Question from a Site Viewer
Initially, I joined a Baptist church, and believed to accept Jesus in seventh grade and was baptized. For a couple years I was really involved. But then I fell away. I prayed at times and felt I could live in a worldly fashion–greedy for money, hungry for lust, etc.–then just ask for forgiveness and be safe. I grew in anger and hostility to religion. I really fell away and turned and said things I now regret.
I am now 29. Recently, all of a sudden I have had this burning and overwhelming desire to read the Bible and search for meaning. I have become hardened over time, and I do struggle with temptations and wrongful thoughts. But now the Gospel is hitting me and I know I have erred.
I am deeply troubled however by Hebrews 6:4-6 and 2 Peter 2:20-22 and Hebrews 10:26. Is it not possible for someone to return to repentance after having denied God earlier? Can a person who goes through the motions, then goes his own way, come to repentance? Or have I crossed a point of no return? Is it impossible to truly follow Jesus Christ again and be saved as these verses seem to indicate? Or is falling away a consistent state that can be broken? 1 Timothy 1:13 is troubling as well. What if one willfully sins after having knowledge? Can a Christian fall away and ever receive God’s mercy again? I am really struggling with these sorts of chapters dealing with apostasy. I just feel like I am lost. Please help!
First, I would commend to you the article Does God Want Me Back, where we address your question as it relates to Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26. God is the God Jesus told us about in Luke 15. He always welcomes the sinner back. No matter how badly His people have sinned, His desire is their return. If you fall away and return, the Father will welcome you with open arms. If you have trouble believing this, I challenge you sometime to begin with Isaiah and read through all of the prophets and mark how badly they had sinned and how many times God continued to call them to repent. And even when they ultimately did not repent, and God brought judgment, God promised to go with them into captivity and to bring them back. As He says in Ezekiel 18, He has no pleasure in the death of those who fall away, but rather wants them to repent. He is the Father who has more joy over one sinner who repents than over 99 sheep who need no repentance. From Abraham to Peter, we have a long history of God’s people falling away and the Father welcoming them back when they turn to Him. So, I can say with confidence that even if you fall away, if you seek God, you will find Him and in your finding your heart will be delighted.
You ask about 2 Peter 2:20-22. The character of false teachers is that they have no desire to repent. They desire the pigpen, the vomit. The point is that they never knew Christ, but were always pigs and dogs. They were never sheep. They did not fall away. The 2 Peter passage does not speak to the issue of those who desire to repent. For such people, God’s arms are always open. He delights in our return. Is this not the entire point of the parable of the prodigal son?
And if he did not delight in our return, there would not be a person on earth that would have any hope. While you may have fallen away like the prodigal son and others may be like the elder son, both needed to have a father who was willing to forgive them. Each of us have sinned. We may think some sins are big and some are small, but the point is that we all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. And, we all have sinned willfully. Those who think otherwise are deceiving themselves. If the Father did not forgive our sins, none of us would have any hope. But His great desire is to have His creation be in fellowship with Him.
You ask about 1 Timothy 1:13, where Paul found mercy because he sinned ignorantly in unbelief. That passage is an interesting passage. Translated woodenly, the passage reads “because being ignorant I did [it] in unbelief.” The focus is that the mercy was extended, not because of ignorance, but because of unbelief. Mercy is always needed for unbelief. It is not needed for belief. Mercy did not come because of ignorance, but because of unbelief. As A.T. Robertson points out in his tome A Grammar of the New Testament, the participle “being ignorant” carries a “manner” meaning rather than a “causal” meaning. Stated in another way, Paul lived and did all of these things in the state of unbelief, while he was ignorant. God’s mercy was extended because of Paul’s unbelief, not because of Paul’s ignorance. Paul’s ignorance was an accompanying manner or characteristic of his unbelief, but it was not the reason for the mercy. The mercy came because of the unbelief, which is why we all need mercy.
The context also draws us to this reading. In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul states that he was the chief of sinners. There are no sinners greater than Paul was. God is not saying, and Paul is not saying, that there are certain sinners who act ignorantly and on these God will have mercy but for the greater sinners who act deliberately God will not have mercy. Such a reading would do violence to the text. How can Paul be the worst of sinners if he only sinned ignorantly while others sin intentionally? This makes no sense. And if Paul is making a distinction between willful and ignorant sins, then how could God ever show all longsuffering to Paul as a pattern for the rest of us? None of the rest of us can claim that we have never sinned willfully. The passage should not be read to state that God used Paul as this great example to us but actually there is no hope for the rest of us because Paul’s example does not fit us. Such would turn the passage on its head.
Moreover, all of Scripture is filled with examples of intentional sins. Abraham asked Sarah to lie for him; David murdered Uriah; Manasseh did more evil than all the kings before him; Peter denied Christ, the prodigal son left his family for an intentional life of sin . . . If we take the position that intentional sins are not forgiven, then are we consigning Abraham, David, Manasseh, and Peter to hell? Did not all these believers fall away? Did Jesus misspeak when He told about the reception of the prodigal son?
I read 1 Timothy 1:13 as saying that God extended mercy precisely because of the need for mercy in Paul. Paul was acting in unbelief and was ignorant, and needed mercy. That is the condition of us all before we come to Christ (see Ephesians 4:18). We are ignorant and are in unbelief.
In any event, Paul in 1 Timothy 1:13 is talking about his conversion to Christ. He is not talking about the forgiveness of sins and restoration of fellowship for believers. To those who are believers and err, Paul admonishes the church to restore such a one in the spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1). There is forgiveness with God. It is His nature and delight to forgive, restore, and renew hearts.
My encouragement to you is to seek God. I have long thought that even if Scripture said there was no hope, the proper response of us all would be to petition heaven and seek to serve God, understanding like the Ninevites of old that perhaps God will change His mind (Jonah 3:7-9; see also David in 2 Samuel 12:22). God may be gracious even as He was to Israel after He told them they had gone too far and He was through with them (Judges 10:13, 16; 11:32). But we do not face such a situation. Rather, we have a God who pleads with us to return to Him. As Isaiah 55:6-7 so eloquently states:
Seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord and He will have mercy on him and to our God for He will abundantly pardon.
If you will spend your lifetime seeking and serving God in mercy, truth, and love, you will come to the end of life a happy man. You will be surprised how through the years your life is transformed into the image of His Son, Jesus. Instead of hatred, there will be love; instead of irritation, there will be longsuffering. Instead of sadness, there will be joy. Instead of anxiety, there will be peace. Instead of being controlled by one’s emotions, there will be self-control so that the emotions serve you and do not imprison you. You will experience some of heaven on this earth, as you experience the Holy Spirit in the life of following Christ.
And though it may take some time to reform your mind to get rid of the things you have placed in there, through memorization of the Word, prayer, and focus, you can win that battle and look back with thanksgiving and gratitude to God for a mind, heart, and life that feels clean and pure.
May the Lord Jesus be the brother besides you, the companion within you, and the joy before you.
a fellow pilgrim,