Addressing Objections: What About the ‘Unpardonable Sin?’
This is a reasonable question because there are a few Bible verses that, on the surface, seem to suggest that there is an unforgivable sin. For this reason, we must now closely examine the passages that seem to contain this concept. We will begin by looking at Mark 3:28-30 in two different translations, and then evaluate which is more accurate.
Mark 3:28-30 (NIV)
Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”
He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”
Mark 3:28-30 (Young’s Literal Translation)
`Verily I say to you, that all the sins shall be forgiven to the sons of men, and evil speakings with which they might speak evil,
but whoever may speak evil in regard to the Holy Spirit hath not forgiveness -- to the age, but is in danger of age-during judgment;'
because they said, `He hath an unclean spirit.'
It must be admitted that these two translations have very different meanings. But which is correct? I am not asking which one reads more smoothly in English, but which one captures the original meaning of the actual words that Mark wrote, in Greek, when he penned his gospel.
The original Greek phrase translated as “will never be forgiven” in the New International Version is ouk echei aphesin eis ton aiōna (οὐκ ἔχει ἄφεσιν εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα). Here is what each word of this phrase means when properly translated:
So which translation is more true to the Greek? Be honest.
It is clear that the translation of ouk as “never” is incorrect. In fact, if you look up the word ouk you will see that it is almost always translated as “not” and practically never translated as “never” in other biblical passages. It is hyperlinked here so you can see for yourself: ouk (click me) . The NIV actually omits several words in its translation. Instead of “never,” it should say “not to the age.” This is a very significant difference, because never, in English, means never, so people assume that the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven, when it actually won’t be forgiven in this age (or to the age)!
Now some will attempt to justify the NIV translation by saying that aiōna (αἰῶνα) means eternity, but this is objectively false. We have already seen that this term denotes an age or time period with a beginning and an end, and can cite innumerable uses of the term in biblical and extra-biblical documents that clearly show this to be the sense of the word. For this reason, the NIV and many other translations simply omit the word and translate ouk as “never.” But this is misleading and does not capture the sense of the Greek text.
Additionally, the phrase translated as “an eternal sin” in the NIV is aiōniou hamartēmatos . Once again, it has been clearly shown that aiōniou need not mean eternal and that such an interpretation is often prohibited by the contexts in which it is used in primary source documents from the ancient world. Once again, Young’s Literal Translation captures the sense of the word better by calling it “age-during.” It could also be rightly translated as “of the age” or “pertaining to the age” or “age-long.” Remember, aiōniou is simply an adjectival form of aiōn which means “age.”
Therefore, it can be seen that the bias toward hell has influenced English translations of the Bible quite significantly and that it is critical for a serious student of the Bible to be willing to examine the Greek, especially in passages that use the word “eternal.” This is especially true since so many of these translations are in direct opposition to a plethora of Biblical passages that clearly and unequivocally teach that Jesus is the Savior of all people. So, when Bible passages seem to contradict one another, that is a good sign that a deeper investigation of the original Greek is warranted.
Personally, each time I have done this deeper investigation I have found the same hell-bent bias distorting the Greek in the passages that are purported to support the idea of eternal torment. And I have never found anything in the Greek that would suggest that the passages that claim that Jesus is the Savior of all people, or that He is the ransom for all people, or that He is the Savior of the world, or that God’s will is to unite all things under Christ, or that every knee will bow and every tongue swear allegiance to God, have any possibility of meaning anything other than what they clearly say!
With this in mind, let’s now examine the context of Jesus’ statement on this sin that won’t be forgiven “to the age” to determine what is being discussed.
Mark 3:22-30 (NIV)
And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”
So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven ( ouk echei aphesin eis ton aiōna ); they are guilty of an eternal (aiōniou) sin.”
He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”
So, who is Jesus speaking to, and what is He communicating to them? It is clear from the text that Jesus is speaking to the religious teachers of the law who are accusing Him of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul (Satan). He is correcting their misconception by arguing that Satan won’t cast out Satan. Instead, it is by the Holy Spirit that Jesus is doing His work. It is clear from the passage that Jesus’ motivation for this discussion was to correct the idea that He had “an impure spirit.”
Jesus then utters His warning against blaspheming the Holy Spirit. He does this because the religious leaders were seeing Him do miracles, cast out demons, and heal the sick, but were choosing to attribute these acts to Satan, rather than to the Holy Spirit. If, with all this evidence of God working, they still chose to blaspheme the Holy Spirit by claiming the Holy Spirit was Satan, their hearts were so hard that they would never (in this age) come to a right understanding of God. For this reason, in this age they would not find forgiveness or come to a true knowledge of God. Such stubborn refusal to see the work of God as such would prevent them from experiencing the true life and forgiveness that Jesus provided. In other words, they had made up their minds to live their whole lives in a state of darkness rather than embrace the light of the gospel. So, they were committing the sin of the age that would inhibit them from partaking in the forgiveness Christ offered in this life.
This understanding of Jesus’ words is far more consistent with the overall message of the Scriptures, and is far more true to the original Greek. The merciful God who is the “Savior of all people and especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10), who “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4) surely is capable of forgiving and won’t hold a permanent grudge. He taught us to forgive whenever we are wronged. Look at His words:
Luke 17:3-4 (NIV)
So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”
Even while on the cross, in agony at the hands of His tormenters, Jesus cried out “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 NIV). He modeled forgiveness for us and taught us to do the same. In light of Christ’s message and modeling of forgiveness, do we really believe that Mark 3 refers to an “unforgivable sin” that God would never pardon, even if people repented of it? How is this view consistent with His character, His mission, or His message? The simple answer is that it is not. And it also isn’t the meaning of the original Greek. Enough said.
The Hebrews Passages
There are also two specific passages in the book of Hebrews that seem to suggest the existence of an unpardonable sin. We must now turn our attention to these.
Hebrews 6:4-12 (NIV)
It is impossible for those who 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. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.
Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation. God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.
One vitally important observation that must be noted is that the writer of Hebrews is describing a person with a full understanding and experience of the power of the gospel. This hypothetical person has “been enlightened,” “tasted the heavenly gift,” “shared in the Holy Spirit,” and “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age.” He is clearly describing a fully committed believer who has truly known Christ at the deepest level.
Now, some may object that I am calling this person “hypothetical,” but it
is by no means clear that the writer of Hebrews was describing specific
people that had turned away. I might, for example, make the following
”It is impossible for those that have seen God in all of His glory and majesty, and have fully understood His awesome power and love, to choose to spend eternity apart from Him in eternal torment.”
I believe that to be a true statement, but I am not implying that anyone has in fact seen God in all of His glory and majesty or fully understood His awesome power and love. I am simply saying that if someone were to have such an experience, it would be ludicrous to suggest that they would choose eternal torment over God. In the same way, the writer of Hebrews seems to be describing a hypothetical apostasy, but not referencing an actual one that He had observed. Notice that the writer makes this clear, saying “even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation.” He is convinced of these better things because “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” Because of God’s justice, He won’t forget the work of His saints and won’t abandon them to apostasy.
Paul, in Philippians 1:4-6 echoes this sentiment when he says: "In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus."
Given that both the writer of Hebrews as well as Paul were confident that God would finish the work He started in believers, it may be asked why the writer of Hebrews discusses the possibility of turning from the faith at all. But we do not need to wonder about this, because this question is answered for us. His rationale is stated clearly in Hebrews 6:11-12:
We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.
The author plainly states that he is warning believers so that they won’t become lazy, but rather persist in exercising their faith. Following Christ is meant to be an active faith, and should not rely on a one-time prayer, and then pretend that how a person lives after this prayer doesn’t matter. How you live as a Christian does matter. It matters deeply. As Christ Himself said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21 NIV). Both Jesus and the writer of Hebrews make it clear that believers have to participate in God’s work in order to inherit the things that have been promised to good and faithful servants. If we aren’t good and faithful servants of God, we should not expect to receive the benefits especially designated for such people.
We are to bear fruit as believers, producing a useful crop, rather than “thorns and thistles.” As the writer of Hebrews states by analogy, Christians who produce bad fruit are in “danger of being cursed” and “burned.” Does this mean that unfruitful Christians will spend eternity in hell? No, it does not. Instead it means that these Christians will fail to inherit the promises of the kingdom, and will experience God’s purifying judgment. A landowner doesn’t burn a field contaminated with weeds in order to torture it; he burns it to rid the field of the weeds that produce bad fruit and restore it to a condition where good fruit can be produced. We have already seen that the Bible uses fire repeatedly as a symbol for cleansing and purifying judgment. It is used here in this sense yet again.
But What About the “Impossible” Clause
At this point, it is important to address the statement that “it is impossible” for a fully committed believer who has “been enlightened,” “tasted the heavenly gift,” “shared in the Holy Spirit,” “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age” and has “fallen away, to be brought back to repentance.” First, it is quite important to recognize that the text is clearly describing a true believer. It is not describing, as some like to claim, someone who didn’t ever really believe, but just pretended to. Therefore, if one truly believes in the impossibility of repentance for such a person, one must admit that true believers can permanently lose their salvation. Many denominations claim that this cannot occur and that believers are permanently sealed for salvation. So, if you want to hold to the complete and utter impossibility of repentance and restoration, you must conclude that believers can lose their salvation, whether your denomination likes that idea or not.
I do not believe, however, that this is a correct interpretation of the text or that believers will become permanently and irrevocably lost and unrepentant. In looking at the whole counsel of scripture, it becomes apparent that Jesus does not lose any that are given to Him.
“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
It seems inconsistent, therefore, to say that believers become permanently incapable of being saved. So what is the author of Hebrews actually saying? The most reasonable and scripturally consistent interpretation seems to be that he is saying that a true believer that falls away from the faith, after having profoundly experienced it, has hardened his heart to the point that he will not repent. This echoes Jesus’ statements about the religious leaders of His day who wouldn’t be forgiven in this age because they attributed the Holy Spirit’s work to Satan. Denying Christ through apostasy, after being enlightened and experiencing Him deeply, seems to indicate the same heart state as “blaspheming the Holy Spirit” by declaring Jesus’ miracles to be Satanic.
Hypothetical apostates will not repent in this life because they have made their decision, just as the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had made theirs. Their hardening of heart would make it impossible to turn back and impossible for other believers to convince them to return.
But, while this would be impossible for people, is anything really impossible for God? Let’s look at Jesus’ words to answer this question:
Matthew 19:23-26 (NIV)
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “ With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. ”
Notice that Jesus tells us that “with God all things are possible.” Do we believe this? If we do, we must acknowledge that the impossibility being described by the writer of Hebrews is not an impossibility for God, but rather an impossibility for man. The reason why there is no way for the apostate to repent is that he or she has rejected the only One with the power to bring about repentance. The apostate has chosen to operate without the power of God and is therefore powerless. For this reason, repentance is impossible in this life.
But is it impossible forever? The text makes no such statement and we have clear and emphatic biblical support that rebellion against God will cease. God swears it by Himself.
“I have sworn by Myself,
The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness
And will not turn back,
That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance .
“They will say of Me, ‘Only in the Lord are righteousness and strength. ’
Romans 14:11 (ESV)
For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. ”
Philippians 2:11 clarifies this confession further, claiming that “every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
So the question now is whether we believe these verses. If we do, it is most reasonable to have the understanding that the apostate Christian will experience judgment and punishment just like the wicked, but that this punishment will serve to purify them and reconcile them back to God, so that they will once again confess the truth. Surely God is powerful enough to accomplish His will “which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:9-10 NIV). Paul makes it clear that this unity is a true unity that involves the full reconciliation of all to Him. Speaking of Christ, he puts it this way: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:19-20 ESV). It is clear in both of these passages that he really means all things, using the Greek word panta (which means all).
God can and will accomplish His purpose. Therefore, even if it is impossible for a person to fall away from true knowledge of God and then subsequently repent in this life, it is still possible for God to bring them to repentance through His righteous judgment, for with God nothing is impossible.
Now we will look at a final passage (Hebrews 10:26-31) that people sometimes interpret to describe unforgivable sin. But we will look at in context by reading the entire chapter, and thereby avoid misinterpretation.
Hebrews 10 (NIV)
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
I have come to do your will, my God.’”
First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:
“This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.”
Then he adds:
“Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.”
And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
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. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.
You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,
“In just a little while,
he who is coming will come
and will not delay.”
“But my righteous one will live by faith.
And I take no pleasure
in the one who shrinks back.”
But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.
There are several important things to note about the context of this passage. First, it is addressing the Hebrews, Jewish believers who were intimately familiar with the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. It is clear that the argument that is developed in this passage is that the old sacrificial system did not actually atone for sins but was merely symbolic of the true sacrifice of Christ. This sacrifice was done once for all. In other words, it does not need to be repeated year after year because it was effective to remove all sin, past, present, and future. Christ’s sacrifice was the only sacrifice for sins.
The temptation faced by many Jewish believers at the time of the writing of the book of Hebrews was to return to Judaism. There was much to lose by following Christ in the first century. Persecution, loss of status, and relational tensions with people who refused to associate with Christians (who were perceived to have abandoned Judaism), were very real burdens. In context, the passage is making it clear to Jewish believers that there is no other sacrifice for sins when it says “no sacrifice for sins is left.” In other words, you cannot go back to Judaism. It is ineffective for cleansing people of their sins. Rather, it foreshadowed the one efficacious sacrifice: Christ Himself.
Another important contextual observation of the passage is that it is intended to encourage the Hebrews to persist in their faith and have deep confidence and trust in God because of the work of Christ.
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The above passage immediately precedes the verses that say that no sacrifice is left if we deliberately continue sinning. So, in context we see that the writer of Hebrews is encouraging believers to hold to their faith and hope in God because He is faithful. Because of this hope, we will be able to encourage one another “toward love and good deeds.”
It is in this context that the author of Hebrews states that “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.” In order to understand this statement, it is vital to read it carefully. Let’s now do so.
First, it must be noted that the passage is being written to Christians, by a Christian. Notice that he says “if we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth.” He is making a hypothetical statement, but it is clearly directed at believers who know the truth. He is warning Christians to persist in their faith and is not speaking to non-believers.
Second, it is clear that habitual, continual sin that is done on purpose is being described. This is not accidental sin, or a weakness that resurfaces periodically. It is deliberate and shows contempt for the sacrifice of Christ, who died to save us from our sins. It is a deliberate mocking of God. This is why the writer asks: “How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?” The continual sinning described in the passage is intentional and denies the work of Christ. This is why such a person would only be able to expect the judgment that the wicked will receive. By denying the effectiveness of the only true sacrifice, they would be rejecting the only way to be saved from sin and its penalty. And they would be doing so with full knowledge of their choice, showing contempt for the work of God that they had experienced.
Third, it is critical to remember that the imagery of fire is used consistently throughout the Bible to denote purification. Although this was detailed in an earlier chapter, here are a couple of verses to remind us of this fact:
Matthew 3:11 (John the Baptist speaking)
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
Zephaniah 3:8-9 (NASB)
“Therefore wait for Me,” declares the Lord,
“For the day when I rise up as a witness.
Indeed, My decision is to gather nations,
To assemble kingdoms,
To pour out on them My indignation,
All My burning anger;
For all the earth will be devoured
By the fire of My zeal.
“For then I will give to the peoples purified lips,
That all of them may call on the name of the Lord,
To serve Him shoulder to shoulder.
So, when the author of Hebrews states that “only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” awaits those who deliberately keep on sinning in spite of their knowledge of God’s plan in Christ, he is making it clear that they will be punished just like anyone else who chooses to avoid sanctification. You see, everyone will be sanctified eventually because “everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49). But if we refuse to allow Christ to do this work in us now and instead choose to let the cancer of sin spread throughout our souls, the process will be much more painful. We have the option to be sanctified by the refining fire of Christ now, or wait for the judgment of the lake of fire described in Revelation.
It seems as if this judgment will be especially severe for believers who elect to continue to willfully sin in spite of their knowledge of God, “for we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Notice that God will judge his people. Many Christians often want to pretend that God only judges nonbelievers, but this is false. Are we not His people? In fact, 1 Peter 4:17 makes it clear that judgment begins with believers “for it is time for judgment to begin with God's household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”
This judgment for the house of God is tied to our suffering and sanctification. This is why Romans 5:3-5 says that “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Suffering, it seems, is inevitable, but it is necessary to produce holiness and build godly character. All of us must die to self-centeredness in order to be made like Christ. This is difficult and painful because we all are naturally self-focused, but it will occur. We can either endure God’s present judgment in our lives and be sanctified by him through the “the fiery trial” that tests us (1 Peter 4:12), or neglect sanctification by choosing to deliberately sin and endure the painful corrective punishment of the lake of fire. The choice is ours, but God’s will of reconciling all to Himself will occur no matter what we choose.
Finally, it is clear that the purpose of Hebrews 10 is to encourage Jewish believers to continue to deeply trust in God and persevere in their faith. This is why the author, after explaining the results of deliberately choosing continual sin, ends the chapter with the following statement: “But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed (apōleian), but to those who have faith and are saved.” He is making it clear to his audience that the hypothetical scenario of willful continuous sin is not an expected reality. It is meant instead to remind believers of their high calling to have faith and be saved from sin. And the author is confident that they will rise to this calling, rather than experience the destruction that results from choosing a life of willful wickedness.
Although there are some passages that superficially seem to suggest that certain sins will never be forgiven, a deeper investigation reveals that God is capable of forgiving anything that he chooses to forgive. Below is a summary of the main points that we have seen after examining each of these verses in context.
1. The words often translated as “never be forgiven” in Mark 3 actually are ouk echei aphesin eis ton aiōna . This phrase means “not has forgiveness to the age” if literally translated. This seems to denote an inability to find forgiveness in this lifetime due to a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the miracles of Christ as God’s work. Instead, these people claimed Jesus’ work was Satanic. Such hardness of heart prevented them from coming to repentance.
2. The discussion of the hypothetical true believer who falls away from the faith seems to indicate a person with the same hardness of heart that the teachers of the law had. Fully experiencing and understanding the gospel, yet turning away, is similar to seeing Christ’s miracles and denying their source. The statement that it is therefore impossible for a true believer who has fallen away to be brought back to repentance also suggests that this person has made a stubborn choice to deny the only person with the power to bring about repentance in this life. They are therefore powerless to repent, having denied His power. Yet, it is clear that all things are possible with God and that He has clearly determined to reconcile and unite all to Himself. So what is impossible for us to accomplish, God is still able to do and promises that He will.
3. Jesus is the only true sacrifice for sin. There is no option to return to the Jewish sacrificial system which simply foreshadowed the true redemptive work of Christ. If we as believers mock God by continually and willfully choosing sin, we are choosing to not be saved from sin in this life. The result is condemnation to the lake of fire along with the wicked that have not yet been cleansed of their sins. But this cleansing is the very purpose of fire (as described clearly and repeatedly throughout the Scriptures). It is far better to choose to follow Christ now and be sanctified throughout this life, rather than choose wickedness and experience God’s judgment in the future.
God’s judgment is a serious matter that is not to be taken lightly. This is why the writer of Hebrews warns us so strongly against having a flippant attitude about the grace we have received. But we must remember that Scripture teaches us that God’s judgment and anger are purposeful and result in reconciliation. As Hebrews 12 tells us, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves,” and “God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.” This is purposeful and results in the fulfillment of His will that all come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). It is also temporary, “for his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). As the psalmist repeats in Psalm 136, “His mercy endures forever.” This mercy in no way compromises his justice. Rather it is central to it.
Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for him!
Notice that the Lord longs to be gracious and show compassion because He is “a God of justice.” He is the model for us of forgiveness and he tells us that we must always forgive (Luke 17:3-4, Matthew 6:14-15, and elsewhere). There is no forgiveness that is impossible for Him, for all things are possible for Him. His will to reconcile all to himself, as clearly described in Colossians 1, will not be thwarted. For this reason, we can “give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever” (Psalm 107:1).
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