© Copyright 2014 by Gretchen Passantino Coburn
In my more than forty years of Christian apologetics ministry, questions about the “unforgivable sin” continue to recur. Those who pose the questions are not indifferent to God. Nor do they hate God. Instead, they invariably grieve their loss and they despair of salvation. We have a classic Answers In Action article addressing the particular scripture passages that confuse readers. This article is much more focused on the principles behind such confusion and despair. It is derived from a response I composed to plea from someone who feared for his soul, but is generally applicable to anyone who believes he or she may have committed the unforgivable sin.
First, I commend those who continue to pursue relationship with God in spite of their fear, confusion, doubt, and despair. This is a characteristic of a human heart experiencing the saving power of the Holy Spirit, not a heart that has refused God’s grace and forgiveness and hardened itself to salvation. In other words, someone’s persistent concern and return are proof in themselves that he or she has not committed the unforgivable sin.
Two features are most common in those with this unresolved struggle: (1) They give undeserved and misunderstood weight to their continuing sinfulness, and (2) They elevate their subjective experience of each moment over the objective truth of the gospel, affirmed by the testimonies of God’s Word and God’s people (both through time and in personal relationship with other believers).
Many in this uncertainty point to their repeated and continuing sinfulness as evidence they have never been and never can be saved. This is contrary to the testimony of God in His Word. Until we die and are resurrected and brought completely into God’s fulfilled kingdom, every single one of us will continue to sin. Martin Luther has a well-known observation that can be summarized like this: If you have no desire to sin and are not sinning, check your heart & your breath to see if you are still alive. In the same way, if you are not grieving over your sin and longing for forgiveness through Jesus Christ (especially as distributed in the Lord’s Supper), check your heart and your breath to see if you are still alive. Repeated and continuing sin is not an evidence of the absence of salvation.
In other words, it is the common, biblical experience for believers to experience the seed of sinfulness with which they are born and which continues to live in them until the resurrection; but it is also the common, biblical experience for believers to experience the seed of regeneration, to have remorse and seek forgiveness and reconciliation with God. Sadly, for those who despair, it seems easier to “believe in” his or her “sinful seed” than to “believe in” his or her “seed of life,”
This brings me to my second main point: As long as one gives more trust to his or her own subjective fear, and less trust to the testimony of the Spirit through His Word and His people (the community of believers local & universal), he or she will be “tossed about by every wind of doctrine.” Such a one has no objective anchor for the soul. The “bedrock of the sea” that will hold our “anchor” firm is God Himself (and His Word), who loves each one of us so much that even while we were loyal to sin, He gave His beloved and only Son to pay the price for us & bring us back to Him (John 3:16 and Rom. 5:1-5). He desires and commands an intimate, personal, and unique relationship with each of us through His Spirit. The “anchor” that keeps each of us connected to the bedrock (God) is God’s community of believers, not only universal but also local and intimate through relationship with believers in fellowship, worship, and knowledge of God’s Word.
The most common persistent sin struggle despairing people experience is pornography. This is to be expected, because pornography is a counterfeit of the personal intimacy God created as the only fulfillment of our relationship to Him and our relationship to others. Pornography substitutes exploitation for self-sacrificing love; physical stimulation for spiritual transformation; transitory climax for enduring devotion. Being filled by sex is not the problem: being empty of God-directed intimacy (with Him and with other believers) is the problem.
The “solution” to this struggle to believe one can be saved is like many biblical paradoxes: it is incredibly easy and simple; it is undeniably difficult and complex. The solution is complete and utter abandonment to God, an emptying of one’s self, a forsaking of one’s own will, a “reckless” throwing of oneself on God, trusting His mercy and grace so much that if He does not “catch” him or her, he or she will be utterly destroyed on the rocks of divine deceit. In one way, it is simple and easy: just give up everything. In another way it is profound and impossible: just give up everything. It is that conundrum that God accepts nothing from us but must have everything from us; that we must surrender to His Spirit but we can’t surrender on our own. Praise be to God that the resolution to this difficulty is that the equation is not equal – it is not “all us” and “all God.” God has “weighted” the equation such that our inability makes way for His ability, and He is eager and able to overcome our inadequacies, not by our act of coming to Him, but by our surrender to receive Him coming to us. Because we are still in this sinful world, in our sin-infected body, with our sin-tainted mind and spirit, we will continue to fall and will consequently surrender ourselves over and over. But the good news is that God is not fickle like we are: while we waver between sin and surrender, He is always there in mercy and grace, forgiving and restoring us. Again, the equation is not balanced: God has the upper hand in love and forgiveness, not us.
What I see missing from most of those who fear they’ve committed the unforgivable sin is that “anchor” of intimate relationship that secures them to the bedrock of the Lord. There is a reason that God established human marriage, a lifelong covenant between two people, as a picture of the relationship between God and us.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8a defines that lifelong covenant as “love.” “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Is this the kind of relationship a fearful one has with God? With other believers? If not, then this is what he or she needs to seek eagerly: not by trying to stir up an emotion or prove oneself, but by practicing living according to its precepts.
Be patient with God: give Him time to display His plan; don’t dictate one’s own plan to Him.
Be kind to God: put the best construction on God’s action in one’s circumstances; don’t assume He is out to exclude someone who yearns for Him.
Do not envy God: act in trust that He is a loving Father; don’t demand the lonely autonomy of someone cut off from God’s guidance.
Do not choose one’s own way over God’s way: many might think going their own way is a sign of humility (they’re not good enough for God) but instead it is a sign of boasting (their sinful inclinations are more powerful than God’s forgiveness).
Focus one’s attention on God: fill the mind and life w/worship and love of God; don’t pretend one is repentant by being obsessed with his or her own sinfulness and fear, and yet neglecting the solution-giver, the Lord Himself.
Practice true humility: C. S. Lewis skillfully describes the difference between proud and humble, “not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less;” in other words, focus on the Lord and His power and blessings in life, not on one’s own helplessness and fears.
Don’t dishonor the Lord by insisting that the greatness of one’s sinning is greater than the Lord’s greatness to forgive and regenerate: it is contrary to God’s Word to believe that He would reject someone and hold him or her accountable for his or her own sins when he or she is desperate for acceptance and forgiveness through Christ; rather, honor the Lord by honoring His sacrifice through His Son.
Don’t judge the Lord by one’s own subjective, fallible, inadequate judgment: God is the one who promised to forgive the sins of anyone who repents; no individual has the power to exempt oneself from His promise.
Affirm that God’s compassion and loving-kindness is greater than any individual’s anger: even if one thinks his or her devotion to pornography (or any other sin) is extraordinary, in fact it’s always possible (and usually easy) to find others whose sin abounds even more; in fact, God does not limit His forgiveness to those whose sinning is trivial but extends it to those whose sinning is gross. It is not quantity of sin that excludes one from salvation – the tiniest sin is enough and the greatest is not enough – the quality of Christ’s redemptive work covers all.
Stop clutching to both individual recurrent sin and one’s misjudgment of God: He has promised to keep no record of one’s sins since they are covered by Christ; when someone continues bringing them up (either by remembrance or repetition), he or she is accusing God of being a liar.
Now look at the second paragraph of 1 Corinthians 13: These are the positive features of the intimate, personal, loving relationship God has provided for each of us in Jesus Christ. Turn our back on all the negatives & follow God’s encouragement to rejoice in the truth that salvation is God’s work in Christ, not our work toward Christ; to accept His protection of our salvation, not our own good intentions; to trust the Lord’s love and compassion, not our own fickle emotions; to have confident hope in the finished work of the cross on our behalf, not in our own fallible intuition; accept the perseverance of the Lord on our behalf, not our own wavering back and forth between obedience and sinning. Finally, practice confidence in the divine love that never fails rather than the unredeemed human love that is counterfeit.
If we practice intimate love relationship with the Lord, we will be drawn inexorably into intimate love relationship (not sexual) with God’s people, the church (both universal and local). We will begin to trust others, rely on their encouragement and support, welcome their assurances and corrections, experience mutual positive involvement in each others’ lives, and begin to identify ourselves with God’s people rather than with those who are aliens to the faith.
If we sincerely practice loving God and loving God’s people (that means making ourselves vulnerable to both God and a local fellowship of believers), the power of sin, fear, and doubt in our lives will begin to lessen. Doing so is not pursuing a subjective, fleeting, transitory emotional experience – I’ve just spent multiple paragraphs defining true divine love.
In conclusion, here are common specific questions fearful people often ask and summary answers to them. “What do I do now?” Move forward boldly and with utter abandon into God’s forgiving and loving arms. “Where do I go now?” To a local fellowship of believers who are truly in love with their Bridegroom, Christ, and therefore can model that love for you. (You know intuitively how to distinguish between those who are generally trustworthy and those who will attack your faith and “punish” you for your failures.) “What am I to believe about salvation?” That it is God’s plan, God’s work, God’s love, and God’s intention, not only for all the others, but also for you. “How do I stop back-sliding?” By learning through practice and association with God’s people to enjoy and occupy yourself with the things of the Lord who is your Lover rather than the things of the world that prostitutes itself. “Can I be free of slavery to pornography?” Yes! When you begin to make a habit of loving God in the 1 Cor 13 sense, you will find yourself falling more and more in love with God and His people and you will experience the true love that will so outshine the transitory counterfeit of pornography that you will look back on it and think, “How could I ever have substituted that pitiful deceit for God’s immense love?” “How can I test myself” must be answered in the negative: you cannot test yourself, a self-defeating subjectivity; but you can trust God’s test confirmed through His church, both the voices of history (like Lewis and Luther) and the voices of those you become intimately personal with in fellowship by God’s love. The true purpose of confession in the church is, in fact, to provide this confirmation of God’s forgiveness to those who are trapped in fear by their subjectivity. Martin Luther said, “Confession embraces two parts: the one is, that we confess our sins; the other, that we receive absolution, or forgiveness, from the confessor, as from God Himself, and in no wise doubt, but firmly believe, that our sins are thereby forgiven before God in heaven” (The Small Catechism).