I am not sure if I was a Christian at the time. I had prayed a prayer at a Scripture Union Camp a couple of years before, but like most thirteen year-olds my faith was very superficial and immature.
I was with my family on a camping holiday. I think that I had read the book ‘From Witchcraft to Christ’ and was fascinated with the powers the author seemed to experience in her witchcraft days.
Anyway, one night I could not sleep. It was humid because a storm was brewing. In my restlessness I felt a very strong temptation to see what would happen if I said a satanic prayer. Would I levitate or get magical powers? I resisted and resisted, hoping to fall asleep so that the temptation would go away. But eventually to my shame I gave in. I don’t know what I prayed, in fact I am scared to think what I might have said, but I do know that I was not motivated at all by wanting to end with Jesus. I just wanted to see what would happen. When nothing magical happened, I acknowledged that I had been a fool and asked God’s forgiveness. However, the storm that had been brewing erupted later that night, and as the thunder and lightning crashed down I feared that God was expressing his rage with me. I feared I might never be forgiven.
I more or less forgot about that incident and for the next few years I was not much of a Christian. I was a boarder in school and kept quiet about my faith. In fact, other than praying self-centred prayers at night and thinking of myself as being a good person there was not much evidence of any meaningful faith in my life.
However, when I got to college (after two attempts at my leaving certificate) I decided it was time to take faith seriously. I joined the university’s Christian Union and began to understand the gospel. I was very sensitive and struggled to accept the fact that God punishes those who refuse his grace in hell. The truth is that I had no clue about the God’s Word. I neither understood the awfulness of human sin and necessity of the amazing grace that flows from the death of Jesus on the cross. Although I was known as a fun-loving and light-hearted individual, the truth was that there was an underlying tendency towards anxiety.
Fear of the unforgivable sin
Just before my first-year exams I stumbled across the concept of the unforgiveable sin. I was sure I had committed it before I had even figured out what I might have done to be guilty it. If the very mention of such a sin frightens you, let me assure you that ‘if we … fear that we might be guilty [of this sin], it is a clear sign that we have not … and are in no danger of committing it’ (New Bible Commentary).
Whatever the nature of the unforgivable sin one thing that is certain is that it involves a hardness of heart. One Bible commentary explains that ‘you will know if you have committed the unpardonable sin. The desire to be a Christian will be forever past. No spiritual impression will ever again come to your soul. A hardening process will have taken place … The person who sincerely asks for pardon will never be refused.’
I am not sure how I managed to get over that stage of fear. I did, however, suffer more crippling anxiety in my next year of college. Again, it was exam time. While I was not lazy about my studies, neither was I someone who drove themselves too hard. The night before my first summer exam I could not sleep. I was actually unaware that this was the effect of stress. I thought it might by the ill-effects of a burger I had eaten. Yet within a couple of days I was a complete wreck. I remember wriggling around on the floor of my bedroom in agony because I couldn’t get even a simple geographical equation into my head. Thankfully, as the exams passed so did my panic.
Perhaps the worst time in my life occurred two years later. I was talking to a staff worker from University and Colleges Christian Fellowship and I mentioned how I had once feared about the unforgivable sin. He thought I was talking about the warning passages in the book of Hebrews in the Bible. These warnings speak of people who fall away from the Christian faith and can’t be restored to repentance. When I heard about such warnings I was thrown into an inconsolable panic. I thought, ‘how could my dabbling with Satanism as a thirteen-year-old have been anything other than an irrevocable falling away?’ I remember that O. J. Simpson was being tried for murder that summer and I actually envied him because I felt that he had more hope than me. He might have gone to prison but I thought I was eternally doomed.
A calm head would have been the best thing in this situation. I looked up a commentary at the university library on Hebrews and it explained that ‘it is the impossibility of repenting that is being affirmed and is not a question of knowing whether fresh forgiveness can be obtained if one does repent.’ As another commentary points out, ‘he does not say that it is impossible for God to forgive them. God will forgive anyone who repents and believes. But these people will not repent; and there can be no forgiveness without repentance’ (Gooding). But when your life is filled with terror can be almost impossible to think straight.
So what if you share the fears that I have experienced? Let me share with you some of the comforting words that I have gleaned from various Christian theologians.
In his ‘Concise Theology’, James Packer writes about the unpardonable sin and the Hebrews passages and concludes, ‘Christians who fear that they have committed the unpardonable sin show by their very anxiety that they have not done so.’
Maybe you have heard of the book, The Pilgrim’s Progress. This allegory of the Christian life actually ranks fourth among literary works by the numbers of languages that it has been translated into. Pilgrim’s Progress was written by John Bunyan in 1678. Anyway, Bunyan struggled with fears that he was beyond God’s grace for for a number of years because he thought he was guilty of the sins mentioned in the Hebrew warning passages. He came to the conclusion that such a sin does not happen in a hurry or sudden fit, and is accompanied with a continual resolve never to be converted again. He realised that a person guilty of such resistance to God would be characterised by an impenetrable resistance to God. I was very blessed by a friend who recommended another of Bunyan’s books, called ‘Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.’ In ‘Grace Abounding’ Bunyan tells of how as he worked through his fears he took great comfort from the promise of Jesus that ‘he that comes to me I will in no way cast out’ (John 6:37).
I find comfort from some of the great historical Christians too. Matthew Henry was a famous commentator writing in the seventeenth-century. He writes that ‘the humbled sinner who pleads guilty, and cries for mercy, can have no ground from this passage [Hebrews 6] to be discouraged, whatever his conscience may tell him.’ The sixteenth-century reformer, John Calvin, writes about Hebrews 6, ‘when any one rises up again after falling we may hence conclude that he had not been guilty of defection, however grievously he may have sinned.’ The great early bishop, Augustine, writing in the fourth century, points out that ‘the Holy Spirit is present in the man who confesses his sin. For it is already a gift of the Holy Spirit when an offense you have committed displeases you.’
My favourite Christian from previous generations is John Newton, the former-slave trader, who had rejected the faith his mother taught him, who went on to excel in profanity and cursing, and then was dramatically converted. He became an Anglican (Church of England) minister and is best known for writing the hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’. As a young Christian Newton was worried about the Hebrews warnings until he came to see that his desire for God was evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in him.
It is about the heart
Augustine’s explanation about the Holy Spirit’s work in convicting us of sin is an important pointer to the fact that what the writer to the Hebrews is warning us about has to do with a state of heart that makes us impenetrable to the work of Holy Spirit. When I look back on what I did as a thirteen-year old I can’t see how there could be a worse sin than the one I committed. I certainly don’t want to minimise it. However, I do know that it was not motivated by any desire to end with Jesus.
In fact I would be careful suggesting that you pour a microscope over the sin that worries you. If the particular sin is causing you to question whether God can forgive you this may be unhelpful, especially during times of emotional insecurity. Instead, thank God for the fact God has given you a hatred for that sin and he has brought that conviction because wants you to experience his forgiveness. However, remember that our enemy, Satan, is an accuser whose wants to leave you in hopeless despair.
See God’s work in your heart. Your desire to be at peace with God is a gift of God. He has given the warnings of Hebrews so that you would not harden your hearts to his gracious gospel (Hebrews 3:8). ‘God has pledged Himself to pardon all 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 when they can no longer repent’ (Bruce). Similarly, one commentator writing about the unpardonable sin explains that, ‘what Jesus is speaking of here is not an isolated act but a settled condition of the soul – the result of a long history of repeated and wilful acts of sin. And if the person involved cannot be forgiven it is not so much that God refuses to forgive as it is that the sinner refuses to allow him’ (Wessel). One of favourite theologian’s Don Carson, when he speaks about the unforgiveable sin relates it to the Hebrew warning passages and says that the person has reached the stage that is been spoken of they don’t want to be forgiven: there is no sign of contrition or brokenness or faith any more with them. I am pretty sure that if you are reading this chapter with sincerity then you are by no means near the hardness of heart that the Bible warns against. In the nineteenth-century a famous English Bishop, J. C. Ryle wrote, ‘‘there is such a thing as a sin which can never be forgiven. But those who are troubled about it are most unlikely to have committed it.’
Take God at his word
‘God’s forgiveness is always open to the penitent’ (Leon Morris). Remember how John Bunyan came to peace on this issue by meditating on the promise of Jesus that, ‘I will never drive away anyone who comes to me’ (John 6:37).
Martin Lloyd-Jones was a famous Welch preacher who ministered in London in the last century. In his book, ‘Spiritual Depression’ he explains that he counselled more people about ‘that one sin’ than any other pastoral concern people brought to him. So he would bring the worried person to the promise of 1 John 1:9, which assures us that if we confess our sins, God will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. He would explain to them that ‘this is a categorical statement made by the Holy Spirit through his servant. There is no limit to it … I cannot see any qualifications whatsoever. Whatever your sin – it is as wide as that – it does not matter what it was.’ He then told the person seeking his help that their real problem was not the past sin they were worrying about but the fact that they were refusing to take God’s promise at his word. Take God promises as your comfort!
The most fearful text
When I first thought that I had fallen beyond recovery, I was especially terrified about the story of Esau recounted in Hebrews 12. The writer to the Hebrews says that Esau sought a place of repentance with tears. But we must remember to apply all that we have learned so far into understanding this text. Esau despised the birth-right he sold to his brother. Yes he regretted his action, but he was not repentant for his sin. There was remorse, but there was no genuine repentance. Pastor John Piper is very helpful on this passage telling us not to ‘make the mistake of thinking that Esau genuinely repented and was rejected by God. God does not reject genuine repentance … he was so hardened that he cried out for things to go better in his life, but inside he would not submit to God’s terms. He was, as verse 16 says, “immoral and godless”.’ Remember that God never rejects genuine repentance!
Your fear may be a symptom of something more
I recently had a short but terrifying nervous break-down. On the evening it hit I was crippled with the most awful fear, and my fears centred on the idea that I might be beyond God’s grace, because of what I did when I was thirteen. I went up to bed and my body literally shook with nerves. Caroline, my wife, was wonderful, she climbed into bed beside me and held me, but actually no-one could take the fear away. In the middle of the night I rang a friend who is a New Testament lecturer in a leading evangelical seminary in Australia (I did keep the hour-difference in mind). Peter’s words of comfort reassured me for a while, but then I would start to worry again. I emailed him every day for a week with further queries that reflected my insecurities. Peter was very wise, for he stopped dealing with my specific Hebrew questions and simply challenged me to focus on the promises and truths of the gospel.
In the next couple of days I came across a random website that made the very valid point that many people who are full of fear about the warning passages in the Bible actually are dealing with deeper fear issues, and that they will search commentary after commentary looking for comfort but never being satisfied. They become like a hypochondriac going from doctor to doctor looking for assurance but never feeling comforted. I can relate to that. One thing that I had to do during my break-down was give my phone to my Caroline. You see we don’t have Wi-Fi in our house and my phone is my internet. There was a danger that I spend my time searching the web and might come across something unhelpful on the subject by some pre-reformation theologian who didn’t understand the abundant nature of God’s grace. When you are in a state of anxiety be careful not to go looking up lots of commentaries. I have found that at times I have misunderstood what some of the writers are saying and made matters worse for myself. Instead, keep focusing on the promises of God. And talk to mature Christians who respect the Bible, and understand God’s nature and kindness
The reality is that there was a lot more going on in my life than a mere theological issue that caused my breakdown. As I pointed out in the last chapter, I take medicines for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but I had become irregular in taking them and cut out one of the tablets altogether. The breakdown I experienced was largely due to serotonin fluctuations in my system. Can I plead with you that if you find yourself in debilitating panic that you consider talking to a doctor? It may be that you need medical help with your anxiety in order to come to a place where you are capable of accepting God’s promises to you.
I would also advise you to review the stress levels caused by family, work and church commitments. I have found that walking is very helpful for me, prayer can bring comfort (and even if you can’t believe God cares for you, don’t listen to that lie and pray anyway), ask other people to pray for you too, don’t isolate yourself but limit your social contact, and be open (you may find people are more caring than you expected).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached a famous series of sermons on Romans. He took fourteen years at it on Friday nights, only having breaks for the summer. He actually didn’t even finish the series, stopping the series due to ill-health. These sermons are printed as a series of books. His book on the second half on Romans eight is a gem (I recommend it to all who want to meditate on God’s unbreakable love). In this book he has some things to say about the Hebrews warning passages. I have found these words more helpful than almost anything else I have read on this topic. Lloyd-Jones writes:
I can say definitely after some thirty-five years of pastoral ministry experience that there are no passages in the whole of Scriptures which have more frequently troubled people and caused them soul agony than the passages on Hebrews 6:4-6 and the corresponding passage in Hebrews 10:26-29 … to be worried and troubled by these warning passages, far from proving that you are reprobate, is proof that you are not reprobate, but rather a child of God … To be troubled about the state of our souls when we read passages such as these in and of itself evidence that we are sensitive to God’s Word and His Spirit, that we have spiritual life in us and our chief concern is to know that we are children of God … If ever a man [or woman] wants to believe [the] truth [of the gospel] it is always the work of the Holy Spirit; for the natural man never receives it, the carnal mind is at ‘enmity’ against it. Any man who ever desires to receive it and who is grieved and sore vexed by his unbelief, can be sure that the statement of Hebrews chapter six has nothing to do with him.
Those who know me will tell you that I love my dog, Charlie. So I can’t help but finish this chapter with an illustration I came across in a little book of sermons on the Prodigal Son by the great nineteenth-century preacher Charles Spurgeon:
When I walked down my garden some time ago I found a dog amusing himself among the flowers. I knew that he was not a good gardener, and no dog of mine, so I threw a stick at him and bade him begone. After I had done so, he conquered me, and made me ashamed of having spoken roughly to him, for he picked up my stick, and, wagging his tail right pleasantly, he brought the stick to me, and dropped it at my feet. Do you think I could stick him or drive him away after that? No, I patted him and called him good names. The dog had conquered the man. And if you, poor sinner, dog as you are, can have confidence enough in God to come to him just as you are, it is not in his heart to spurn you. There is omnipotence in simple faith which will conquer even the divine Being himself. Only do but trust him as he reveals himself in Jesus, and you shall find salvation.
I love the fact that a simply incident between a man and a dog over a hundred years ago brings me comfort. I just love that story and how Spurgeon tells it. But what is really wonderful is the statement, ‘there is an omnipotence [an infinite power] in simple faith which will conquer even the divine Being.’ It is not in God’s nature ever to turn away those who are genuinely repentant, and even though our repentance always lacks fully purity, it is by nature a gift from God. A gift he gives to you and delights to accept from you!
So why not finish reading this blog post by meditating on the promises that my friend Peter sent to me during my breakdown?
John 6:37, ‘All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out’
1 John 1:9, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’
John 3:36, ‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life.’
Psalm 32:5, ‘I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover mu iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and he forgave the iniquity of my sin.’
Maybe you need to pray, ‘Lord I believe this is true, but help me in my unbelief.’
I love study Bibles, so here are two wonderful pieces of advice from two of my favourite:
New International Zondervan Study Bible (on Hebrews 6): ‘This is strong language, however, in practical terms, someone who is repentant and desires restoration to Christ, thereby shows that he or she is not in the irretrievable conduction these verses describe. A repentant heart will always be welcomed.’
English Standard Study Bible (on Hebrews 6): ‘… it is wise pastoral advice to encourage a person who worries that he may have committed such a deep sin, that the very desire to repent and to be restored to fellowship with the Christian community is evidence that he has not “fallen away” in the permanent, irrevocable way described in the verses.’