Hebrews 10:26-27 appears to suggest that only sins that are non-wilful will have forgiveness. Does this mean that anyone who commits sin wilfully cannot possibly be a Christian? Can you explain?
No, I do believe that the blood of Christ is sufficient to atone for every sin that is truly repented of. So, apart from the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, for which there is no repentance, I believe that all sin wilful or otherwise can find forgiveness in Christ when repented of.
Hebrews 10:26-27 reads:
“For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries” (Heb 10:26-27).There was a heretic in the 3rd Century by the name of Novatus who had apparently appealed to these two verses to support his theology that anyone who falls into sin wilfully or voluntarily after his baptism proves himself to be devoid of true salvation. Novatus was so convincing that this is what these two verses teach, that some who could not refute his argument, but did not believe his doctrine, chose rather to deny the authority of the book of Hebrews (see Calvin’s comm. on Heb 10:26). A sect known as the Novatians was even formed with these teachings, and was only quelled when Emperor Constantine forbade them to assemble and ordered the burning of their books.
Novatus’ teaching found strength also in what appears to be a parallel passage in the Old Testament:
From this passage it does appear that only sins that were committed through ignorance could be atoned for; whereas sins which were presumptuous or wilful would have no forgiveness. So it is said that if any man sin knowingly, it would prove that he has an unregenerate heart.
Those who sin, mentioned by the Apostle, are not such as offend in any way, but such as forsake the Church, and wholly alienate themselves from Christ. For he speaks not here of this or of that sin, but he condemns by name those who willfully renounced fellowship with the Church. But there is a vast difference between particular fallings and a complete defection of this kind, by which we entirely fall away from the grace of Christ. And as this cannot be the case with any one except he has been already enlightened, he says, “If we sin willfully, after that we have received the knowledge of the truth;” as though he had said, “If we knowingly and willingly renounce the grace which we had obtained.” It is now evident how widely apart is this doctrine from the error of Novatus. (Comm. in loc).
What about Numbers 15:27-31? Well, first note that there were in fact sacrifices for sin of ignorance (Lev 4-5), as well as sin, which were not of ignorance, i.e. what may be regarded wilful sin in the Old Testament (Lev 6:1-6). Calvin is again forceful on this point:
The Lord has in the Law ordered some sacrifices to be offered in expiation of the voluntary sins of believers, and others to redeem sins of ignorance,… how perverse is it to concede no expiation to a voluntary sin? I hold nothing to be more plain, than that the one sacrifice of Christ avails to remit the voluntary sins of believers, the Lord having attested this by carnal sacrifices as emblems (ICR 4.1.28).
In the second place, note that the words translated “presumptuously” in Numbers 15:30 literally means “with a high hand.” That is to say that Numbers 15:30-31 is not so much about voluntary sin, but about sin committed with gross defiance and rebellion against God. Some may argue that all wilful or voluntary sins are in fact gross defiance and rebellion against God. I do not think so. I believe there is a difference between sins committed under strong temptations and temporary lapses as compared to high-handed sins reminiscent of Goliath’s defiance or Korah’s audacity, or Balaam’s persistence, or Judas’ betrayal. The difference is that in the former, the sinner may be temporarily blinded concerning God’s holiness and severity but will repent wholeheartedly when their faults are made known to them, whereas in the latter, there is a disregard for who God is.
Of course, in practice, it may be extremely difficult to distinguish between an act of sin as being grossly rebellious or being a temporary lapse. And so, for example, if an ordinary person should have committed the same crimes of adultery and murder as David did, he would have been executed under the Law.
In the third place, we should realise that Numbers 15:30-31 is not about the state of the soul or about eternal damnation. It is about civil justice. Thus, the Sabbath breaker was stoned to death because his action of collecting sticks on the Sabbath so soon after God gave the statute concerning punishment, was an act of rebellion. These punishments of death and ex-communication are ministerial and administrative. The punitive actions when carried out justly and faithfully do generally reflect God’s view of the sinner, just as Church-Discipline under the New Covenant when carried out faithfully do reflect God’s view of the sinner (Mt 18:17-18). Nevertheless, it does not necessarily imply that every punished sinner would be damned by God himself.
What all these arguments add up to, is that there is no basis for the view that no true believer will commit any wilful sin. However, we should also be able to see that no true believer would sin presumptuously and defiantly. And any wilful sin that is committed for which the offender refuses to confess and repent is to be taken to be rebellious and defiant. Moreover, when the Church observes (rightly or wrongly) a professing believer to be sinning presumptuously and defiantly, then she must discipline him and declare him to be a publican and a sinner (cf. Mt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:5). She must warn the sinner that in so far as can be observed, he is not a true believer and will face the wrath of God is he persists in unrepentance. But at the same time, the church should tenderly admonish the sinner that all sin confessed and repented of can expect forgiveness from God in Christ (1 Jn 1:9). Ω