If anyone sees his brother committing a sin that does not bring death, he should ask, and God will give life to him– to those who commit sin that doesn’t bring death. There is sin that brings death. I am not saying he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin that does not bring death. (1 John 5:16-17 HCSB)
It happens from time to time that a Christian will see another Christian “committing a sin.” The apostle John distinguished two kinds of sin in the life of the Christian: the “sin that does not bring death” and the “sin that brings death” (1 John 5:16-17). The “sin that does not bring death” is any sin the Christian commits that does not warrant physical death from the hand of God, though it may bring divine discipline if the believer continues in it (Heb. 12:5-13). John does not specify which sin leads to death and which sin does not, as the punishment is finally determined by the Lord.
The sin that leads to death “denotes a sin habitually practiced by a believer, leading to God’s removing him from this life, but not taking away his salvation.” It refers to the Christian who has become so sinfully rebellious that God disciplines him to the point of death and takes him home to heaven. There are references in the Bible where God personally issued the death penalty for one or more of His erring children who had defied His authority. Examples include: Nadab and Abihu, who disobeyed the Lord in their priestly service (Lev. 10:1-3), Uzzah, when he touched the Ark (2 Sam. 6:1-7), Ananias and Sapphira who lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11), and some of the saints at Corinth who were abusing the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:27-30).
Under the Mosaic Law, God willed that sin be punished, but only some sins were punishable by physical death. Sometimes God Himself executed the punishment (Lev. 10:1-3; 2 Sam. 6:1-7), and other times it was carried out by Israel’s leaders (Ex. 32:19-28). In the New Testament, God does not call Christians to put anyone to death, but has delegated that authority solely to the governments of this world (Rom. 13:1-4), or He does it Himself (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 11:30; 1 John 5:16).
Most sin does not lead to death
It appears from reading the Bible that most sin committed by believers does not result in the Lord putting them to death, although it may bring great punishment. It was a terrible sin when Aaron led the Israelites into idol worship (Ex. 32:1-6), but God did not call for Aaron’s death. Samson slept with prostitutes (Judg. 16:1-4), and though he was disciplined, the Lord did not kill him. When David had an affair with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah, it was a rotten sin that brought divine discipline. The Lord told David, “I will raise up evil against you from your own household” (2 Sam. 12:11); however, the Lord also told David, “you shall not die” (2 Sam. 12:13). It was evil when Solomon worshipped idols (1 Kings 11:1-10), but even here the Lord did not pronounce death for his sin. Peter argued with Jesus and tried to prevent Him from going to the cross (Matt. 16:21-22), and later publicly denied the Lord three times (Matt. 26:34-35; 69-75), but Peter was allowed to live. The apostle John twice worshiped an angel and was rebuked for it (Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9), but the Lord let him live and used him in ministry. God’s grace and mercy is very prominent all throughout the Bible, and He repeatedly gives us ample opportunity to confess our sin and turn back to him. Thank God for His great grace.
God disciplines us for our good
As God’s children, He expects us to live holy and righteous lives that conform to His will (Tit. 2:11-14; 1 Pet. 1:15-16). When we sin, we can be restored to fellowship with God by means of confession (1 John 1:9). If we fail to confess our sins, and choose a sinful lifestyle, we put ourselves in real danger of knowing God’s discipline. The Scripture states, “For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and He scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:6). The wise believer accepts God’s correction. David writes, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Ps. 119:71), and later states, “I know, O LORD, that Your judgments are righteous, and that in faithfulness You have afflicted me” (Ps. 119:75). The foolish believer rejects God’s correction, and if he perpetuates his sin, God may administer a final act of discipline and remove the believer from this world.
Many Christians rightfully suffer because of their sinful lifestyle (Heb. 12:5-11), and those who persist in their sin will eventually die by the hand of the Lord. Such death is the pinnacle of suffering in this life, but we should never conclude that it means suffering for eternity. All believers are eternally secure in Christ. At the moment of salvation, all believers are given eternal life and imputed with God’s righteousness (John 3:16; 10:28; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9). They are forever kept by the power of God and cannot forfeit their salvation (John 10:29; Rom. 8:38-39). This means that when a believer dies—whatever the cause—he is guaranteed heaven as his eternal home. At his resurrection, the Christian is guaranteed a new body just the like body of our Lord Jesus (Phil. 3:20-21).
It is possible for a Christian to sin, and to sin as badly as any unbeliever. However, unlike the unbeliever, God disciplines His own (Heb. 12:5-11), and, if necessary, disciplines to the point of death (1 Cor. 11:30; 1 John 5:16). This need not be the case. The Christian is called to a life of holiness (1 Pet. 1:15-16), and this means learning to walk with God and do His will. Though we still possess a sin nature, the Christian knows victory because of his union with Christ (Rom. 6:6, 11-13).
Steven R. Cook, M. Div.
- Restoring Fellowship with God
- The Sin Nature Within the Christian
- I am a Sinner
- Do God’s People Ever Behave poorly?
- A Christian View of Death
- Atonement for Sins
 Paul S. Karleen, The Handbook to Bible Study: With a Guide to the Scofield Study System (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 359.
 There were certain laws under the Old Testament that brought the death penalty: intentional murder (Ex. 21:12-14; cf. Gen. 9:6), attacking or cursing a parent (Ex. 21:15), kidnapping (Ex. 21:16), habitual rebellion against God (Deut. 17:12), sacrificing to pagan gods (Ex. 22:20), cursing God (Lev. 24:15-16), working on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:2), being a false prophet and leading Israelites into idolatry (Deut. 13:1-5), religious human sacrifice (Lev. 20:2), the practice of divination, sorcery or witchcraft (Ex. 22:18; Deut. 18:9-14), adultery and premarital sex (Lev. 20:10-14; 21:9; Deut. 22:20-22), sex with an animal (Ex. 22:19; Lev. 20:15-16), incest (Lev. 20:11-12, 14), homosexuality (Lev. 18:22; 20:13), and the rape of a married woman (Deut. 22:25-27).