Most Christians agree that the Bible teaches us that we’re saved through faith, not by works. Of course, most Christians also agree that faith cannot be totally without works, but these works should never be the centre of our attention. These works simply manifest themselves when we gratefully embrace his grace, and the Holy Spirit starts working on our hearts. It’s a proces, and while we cannot always see it happening in our own lives, people around us will have noticed such growth.
Some difficult verses
The Bible does give a few examples, however, of people being outside the reach of God’s grace. At least, it looks that way sometimes. Jesus says that ‘whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’ (Mark 3:29) And in Hebrews 10, we read that for whoever ‘wilfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgement, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.’ (vv 26-27)
Obviously, this cannot be understood in terms of God not offering salvation to everybody, because we’re told that God wants everyone to be saved. (1 Timothy 2:3-4, 1 John 2:2) After all, God is love (1 John 4:8) – unconditional, choice-based, non-discriminating agape love – and we’re constantly reminded by Paul that God doesn’t distinguish between different sorts of people. ‘For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’’ (Romans 10:12-13) Like he said in the beginning of that same letter: The gospel is ‘the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith’ (Romans 1:16) It’s free, it’s available, and it really is there for everyone to have. That’s the framework.
It’s hard to imagine any Christian ever being depressed if he knows this stuff, but I guess that is just a testimony of how our fragile minds work: Every mind is at war with itself. And I think the scary verses I’ve quoted speak of exactly that: people who gave up the battle and decided to say “screw everything”. They gave up, and they lost the battle against themselves. Let me elaborate on this.
Paul’s way of sinning
You can actually sin while knowing you’re doing it—and yet, you’ll be a child of God. Before you start shouting “heresy”, please listen to the words of Paul: ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.’ (Romans 7:15) And a few sentences later: ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’ (vers 19) This begs the question: What makes Paul different from those who are lost? Well, the very wanting to do good! ‘I agree that the law is good’ (vers 16)
The people outside of God’s grace—the ones who keep sinning against the Spirit (Mark 3) and the ones for whom there is no longer sacrifice (Hebrews 10)—do not agree that the law is good. There is no guilt afterwards, no desire to be changed, no longing for God, no realization of the state that they’re in. They eagerly try to silent their conscience and eventually, they will succeed.
Of course, reading the verses this way does not make it less serious. This is not an attempt to escape the reality of these texts by saying, ‘Oh, this doesn’t refer to me, but to those worse than me.’ That’s not the point. The point of Jesus and Paul actually saying this is to warn us not to go there, I think. (It would hardly make any sense to write this to someone if it was too late, would it?) We may notice in our own lives when we’re moving in that direction, and we need to be tuned into this and respond to it, not by thinking “it’s too late” but by thinking “I need to seek God!”
The Devil’s easy way out
Psychologically, this is what I think happens when we move in that dangerous direction: I sin. I sin again, though I still agree that the law is good (like Paul). Therefore, I experience the thing called “cognitive dissonance”. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, or by justifying or rationalizing them. (Wikipedia) So I’m basically trying to make my beliefs fit with my behaviour, so I have to change one or the other to resolve this tension.
Now Paul has said to us that we cannot escape this tension completely. No human ever reached that state of perfection (well, Jesus might have). Why that is, I do not really know. Maybe we simply do not have enough time since we’re “born in sin” and the transformation by grace is a long process? Paul shows us in Romans 7:25, that the tension is part of Christian living, and the realization of this prompts him to cry, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ And the obvious answer he gives is Jesus—he will rescue us. But in the meantime, we’re here, and we’re dealing with this tension.
Living with this tension is a struggle, admittedly, but nobody ever said Christian living would be easy. We have to constantly hold on to our beliefs—for instance, consider ourselves dead to sin (Romans 6:11)—despite the physical evidence pointing to the contrary. The easy way out is offered by the Devil. He suggests you simply give up your beliefs, ‘Jesus has given up on you. The grace is no longer available. Repentance is too late now. God’s spirit has left your heart. Don’t bother to call yourself a Christian anymore. The law condemns you. Nothing matters anymore.’ If a person accepts these lies, the tension will be rid of. It’s the easy way out. I suspect this will eventually lead to bitterness towards God and an apathetic lifestyle worse than the one the person may have led even before conversion. That is when you truly belong in this dreadful category, because how could it possibly get any worse than that?
It’s not God who gives up
Oddly, people who deliberately keep sinning end up condemning themselves rather than be condemned by God. (Titus 3:11; 1 John 3:19-21) The issue is not with God giving up on us—that’s what the Devil wants us to think that he has, but we evidently have Biblical grounds for saying God would never do that. No, the issue is with us giving up on God while we kid ourselves by saying, ‘God has given up on me.’ It is very typical for the human mind to blame God for the breaking of our relationship (like Adam did in Genesis 3:12) rather than take responsibility ourselves.
The reality is that God never stops reaching out for our hand. That is the pattern we recognize all the way through the Bible, particularly the way he dealt with the Israelites in the Old Testament. In all these instances, the children of God turned away first. And in all instances, God is yet again there for them when they turn back to him. This pattern starts in the book of Judges and continues from kingdom to kingdom right till the Babylonian exile in which God still has not left them! God’s patience endures and he only longs to have us back and to restore the broken relationship.
God really is like the father of the prodigal son who was just waiting for his son to return. (Luke 15) The son expected that he would have to make up for it and return as a servant rather than a son, but his father ignored this—that’s not how the kingdom works. We’re children of God, not because of our doings, but because God simply hands us that privilege, that is, if we accept it.
Affirmed by Christian experience
A few ambiguous verses in Mark and Hebrews could never rid the Bible of this wonderful truth. But things can be resolved, I think, as long as we understand these verses as warnings rather than as cold verdicts. If you read it like, ‘I did this, so now it’s too late,’ then I think you’ve missed the point (and you’re welcome to disagree). These words should not condemn us but rather remind us that God’s grace is continually available to us and it should be embraced before we give into the lies of the Devil, before we end up not caring and not agreeing (with Paul) that “the law is good”. Yes, we’re moving in a dangerous direction, but God is reaching out for us.
The wonderful thing about this interpretation of the scary verses is that it corresponds with common experience. I am a sinner, and I have sinned most deliberately—it’s not even that long ago. Surprisingly, God did not leave me but continues to reveal himself in my life. I’m confident that thousands of Christians experience the same thing after having sinned quite deliberately. First, they may encounter some existential struggle, but eventually they reencounter God’s love and realize that he never left in the first place.