Unforgiveable sin

One of the most widely taught doctrines in the church today is the doctrine of ‘once saved, always saved’. In summery, it says that once someone has prayed a prayer asking Jesus into their, then God will forgive any subsequent sin. One can cheat, rob, curse God, worship the Antichrist, murder, and plunder the world with impunity, As far as personal salvation is concerned, because  we are ‘one saved. always saved’, our Christian behaviour ultimate doesn’t matter to our salvation.

On the other hand, others argue that Jesus brought us the New Covenant. All covenants have conditions which must be met if the benefits are to be received. Throughout the New Testament, the word ‘if’ is used many times in association with salvation. When the conditions God sets by these ‘ifs’ are not met then an individual can’t expect to receive the rewards, as God never makes idle claims.

This is an issue over which Bible believing Christian have different views.  There are passages in the Bible that support both viewpoint.

Some believe, with John Calvin, that as soon as one is saved, that person is secure in the knowledge that they will receive eternal life,  no matter what they do during the rest of their life. He taught in the 16th century that people were "predestined" to either be among the elect (those who will spend eternity in Heaven) or the damned (those who will be punished for eternity in Hell). This is known among theologians as "inadmissible grace", unconditional perseverance", or the  "perseverance of the saints.

Others believe, with John Wesley, that one can be saved and subsequently lose one’s salvation later in life, either through an improper thought or deed.  Thus, a person’s salvation status is not determined until they actually die.

The teachings of early Christians are important to us today. Until around 200AD, the church’s teaching was not very far removed from the direct teachings of Jesus and the apostles. These early Church Fathers unanimously believed that a saved person could lose their salvation. Early Christians believed that continued obedience was required of the believer in order to for them to maintain their salvation intact. Some examples in the writings from that era are:

Irenaeus (120 to 205 AD) was the overseer of the church at Lyons, France. He believed that a person could only be saved once. If they performed some evil deed, then God would permanently reject them. Irenaeus explained this very clearly in his book "Against Heresies," Book 4, Chapter 27, Section 2:

Christ will not die again on behalf of those who now commit sin because death shall no more have dominion over Him…we should  beware, lest somehow, after [we have attained] the knowledge of Christ, if we do things displeasing to God, we [will] obtain no further forgiveness of sins, but rather be shut out from His kingdom.

Tertullian (140 to 230 AD) was the elder in the church at Carthage, North Africa. He wrote in his book "On Repentance," Chapter 6:

Some people act as though God were under an obligation to bestow even on the unworthy His intended gift…For do not many afterwards fall out of grace? Is not this gift taken away from many?

Cyprian (200 to 258 AD) was an overseer of the church in Carthage, North Africa. Referring to Matthew 10:22, he wrote in his book "Unity of the Church," Sec. 21:

It is written ‘He who endures to the end, the same shall be saved.’ So whatever precedes the end is only a step by which we ascend to the summit of salvation. It is not the final point wherein we have already gained the full result of the ascent."

The Bible contains some passages which appear to say clearly and unambiguously that once a person gains salvation, they can lose it. Examples are from the King James Version of the Bible unless the language is so archaic that it is difficult to understand; more modern translations are then used.

Matthew 10:22: "Those who stand firm to the end will be saved." The implication is that someone who does not stands firm to the end will not be saved. Some theologians dismiss this interpretation; they believe that a person who does not stand firm never was saved in the first place; thus all that are truly saved will continue in that state.

John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." The NIV translation of this verse implies that everyone who believes "shall" have eternal life. The Amplified Bible agrees. But other translations use alternative words: "should," "may," or "might." This is good example of how Bible translators can select words which match their own theological belief systems. For example, the NAB translation is used those who believe that an individual can lose their salvation may times during their lifetime, and frequently regain it by sincerely participating in church sacraments. Those conservative Christians who believe that one cannot lose ones salvation frequently use the NIV translation.

John 15:6: "If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.." A person who "does not remain" in Jesus is apparently a saved person whose behaviour or thoughts have become unacceptable. Throwing the formerly saved person into the fire and burning them is an obvious reference to Hell.

1 Corinthians 15-2: "By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain." Paul apparently believes that a person is only saved if they continue to believe in the gospel. If they lose faith in the gospel, presumably they lose their salvation. Some conservative theologians believe that this verse also refers to those who were not really initially saved.

Galatians 6:8-9: "Those who sow to please their sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; those who sow to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.." This passage appears to make salvation dependent on an individual continually working towards their goal of attaining eternal life. If a person gives up prematurely, then they would lose their salvation.

2 Timothy 2:12: "

"If we endure,
       we will also reign with him.
       If we disown him,
       he will also disown us;

The "we" in this hymn apparently means saved individuals. But if we "deny and disown and reject" (Amplified Bible) Jesus, then he will do the same to us, and presumably terminate our salvation.

Hebrews 10:26: "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God." The early Christians universally believed that this passage referred to persons who had been saved, had continued to sin, and had thereby lost their salvation. Some present-day theologians teach that this verse refers only to the unsaved.

2 Peter 2:20-21: "If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them.." The first verse appears to refer to persons who have turned away from the corruption of the world, have been saved, and later returned entangled in the world. The implication is that these people will be more viciously treated after death by God’s wrath than those people who were never saved.

Add the key passage

Hebrews 6:4-6: "It is impossible for those
have once been enlightened,
  who have tasted the heavenly gift,
  who have shared in the Holy Spirit,
  who have tasted the goodness of the word of God
                  and the powers of the coming age and
  who have fallen away,
to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.."

The first two verses define precisely an individual who had being saved and was receiving the benefits of salvation. The last verse states clearly that a person is quite capable of falling away from the faith…and if they do so, that it is impossible for their salvation to be renewed.

Christians who believe that a person can never lose their salvation may interpret this passage as meaning that they were never true believers in the first place (Calvin’s position).  But I think that the writer of Hebrews is going out of his way to describe the converted state. 

John Piper puts the issue this way:

It is impossible to renew [such a person] again to repentance" (verse 6). We saw an illustration of this from Hebrews 12:16-17. There it speaks a similar kind of warning as here:

[Let] there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears.

Will Genuine Repentance be Rejected by God?  Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Esau genuinely repented and was rejected by God. God does not reject genuine repentance. The text says plainly that he found no place for repentance. In other words, he couldn’t repent. He was so hardened (see Hebrews 3:8,15; 4:7) that he cried out for things to go better in his life, but inside he would not submit to God’s terms. He was, as verse 16 says, "immoral and godless."

This is an illustration of what the writer has in mind in Hebrews 6:6 when he says it is impossible to renew this person again to repentance. This is the terrifying prospect behind all the warnings of this book not to drift but to take heed and consider Jesus and to exhort each other every day and to fear unbelief and carelessness.

Why? Is anything really at stake? The prospect exists that you and I who believe we are chosen and called and justified might slide into a slow process of indifference and hardening and eventually fall away and reject Christ and put him to an open shame. We may actually come to a point where there is no return, because we have been forsaken utterly by God. That’s what the word "impossible" means in verse 6. and Oh, how it should put you on an urgent pursuit of mercy!

I identity four potentially unforgiveable sins to which these passages apply:

1. claiming Jesus has come from Satan (Luke 11:14-20)

2. constantly rejecting the message of the gospel made known by Spirit (e.g. Paul spoke against Jesus, but did not reject the Spirit’s call to believe in Jesus;  Luke 12:5; Acts 3:22-26

3. rejecting apostolic teaching (1 John 2:18-19; 4:1-3) and 

4. renouncing faith in Jesus (Like 12:9; Heb 6:4-6). With this final issue, I’m inclined to the very helpful view of James Akin:

This is where understanding the Jewish context (and content) of the letter [of Hebrews] is so important. By returning to Judaism, the apostates are declaring that Jesus was a false Messiah. They are declaring that he deserved what he got when he was crucified—because it is axiomatic that every false Messiah deserves death and public humiliation. They were running around saying: "Well, he wasn’t the real Messiah. He deserved what he got. He deserved to be crucified and put to public humiliation." As it says in the Torah, ‘Cursed is every man who is hung upon a tree!’"

Thus the re-crucifixion and humiliation of Christ was something the apostates were doing while they were maintaining their rebellion against the Messiah they had once accepted. This indicates an enormous hardness of heart, which is why the author tells us, "It is impossible for those . . . to be brought back to repentance." The hardness of their hearts prevents it.

This is, of course, a practical rule rather than a dogmatic (absolute) rule. Because of the hardness of heart the Jewish apostates are displaying by publicly denouncing Jesus, declaring that he deserved crucifixion and humiliation, it is as a practical matter impossible to renew them to repentance and faith in Christ. This does not in any way mean it is an absolute impossibility to renew them to repentance, for "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God" (Mark. 10:27).

In the same way, the statement "It is impossible for those . . . to be renewed to repentance" is simply a practical rule. It is only because of their hardness of their hearts that it is a waste of time to argue with them. It is more prudent, as a matter of evangelism, to talk to people who aren’t that hostile toward Christ and who are more likely to give you a hearing.

This special animus against the person of Christ would not be present in those who were not Jews and who thus would not resent him as much as a false Messiah upon returning to their former religions. Thus a person today who went back to secularism, for example, would not hate Jesus as a Messianic pretender and would not say, "He deserved what he got!" the way a first century Jew would. In fact, an apostate to secularism might still even admire Jesus in a kind of nebulous way as a good and wise teacher.

Thus modern apostates are much easier to reclaim from there repudiation of the faith than first century Jewish apostates were. In fact, this has been the case throughout history. For example, those who had denied the faith during the persecutions of the early centuries often came back to the Church and were received back into membership (after a period of penance) once the persecution stopped. The practical rule that it is impossible to renew an apostate to repentance is thus a general rule only for the early Jewish apostates the book of Hebrews was discussing, not later ones (though of course an individual later apostate may be so hard of heart he will never come back, but this does not apply to later apostates as a group).

Apostasy, contrary to some interpretations, is not the unforgivable sin. Like the parallel sins against faith—infidelity, schism, and heresy—it only becomes an unforgivable sin if one dies in it. Until death it is always possible, God willing, for an infidel to convert, for a schismatic to return from his schism, for a heretic to renounce his heresy, and for an apostate to re-embrace the faith of Christ.

After all this is said, why take the risk!

1 comment to Unforgiveable sin

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>




This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.