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Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Help, I've Committed the Unforgiveable Sin!

I was thinking about writing a post on prayer, but I’ve had some discussions recently with people about something that troubles them a lot—the “unforgiveable sin,” mentioned in Matthew 12. 

“Therefore, I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
Matthew 12:31-32 (ESV)

Who was Jesus talking to in this passage? He was speaking to the Pharisees, the religious leaders, who had just suggested that He was using power from the devil to perform a miracle. 

What was Jesus talking about? Jesus is referring to those who deliberately and purposefully state that an act of God is actually an act of Satan. They knowingly lie by attributing the glory due to God to the devil. This is referred to as blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

Why is the sin unforgiveable? These people are so steeped in evil that they are beyond redemption. They have caused much harm to God’s holy name and have led others astray through their deliberate falsehoods. They have crossed a line and it is not possible for them to turn back--nor would they want to.

Have I committed the unforgiveable sin?

I once heard a Pastor say that he had asked his church congregation to raise their hands if they thought that at some point they might have committed the unforgiveable sin. Nearly every hand went up. That’s a lot of people serving God but lacking assurance, or worse, a lot of people terrified that they have said or done the unforgiveable and cannot do anything to combat it.

I have observed similar concerns during one to one conversations with people troubled by these thoughts. Some think that when they have doubts about God or try to exercise discernment when they witness apparent miracles that they might be committing this sin. Unfortunately, I have even heard believers accuse people who question certain phenomena as potentially having committed this sin or of being in danger of doing so. That’s a sure way to swiftly silence your critics!

One of the saddest things is that people who are worried about this very often carry the burden alone. They allow themselves to be troubled in mind and heart and think that if they seek counsel or ask questions they might receive the response they dread--that they have indeed committed that sin and are therefore excluded permanently from heaven. They don’t realise that most Christians have considered this subject at some time or other and depending on how the Scripture was explained to them either found peace or continued to wrestle with the matter in private.

Firstly, let’s think about this from a purely rational point of view. If this is the only sin in the entire world that cannot be forgiven, it has to be seriously evil. If it is worse than genocide, child abuse, murder, rape, torture, etc then it must be something truly terrible. Consider Paul who persecuted Christians and watched many of them die at his hands, Peter who denied Jesus three times and David who committed adultery and murder. They were all forgiven, it must be worse than this.

Most people that are concerned about it think they have committed it by accident. Is that possible? No, it is not. It is a deliberate and final act of defiance towards and rejection of God.

Other people fear that they have committed it at some point prior to being saved. Is that possible? No, it is not. Those who are worried about possibly having committed this sin haven’t. The point is that anyone who ventures so far into enemy territory will never want to receive forgiveness and mercy from God, at least in this life. They will remain at war with Him until they die. 

It will not be the case that there are people desperate for God’s mercy who cannot receive it due to either a mistaken belief or some evil acts that they have committed in the past. Our churches are not filled with people who cannot be saved due to having done the unforgiveable.

Doubting God is a sin but we are all sinners and on some level we all doubt God at times by failing to love Him wholeheartedly or by failing to trust Him completely. This sin is not what Jesus is talking about. 

Similarly, exercising discernment or questioning whether or not something is actually of God is not the unforgiveable sin. The Bible teaches us to practice discernment and to test the spirits to see if they are of God (1 John 4.) It is when we know that something is of God and instead proclaim that it is of the devil that we are beyond reach.

We need to remember as well that it is God that draws us to Him via His Holy Spirit. Why would He draw a person to repentance and faith if He had already condemned them for eternity?

There is another passage in the Bible that causes similar fears:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.”   Hebrews 6 vs 4-6 (ESV)

I came across this one day after I had been backslidden for six years and it made me seriously panic! But as with the unforgiveable sin, my panic was actually evidence that the passage didn’t apply to me. Those who are being dealt with in these verses will not care that they cannot be saved. They have rejected God rather than the other way around. 

I was also reassured by the Parable of the Lost   (Prodigal) Son which is closely related to my life story. The son (you and me) in the parable, on repentance, is welcomed with open arms by the Father who represents God.

To deal with this second section, I will link to a short article from John MacArthur. In brief, he explains that this passage is addressed to unbelievers and not to Christians. Christians cannot lose their salvation. 

The verses are warning non-believers that they are at the stage where they know as much Gospel truth as they will be given.  Therefore, they must make the decision to trust Jesus then and there, there won’t be another opportunity for them. That is sobering, but it should spur us on in our evangelistic efforts. 

I hope this post will assist in helping those who struggle with either of these areas of the Bible to find peace once and for all. Christians have nothing to fear from either of these passages. God will forgive if we ask Him through Jesus.

1 John 1 vs 9
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Romans 10 vs 9
“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Fool Says in His Heart, "There is No God."

There is a story about an atheist minding his own business whilst standing on the shore and looking out to sea. He is approached by a man who gives him a Gospel tract. Glancing at it, the atheist becomes angry, tears up the tract and throws it at the by now slightly fearful evangelist. He stamps on the pieces on the ground, curses and then storms off, ranting about the encounter. Arriving home, he removes his jacket and a tiny remnant of the shredded paper falls to the floor. He picks it up and reads the single word “God,” on one side. Flipping it over he reads “eternity” on the other. He has a sleepless night as the two words turn over and over in his mind. The next day he arises early and humbly heads out in search of the evangelist…

The fool says in his heart, there is no God.

You attend a family gathering or social function when the subject of religion comes up. Some slink away, others express loud opinions about the damage religion has done to the world, humanity in general or even more specifically to themselves. But, most people just look down awkwardly, they feel uncomfortable and hope for a swift subject change—the two unmentionables in polite company, politics and religion.

The fool says in his heart, there is no God.

A woman takes a walk in the country. She breathes the fresh air and feels the warmth of the sun. She looks up at the blue cloudless sky. She observes the beauty of the trees and mountains in the distance. She smells the fragrance of the flowers. She sees the animals in the fields. She hears the birds singing. She feels grateful for the beauty of the day, her surroundings, and the “accident” that brought her into existence. 

The fool says in his heart, there is no God.

You wake up excited. You are taking your family on the trip of a lifetime. The long hours at work have finally paid off and you can get away for two whole weeks. Your kids can go to the movies, shopping malls and whatever else it is that they want to do. You refuse to think about the build-up of work that will inevitably be waiting for you on your return. You have been planning this trip for nearly the whole year and looking forward to it for just as long. In recent months, the details have basically consumed your life and taken over.  You can finally relax, but you wonder, when did life get so busy?

The fool says in his heart, there is no God.

These scenarios are representative of the lives of many people who claim not to believe in God. They deny Him through anger, avoidance, assumed ignorance or by filling their lives with distractions and busyness. They give us insight into the human heart which focuses on ourselves rather than the God who created us.

The first man becomes angry when he is approached by someone who forces him to think about that which he has been ignoring. He is not angry with the person themselves, although it may appear that way, he is actually angry with God—a God who He claims doesn’t exist. This man is proud and refuses to acknowledge God until confronted with the reality of his situation here on earth. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16 vs 18)

The social gathering where someone mentions the unmentionable and everyone feels awkward. They don’t want to face the implications of there being a holy God due to their many sins. They bury their heads in the sand and feel safe with others who do the same. But, judgement day will not be a group activity, “So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Romans 14 v 12)

Avoidance seems like a sensible option—no conflict or emotional turmoil. However, Psalm 139 vs 1-3 reminds us that we cannot hide from, ignore or avoid God, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.” If that isn’t sufficient, remember what happened to Jonah?

The lady who enjoys and is amazed by all that God has created but chooses to believe the lies of evolution despite knowing the truth in her heart. “For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1 vs 20)

Finally, we have the distractions of this life—busyness, materialism, relationships. Basically, anything that consumes our minds and hearts and takes the place of God in our lives. “Dear children, keep away from anything that might take God's place in your hearts.” (1 John 5 vs 21)
Anything that stops us thinking about the meaning of life or our purpose here and instead has us dealing with secondary matters or living for the moment. “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2 vs 15-17)

Why do we become angry with someone who genuinely wants to help us? Why do we fear talking about faith or religion? Why would we rather believe a nonsensical version of how we came to be here than the truth? Why do we keep ourselves so busy in the here and now rather than focusing on eternity? 

Why do we deny what we know in our hearts to be true?

What if God exists and we will one day stand before Him? What if the Bible is true and we are accountable for our sin? Would we get angry with, ignore, avoid or distract ourselves from any other issue of such significance? 

Surely it’s time to seriously think about the meaning and purpose of our existence. To learn the truth about our lives here on earth and thus resolve the ongoing struggle in our hearts. Surely this issue is important enough to take time over and consider in detail.

God created us with an innate and natural desire to be in a relationship with Him. It is sin that keeps us at a distance. God loved us so much that He sent His Son Jesus to die for our sin on a cross so that we can spend eternity in heaven with Him. It’s time to get right with God and prepare for eternity.

Psalm 14 vs 1-3
“The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, any who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.”

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Is the Gospel the Answer to Every Problem?

Most of us analyse problems and situations and look for logical or sensible solutions. We often focus on the practical rather than the spiritual. It is human nature. It is also the natural tendency of Christians to think practically in the first instance because we are surrounded by earthly concerns. But are we really helping people? 

When we see a homeless person, our inclination is to want to feed and clothe the person and ultimately to see them finding housing. When someone has died, we offer the grieving relatives counsel and encouragement and tell them that time is a great healer and it will get easier. When dealing with someone with addictions we offer them twelve step programmes or rehab. When someone is arrested, or goes to jail, we send them material things, visit them in prison and try to lift their spirits encouraging them to focus on their release date. When someone is the victim of a crime we try to replace what was lost materially or pay their medical bills if they were assaulted. When a person loses their business, or has a financial crisis we might directly offer them money or a loan. When someone goes missing we help with the search and spread the word on social media. When someone is lonely we spend time with them or invite them round to our houses. When a person is being persecuted in another country we help them leave as a refugee. When someone is abused we offer counselling. The list is endless…

I have written in the past that help without hope is the ultimate tragedy. From a slightly different angle, I wanted to focus on whether we, as Christians, really believe that the Gospel is the answer to every human problem that we face. We often say it and offer to pray for people, but has it become something of a cliché? We give a lot more consideration to practical help, and the spiritual can be side-lined. What does a person in crisis really need? Do we believe that there is power to solve every earthly problem in the name of Jesus? What will the solutions look like? What happens when God’s ways are not ours?

Sometimes, when reading the news, which I do every day, I come across an article that moves me more than usual. It might stay in my mind and I might think about the person’s situation and want to help them. My mind immediately turns to finances or material help. 

Clearly, many people, believers and non-believers alike, are influenced in this way. Just look at the success of crowd funding or the donations that pour in for people whose plights are highlighted in the media or whose social media posts go viral. With the seemingly unstoppable march of technology it is now easy to connect with people whose stories we read from all over the world. We all want to help and money or material provision is one way to do that. We provide funds to help the person overcome their earthly trial and it might help, at least temporarily.

Then there are situations where time is needed—we might be inclined to visit someone or spend hours listening to their problems. Again, this may be helpful, for a time. 

The Bible encourages us to be generous with our money and resources, to visit those in prison and to look after widows and orphans. This can easily be extended to all those in crisis or facing trials, as the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. So, practical help can be a biblical response.

However, the important aspect is where our focus is as we do these things. As Christians, we need to train ourselves to think firstly in terms of eternal matters rather than earthly concerns whatever they may be. Jesus is our example, he addressed the spiritual concerns of the paralysed man by forgiving his sin prior to healing him (Luke 5 vs 17-26.) From an earthly perspective, to onlookers, it would have appeared that the only need of the man was to be healed physically, but his burden of sin and eternal destiny was of far greater importance to Jesus. It should also be our priority as we seek to help others. 

The Bible tells us that we will all face trials of many kinds in our lifetime. Sometimes it takes a crisis to make a person think seriously about God. Immediately focusing on practical solutions may not be what they need from a spiritual perspective. God may be working in their life in another way. We need to be careful not to obscure their view of God or pathway to Him with our earthly wisdom.

Instead, we can offer hope to someone struggling through a trial by offering to pray for them not as a cliché, but in the sincere belief that it will actually help. We can contact a stranger via social media to share the Gospel with them in their time of need or desperation. We can visit, call or write to someone to share the hope we have found in Jesus. Whose responsibility is it to share with the individuals that we read or hear about in the news or on social media? Who will share real hope with that neighbour or friend as the large financial donation temporarily relieves the crisis? Maybe God is prompting you to be that person.

We might feel awkward and fear rejection if we try to offer a person hope when others are providing seemingly greater earthly gifts. We might worry that the person may see our offering as worthless in comparison—that they might think we offer words to avoid financial sacrifice ourselves. Of course, we can offer practical help as well, but which should be the priority and focus? 

Firstly, we should remember that any rejection of the Gospel message is actually a rejection of God rather than a personal one. Secondly, you might be surprised how willing a person is to hear the message of hope if your offering is covered with prayer and if God chooses to open their eyes. I recently received the following from one such stranger; “Thankyou for your message. It means a lot.” I contacted the person on social media, having debated whether or not to do so. I felt awkward and feared a hostile response or a “Who are you to get involved in my business?” or even the question that every Christian fears "If God loves me then why has this happened to me?" The enemy whispered that someone else should share with them, I didn't need to do it, but the fact is that God had prompted me. Don’t ignore those inner promptings of the Holy Spirit—I am not always faithful in responding but am learning.

The key here is whether we actually believe the things that we say we do. In my recent post about whether Christians really believe in Hell, I observed that if we did, we would do everything in our power to stop people ending up there, regardless the earthly consequence to ourselves. 

Similarly, if we really believe that forgiveness of sin through Jesus, leading to eternal life in Heaven is the answer to every earthly problem, then wouldn’t we offer that first to those facing trials.  If we really believe that the Gospel is the answer and provides the hope the person needs at that time, wouldn’t we risk it anyway, for their sake? We worry about political correctness and potentially offending someone, but if the Gospel is the truth then shouldn't a person’s eternal welfare be the priority.

What happens when God’s solutions are not our solutions? We need to be careful about offering people the “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” version of the Gospel. We shouldn’t tell a person that God will remove them from their earthly trials or make everything better. God may require the suffering to continue for reasons we cannot fathom, but He promises to be with them in the middle of the struggle.  We can pray that the suffering would end, but we need to ensure we are offering hope for life beyond this one rather than focusing on the here and now. 

The Gospel is the answer to every problem because it sustains us in our earthly trials and offers hope for a future life in heaven. Let’s ensure we keep our focus and communicate this to others as we also help them practically.

“If I firmly believed, as millions say they do, that the knowledge of a practice of religion in this life influences destiny in another, then religion would mean to me everything. I would cast away earthly enjoyments as dross, earthly thoughts and feelings as vanity. Religion would be my first waking thought and my last image before sleep sank me into unconsciousness. I should labor in its cause alone. I would take thought for the marrow of eternity alone. I would esteem one soul gained for heaven worth a life of suffering. Earthly consequences would never stay in my head or seal my lips. Earth, its joys and its griefs, would occupy no moment of my thoughts. I would strive to look upon eternity alone, and on the immortal souls around me, soon to be everlastingly happy or everlastingly miserable. I would go forth to the world and preach to it in season and out of season. and my text would be, "What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul”

Anonymous atheist