Does "willful sin" cause me to lose my salvation? I've been a Christian for a long time, but lately I've been going through a terrible struggle with a particular sin over and over again. Sometimes I feel as if I can't control myself, but then I think, "No, that can't be right — you're just making excuses." A Christian friend told me that if I go on sinning willfully, God will reject me and I'll lose my salvation. That really shook me up. Do you think he's right?
Whether you realize it or not, you've raised a thorny problem. It involves controversial theological subjects like "eternal security" and the doctrine of election or predestination. It raises questions about the pros and cons of Calvinism and Arminianism. It touches upon the mysterious relationship between God's sovereignty and human free will. Christians from different faith traditions don't always agree about the best way to answer these questions. For this reason we tend to steer clear of them here at Focus on the Family. Nevertheless, we can see that you're really struggling in this area. Rather than leave you dangling, we're going to take a stab at addressing your concerns.
First, we recommend that you get some help from a real, flesh-and-blood human being. Look for a mature fellow believer, preferably a pastor, church elder, or qualified Christian counselor, who can come alongside you in a tangible way. This is probably the best advice we can offer without more detailed information. If the problem you're dealing with involves a serious addiction of some kind, you may not be able to gain victory over it without psychological or medical treatment. That's why you need to find someone with whom you can talk openly and honestly about your recurring temptations.
With this in mind, we want to invite you to contact our Counseling department. Our counselors are all licensed Christian therapists, and they would love to discuss your situation with you over the phone. They can also provide you with a list of qualified professionals practicing in your area.
That said, we'd like to add a few thoughts from a purely biblical and theological perspective. And the first thing we want to say is that every Christian in the world wrestles with sin every single day of his or her life. Even the apostle Paul complained, "The good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice" (Romans 7:20). None of us is conformed to the image of Christ overnight. Sanctification is a moment-by-moment challenge. It's a process that will not be complete until we leave this world and see the Lord face to face. In the meantime, our assignment is to trust God and keep on "walking in the Spirit" (Galatians 5:16).
Because of the sin nature that dwells within us, there's a very real sense in which we often sin against our own wills (Romans 7). But we shouldn't take this idea too far. It's equally true that every sin is a "willful sin." If it weren't, we wouldn't be responsible. And if we're not responsible for our own actions, a sin can't be a sin at all. As James says, "Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death" (James 1:14, 15).
This is an important point. Why? Because if every sin is a willful sin, it doesn't make any sense to say that "willful sin" causes us to lose our salvation. The apostle John says something quite different: "If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:7-9). Again, it's a day-by-day, moment-by-moment process.
What about Hebrews 10:26-31? This is probably the passage your friend had in mind when he said that God will "reject" those who go on sinning willfully. There are many believers who share his point of view. But we'd suggest that it's possible to look at this portion of Scripture from a different angle. As we see it, there's good reason to suppose that the "willful sin" of verse 26 is the same as the "unpardonable sin" that Jesus mentions in Matthew 12:31. To be specific, it's the sin of rejecting Christ altogether (otherwise known as "the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit").
We could also call this the sin of persistent self-hardening. It's the process by which an individual sears his conscience and stiffens his neck against God. If it goes on long enough, the person eventually reaches the point where genuine repentance is an impossibility. The fact that you're wrestling with doubts and fears about your standing with God leads us to suppose that you cannot be guilty of this sin. If you were, you wouldn't be concerned about it.
If our assumptions are correct, it's possible to argue that Hebrews 10:26-31 doesn't refer to struggling Christians like yourself at all. This passage may be aimed at hardened, bitter people who only seem to be Christians.
Look at it this way. If an individual insists on living an unchristian life even after "receiving the knowledge of the truth," we might be led to suspect that he never really accepted Christ in the first place. If he willfully persists in committing the same sin over and over again without remorse and without showing any evidence of a genuine desire to change, we would have every reason to doubt the sincerity of his faith. Such a person is like the demons mentioned in James 2:19: they "believe" the truth but refuse to grant it their personal allegiance. In a case like this, it is absolutely true to say that "there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins," since Jesus Himself is that sacrifice. "But we are confident of better things concerning you" (Hebrews 6:9).
As we've already said, if you need help sorting through these concepts, feel free to call our counselors. They'll be more than happy to assist you in any way they can.
Overcoming Recurring Sin: Gary Thomas talks about the struggle of recurring sin for the Christian and offers hope for overcoming these setbacks.
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