Is There an Unforgivable Sin?

by The Rev. Dr. Steven Hein

Have you ever wondered if you might have sinned so much, or in such a way, that God’s forgiveness in Christ Jesus would no longer apply to you? If you have, what have you turned to for confident answers? It is not uncommon for Christians who have been battling nagging sins that trouble to wonder of they might be running out of God’s mercy and forgiveness. Is there an end to God’s forgiveness? Can a Christian sin so persistently that God would loose his patience and withhold his forgiveness? Can we reach a point when our sinning becomes unforgivable? Indeed, is there such a thing as an unforgivable sin? Anxious sinners who see alarming sins sticking to their lives, desperately want to know the answers to these questions. Do you know someone like this? Are you one of them?

Let’s ponder what the Scriptures tell us about God’s forgiveness in Christ Jesus and hold fast to what they tell us despite how we may be inclined to feel at times. Notice how comprehensively Paul describes the saving work of Christ in II Corinthians 5:19: in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. . .

Notice how Paul describes the who and what are included in the saving work of Christ. The who is the whole world of sinners and the what is described as simply their trespasses. Paul’s words are categorical and provide for no exceptions. Christ forgives all the trespasses of the whole world of sinners. He does not say that some have their trespasses forgiven, nor does he indicate that only some trespasses are forgiven. It is as simple as that: all sins of everyone are forgiven through the atoning sacrifice of Christ Jesus. The same point is made with different wording by the Apostle in Romans 5, and this language may be even more helpful to those Christians who may have questions about the magnitude of their sinfulness. Paul states: . . . where sin increased, Grace abounded all the more (Rom 5:20). Christians alarmed about their sins may take comfort in these words of the Apostle. If you see your sins abounding more and more through the accusing finger of the Law, you can be assured by the Word of God that grace is abounding all that much more – big sins, small sins, infrequent sins, habitual sins, all sins, period. The riches of God’s grace will always outstrip the magnitude of your sins.

Let’s carry the matter further. Some sensitive Christians may be alarmed over the question: Yes. Jesus forgives all my sins, but have I separated myself from his forgiveness by the way I am living my life? Perhaps some may recall that the famous actor, George C. Scott won the Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of General George S. Patton in the 1970 movie. Patton. Perhaps, less remembered is the fact that Scott refused the Oscar. Objectively the Oscar exists and it is his, but Scott has chosen to live separate from it. Tragically, while everyone is forgiven in Christ Jesus, many do not live with it through faith. Sinners receive and live with the forgiveness of Christ through a faith that is created and sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit through the power of the Gospel (Rom. 1:16, 10:17). Can the sinfulness of your life put your faith in Christ at risk? Perhaps. God makes our sinful hearts hungry and ready to receive his forgiveness and strengthen our faith again and again through the Gospel by fashioning and maintaining a repentant heart by the accusing work of his Law. It is why we need the ministry of his Law as well as the Gospel continually in our Christian walk of faith. It makes a soft heart hungry for his healing, restoring forgiveness.

Satan, however, is always about trying to turn Christ’s forgiveness into a license for sin, rather than a remedy for sin. (see Romans 6:1-11) When we become uncaring about our sins; when habitual sins no longer bother us; when we no longer struggle against them; then, God’s Law is blunted, our hearts become hardened, and we refuse to feed on the Gospel. As a result of not feeding on God’s Word of forgiveness, faith is weakened, the Holy Spirit is grieved, and we are in peril of having our trust in Christ’s forgiveness snuffed out by unrepentant indifference. In this sense the Church has spoken of the unforgivable sin.

The unforgivable sin is not the absence of forgiveness, but rather like George C. Scott and his Oscar, it is the refusal of forgiveness. It is not unforgivable because Christ did not die for such a sin; it is unforgivable because it is the separation of the self from His forgiveness. Such is the condition of all who have died without faith in the forgiveness of Christ and are now in Hell. It is not that they were bigger or more despicable sinners; it is that they refused to live with Christ’s forgiveness through faith.

But now, you ask: Am I committing the unforgivable sin? You want to know if your nagging, habitual, nasty sins are destroying your faith and ultimately working to grieve the Holy Spirit and separate you from Christ’s forgiveness. You can take your measure on this very important question in the following way. If you are bored by this topic, if you don’t care about the matter of your sins and God’s forgiveness, if you think that you have a great arrangement, loving to sin so much while God loves to forgive so much . . . then, the answer is Yes! You probably are in danger of committing the unforgivable sin. You need to repent of your indifference, your mocking of God, and your smugness; and then you need to feed on his forgiveness, not simply presume it.

However, if you are alarmed about your sins and the threat of them choking off your faith and appetite for the forgiveness of Christ, you need not be. If you are longing to have and live with the grace of our Lord, be assured; you have it securely. If you desire the mercy of God while your sins bother you - regardless of the continuing presence of nagging sins - be assured your faith life is healthy and you, like St. Paul may gloriously consider yourself chief of sinners. If these things shape your attitudes and concerns, be assured, you are not committing the unforgivable sin. We live by grace, not getting rid of our sins. While we are called to smash, bash, and trash the old sinful nature in all of us, there is no ridding ourselves of that old Adam until we enter glory. It is not the presence of persistent sin, but the absence of faith that separates us from the graciousness of God in Christ Jesus. The forgiveness of Christ saves because it covers our sins, not because it removes them. And let me encourage you to cling to God’s objective Word of forgiveness as it comes to you through Holy Absolution, through its objective presentation to you in sermon and lesson, and through the body and blood of Jesus in His Holy Supper. As sinners, we live as by grace, or we just do not live at all. But thanks be to God, Who has called us to a faith in that forgiveness by Christ Jesus . . . we live by grace!

The Rev. Dr. Steven A. Hein serves as Director of Concordia Institute for Christian Studies in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  He also serves as associate pastor at Shepherd of the Springs Lutheran Church and affiliate professor of Theology and Ethics at Colorado Christian University. He has previously served for over two decades as a professor of Theology at Concordia University, River Forest. 


Created: September 17th, 2008