Bunyan's Agony of Soul
John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, did not have the privilege of being reared in a godly home. As a young man he lived a life heedless of the law of God. He spent much of his time in sports and gaming and dancing, reckoning these pleasures as the purpose of life, and in comparison with others, he stood apart in the unfettered vileness of his tongue. His speech was so full of blasphemies that even wicked people reproved him for it, and lying always came readily to his lips. But after serving as a soldier in Cromwell's army and marrying a woman from a religious home and settling down to the realities of adulthood, he began to think about the condition of his soul. He started an arduous spiritual journey recounted in his book Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.
Over a period of years he went through a long series of tormenting inner struggles as he sought assurance that he was right with God. He recalls that even after he thought he was truly saved,
the tempter came upon me again, and that with a more grievous and dreadful temptation than before: and that was, to sell and part with this most blessed Christ—to exchange him for the things of this life, for any thing. The temptation lay upon me for the space of a year . . . [p. 45].
One morning as I lay in my bed I was . . . most fiercely assaulted with this temptation . . . , "Sell him, sell him, sell him, sell him." I answered, "No, no, not for thousands, thousands, thousands," at least twenty times together; but at last, after much striving, even until I was almost out of breath, . . . I felt my heart freely consent thereto. Oh the diligence of Satan! . . . Now was the battle won, and down fell I, as a bird that is shot from the top of a tree, into great guilt and fearful despair [pp. 46-47].
Then began I with sad and careful heart to consider of the nature and largeness of my sin, and to search into the word of God . . . . I feared . . . that this wicked sin of mine might be that sin unpardonable of which he there thus speaketh: "But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation" [Mark 3:29]. And I did the rather give credit to this, because of that sentence in the Hebrews: "For ye know how that afterwards, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected; for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears" [Heb. 12:17]. And this stuck always with me. And now was I both a burden and a terror to myself; nor did I ever so know as now what it was to be weary of my life, and yet afraid to die. . . . For there was nothing did pass more frequently over my mind than that it was impossible for me to be forgiven my transgression, and be saved from the wrath to come [pp. 48-9].
For a long while he thought that his momentary consent to sell Christ excluded him from all hope of salvation. At times he found hope in such promises as John 6:37 and 2 Corinthians 12:9, but then always he lapsed into further despair, because he could not escape from a gnawing fear that he had committed the unpardonable sin.
The final remedy for his anguish of soul was careful study of God's Word. The first breakthrough was realization that if he had gone beyond the limits of divine forgiveness, God would have cast him off completely, giving him no further attention, yet Bunyan could not doubt that God was still bringing to his heart words of comfort and hope. So, Bunyan was encouraged to look again at all those texts which he had construed as pronouncing his damnation, and now, miraculously, he saw them in a new light. He understood finally, after a long siege of doubt, that he himself had never committed a sin that was unpardonable in God's eyes.
What is the unpardonable sin? Can you, as a believer, ever be guilty of committing it, with the consequence of losing your salvation? The answer is, no. But you should not therefore march into sin as if you have nothing to fear. We will address two questions: why the believer is immune to the unpardonable sin, and why he dare not sin regardless.
Jesus' Rebuke of the Pharisees
Sometime after Jesus incurred the Pharisees’ wrath by allowing His disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath, and after He angered them further by restoring a withered hand on the Sabbath also, another contentious issue arose (Matt. 12:22–24). A man was brought to Jesus who was possessed by a demon. This demon, by means that we can scarcely imagine, caused the man to lose some of his basic faculties—in particular, his faculties of speech and sight. Jesus cast out the demon and the man reacquired his ability to see and to speak.
The ordinary people who witnessed the miracle had enough sense to recognize that they were in the presence of divine power, and they glorified Jesus by calling Him "the son of David," a title that the Jews in Jesus’ day used only for the awaited Messiah. They understood from prophecy that the Messiah would come from the line of David and restore the Davidic dynasty that had long held sway on the throne of Israel.
How different was the response of the Pharisees! The phrase "when the Pharisees heard" leaves some uncertainty as to the reference. Were they enraged when they heard about the miracle or when they heard about Jesus being proclaimed as the Messiah? Very likely, both. Fuming in their hearts, they bitterly charged Him with the vilest accusation they could imagine. They claimed that He was able to cast out the demon only because He was in league the devil, whom they called Beelzebub. Notice that they could belittle the miracle, but they could not deny it. Everyone knew that the man had been restored from demon possession.
When answering the charge that the Pharisees brought against Him, Jesus revealed that there is an unpardonable sin (Matt. 12:31–32, the text in Matthew parallel to Mark 3:29, which Bunyan found so disturbing). That sin is not merely to speak a word against Jesus. Many have blasphemed Him before coming to know Him as their loving Savior. That sin is also not any of the ordinary forms of sin or blasphemy. All these can be forgiven. Rather, that sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It is unpardonable both in this world and in the world to come. Once committed, it is so offensive to God that the perpetrator can never hope for forgiveness.
It is surely of commanding importance to determine exactly what sin Jesus was talking about. And yet His meaning was so obscure that the church as a whole has never felt sure how to define the unpardonable sin. But the light necessary for clarification comes from the context, which presents His saying as a response to the charge that He was in league with the devil. He was warning the Pharisees that this charge was far worse than any other word spoken against the Son of man. They attributed His miracles to Beelzebub, who was for them the very personification of evil. But by whose power did Jesus actually perform miracles? By the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Pharisees were saying that the Holy Spirit is in essence evil. To find evil in the One who is purely good and holy is indeed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
Why is this sin unpardonable? Because a mind so warped that it reverses good and evil is beyond repair. A great sinner can be saved, but only if he retains some capacity to appreciate and desire the goodness that he sees in Christ. If that same sinner sees Christ and cries "evil," he is in a hopeless state. He is declaring that God Himself, as manifest in Christ and in the work of the Holy Spirit, is evil. He has therefore positioned himself as God’s judge, as if he and not God is the one who possesses true goodness. Having turned the moral scale upside down, he is incapable of repentance. Further evidence of what he is like or what God is like will merely confirm his belief that he is the one who is good. Repentance requires a man to look at all the bad things in his heart and recognize he is bad.
The first to charge that God Himself is basically evil was Satan. Thus, anyone who commits blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is, either wittingly or unwittingly, lining up with Satan in his cosmic war against God. But to accept Satan’s party line is the way to certain damnation. It is obvious that we dare not toy with the suspicion that God is a liar and deceiver. Once deeply rooted, that suspicion will throw up such a wall between the soul and God that the soul will be sealed off forever from His forgiveness.
But it is important to see that Jesus' definition of the unpardonable sin assigns it solely to those altogether outside the grace of God, to those who have never received Christ. No believer indwelt by the Holy Spirit can become as morally blind as the Pharisees, who confused the author of good, Jesus, with the author of evil, Satan. Thus, as Bunyan studied Jesus' warning more carefully, the dread of certain damnation it had formerly stirred up in his soul dissolved.
Also, as he examined further the other texts that at first seemed to seal his condemnation, he learned that in reality they also did not pronounce him a hopeless case. He found that he stood outside the doom sounded by Hebrews 6:4–6, for example, for he had not truly fallen away, coming to a place of beholding Christian faith with indifference or even contempt. He could not sink so far, for the indwelling Holy Spirit held him above the yawning depths.
He also came to better understanding of Hebrews 12:15-17. Here again Bunyan realized that the reprobate being described was not someone like himself, for three reasons.
- That his [Esau's] was not a hasty thought against the continual labor of his mind, but a thought consented to, and put in practice likewise, and that after some deliberation [Gen. 25:34].
- It was a public and open action, even before his brother, if not before many more: this made his sin of a far more heinous nature than otherwise it would have been.
- He continued to slight his birthright: he did eat and drink, and went his way; thus Esau despised his birthright: yea, twenty years after, he was found to despise it still. "And Esau said, I have enough, my brother: keep that thou hast unto thyself" [Gen. 33:9] [p. 72].
If you, Christian brother, are ever assailed with the thought that you have sinned so horribly that God cannot love you again, take comfort from our proofs that the unforgivable sin is a peril only for unbelievers. Do you believe? Or if you are beset by doubts, do you want to believe? Then either you can be saved if you are not, or you can be forgiven and restored to fellowship with God if you are saved already.
We must reemphasize a truth presented earlier, however. Any professing but false believer who lapses into apostasy cannot later be saved. In other words, apostasy is one form of the unpardonable sin. It is one way of deciding, after seeing God work, that God is not really good. Therefore, you as a professing believer are safe from the unpardonable sin only if your profession is genuine—only if you have truly repented of your sin and accepted Christ as your Savior. If you are a hypocrite who will someday discard your Christian identity under the circumstances assumed by the term apostasy (we described these earlier), you will then in fact be a hopeless case.
But perhaps you feel that by your sin, you have already turned away from Christ, becoming an apostate. You can take heart if you are reading this lesson. It is hard to imagine an apostate investing his time and mental effort in a rather deep discussion of Bible doctrine. Also, as we just said, you have not committed the unpardonable sin if you believe or want to believe in Christ. It follows that if you meet either condition, you are not an apostate.
Yet although we affirm that a believer is safe from the unpardonable sin, we dare not create the impression that a believer can sin with impunity—that he stands so securely in God's favor that sinning carries no risk worth considering.
Indeed there are risks. If we stubbornly go on sinning, God will, at the very least, remove His power from our attempts to serve Him, and our work will amount to nothing. Jesus warned that the requirement for fruitful labor is to abide in Him—that is, to remain close to Him by walking in His will and shunning the path of sin (John 15:4). And, of course, unprofitable labor will mean loss of future reward.
But to persist in sin will not only cause us to lose treasure in heaven, but also to reap sorrow in this life. If we offend our holy God, He will surely chasten us. That is the strongly accented teaching of Scripture (Deut. 8:5; Ps. 94:12; Prov. 3:11–12; John 15:2; Heb. 12:5-11; Rev. 3:19). God's chastening might take various forms. He might withdraw His blessing by allowing conflict to enter our family or church, by taking us through financial distress, or by permitting us to be laid aside by an affliction (James 5:15). It would be impossible to list all the possible ways He might intervene to make us aware of His displeasure. In His wisdom He will choose the best measures to show a rebellious child that he is on the wrong path. The child will go through pain and guilt that he could have avoided, but the spanking administered by a loving Father will have its desired effect. The chastened one will emerge as less of a child and as more of a man or woman of God.
Destruction of the Flesh
If we resist God's chastening, perhaps to the point of forcing the church to discipline us, we risk even sterner measures from the hand of God. In the case of a brother who persisted in gross immorality, Paul threatened "to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Cor. 5:5). As we noted in an earlier lesson, Paul meant that he would ask God to remove the man's hedge of protection from Satanic onslaught, so that through the ravages of Satan he might learn the folly of his sin. After being pounded by trouble and temptation, he might turn to God in repentance. Who in his right mind would want God to give Satan the green light to attack him?
When a child of God is unruly, his loving heavenly Father has no alternative but to discipline him, using whatever methods will work best in stemming evil and promoting good. In dealing with gross sin, the best methods might be severe. John discloses that a believer can commit a sin that God will punish severely indeed, with no lesser penalty than death (1 John 5:16). John leaves the impression that when this penalty is decreed, there is no escape either by the sinner's repentance or the prayers of fellow believers. What sin could be so horrible that it leaves God no alternative but to summarily take the life of the sinner?
The New Testament offers two examples of the sin unto death. In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul says that many in their church had died because they partook of the Lord's Supper unworthily (1 Cor. 11:29–30). The meaning is that they were not qualified to take it. How did they fall short? Before they participated in this solemn remembrance of Christ's death on the cross, they failed to examine themselves and remove sin by sorrowfully seeking forgiveness (1 Cor. 11:31), and they demonstrated hardness of heart at the very time when they should have discerned the Lord's body. In other words, they looked away from their sin when they should have remembered all that Christ endured to save them from their sin. Thus, they were guilty, first, of colossal ingratitude; second, of presumption, for they were acting as if God must overlook their sin even though they intended to keep on sinning; and, third, of profound disrespect for the person and work of Christ. Yet these among the "many who sleep" must have been believers, for an unbeliever—by definition, unworthy—might take the Lord's Supper either out of ignorance or hypocrisy and yet suffer no judgment, as God waited for grace to work in his heart. Also, Paul describes the death that has fallen upon the sleepers as chastening to avert condemnation (1 Cor. 11:32). Thus, although they lapsed into a serious sin, the overall testimony of their lives was that they had been transformed by faith.
We find another case of sin unto death in the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1–11). In the days after Pentecost, the Holy Spirit gave believers a fervent love for each other. This love was more than a warm feeling. It changed their lives. No one blessed with material possessions refused to share them with poorer brethren (Acts 4:34–35). Yet some shared with the wrong motive. Such were Ananias and his wife Sapphira. Because sharing was seen as a mark of spirituality, their motive was to gain approval. Thus, when they sold a valuable piece of land and gave part of the proceeds to the apostles, they sought greater credit than they deserved. They claimed that they were giving the entire proceeds.
We might think that their sin was minor. After all, to give the church any proceeds from the sale of their property would have been a good deed. Their only offense was to exaggerate how generous they were. Who was hurt by their boasting? Don’t we all do a little boasting from time to time? Peter did not think their sin was minor. He had the wisdom to recognize an attack of Satan. He knew that Satan was trying to plant sin in the church so that the Holy Spirit would withdraw His aid, which was essential for the church to be effective in preaching the gospel.
Peter confronted Ananias when his wife was absent and accused him of lying to the Holy Spirit. He gave him no opportunity to explain himself. The man had already been judged by God. As soon as Peter stated the charges, Ananias fell down dead. Immediately the young men wrapped him in burial clothes, carried him out, and buried him. The effect on all who heard about his death was to make them afraid. The incident was a strong reminder of how much God hates sin.
After three hours, Sapphira came in, unaware of what had happened to her husband. Peter immediately began to question her about her role in the deception. Perhaps the apostles had spoken with Ananias about the sale, but not with his wife. Thus, for the sake of justice, it was necessary to determine whether she, when separated from her husband, would repeat his false claim. She replied that indeed all the proceeds of the sale went to the church.
With solemn anger, Peter then declared his verdict that she had been her husband’s accomplice in the deception, and he pronounced the same awful sentence on her that fell upon her husband, the sentence of death. She dropped dead, and the young men who were just returning from burying her husband carried her out as well. They made her grave beside his. Again, the news that God struck down a liar in the church had a sobering effect on all who heard it.
The charges that Peter brought against the couple reveal just how serious the sin was. It was serious for four reasons.
- Ananias told a lie. Lying is the sin especially characteristic of Satan. Perhaps the most fundamental difference between God and Satan is that God is Truth, whereas Satan has no truth in him, for he is the father of lies (John 8:44). God was therefore extremely displeased when untruth, the mark of His enemy, entered His beloved church.
- Ananias lied to God, not man. Specifically, he lied to God in the person of the Holy Spirit. In fact, he and his wife had lied to the church, but Peter identifies the church with the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit indwells the church and is responsible for its existence.
- Ananias must have thought that God Himself would fail to detect the lie and would bless the couple for their generosity. How demeaning of God’s great wisdom and knowledge!
- As Peter said when pronouncing his judgment on Sapphira, she and her husband tempted the Holy Spirit. He evidently meant that they sinned by daring God to go on blessing the church after they had infected it with sin.
It is obvious that Ananias and Sapphira, as well as the many who slept in Corinth, were guilty of major transgressions, but why was death the penalty God decreed? God must have known that their hearts had hardened beyond the possibility of softening again. They were locked into a sinful pattern that no amount of urging, human or divine, would move them to break. Only God can see a heart's condition, of course, but if He sees that a believer has submitted to sin's conquest, removing him by death accomplishes several purposes.
- It serves to warn others against the same sin.
- It prevents the sinner from falling even further from grace.
- It protects the church as a whole from losing God's blessing.
If you know of sin in your own heart, you may react to the story of Ananias and Sapphira by protesting that your sin is not as bad. But to minimize your sin is a hazardous choice. Consider that Peter did not address yet another reason for God's severe judgment on Ananias and Sapphira. Guilt is in proportion to knowledge. These believers in the early church probably owned the entire Old Testament, and they sat daily for instruction at the feet of the apostles. Perhaps they even heard Jesus teach.
But what about us? We have the whole Bible, and our understanding of it is enriched by the insights left to us by godly Bible students during the last two thousand years. Thus, having more knowledge than Ananias and Sapphira, we dare not think that if we bring sin into the camp, God will view it lightly. In His mercy, He may not strike us down. Yet there will certainly be consequences.
The Remedy for Sin
A sinning believer can quickly and easily make things right. He must take advantage of God's clear promise in 1 John 1:9, which says that we find forgiveness by the simple expedient of telling God, from a sincere heart, that we are sorry. Then we can be sure that He will be "faithful and just to forgive us."
It is easy to understand that His forgiveness is faithful, for He is, after all, a loving Father. No father casts off a child just because he is naughty. Yet how is forgiveness properly described as just? We might think that justice would require penalty without mercy. But John is reminding us that our sins have already been paid for by the blood of Christ. Justice requires notice of that payment. To refuse forgiveness of sins already blotted out would be unjust.
Therefore, if a wayward child wants to restore God's smile to his life, let him not hold back from God's appointed remedy for sin. Let him simply confess his sin and ask forgiveness. Then he can be sure that he need not fear any further chastening in the future. Perhaps God will even see fit to erase or at least lighten some of the lingering effects of past chastening.