What happens when a Christian sins? Are there degrees of sin? What is the unpardonable sin?
During the past week my family and I considered these questions in our family Bible reading time, guided by Wayne Grudem’s discussion of them in Chapter 24, “Sin” of his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994).
What happens when a Christian sins?
The New Testament speaks often of the harmful effects of a Christian’s sinning. For example, Paul warns that it will enslave him to sin, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to death” (Romans 6:16). Thus God disciplines the Christian who sins, “He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10) and threatens him with the loss of heavenly reward, “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives [when it is tested by fire], he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:14-15).
These passages raise the question of whether or not a Christian can lose his salvation. Grudem asserts that he can’t, arguing that as a child of God–“Beloved, we are God’s children, now” (1 John 3:2)–he is a permanent part of God’s family. Referring to the warning of Jesus in Matthew 7:22-23, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'” Grudem suggests that a long-term pattern of disobedience to Christ by a professed Christian indicates that he never was a true Christian.
However on the basis of such passages as Hebrews 6:4-6, “It is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt,” I believe that a Christian can apostatize and lose his salvation.
I’ll consider this question more fully when my family and I read in our family Bible-reading time Chapter 40, “The Perseverance of Saints (Remaining a Christian),” of Grudem’s Systematic Theology.
Are there degrees of sin?
In my last post I defined sin as the breaking of the law of God. Moses told the people of Israel, “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deuteronomy 27:28, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV), indicating that breaking any of the laws that God had given them would make them guilty before God and liable to punishment by Him. James tells his readers the same thing, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law'” (James 2:10-11). Thus, in one sense all sins are equally bad because our committing any of them makes us guilty before God.
However some sins are worse than others because they bring more dishonour to God or because they cause more harm to ourselves or others. When God showed Ezekiel in a vision four scenes of idolatry in the Temple, He referred to them as “great abominations…still greater abominations…still greater abominations [and] still greater abominations” (Ezekiel 6:6, 6, 12, 15). In pronouncing woes on the scribes and Pharisees, he recognized that they had tithed scrupulously but said that they had “neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).
Moreover those sins that are done deliberately are more displeasing to God than those that are done unintentionally. Thus under the Law provision was made for unintentional sin’s being atoned for but deliberate sin was to be punished: “If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person . . . and he shall be forgiven. . . . But the person who does anything with a high hand . . . that person shall be cut off from among his people” (Numbers 15:27-30).
As well God expects more of leaders than of others. Thus Moses and Aaron were not allowed to enter the Promised Land because of their not following exactly God’s instructions for providing water to the people. And James says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
What is the unpardonable sin?
On one occasion when he was accused of casting out demons with the help of Satan, Jesus asserted, “All sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28-29; see also Matthew 12:31-32 and Luke 12:10). Grudem’s consideration of the unpardonable sin follows Louis Berkhof’s closely.
Both Berkhof and Grudem identify these views of what the unpardonable sin is:
– a sin that could be committed only while Christ was on earth
– unbelief until the time of death
– apostasy by genuine believers
– malicious, wilful rejection of the Holy Spirit’s witness to Christ, attributing it to Satan
Both argue for the fourth view, claiming that the sin consists “not in doubting the truth, nor in a simple denial of it, but in a contradiction of it that goes contrary to the conviction of the mind, to the illumination of the conscience, and even to the verdict of the heart” (Grudem, page 509, quoting Berkhof). Berhof continues, “In committing that sin man wilfully, maliciously, and intentionally attributes what is clearly recognized as the work of God to the influence and operation of Satan” (Berkhof – see Bibliography below, page 253).
Both also observe that since the unpardonable sin doesn’t include repentance, “we may be reasonably sure that they who fear that they have committed it and worry about this, and who desire the prayers of others for them, have not committed it” (Grudem, page 509, quoting Berkhof).
All my Bible dictionaries/encyclopedias and systematic theology textbooks have comprehensive articles/chapters on sin, the topic of this and last Tuesday’s posts. These are the articles/chapters cited from them in the posts:
– Berkhof, Louis. “Man in the State of Sin.” Systematic Theology. Fourth edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939. Pages 219-261.
– Erickson, Millard J. “Sin.” Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2013. Pages 511-599.
– Strong, Augustus Strong. “Sin, or Man’s State of Apostasy.” Systematic Theology. Valley Forge, Pa.: Judson Press, 1907. Pages 533-664.