Dr. C. Sumner Wemp
Dr. Robert L. Sumner, Editor of The Biblical Evangelist wrote the following introduction to Dr. Wemp’s message when he published it in his paper. “We are running an important message by one of our columnists, C. Sumner Wemp, on a controversial subject misunderstood by many, many people, saved and unsaved alike. We think you will find it helpful. When Dr. E. Schuyler English printed it in Our Hope magazine over a half-century ago, he told our brother it was the best explanation he had ever heard on the matter, adding, “You should write more.” Well, bless his heart, he has, but this may have been one of his most helpful pieces of penmanship over all the years of his blessed, fruitful ministry.”
The Sin Unto Death!
By Dr. C. Sumner Wemp
10005 Chimney Hill Lane, , TX 75243
What is it to sin unto death? Can you, as a Christian, commit such a sin? These are heart-searching questions which may be answered for you in this message.
WAIT! Are you about to sin unto death? Do you know what it means to sin unto death? Since there seems to be much difference of opinion and misunderstanding about this subject, there is a deep need for a definite answer to the question. We trust that, by God’s grace, this will be the answer to help you.
Here is what we are told in I John 5:16: “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.”
The “any man” of this verse must surely be a Christian, for only a Christian can pray for others and their sins. The whole context, speaking as it does of prayer, certainly suggests this strongly. It is also consistent with the rest of the book to understand “man” as referring to a Christian, as in 3:3, “Every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure.”
Dr. A. Plummer points out that “see” is in the aorist tense in the Greek and contains the idea of seeing on any particular occasion. He further states: “The case is one in which the sinner is seen in the very act.” The verse in question certainly suggests, in the opening sentences, that one would recognize the act of sin as being not unto death. From this we must gather that the people to whom John wrote were familiar with the fact that there was sin unto death, and that they knew what it was. Much has been said to the effect that, in the Greek, there is no article “a,” that thus this is not a particular sin. However, the context must determine whether this is a particular sin or not, and it seems to me to indicate that it is.
From the tense of the verb, “sin,” we learn that the person committing it is continuing in this sin. It does not mean, however, that the person is under the control of it, as a habit. There are many outward sinful habits which Christians have for which they do not die. While the person here commits this sin more than once, this does not seem be the reason it is “unto death.” The nature of the sin seems to be the cause for death. If it were because of the number of times the sin was committed, then the emphasis would be on the quantity and not on the quality of the itself.
We must notice, too, that the person committing this particular sin is called a “brother,” which limits it to a Christian. This is pretty well accepted by most, but some do say he is merely a professing Christian. John addresses the people throughout this epistle as a family group in Christ, and “brother,” which is used several times, is Iimited to a truly born again person. He must be a Christian if the “any man” is a Christian, unless “brother” be limited just to the blood relationship. This surely is not the meaning here.
This” death” is physical death, for a Christian can never die spiritually (John 11 :25, 26). If the passage were speaking of spiritual death, then any sin would bring that and not just some particular one; “for the wages of sin (any sin) is death.” That a Christian can meet physical death prematurely is shown from I Corinthians 11 :30, where God says that some Christians are” asleep” because of the wrong manner of partaking the Lord’s Supper. Another case of death for a particular sin is that of Ananias and Sapphira, recorded in Acts 5. Surely most of us have seen each of these sins committed at one time or another, and yet the people who sin thus are still living. This suggests that the Lord did something special in each of these cases or, at least, that these sins in themselves are not “unto death.”
Perhaps what happened in each of the cases cited led to sin unto death.
One last thought, before we discuss the sin itself. The main subject of this passage is prayer. God is limiting prayer to asking “according to His will,” as verse 14 tells us. It is a matter of spiritual discernment to pray according to His will. It is our duty to discover what His will is, and to pray wisely about each matter. There are many things for which we should pray, and many for which we should not pray. The Bible tells us so. We know, according to I Peter 3:7, that some prayers are hindered because of a wrong relationship between the husband and wife. Some prayers are wasted because we “ask amiss to consume it upon our lusts” (Jas. 4:3). Because of sin in our hearts, God does not hear us, says the Psalmist. Here God is giving us more of His will so that we will know how to pray. We are not commanded to pray for the sin unto death, yet we are not told not to pray for it.
Just what is the sin unto death? The Bible answers for us. Proverbs 15: 10 says: “Correction is grievous unto him that forsaketh the way; and he that hateth reproof shall die.” Lost people do not go to hell for hating reproof, but for unbelief (John 3 :18, Rom. 4 :3). The death, then, must be physical and not spiritual. This correction and reproof are God’s and not man’s, for ours can be faulty. It is true that the unsaved man, who rebels at conviction by the Holy Spirit and refuses Christ, will die spiritually, but this is not what our passage is describing. God does not try to correct or reform the unsaved. They need new birth, and that is God’s aim for them.
Now God does try to correct His own children. The Bible and human experience are full of examples of this. How often someone points out how the unsaved “get away” with so many things, but the saved man is chastened by the Lord! The unsaved will surely reap the consequences of sin and suffer terribly, but this is different from the correction of the Lord. The person described here not only finds correction grievous, but hates reproof. Dr. A. R. Fausset makes this striking comment: “From regarding ‘correction’ as ‘grievous’ at first, he comes at last to positive and inveterate hatred of it.” Surely a child of God is expected to be more submissive to God than this.
Suppose we examine several New Testament passages which substantiate this view. First, take Hebrews 12:5-7,9: “And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him: for whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?.. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?”
God says: “Despise not [regard not lightly, R.V.] the chastening of the Lord”; for “we gave our earthly fathers reverence,” and shall we not much more give God, our Lord, reverence “and live?” How many times have you read this verse and not noticed the last two words: “and live”? We know this refers to physical life, for those addressed already have spiritual life. Must we not conclude, then, that not to give reverence to God for His correction would bring physical death? What wickedness, to be more in subjection to our earthly fathers than our heavenly Father! If we adjusted our lives to please our earthly fathers, we certainly should adjust them for our Lord. Could it not be that many parents do not teach their children obedience, and have succumbed to the modern psychology of “sparing the rod” (and “hating” their children by so doing), thus preparing them to hate reproof when it does come?
This business of Christian obedience is a serious thing. When we realize that we are “the light of the world,” we can see why God will do all that He can to correct us, so that our light might shine brightly and not lead lost people into “outer darkness.” Perhaps we need to emphasize in our preaching: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus. ..” He is Lord and we need to surrender to Him.
We can be grieved at the correction until we come to hate the Lord’s reproof, and then it is the sin unto death. How helpful it would be to realize that God chastens” for our profit” and not as our earthly fathers, “after their own pleasure” (vs. 10)! God says that chastening “yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them that are exercised thereby” (vs. 11). Oh, that God’s children would only yield to the Lord and His purifying ways!
There is another passage, James 5 :19, 20, which coincides with this truth: “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him; let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way, shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.” Here again we must notice that the” brethren” and “sinner” are saved people. “Convert” does not essential1y mean to get saved; it means to turn about or to change. A Christian can be converted every day, in the sense of turning from sin each day. “Convert” means simply to turn from sins now being committed here.
Observe that the one converted will be saved from death. Again, this must be physical death, for when we receive eternal life we cannot die spiritually because of the nature of the life we get from God. It is God’s kind of life that never dies. It is of vital importance, then, that Christians, in deep humility, do all possible to convert the erring brother lest he, being weak, while being chastened should come to hate the correction of the Lord. This is a very serious thing and should be looked into carefully by every Christian. Today we take too lightly our responsibility toward our brethren. Instead of trying to convert them, we often condemn them. Much preaching could be done here, but we will trust the Holy Spirit to speak to our hearts about this matter.
Final1y, may we look at one more verse, James 1:15? “Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” This is true in both the spiritual and physical realm. It is true that the end for the unsaved is death or hell, but it can also be true that the end of the saved person’s sin can result in physical death. How drastic and solemn is the word “finished”! Thank God, sin need not see such a “finish” in our lives, nor in the lives of lost people of today. Are you not glad that today is the day of salvation for the lost? Today can also be the day that any who errs from the truth may be converted from the error of his way.
There is good news, too, that a Christian can have a safeguard against ever getting to the point of hating reproof. I Corinthians 11:31, 32 says: “If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.” It is important that a Christian should deal with his sins honestly, admitting that they are sin, confessing them to the Lord, turning from them, and having them cleansed by the blood of Christ. The liberty we have in Christ is not a license to sin. “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid” (Rom. 6:1, 2). There will be no loss of fellowship and no need for chastening to the Christian who is faithful in this matter. Let it be plainly understood that we are not to “to regard lightly” the chastening of the Lord. It can become sin unto death, even to you.