difficult question

One of the striking features about the mass of biblical evidence about conversion is the huge diversity in the kinds of sinners that have been converted. Blasphemers, thieves, fornicators, murderers, the covetous, the foolish, the pharisaical. All sorts of sins, all sorts of sinners, have been and can be forgiven.

Which makes it difficult to know what to make of the unforgiveable sin. It is a fearfully troublesome thought, the consideration that the God of all grace, whose work is to save, deals with some sinners as having committed a sin which is ‘unto death’. But we know that not every blasphemous word spoken against the Holy Spirit is unforgiveable – not every rejection of Christ, not every turning your back on the means of grace – because sinners who were guilty of all these things have been saved. At one stage they had abandoned their praying and bible-reading and churchgoing, and were resisting salvation by Christ, and had dishonoured the Holy Spirit – but subsequently they were forgiven and converted.

If characteristics can be provided of someone who has committed the unforgiveable sin, they would seem to include a kind of hardness against anything related to God and the gospel, accompanied by a spirit of deliberate malice and hatred against the Saviour, in the context of having previously had such acquaintance with the gospel and the way of salvation that they know full well how spiteful and baseless their attitude now is. People who are afraid they may have committed the unpardonable sin, haven’t. Such a fear is incompatible with the shameless, flaunting, knowing derision which is directed against the gospel by those who have committed it.

Of course, when a person is confronted with the gospel – that a full and free salvation is provided by Christ and that whosoever believes in him shall be saved – there’s no excuse ever for rejecting it and treating it with disbelief or unbelief. But although this is the default sin of humankind, and it can’t be avoided that this sin itself “deserves God’s wrath and curse,” and should be repented of immediately, yet for as long as it is not accompanied by those extra characteristics, I don’t think it can be called the unforgiveable sin.

This is still true in cases where people used to attend church (and maybe made a profession of being converted) but have subsequently fallen away. There are many reasons why a person could end up where they no longer think they are a Christian, without having committed the unforgiveable sin. Perhaps they were converted but have slipped into a sluggish, worldly, backslidden condition where their prayer should be, “Draw me and I will run after thee; heal my backslidings and love me freely.”

Or perhaps they never were converted in the first place: lots of people don’t know very well what makes them claim to be a Christian, there are plenty ‘nominal’ Christians whose spiritual experience never went heart-deep, and many people rely too much on the opinion and encouragement of their churchgoing friends in deciding their spiritual status rather than giving scriptural diligence to make their calling and election sure. These people’s prayer should be, “Lord, show me myself, and show me thyself; God be merciful to me a sinner.”

In the end, the priority has to be to obtain mercy while mercy is available. The scriptures urge this on us: there is plenteous redemption to be found, but the opportunity to find it may not continue indefinitely. Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord, for he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

27 thoughts on “difficult question

  1. The unforgivable sin is usually narrowly defined as attributing the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation to Satan. Therefore, only unbelievers can commit this sin. As you say, those who are afraid they have committed this sin, haven’t.


  2. I cannot claim to have followed all of what you say in this post. But, on a personal level, I am curious what you think my position is relative to the reportedly generous forgiveness of the Christian god.

    I am an atheist, in that I do not hold a positive belief in the existence of any god. Nor have I ever held such a belief. So I am not one who has “previously had such acquaintance with the gospel and the way of salvation that they know full well how spiteful and baseless their attitude now is.” So on that point I would guess I’m okay.

    On the other hand, you say that “when a person is confronted with the gospel – that a full and free salvation is provided by Christ and that whosoever believes in him shall be saved – there’s no excuse ever for rejecting it and treating it with disbelief or unbelief.” Well, inasmuch as reading the New Testament counts as being “confronted with the gospel”, that’s me: I’ve read it, and I treat it with unbelief.

    I have ample excuse for that postion, I think, in that the texts of the Bible do not themselves constitute solid evidence of their own veracity.

    But my question is the more limited one: according to your beliefs, where do you think I stand? Have I committed an unforgivable sin, by not accepting the gospels as true? Or might I still be saved, since I have not received (and therefore not rejected) the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit which many believe is the true basis of conversion to Christianity?

    (Just to be clear, I really don’t mean to pick a fight by asking this question. I’m honestly trying to work out your position on this.)


  3. “the texts of the Bible do not themselves constitute solid evidence of their own veracity”. Stick in a “by” before “themselves”. No-one ever thought they did until the C16. At least, not that I am aware of.

    “Have I committed an unforgivable sin, by not accepting the gospels as true? Or might I still be saved, since I have not received (and therefore not rejected) the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit which many believe is the true basis of conversion to Christianity?”

    How are we (Christians) supposed to know? On the whole we (people in general) don’t even understand the half of what’s inside our own insides. Only God reads hearts. Ask Him, not us.

    [if Cath doesn’t think it cheeky for me to speak on her behalf] [feel free to delete this if you like, Cath, more than free]


  4. No I think that’s quite right.

    There’s a vast difference between unforgiven and unforgiveable.

    And ‘the unforgiveable sin’ can only be committed (as far as I understand it) by people who have been thoroughly immersed and to all appearances committed to the gospel at some point in their lives. Lifelong atheists may well continue unforgiven till the end, not that that’s much better ultimately than committing the unforgiveable sin, but atheism isn’t itself unforgiveable.

    Thanks too for the link Berenike. Discussions that i’ve seen tend to always mention Augustine’s view that the unforgiveable sin is ‘final impenitence’. Not sure what Calvin’s view was? he tends to follow Augustine wherever possible. But the tendency would be (i think) to respectfully diverge from A’s view and identify it as something more heinous than “ordinary” unbelief/impenitence (not that that should ever be belittled obviously)

    Matthew Henry seems to agree with Aquinas here (or is this really A’s own position? slightly confused as to what he’s citing and what he’s arguing for) – “it is said to be unpardonable, not as though it is nowise forgiven, but because, considered in itself, it deserves not to be pardoned … the sin against the Holy Ghost is said to be unpardonable, by reason of its nature, in so far as it removes those things which are a means towards the pardon of sins” — MH says in his commentary on Matthew 12, this sin is unpardonable “not for any defect of mercy in God, or merit in Christ, but because it inevitably leaves the sinner in infidelity and impenitency. … This is such a stronghold of infidelity as a man can never be beaten out of, and is therefore unpardonable, because hereby repentance is hid from the sinner’s eyes. There is no cure for a sin so directly against the remedy.”


  5. (just in case anyone should care – I’d like to disassociate myself from that article, the whole “how you can tell if you’re saved” thing being utterly bizarre to this papist peasant)


  6. So when we are asked “Have you been saved?”, What do we say?

    We can say…
    “I have been saved,”
    “I am being saved,”
    “I hope to be saved.”

    To explain further:

    1. “I have been saved.” It is a fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead in order for us to get to heaven. Jesus Christ has redeemed the world and has done his part to save the world.

    2. “I am being saved.” We are still, like Paul [1 Corinthians 9:24-27] running the race to achieve our salvation. Jesus is working in our life.

    3. “I hope to be saved.” We must keep working at our faith in God, our love of God, and doing the Will of God until we die. We hope that God will give us the grace to choose whatever will help us on the road to heaven. In this way, “I hope to be saved.” As Paul writes, “… I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; not one thing I do, forgetting those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:11-14)

    For Paul, salvation is an ongoing process which we continually work on.



  7. Tim,

    The Catholic position is

    847 Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.

    848 “Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.”338

    1260 “Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.” Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.



  8. Thankyou for your responses. Berenike, I am aware that many Christians do not claim perfect knowledge of their god’s attitudes, and I tend to respect that position.

    But of course, as theists, you are claiming some understanding of the divine nature. And as an atheist, I am naturally curious about your understanding as it applies to me. From my perspective, the relevant aspect of religious belief is how it affects people’s actions and attitudes toward the world around them and the people in it.

    So thank you all for sharing your thoughts on that.


  9. Berenike, I feel like you and I are really butting heads lately. I honestly don’t mean to be such a pain. :)

    To avoid putting my foot in my mouth, could I just let you explain the point to me, then? What is the point that I have missed?


  10. Well, B? the blog awaits …

    (actually i just think you interpret me better than i’d interpret you, so not going to risk saying anything here!)

    actually waiting for a cake to finish baking but grabbing a minute here – – rather than marking, oops

    … to ask the Cellarer:
    re this:

    1. “I have been saved.” It is a fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead in order for us to get to heaven. Jesus Christ has redeemed the world and has done his part to save the world

    setting aside for the moment my deep calvinistic reservations about saying the world has been redeemed, can i ask instead how, given that redemption has been accomplished [in some sense], how a person can come to certainty that they have any part/stake/interest in it.
    Does that question make sense? ie, How can a person know if redemption has been (is being, will be) applied to themselves personally?


  11. A minor thought on a piece of wording in Tim’s comment above – i’ve had a post languishing in my Drafts section for ages now, which argues, roughly speaking, that there’s no use Christians playing the part of deists, even for the sake of argument. Can’t speak for everyone, but I’m utterly uninterested in the putative existence and reputed attributes of anyone other than God himself. (any deity obv).

    On knowledge of the divine nature, that is perfectly within our reach, in the scriptures. This is how theology is possible. (As we’ve discussed before – https://ninetysixandten.wordpress.com/2009/03/24/transcendent-sovereign-personal/ )
    How the divine will has respect to any particular individual, on the other hand, is ultimately a question between that individual and God – it’s not something that any Christian has any unequivocal insight into, or at least certainly not without hindsight.


  12. Heheh, the calvinist obsession with certainty. You know what St Joan of Arc said to her judges when they asked her if she was in a state of grace(=saved)?

    “If I am, may it please God to keep me there. If I am not, may it please Him to put me there.”

    (aside – why are people not more amazed by Joan of Arc? Do you know any medievalists who aren’t in monasteries, and could recommend a historically sound treatment of her?)

    Tim: “I am aware that many Christians do not claim perfect knowledge of their god’s attitudes, and I tend to respect that position. But of course, as theists, you are claiming some understanding of the divine nature. And as an atheist, I am naturally curious about your understanding as it applies to me”

    Unless I missed your point, of course. The point I was making that you seem to me to have missed was that what your relationship to God is not known to anyone else because you are not known to anyone else.

    Did’t notice any head butting, but if I was rude – sorry :-(


  13. But how can anyone be satisfied with that? (if I am … If I am not …) It might do as a temporary measure until you can find out better, but can’t we aspire or strive or ever attain certainty on this point? (believers in the scriptures did, why can’t we?)


  14. Berenike, perhaps head-butting was the wrong word. But we do have a knack for missing each other’s point.

    I asked my question because many believers do have particular beliefs about God’s attitude to atheists. “The fool has said in his heart that there is no God.” (Psalm 14:1) This and other scriptural references to nonbelievers, at least if taken at face value, tend to cast us in an unflattering (and inaccurate) light. Some believers will take them literally: if Tim is a nonbeliever, he’s a fool. Some will not. Doctrines regarding hell also differ between believers.

    I am delighted (but not surprised) that you take a more humble approach to such things – thankyou for sharing it.

    On certainty … Cath, I second your sentiment: it is hard to be satisfied with “maybe”, especially when facing questions about eternity. But as finite beings, our knowledge is limited. Since we do not know everything about any particular question, we can never reasonably claim absolute knowledge. About anything.

    This “militant agnostic” position (“I don’t know … and neither do you!”) is a central part of my own worldview. It may be frustrating or unsatisfying on occasion, but in general I find it helps me to achieve some serenity. Not having the potential to be absolutely sure, I can more happily settle for “sure enough”, rather than futilely striving for an unreachable certainty.

    It also forces me (against my nature) to be humble in my proclamations of fact.


  15. *Warning, comment written in haste!*

    Tim, I’m not sure what Berenike will specifically say here, but you’ve mistaken at least what I’ve said if you think that I think it’s unclear what God thinks of atheists. What is not known (to me, or anyone else, whether or not we know you personally) is whether any particular atheist will later be converted. Nobody is saved without a personal faith in a personal Christ as the Saviour who God has provided. Anyone whose central dogma is that God does not even exist, does not, by definition, have a personal faith in Christ the personal Saviour, and unless that dogma and their unbelief in Christ is abandoned, they cannot be saved. But atheism is not necessarily a lifelong condition! (so to speak) It’s just not known in advance who will persist in their atheism and who will not. I’m taking the liberty of speaking plainly here since I think you and me know each other well enough for that (and since perpetuating the ‘talking past each other’ stage of this discussion is getting a bit frustrating!) (Berenike?)

    On certainty (i) wrt being in a state of grace, this is kind of a theory-internal discussion, where a whole lot of other certainties are established a long way prior to this question arising. Given that God is, and that God saves sinners, and that not all sinners are saved, the question then is whether any particular sinner can be sure that he/she is one of the sinners who God saves. Without a prior understanding of God, sin, and salvation, this question is fairly meaningless.

    But on certainty (ii) in general, I am sure that I don’t need to be sure about everything. We’ve discussed this before in relation to how to understand what happens to us in our lives (aka God’s workings in providence) (https://ninetysixandten.wordpress.com/2009/03/07/understanding-providence/ ) Also in relation to what you might call scientific knowledge, well, the entire last chapter of my thesis was nothing but an extended exercise in tentativeness. But that does not mean that we cannot be certain about anything. It simply doesn’t follow that because we can’t know everything about anything, therefore we can’t know anything with certainty.
    Apologies again for bluntness and lack of polish – writing quickly because this batch of marking is still hanging over my head along with other commitments for this evening! Best if we could meet up in person sometime soon to clarify :)


  16. Cath,

    Thanks for the clarification. I am grateful for your directness – sometimes that’s the only way to penetrate my misconceptions. And yes, an in-person chat would be a much more efficient way to sound out each other’s thoughts on this. I don’t suppose anyone else here (besides you and me) is also in the Edinburgh area?

    I have at least one Christian friend whose attitude to atheists like me is as I described: she doesn’t claim to know what God’s plan is for me – just what his plan is for her. That may be why I prematurely jumped to that interpretation of what was said here.

    On general uncertainty, I have to disagree with you. Or perhaps clarify my position. One thing we cannot be certain about is our own experiences. I understand it was Descartes who famously tried to boil down what we could know with certainty. Physical sensations cannot be certain, because any particular sensation could, in principle, be a hallucination. Thoughts and trains of reasoning cannot be certain, because there are states of the mind in which the irrational seems rational (and thus we can never be 100% sure we are not in such a state). Descartes decided there was only one certainty: his famous “I think, therefore I am.” (David Hume expressed scepticism even about this.) So no knowledge of ours, whether derived from external experience or from introspection, internal feelings, or pure reason, can reasonably be considered absolutely certain.

    But I’m not 100% certain about that. ;)

    By the way, I know what you mean about the exercise in tentativeness. One of the big corrections I was given at my viva was to tone down what I claimed I had shown in the dissertation. Much of science seems to be a quantification of how uncertain we are.


  17. Tim: Humble? What’s humble (or proud) got to do with it?

    Wot Cath says.

    Both the OT and the NT say you damn well ought to know better. But God knows whether or not you in particular are to blame, or to what extent, for not knowing better.

    The average philosopher thinks you ought to know better.

    Do you have clear the difference between “God” as known by philosophers and God as He reveals himself? You can’t work out God is a Trinity of Persons (pace Richard of St Victor), but you can work out He exists. (Obviously most of us take philosophical proofs largely on trust as well, as we do with most things in life. )

    Have you read Descartes? (short and easy). He’s sure of an awful lot more than just that he is – he’s sure that God exists, for one thing. The whole attempt is rather misguided, but he is certain of quite a lot. Not much up on Hume, to say the least, but vague impression that his chief problem was with the notion of substance, not with experience or existence, wasn’t it? Bit misleading then to say that Hume doubted he existed without explaining what he meant.

    You see, though, that you can’t say “(sense) experience is sometimes misleading” and at the same time deny that we can ever recognise non-misleading (sense) experience?


    • That last comment of mine sounds tetchy – it wasn’t supposed to! I was just trying to be brief :-) Also pretending to myself that I wasn’t actually commenting on someone’s blog, hence not very coherent.


  18. On Descartes, I confess my knowledge is secondhand, via friends who have outlined bits of it for me. In my defense, Wikipedia seems to agree with me. B, could you recommend any particular translation to this monolingual linguist?

    On Hume, I’m again working second-hand. His meaning, as I understand from my trusted sources, is not what you are getting, B. But I’ll drop it, as it’s only tangential to our discussion.

    Nevertheless, the argument I outlined seems sound to me – there is no way to be absolutely certain that any perception of ours is correct, whether it derives from the external senses or internal reasoning. Therefore, any understanding we have is uncertain (though, in practice, we can be “effectively sure”, as I said).

    On humility … I am again reminded of the chasm between our different ways of seeing things. It seems obvious to me that (all else being equal) admitting uncertainty is a more humble act than claiming certainty. The fact of our fallibility and finiteness seems to me to enjoin us to be humble in this way: to admit the possibility that any of our beliefs could be wrong. To admit uncertainty.

    So that’s the core of my position. To sum up:

    (1) We are finite and fallible. Any part of our understanding – our sensations, our reasoning, our intuition – may be subject to error.
    (2) Infallible conclusions cannot be drawn from fallible premises.
    (3) Therefore, all our beliefs about the world are at least potentially subject to error, and we cannot know for certain which are right. We can be pretty sure. We can be sure enough to bet our lives on our beliefs. But we cannot be 100% sure.

    At the risk of opening (another) can of worms, I am curious on what basis any of you would claim certain knowledge? (I infer from the above that you do think some of your beliefs are certain.)


    • Cath, I’m so sorry for digging up ancient posts on your blog at 3 am – the only reason I’m still up is that so many posts and discussions here absolutely fascinate me!

      Timothy, I’m not sure if you’re still about and reading this, but one issue I would take with your position is that you are trying to justify the view that nothing is certain using logic, when that view actually renders logic redundant.

      Your second last paragraph reminds me of Kant (at least I think it was Kant) who said “there are no facts, only interpretations”. That statement quite evidently trips over its own feet – it states, as a fact, that there are no facts. Your second premise is similar – you say infallible conclusions cannot be drawn from fallible premises (agreed), but if your conclusion (that all premises are fallible) is true then it is fallible, and therefore not necessarily true!

      I suspect you are probably quite happy with that conclusion, but the only way I can see it is as circular reasoning. Then again, I suspect you are more highly educated than me, so maybe I’m just being stupid.


  19. Philosophy not a strong point in the phon realm of linguistics unfortunately … but i seem to remember that Goldstein & Browman’s Articulatory Phonology draws substantially on Gibsonian ecological psychology, which (so far as i understand it) is rather more optimistic than others might be about the reliability of sense data, following distantly in the footsteps of Aberdonian enlightenment philosopher Thomas Reid who, among other things, exposed the cogito ergo sum fallacy, not such a bad thing to have on your cv.

    but over to berenike, the philosopher in our midst.

    think if poss should try avoid four letter words if y’all don’t mind

    (ps am glad i’m not the only monolingual linguist around!)


  20. Catherine: Sorry, you’re right, was going to remove it but one cannot alter comments – pls amend.

    Timothy – listen not to our hostess, I’m no philosopher! Descartes’ “cogito” is the first certain thing, his point of departure. He then arrives at the certainty of the existence (and perfection and hence goodness) of God, that the reason cannot err unless inclined to do so by the will, and some stuff about the nature and existence of material things, and the distinction between mind and body. (And incidentally creates the mind-body problem!) But people seem to fixate on the methodological doubt bit, and forget that he uses the “cogito” to dig himself out and carry merrily on.

    I should so be doing something else. Excuse me for not replying to the rest!


  21. Looking back on my comments, I cannot help but cringe at my occasionally bullish tone.

    On the one hand, I think I’m right. And the natural evangelist in me is unashamed at trying to share my understanding with others – particularly people whose attitude to learning and sharing ideas I respect.

    On the other hand, I know that you have probably both spent more time thinking on these things than I have – particularly the philosophy angle (however you might wish to play down your expertise, B). And in my enthusiasm, I may accidentally imply that I think disagreeing with me is a character flaw. I really don’t feel that way.

    At any rate, I am satisfied that we have all laid down our positions fairly clearly here. If you guys want to keep probing the differences, I’m willing to. If not, I’m happy to wait until the next topic that tweaks our mutual interest. (Keep ’em coming, Cath!)


  22. Bullish? Heh. Don’t worry. I think disagreeing with me is a character flaw :-D So long as you don’t insult Our Lord in some foul way then you’ll have a time trying to offend me. I’m not as nice as Cath :-) Truly don’t be fooled, I only happen to have re-read the Meditations recently (Penguin Classics version, I have no idea if it is any good or not).

    There’s no truth or error in perception as such, if you think about it – only in judgements.


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