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: 

27 And if any soul sin through ignorance, then he shall bring a she goat of the first year for a sin offering. 28 And the priest shall make an atonement for the soul that sinneth ignorantly, when he sinneth by ignorance before the LORD, to make an atonement for him; and it shall be forgiven him. 29 Ye shall have one law for him that sinneth through ignorance, both for him that is born among the children of Israel, and for the stranger that sojourneth among them. 30 But the soul that doeth ought presumptuously, whether he be born in the land, or a stranger, the same reproacheth the LORD; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he hath despised the word of the LORD, and hath broken his commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him (Num 15:27-31) 

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.

The objections against this interpretation are, however, substantive. 

In the first place, we would have to conclude that many of the saints in the Old Testament were unregenerate. Did not Abraham know that lying is sin? Did not Moses wilfully disobey the Lord when he struck the rock rather than speak to it? Did not Samson know that fornication is sin? Did not David know that adultery and murder are grievous sins? Are we to conclude that these saints were all unregenerate and condemned because their wilful sins were not forgiven? And if it were argued that these were in the Old Testament, we could say the same with Peter. Did he not knowingly deny the Lord thrice? Was he not guilty of guilty of dissimulation even after the Lord’s resurrection even though he must have known what is right (see Gal 2:11-14)? 

In the second place, the Lord teaches us that whenever someone repents of his sin, we should forgive him, even up to seventy time seven times! This doctrine is based on the Lord’s compassion and longsuffering which we are to imitate (cf. Mt 18:21-35). How could it be that the Lord does not forgive when He commands us to do so?

In the third place, the implication of such a doctrine would be that anyone who sins wilfully must immediately be regarded as an unbeliever. Yet, Paul taught the Thessalonians concerning those who would not obey the words of his epistle, that these should be marked out and isolated, and yet they must not be counted as enemies but admonished as brothers (2 Th 3:14-15). 

In view of these objections, we can, I believe, safely conclude that the view of Novatus is in error. How then should we understand Hebrews 10:26-27 and also Numbers 15:27-31? 

In the first place, we must remember that the epistle to the Hebrews was written to Jewish converts who were under the Nerodian persecution, and were tempted to return to Judaistic worship because Christianity had become religio illicita whereas Judaism was still religio licita. This temptation must have been very strong as it was well-known that Christianity is really a continuation and development of true Old Testament Judaism. However, because Christ had lived and died, the Old Testament sacrificial system of Judaism was abrogated. So, anyone who would forsake New Testament congregational worship (Heb 10:25) and return to Judaistic sacrificial worship, would be denying that Christ is the antitype or fulfilment of the Old Testament sacrifices, and so would be trampling underfoot the Son of God and counting the blood of the everlasting covenant an unholy thing (Heb 10:29). 

This is what the apostle is saying in Hebrews 10:26-27. Those who know the truth concerning Christ as the antitype of the Old Testament sacrifices, and yet wilfully return to Old Testament manner of worship, denies Christ. And by denying Christ, they deny themselves any sacrifice for sin, for without Christ the Old Testament sacrifices are like pagan sacrifices: meaningless. Such a person therefore can expect “judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries” (Heb 10:27).

Calvin is essentially in agreement with this view:

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