the same time. Would we trust in him, remembering what we have already learned about God, and holding those things to be true.