Last week we spoke about confession and our role, if any, in the process of forgiveness. Must we confess to be forgiven? Does God want our contrition in return for his mercy? And why does God forgive us for his sake?
For as long as there have been Christians (and quite frankly even before that) there has been the question: Are there sins so egregious that they cannot be forgiven by God? If so, what are they? Peter’s question to Jesus about how many times we should forgive is really at the root of the same question: When does forgiveness run out?
When I was a boy, I remember being in mortal fear of committing the unpardonable sin. Whether that was blaspheming against the Holy Spirit (whatever that was) or not remembering to confess a sin, it was bound to be written down in the Book of Remembrance in heaven. I was always worried that maybe there was one unconfessed sin that would do me in. A preacher told me: “If you’re worried that you’ve committed the unpardonable sin, then you probably haven’t. After all, it must mean that the Holy Spirit is still working in your soul.” I was not totally convinced, and the thought of having one unconfessed sin still hung over me like a death sentence. The fires of hell were waiting for those like myself who would discover in judgment that their sins were unforgiven.
About my sophomore year in college I heard a sermon on the love of God. It proposed that God was not stoking up the fires of hell just for me; rather, God was forgiving, merciful, and gracious. He loved me. This was a shockingly new concept to me, way out of line from what I had been traditionally taught; so much so that that experience has stuck with me for more than 50 years. So I went off to study medicine at Loma Linda where I was exposed to a religious teachings of Jack Provonsha and Graham Maxwell. Both had a profound influence on my thinking. They seemed not one iota worried about the unpardonable sin.
Jesus defines it as follows:
He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters. Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12:30-32)
This illustration of the unpardonable sin and its relationship to speaking against the Holy Spirit is alluded to also in Mark 3:28-29 and Luke 12:6. In Matthew, we see the context for this teaching, in the earlier passages:
Then a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute was brought to Jesus, and He healed him, so that the mute man spoke and saw. All the crowds were amazed, and were saying, “This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?” But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.” (Matthew 12:22-24)
Demon-possession, on top of being blind and dumb, is a picture of thorough and complete sinfulness. What is at stake, in the eyes of the Pharisees, is God’s prerogative; His desire and his power to forgive, to heal, and to destroy. It turns out that God’s extending mercy to us, and our doing the same to others, is one of the weightier matters of the law. So when God is acting entirely within his character and prerogative and the Pharisees denied this authority, they were denying God his creative and re-creative character. They were denying him his essence. They were denying the truth about God.
Truth about God is equated with the Spirit:
This is the one who came by water and blood Jesus Christ not with water only, but with water and with the blood verse seven and it is the Spirit who bears witness this because the Spirit is the truth. (1 John 5:6)
This equation of the Spirit with truth is also found here:
And I will ask the Father and He will send you another helper, that he may be with you forever. That is the spirit of truth who the world cannot receive because it does not behold him or know him, but you know Him because He abides with you, and will be in you. (John 14:17)
When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me, and you will testify also, because you have been with Me from the beginning. (John 15:26-27)
To speak against the Holy Spirit, to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, is to speak against the truth about God. Jesus says, “I am the way the truth and the life.” To deny that God is the truth, that Jesus is the truth, and that the Spirit is truth is to say that God is not who he says he is. And who is God if he is not the embodiment of Jesus Christ?
He also said:
In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will request of the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came forth from the Father. (John 16:26-27)
The truth about God is not that God is trying to kill you and Jesus is trying to save you, and that Jesus is pleading for your behalf, because here it says that “the Father Himself loves you because He also loved me.” The truth is that God is merciful and forgiving, he seeks to employ his creative and re-creative powers on your behalf, on my behalf, and on behalf of everyone. The unpardonable sin is to deny that God can re-create you or me or anyone, that he can take mankind—riddled through and through with sin—and make him new again.
Who would have thought that mercy would be such a weighty of matter of the law?
So then what about the books in heaven, the books with all the names in them with your sins and mine, God poring over them a Sharpie pen, crossing out the names of those who have confessed and asked for forgiveness, and leaving unexpunged the sins of those who have not. There are many passages in the scriptures making allusions to the books of heaven. In Exodus, Moses pleads with God to blot out his name from the book of heaven in exchange for the mercy of being extended to the Hebrews.
There’s a very poetic illusion to books in heaven:
You have taken account of my wanderings;
Put my tears in Your bottle.
Are they not in Your book? (Psalms 56:8)
The psalm’s leather bottle is clearly in heaven. Leather comes from the hide of a dead cow, which you would not expect to associate with heaven, so the allusion here is obviously a highly symbolic one. Books in the Bible should be read. Some books should be opened. Some of the books in heaven will be sealed, some will be unsealed. Some books will even be eaten. In Numbers 21:14 there’s a reference to the book of the Wars of the Lord. Exodus 24 alludes to the books of the covenant. And in the books of Revelation and Daniel we see many allusions to the book of life and several allusions to the books of judgment.
It is interesting that in prophetic and apocalyptic literature we place great symbolic significance on almost everything. But the book of judgment we take literally. In Revelation 10:6, we see that the book is being eaten. It’s sweet in the mouth and bitter in the stomach. This too is obviously highly symbolic, but in Revelation 3:5, the Book of Life, which is said to contain the records of our sins, is taken as a very literal book.
Who uses books nowadays anyway? Could God be due for a computer upgrade? And who is going to enter all those unforgiven sins into the computer anyway? What kind of memory would be needed for it? Or is it possible that the books of heaven which, in my youth, caused so much fear, disruption, and anguish, could act as a window into the mind of God with their references to God’s eternal, infinite, and merciful wisdom, to his attention to detail to his organization, to his thoroughness and his completeness? And remember:
I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake,
And I will not remember your sins. (Isaiah 43:25)
It’s not a question simply of forgetting. God makes a very explicit statement that, as a willful act, he will not remember our sins. Is God so powerful that he can erase the memory of sins, even though he is omniscient? In our failings to forgive others, we commit the unpardonable sin because we deny the power of God to create and re-create others and ourselves.
Donald: If I wasn’t a Christian, I imagine I would listen to this conversation and think “You guys, what are you doing? Books? Ledgers? Sins? Eternal death? Wow, you’ve created quite this pattern of thought in the context of your faith.” It’s certainly a different conversation than we’ve had over the past number of years in terms of loving thy neighbor and a gentle Savior and grace and so on.
Kiran: In the beginning, when I converted from Hinduism to Christianity, no one shared with me about these books at all. In the discussion that led to my conversion, my friend asked me to write on a piece of paper all the good things that I did in one column and all the bad things in the other. So I had the understanding that God was going to take away all my bad stuff and give me his good stuff.
But in Hinduism also we have this concept of books. We have purgatory, which is called Yama’s kingdom, between heaven and earth. When we die, we first go there, and Yama is the representation of the law. He has a burning fire in his kingdom and his assistant Chipra writes down everything that people do. And when we end up there, all the good we did and all the bad we did are weighed on a scale. If the bad outweighs the good, we go to the hell; vice versa, we go to heaven.
So the concept that everything I do is being recorded was not new to me when I came to Christianity. I learned about the book of life, remembrance, and all these things much later—maybe my second year after becoming Christian. I came into the church through learning about the grace of God. The most prominent and influential books were The Desire of Ages and Thoughts from the Mount of Blessings. For me, friendship with Jesus is paramount.
Robin: We have to remember that these words were written for people at a specific time. They knew what a book was. So it would have made no sense to interject a noun from the 21st century, but maybe we should substitute the word record or database instead of getting hung up on the word “book.” God is omniscient, so he knows what we’ve done, and he knows the meaning behind it and what influenced us to make those choices. So that’s the main point: God knows.
But sometimes, in reference to worrying about the first time you hear about this unpardonable sin, I wonder if it’s introduced before our minds are mature enough to process it. Or that our Christian walk is mature enough maybe. But I think the message is that there’s no need for it. There’s nothing, confessed from a contrite heart, that can’t be forgiven.
So, to worry about whether one has forgotten anything…. I think it comes to everyone; it has to me on occasion and I’ve just had to say, “Lord, if if there is something that I’m not able to recall, I know that you know, I’m a human being. So either bring it to my mind or please forgive that which I in my humanity cannot recall.” And then it’s gone. It doesn’t worry me anymore.
Satan always finds a way to try to create doubt when it comes to God, he always wants to cast aspersions. Being human, sometimes we we can’t help that. We struggle with it.
Beverley: I don’t think we need to worry about books and records because that’s the language that was used that was available to the writers of the Bible. They knew about scrolls. So I don’t really think we need to be hung up on on that particular thing. We tend to write what we know; we can’t write about what we don’t know. So I agree that “record” is probably the more appropriate word.
To be honest, I have no idea what the unpardonable sin could be. I grew up in the Adventist tradition, with Adventist grandparents too, and there was a tendency in the Caribbean area where I grew up for the church to be very Pharisaical—a lot of works and all that stuff. I long ago shed all that because I realized that God forgives, and that’s part of the socialization of Adventism where I grew up.
But I must concede that the Bible talks about the unpardonable sin and I don’t know what it is. I have to conclude that since he died for my sins before I was born, the forgiveness was complete before I sinned. The issue is whether I have availed myself of the forgiveness. So, I am thinking that maybe it is that I have not appropriated what he has already done, and you can get so far off track that you just don’t even want it.
Donald: We keep talking about behavior. Did you do something or didn’t you do something? And what were your motives? And if your motives were wrong, then you need to ask for forgiveness. So it’s such a different thing than wanting a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If I want a personal relationship with my wife, it’s not based on right and wrong. It’s based upon what you would do because you want that relationship to be solid. But it’s not a record, it’s not a database, it’s not a book. If you started every day with a book, that’s gonna be kind of a poor relationship.
Maybe it’s just the way I want my faith to be understood, or my understanding of my faith, but I just am not real comfortable with the whole idea of…. I think it’s a very human way. Equity. I did this, you do that. I sin, you forgive it. That’s what this relationship is built on? That’s not a relationship! And even if you did ask for forgiveness, do you have a relationship with Jesus Christ? What’s more important here? And would your behaviors change based upon wanting a relationship?
Beverley: I think we sin against those we love. I think even when there’s a relationship, we make mistakes. I think we remember infractions against us from those we love too. I have no problem with forgiveness. I understand that clearly. I believe God forgives every sin that we choose to have him forgive. I think it has to be, because you’d have to erase too much of the Scripture. Since the Bible teaches very clearly from the very first book in Genesis, that before the foundations of the world, He forgive. That’s long before I came along. So I’m forgiven. It’s for me to accept forgiveness. And the question mark is on my behavior, because he chose (another issue I have) to give me choices.
So I can choose to accept the relationship and forgiveness or I can choose to reject. And my destiny hinges on that choice, but he has done whatever he has to do, did it before I came around. It’s done, complete, finished. Now, I have the right to choose to be saved, or choose to be lost. In fact, I’ve read that it’s hard to be lost because you have to really make an effort to be lost, for you’re born to be saved. But you choose.
Robin: In the story of the prodigal son, every day the father went out on the porch, looking for his son to return. But he didn’t send his strong men after the son for them to hunt him down and drag him back kicking and screaming. He knew that the son would have to return of his own volition.
And so I think that’s very poignant in making the point about our choice versus God’s willingness, because we’re not automatons. We have to make one choice or the other. Also, in the case of the thief on the cross, sometimes it’s a deathbed kind of thing. Most of the time it is not, but it is there until we are about to take our final breath. Our father is on the porch looking for us to come home.
Clinton: In the scheme of things, I’m not too sure there’s a deathbed experience in terms of salvation, because my belief is that the thief on the cross, when Christ pronounced that he could be with him in Paradise, was saying that “I’m responding to you as if all of your life was lived for me.” That’s what grace is about. I think we are predestined for salvation, we are predestined to be saved. And I’m using the word kind of loosely.
We make choices as to whether we want to be saved or not. And most of us choose that we don’t want to be saved, because the stuff on this side seems so good, and we love it. But we’re predestined to be saved. That’s the whole point. God came, Christ came, into this earth to save every single soul, the one at the cross who made a confession and decided to go the way of Christ, and the ones who have been living their lives forever on the Christ side, so to speak. But we’re all predestined to be saved.
I think that the issue of records in heaven is kind of mythical. It’s an attempt by God to help us understand something that we perhaps can’t understand. And I think that even applies to many other aspects in the Bible—creation, etc, etc, etc. But it’s an attempt by God to say, “Listen to me, you dummies! I’m gonna make it simple so you can understand it. So if I talk to my prophet about books you will get it. If I talk to him about computers, you wouldn’t get it.”
Carolyn: I agree it is our choice, and to me it is when you come to a place where you just don’t want anything to do with the appeal of the Holy Spirit, and you just say, “Lord, let me alone. I don’t want any part of this.” It takes determination to say “No” and commit the unpardonable sin. It is something that we have the Holy Spirit and God has worked with us so long and so lovingly tried to appeal to us. But we reject him, and we reject the Holy Spirit. And we make it to the point where we want no part of it anymore. We just give up on the whole situation. I think this is the only way we could commit the unpardonable sin. It is our choice to say, “I don’t want anything more to do with Jesus or the Holy Spirit.”
Kiran: One aspect of the unpardonable sin is what I do in relation to Jesus. The other aspect is what we do in relation to other people. For example, the parable of the unmerciful servant who was forgiven his own debt of 10,000 dinar but would not forgive the 100 denari debt of his fellow servant. So he was thrown back in jail until he could pay his original debt, which he cannot, obviously.
One part of the unpardonable sin that we always forget or don’t focus on much is that if we truly understand the grace of God, and how much debt he forgave us, obviously it has to change us in such a way that we exhibit the same level of kindness and mercy towards others who wronged us. I’m not saying that we should never struggle with such things. When someone does wrong to us, we struggle with it. Forgiveness is a struggle. It’s not something that comes easily. And even though sometimes we forgive them, it takes a long time to forget what they have done to us. Every time you remember that incident, you get a feeling in your gut. But eventually we do the journey where we related through how God forgave our debts so we would be able to forgive other people’s debts.
When I came into Christianity I knew I already I was wrong. Someone just had to remind me. But very few people talk about grace. Grace is very limited. There are very few places where you can find grace. Even in Christianity, there are very few people that focus on grace. And when grace comes to you, you cannot ignore or you cannot think about the person who’s providing this grace for you. Obviously, it will become a relationship, because you realize what it costs for the person to provide this for you. And while we make mistakes even against people we love, when we truly love somebody we struggle to restore the relationship and do everything we can do to maintain that relationship in a way that makes both parties happy.
We are like children—we keep falling and then getting up. But we want to learn to walk. In my mind, the book of judgment is about how you make mistakes and what mistakes you made. But it’s also a book about how God walked you through the sinful past, which is darkness, into perfect light. It’s a journey. And we have examples of that in the Bible. The Book of Judges is about journey, the books of Leviticus and Chronicles are about journey. So I think the book of judgment is nothing but God’s mercy and his walk with all of us individually.
Donald: Can you imagine, once he saw his son, that the Prodigal’s father would go back into the house and pull out a book? That is an incongruent idea. We can’t even imagine it. We can imagine him throwing his arms around the son and putting on a party and rejoicing. But I don’t think I could even conceive the idea that we have to consult a book before we have a party.
Carolyn: When we get to heaven. God said we will have—during the Millennium time—we will have a chance to know why some of our loved ones aren’t there. Then he said it will be blotted out after that time. And so to me, the book isn’t so much what he knows. He doesn’t need all the files and all the technical help. But it is going to be so that we can realize how God is a just God. And it wasn’t God who did it: It was the choice of our loved ones that aren’t in heaven with us. And we will then maybe understand and be able to let it go, and then we will be able to live eternally with the Lord. That’s my way of handling that one.
Clinton: I don’t think we should take it too literally. In fact, we shouldn’t take it literally at all. It’s more metaphoric. It is a transformation from the superior knowledge of God to the limited knowledge and intelligence of human beings. I don’t know when I go to heaven whether I will have the memory of the people I miss. I don’t know. I don’t know whether we’ll be walking in streets of gold. I don’t know. I just know that the language used emphasizes the superlative nature of the situation. Because where God is, everything is going to be perfect.
And I am reluctant to embrace the notion that I’ll miss some people and want God to explain to me why they’re not here. I don’t know. In a human sense, it’s reasonable, because there’s this feeling for justice—we want to know that God was just. But the question is, when we are saved and we get to heaven, will we have any questions about God’s justice? Will we want to know whether God did the right thing or the wrong thing? In fact, if we are questioning that at that point, it seems to me we’re in the wrong place!
So for the revelation of God’s justice, it is a human expression to clarify for us on this side of eternity that God is just. But God’s justice does not mean any vindication, I personally believe, because he’s just just. Now, he may not be vindicated to people who never got to heaven. So you have to find some way to intermediate between the people who are not saved, and the people who are, and himself, to say, “Listen to me, you know why you’re not in heaven? It’s because you did XYZ. And therefore you’re not here.” But to tell someone who is in heaven: “The reason why your cousin Joe didn’t get here is because he did so and so.” And we may say, “Okay. God, I guess I got it.” I don’t know.
I think we try to humanize much of what goes on where God is concerned and that is okay, because we’re humans. But there are certain thresholds that we just can’t cross over from this existence. And that’s why we have faith. Faith in the unknown is a kind of strange fit, but that is faith. And that is the real deep element of our connection with God. We want to be connected to God by faith. And we can, by faith, be connected to God, and He wants us to be connected to him. But in terms of working it out in a mathematical, practical way… I don’t know. I’m still lost on that one.
David: As editor of the postmodern Bible, I’d like to say that you guys have given me all sorts of wonderful pointers as to what to cut from the old Bible. 🙂
Donald: One thing that I think is Adventist (I’m not sure how far it extends) is that when we get to heaven, spouses won’t exist. That is kind of weird because the family was the first thing that God put together. What about my kids? And my cousin Joe? What are the connections to our family members once we get there? I don’t even want to think about that one because one of the things I’m most grateful for on this side of Heaven is family relationship. I too just don’t get it.
Carolyn: Well, isn’t this going to be the time and during the Millennium that we will be able to look through the records and have a little relief for our mind and God will put this away then forever after the Millennium? This is what I was raised to believe, but I’m open to other suggestions!
Don: That’s what you were raised to believe, that’s for sure. But I think Clinton’s comment bears re emphasis: If you are in heaven and you can’t trust God because Uncle Joe isn’t there, it seems like you’re in the wrong place. The notion that you have doubts that have to be allayed in some way by examining the record has a very forensic kind of ring to it that sounds like a prodigal’s father who will not embrace his son without first checking the ledger to make sure that his son’s account is completely cleaned up.
Beverley: No celestial audit!
Don: No Deloitte and Touche in heaven!
David: I was born into a largely non-practicing Christian family but for a while attended high church in England, which is the closest the Anglican church gets to Catholicism in terms of rituals and pomp. I don’t recall the unpardonable sin ever being discussed in Sunday school or sermons. It never bothered me as a child, nor does it bother me today, as a Daoist.
It just wouldn’t occur to a Daoist to worry about it. You’re either on the Way (you’re with God) or you’re not. And that’s what I take away from our discussion today: That it is a matter of faith. If you believe in God, then his mercy and forgiveness is always there for you. There is just no question about that. If you don’t believe in God, he can’t exist for you and therefore can’t forgive you because he can’t reach you. So if you step off the Way, that’s that. If you can find your way back on to the Way, all the forgiveness ever promised is still there waiting for you. You are just another prodigal son coming home.
Robin: If we were going to demand of God a reason why somebody wasn’t in heaven, that’s doubt. It’s putting God on the defensive. And I don’t think you’d be there in the first place.
Don: Next week we’ll move on to the third weightier of the law: Faith.
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai