The Greater Sin: Are There Degrees of Sin? (Part 3)

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There is an unpardonable sin.

Jesus’ greatest critics were the scribes and the Pharisees. As we have seen above, they were religious men who possessed much biblical knowledge but who refused to submit to God’s will. On one occasion, they actually accuse Jesus of per­forming miracles by the power of the devil rather than by the power of God. Jesus’ response is tremendously sobering:

Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blas­phemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation (Mark 3:28-29).

The fact Jesus makes this statement in response to their accusation seems to suggest that they had just committed this sin. Mark confirms this in the following verse when he informs us that Jesus’ comment was made “because they said, ‘He has an unclean spirit’” (v. 30). The imperfect tense of “saying” indicates the persis­tent nature of their sin. They had heard Christ’s preaching and they had seen His miracles. Yet they defiantly and persistently refused to acknowledge the authenticity of His work. Instead they maliciously attributed it to the power of Satan.[12] What is especially striking is Christ’s assertion that such a sin “never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation.” Literally, the Greek reads, “[he] has no forgiveness throughout eternity but he is in danger of eternal sin.”[13] “Eternal sin” signifies a sin that remains forever! The parallel account in Matthew 12:32 uses similar language: “it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Why Unpardonable?

The problem is not so much a limitation of God’s mercy or an inadequacy in Christ’s sacrifice. Apparently the unpardonable nature of this sin is related to a sinner reaching a point of hardness where he can no longer repent. This seems to be the point of Hebrews 6:4-6. There the writer describes a category of individuals who outwardly appeared to have had a “conversion” experience but who later apostatized from the faith.[14] Of these individuals, the writer says, “It is impossible … to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God and put Him to an open shame.” In other words, these individuals have resumed their former hostility towards Christ.[15] Only now, their hostility has become so hardened and aggravated that they no longer are able to repent. Their apostasy is irreversible.[16] The writer of Hebrews seems to be addressing this same unpardonable sin later in chapter 10 where he warns, “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” According to this text, to turn away from Christ deliberately with full knowledge and purpose of heart is to remove oneself from the possibility of pardon.

The apostle Peter also speaks of certain individuals who at one time had “escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” but later they became “again entangled in them” (2 Pet. 2:20). And Peter draws attention to the irreversible nature of their apostasy when he says “the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them” (vv. 20-21). Peter’s words seem to imply that these individuals are no longer in a condition where they may be saved.[17] And this “unpardonable sin” may also be the “sin unto death,” which John speaks of in his first epistle (1 John 5:16). So serious is the sin John has in view that he advises believers not to pray for the salvation of the individual who has committed it (1 John 5:16; cf. 1 Sam 2:25; Jer. 7:16; 11:14; 14:11).[18]

Notes

12 Wayne Grudem defines the sin as “a malicious, willful rejection and slander against the Holy Spirit’s work attesting to Christ, and attributing that work to Satan.” Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994), 494, n. 1.

13 There is a textual variant. Some manuscripts read, aioniou kriseos (‘eternal condemnation,’ NKJ). But the evidence is in favor of the more unusual reading, aioniou hamartematos, which most modern versions follow (cf. ASV, NAS, NIV, ESV, NLT).

14 The descriptive expressions used, “enlightened,” “tasted,” “partaken,” etc., are commonly indicative of a conversion experience (cf. 2 Cor. 4:4-6; Heb. 3:1, 14). This has led some to the conclusion that such persons were once genuinely saved but lost their salvation. However, I believe such an interpretation should be rejected for the following reasons: first, there are numerous passages of Scripture that teach the preservation and perseverance of all genuine Christians unto the end (John 10:25-27; Rom. 8:30; Phil. 1:6; 1 Pet. 1:1-5). Second, the Bible sometimes attributes religious experiences to those who in fact never were actually converted. For example, in Matthew 7:22-23 Jesus says to certain individuals who could boast of having performed mighty works in Jesus’ name, such as casting out demons, “Depart from me I never knew you.” In Luke 8:13, we read in the Parable of the Sower that some people initially “receive the word with joy” and “believe for a while,” but they have no “root.” In John 8:30, we are told, “Many believed in Christ.” Immediately following, Jesus says to those who “had believed,” “If you continue in my word, then you are genuinely my disciples” (v. 31). The subsequent interchange between them and Christ reveals that they had not truly believed. Indeed, Jesus goes on to call them children of the devil (v. 44). Peter speaks of individuals who had experienced some sanctifying influence from the truth, but later apostatized (2 Pet. 2:20-21). Then, in the next verse, Peter then suggests that their apostasy has served to reveal what their true nature has been all along: “But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: ‘A dog returns to his own vomit,’ and, ‘a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire.’” Thus it is certainly possible that a person might have a “conversion” experience that proves in the end to be spurious.

15 This interpretation obviously takes the reference to crucifying again the Son of God as figurative for the same kind of hostility that precipitated Jesus’ actual crucifixion (cf. Heb. 10:29). Those who advocate the so-called hypothetical view of Hebrews 6:4-6 take this as a literal reference to another historical crucifixion of Christ. Since such a scenario is in fact impossible, then, they argue, it is likewise impossible that a genuine Christian should ever apostatize. Such an interpretation, while affirming the doctrine of perseverance, minimizes the serious warning pre­sented in these verses. In light of the undeniable warnings directed to believers elsewhere in Hebrews (3:12-13; 10:26-29), it is best not to view the apostasy as merely hypothetical but as potentially real.

16 On the basis of the present participles (‘crucifying afresh’ and ‘putting to an open shame’), some argue that their repentance is impossible only as long as they continue in this state of hostility. Should they relinquish their hostility towards Christ, they could be renewed unto repentance. In this case, their apostasy would not be irreversible. Although this view is grammatically possible and attractive, I do not believe it is correct for the following reasons: first, if the sin of Hebrews 6:4-6 is of the same kind as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” then it is clearly referring to an irreversible state. Jesus clearly states that such a sin is beyond forgiveness in this life and the next (Matt. 12:32; Mark 3:29). Second, it is highly likely the writer is referring to the same scenario later in chapter 10 where he describes individuals who “sin willfully” after having “received the knowledge of the truth.” For such indi­viduals, the writer argues, “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (v. 26). Once again, he seems to be describing an irreversible condition (cf. vv. 27-29).

17 That conclusion becomes even more clear when Peter goes on to compare them to a dog that return to eat its own vomit or to a pig that return to the mud after being washed (v. 22). By returning to their former filthy and repulsive behav­ior, these apostates have revealed their true nature.

18 Some commentators suggest another interpretation of the “sin unto death.” They believe John is referring to the kind of sin that inevitably results in physical death. Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1-2), as well as Ananias and Saphira (Acts 5:1-11) are given as examples. Other examples might include those who have committed a crime worthy of capital punishment. In these cases, John would saying in essence, It’s not God’s will that such individuals be rescued from a death-sentence.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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