What can believers lose by sinning?
People wrongly charge Free Grace of holding to eternal security at the expense of ignoring the warning passages of Scripture. Not true. On the contrary, we acknowledge those warnings and take them seriously. But more importantly, we take them in context. For example, as James says, sin brings forth death:
Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death (James 1:15).
Everlasting life is everlasting. Once you have it, you have it forever. But is that true of the believer’s physical life? Does it go on forever?
Unless you’re alive at the time of the Rapture, you will die physically. And as James warns, sin can hasten the process. Did you know that one of the consequences of sin is that it can put you in an early grave?
That’s what happened to the Corinthians who showed contempt for each other at the Lord’s Supper:
For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep (1 Cor 11:30).
The Corinthians were born-again, Spirit-filled people, and they died too soon because of sin. You cannot lose your salvation, but you can lose your life!
Likewise, John warned the believers about the deadly consequences of sin, too:
If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them 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 you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death (1 John 5:16-17).
Zane Hodges thought something was puzzling about what John said. Since all sin can lead to death (as per Jas 1:15), why does John say that some do and some don’t? Hodges reasoned that John must mean some sins lead directly to death. Think of Ananias, Sapphira, and the Corinthians. Hodges argued these especially deadly sins are related to “a severe breach of the sanctity of the Christian assembly” (Hodges, The Epistles of John, p. 233). Tony Evans agrees, saying,
This is sin that results in the physical death of a believer. We see examples of this in Scripture when God takes unrepentant believers home before their time (see 1 Cor 3:16-17; 11:30). These are typically gross sins against the body of Christ. In view here is not a believer struggling with sin (after all, the church is a hospital for sinners) but a hard-headed fool who adopts a harsh, unloving attitude towards God’s people.
When someone wreaks havoc in the family of God, he may experience severe discipline from the Lord (The Tony Evans Bible Commentary, p. 1379).
So, according to Hodges and Evans, if your actions harm the church, you can experience severe discipline unto death.
However, I wonder if John is making a broader point about all kinds of sin. After all, isn’t it common knowledge that some sins are deadlier than others? For example, getting impatient with your children for leaving a mess around the house is a sin (cf. Eph 4:2). But will you directly die from it? Probably not. But what would happen if you stole from a drug cartel? Sin is deadly. But some sins are deadlier than others.
R. B. Thieme had a term for when Christians rebelled against God: reversionism. As Thieme explained, the believer reverts back to his or her former state which invites the discipline of God:
The sin unto death is administered only after prolonged and unchecked reversionism, after failure to respond to warning and intensive discipline (Jer 44:9-12; Ezek 20:13; Phil 3:18-19). This ultimate destruction is confined to time and in no way implies the loss of eternal salvation (Thieme, Reversionism, p. 46).
Thieme’s last point is crucial for a well-rounded understanding of eternal security. Once saved, always saved does not mean believers can sin without consequences. And just as importantly, you should read the warning passages in context. If a passage threatens the loss of your physical life, you should not re-interpret it to mean you can lose your eternal life. If James warns about sin getting you killed, then that’s what he means.
In sum, immorality is deadly—even for the eternally secure believer, which is another reason to stop sinning.