The Unforgivable Sin Sermon Lisa C. Farrell

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1 FIRST LESSON: Proverbs 28: SECOND LESSON: Hebrews 6: 4-12; Matthew 12: February 16, 2014 The Unforgivable Sin Sermon Lisa C. Farrell A young woman named Jessie received a parrot as a gift. Over time the parrot developed an extremely bad attitude. It got to the point that every word out of the bird's mouth was rude and obnoxious. Jessie tried and tried to change the bird's attitude by consistently saying only polite words, playing soft music and anything else she could think of to change the bird's attitude and clean up its language. Finally, thoroughly fed up, Jessie lost it, grabbed the bird and put him in the freezer. For a few minutes the parrot squawked, kicked and screamed. Then suddenly there was total quiet. Not a peep was heard for over a minute. Fearing that she'd hurt the parrot, Jessie quickly opened the door to the freezer. The parrot calmly stepped out onto Jessie's outstretched arm and said I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions. I'm sincerely remorseful for my inappropriate transgressions and I fully intend to do everything I can to correct my unforgivable behavior. Jessie was stunned at the change in the bird's attitude. As she was about to ask the parrot what had made such a dramatic change the bird spoke-up and asked very softly, May I ask what the turkey did? It s unforgiveable! That s what we say when someone has transgressed all bounds of decency. But of course, that s not true. Everything is forgivable, even the most heinous of crimes. It all comes down to whether or not we are willing to forgive. But there is one subject that has troubled Christians throughout the centuries. It appears in Matthew s gospel and in different ways in I John and in Hebrews. That subject is the unforgiveable sin. Any number of people have come to me over the years anxious that they may have committed the unforgivable sin. One simple axiom is true: if you re afraid you may have committed the unforgiveable sin, you haven t. The context of Jesus warning in Matthew s gospel is very important. He was talking to the Pharisees, specifically about the fact that they were attributing God s works to the Devil. The unforgiveable sin, according to Jesus, is knowing the truth, and deliberately rejecting it in favor of pure self-interest. These people had no guilt or remorse. This sin also goes far beyond just criticizing Jesus. Many people over the centuries have criticized Jesus out of ignorance, or Christianity because Christians are fallible beings who make mistakes. That is not the unforgivable sin. The unforgivable sin is having full knowledge of the truth and deliberately and persistently rejecting it. With 1

2 knowledge comes responsibility. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not a one-time offense. It s not something we can accidentally do. It is ongoing rebellion against God that endures till the end of that person s life. And needless to say, the individual committing this sin is not the least bit concerned about it. It bears mentioning that there is another very confusing text in the New Testament that seems to involve sin that cannot be forgiven in I John 5: 16-17, where a distinction is made between sins that lead to death and sins that do not. This is the origin of the Roman Catholic distinction of mortal or venial sins. This very confusing passage deserves a sermon all its own and we don t have time to delve into it today. We are probably, however, dealing with the unforgiveable sin of Matthew s gospel. Hebrews 6 deals with an issue that is closely related to the unforgiveable sin, but not identical. Is it possible for someone who is a Christian to fall away and then be brought back to repentance and be saved? At first glance it would appear that Hebrews is saying no. Historically the issue of whether or not it is possible to lose one s salvation has divided the Church. Two basic positions have been taken. Lutherans, Methodists, some Baptists, Pentecostals and all Holiness churches teach that it IS possible to lose one s salvation. The Roman Catholic tradition is generally of the mind that it is possible to lose one s salvation, but they are inconsistent on the subject. They stuck Purgatory in there just in case. Episcopalians are wishy-washy. Congregationalists that are descended from the Puritans, some Baptist churches and all churches that call themselves Reformed or Presbyterian, teach that it is NOT possible for a true Christian to lose his or her salvation. Someone who appears to have totally repudiated Christ and rejected his or her faith was never saved in the first place. Hebrews 6, however, is a bit terrifying, because it seems to imply that it is possible for a Christian to abandon the faith, and furthermore, once someone blows it, there is no way back. Even if a person wants to repent it s too late. They are bound for hell. Hebrews 6: 4-6 states: 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. These are strong and fearsome words. There are actually three possible interpretations of this text. The first interpretation is that this refers to those who fail the test of persecution and deny Christ. They are the ones who are forever condemned. Hebrews was written to a group of people who felt like giving up in the face of persecution. Taken in this way it is a strong exhortation to martyrdom. Those who turn away and deny Christ will not be forgiven. No matter how much they may regret their actions later, they will have consigned themselves to hell. Many in the early church interpreted Hebrews in just this way. The Church split over this very issue in North Africa. The fact is, during times of harsh persecution not all Christians did die bravely in the arena. Not all faced the terror of 2

3 martyrdom and prevailed. Many collapsed under the pressure, did what the authorities asked of them, and made the required sacrifices to the state gods. When the persecution ended some of these apostates bitterly regretted their actions and wanted to come back to the Church. Ironically, the whole Roman Catholic system of penance developed as a way to mercifully offer these people a way back to salvation. It would have been a horrible insult to those who died if re-admittance were easy. A second interpretation of this passage is that Hebrews is referring to the unforgivable sin Jesus spoke of in the gospels, with the underlying assumption that it is possible to lose one s salvation. I John 1:9 assures us that God will forgive us our sins if we confess them, therefore the person who cannot be restored is the one who remains proud, does not repent and confess and defies God to the end. The argument goes that if we persistently reject God even if we were once saved the time will come when God will respect our freedom of choice. God doesn t refuse to forgive. We refuse to repent. The person was saved, but by his or her own persistent choice, they lose their salvation. The third option, the Reformed view, involves looking at the whole of scripture, and a close examination of the Greek grammar in this particular case. Of course you know this is the one I m going to subject you to, because this is where I believe the answer lies. Essentially the argument goes that those who truly experience God s grace cannot lose God s grace because it does not depend upon us, but upon God. Those who have tasted the goodness of God and turned away may have a struggle to come back, but if they are truly saved, they will, because they will not be able to help themselves. The Holy Spirit within will not allow them to rest. This interpretation does not accept the impossibility of the word impossible that Hebrews 6 uses. The basic argument is that we cannot interpret Hebrews this way, because if we do, we contradict what the rest of scripture tells us about salvation. There is also, as I mentioned, a minor argument supporting this argument involving grammar and translation. It refers to the fact that some English translations lead us to believe that the reason why being restored to salvation is impossible, is because those who deny Christ have re-crucified him. In order to make smooth English the NIV and other translations insert words or short expressions into the text. With regard to verse 6:6, the NIV inserts to their loss they are. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. The English Standard Version inserts since they are, as in since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. The New Revised Standard Version has since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt. The King James inserts seeing they, seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. The Holman Christian Standard Bible of the Southern Baptist Convention adds because, to their own harm, they are recrucifying the Son of God and holding Him up to contempt. The Good News Bible is the most interpretative, adding, because they are again, as in, It is impossible to bring them back to repent again, because they are again crucifying the Son of God 3

4 and exposing him to public shame. In all of these cases words are added, words that do more than make the passage read better. They actually interpret the passage, because they bring in a concept of cause and effect that is conditioned by time. This happened, and as a result, that happened. Because I committed a crime, I went to jail. But the Greek isn t talking about cause and effect. It s talking about something that happens at the same time. It is more like, because I suffer from depression I am completely miserable. They are cooccurring circumstances, with no time delay. So what s the point of all this? In this case a literal translation is helpful, because there are no intervening words. The sentence just continues with the word crucifying, as in: It is impossible for those once having been enlightened, having tasted of the heavenly gift and having become partakers of the Holy Spirit and having tasted (the) goodness of God s word, (and) the power of the coming age and then having fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, crucifying in themselves the Son of God and subjecting him to open shame. (Pastor Lisa s attempt at a literal translation with English word order and punctuation.) When we read it in English it sounds like if we fall away what happens is we crucify Christ again, and if we do this, then it s all over. But the Greek merely presents it as something that happens at the same time, because Greek has a grammatical form that we don t have, the continuous participle. There is only one Greek word for the three words some translations use, having crucified again, and having crucified again is not a particularly good translation, because this one word is in the form of a present continuous participle. It would be more accurate to say, being continuously crucified, or crucifying not crucified again. Greek is more concerned with action than time. In this case the crucifying is happening right now, continuously. When we fall away from Christ we are at the same time crucifying Christ. But, as soon as we repent and submit to God, then we are no longer crucifying Christ. Are we splitting hairs? Maybe, maybe not. In my mind the far stronger argument is comparing scripture to scripture. If denying Christ could cost us our salvation, the apostle Peter would have been lost. He did it three times. If forgetting God to such an extent that we commit gross immorality could cost us our salvation, David would have been lost. He committed adultery and then ensured that Bathsheba s husband would be killed in order to cover it up. Scripture repeatedly assures us that God s grace is boundless. I believe that Hebrews 6 contains such strong language because it is a wake-up call. When we accept Christ, we are making a life-long, life or death commitment. Becoming a Christian isn t like getting a library card or joining a gym! It s permanent and life changing. When we confess Christ we welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives. We accept God s great gift of salvation. And God expects us to be loyal. It is, in fact, far more like a marriage than anything else, a marriage like it should be, one that doesn t end in divorce. We are to be faithful to Christ even if it should cost us our lives. By ourselves, on our own, none of us have this kind of strength. But if 4

5 that day should ever come, by God s grace God CAN enable all of us to stand in his strength. We do not need to fear that we will lose our salvation, because God s grace is boundless. Amen Proverbs 28: Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy. 14 Blessed is the one who always trembles before God, but whoever hardens their heart falls into trouble. Hebrews 6: It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age 6 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. 7 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. 8 But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned. 9 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. 10 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. 11 We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. 12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. Matthew 12: So I tell you, people can be forgiven for every sin and everything they say against God. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, now or in the future. 5

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