Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Words of comfort for a troubled conscience

As I have already mentioned, I have, at times, been troubled by the warning passages found in the book of Hebrews.  I also have met other people who have suffered from such fears.  I find Calvin's comments helpful.

Calvin writes the following with regards to the warning found in Hebrews 6:4-6: 
... the Apostle speaks not here of theft, or perjury, or murder, or drunkenness, or adultery; but he refers to a total defection or falling away from the Gospel, when a sinner offends not God in some one thing, but entirely renounces his grace
To renew them again into repentance, etc. Though this seems hard, yet there is no reason to charge God with cruelty when any one suffers only the punishment of his own defection; nor is this inconsistent with other parts of Scripture, where God’s mercy is offered to sinners as soon as they sigh for it, (Ezekiel 18:27;) for repentance is required, which he never truly feels who has once wholly fallen away from the Gospel; for such are deprived, as they deserve, of God’s Spirit and given up to a reprobate mind, so that being the slaves of the devil they rush headlong into destruction.
Calvin's words remind us that the falling away that the author to the Hebrews has in mind is the result of a hardened heart.  Such a hardened heart would never again be brought to a place of true repentance.  This is in line with the pastoral advice offered by Roger Nicole, who writes about these verses:
In as much as there are some sensitive souls who torment themselves with the thought that they have committed this sin, it may be wise to point out that their concern about this indicates that they are not immune to the grace of God and impervious to repentance.  Those who have committed the unpardonable sin are very probably unconcerned about it.
Craig Keener also writes about these verses
The point here is not that God does not accept the repentant, but that some hearts become too hard to consider repenting, because they refuse to acknowledge Christ, the only means of repentance.
The ESV Study Bible explains
... it is wise pastoral advice to encourage a person who is worried that he may have committed such a deep sin, that the very desire to repent and to be restored in fellowship with the Christian community is evidence that he has not "fallen away" in the permanent, irrevocable way described in this verse ...
Matthew Henry puts it this way
The humbled sinner who pleads guilty, and cries for mercy, can have no ground from this passage to be discouraged, whatever his conscience may accuse him of ... Neither is he speaking of partial declinings or backslidings. Nor are such sins meant, as Christians fall into through the strength of temptations, or the power of some worldly or fleshly lust. But the falling away here mentioned, is an open and avowed renouncing of Christ, from enmity of heart against him, his cause, and people, by men approving in their minds the deeds of his murderers, and all this after they have received the knowledge of the truth, and tasted some of its comforts. Of these it is said, that it is impossible to renew them again unto repentance. Not because the blood of Christ is not sufficient to obtain pardon for this sin; but this sin, in its very nature, is opposite to repentance and every thing that leads to it  ... We should ourselves beware, and caution others, of every approach near to a gulf so awful as apostacy; yet in doing this we should keep close to the word of God, and be careful not to wound and terrify the weak, or discourage the fallen and penitent.
F. F. Bruce
God has pledged himself to pardon allow who truly repent, but Scripture and experience alike suggest that it is possible for human beings to arrive at a state of heart and life where they can no longer repent.
The Dictionary of Hard Saying says
The issue is not whether God would forgive them if they repented, but if there is any way to bring them to repent at all ... People can so harden themselves against God that nothing will keep them from hell.
David Gooding
He does not say that it is impossible for God to forgive them.  God will forgive anyone who truly repents and believes.  But these people will not repent; and there can be no forgiveness without repentance.
Now whatever else is involved in repentance, its basic element is what the Greek word for 'repentance' means: a change of mind.  So what the writer is saying is that you will never get these people to change their minds again.

As for the related issue of the 'unforgiveable sin'

Ed Welch writes:
God forgives those who come to him. Whenever there is turning to Christ in repentance, there is always forgiveness. There is no account in Scripture of someone who felt godly sorrow and repented, but was not forgiven. None. Not one.

Donald Guthrie points out:
Some have been deeply troubled lest they have committed such a sin, but no-one with a state of mind so hardened as to hold up the Son of God to contempt would ever be concerned about a question like that.  The concern itself is evidence that the Holy Spirit is still active.

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