When I was a child I witnessed a perplexing sight. The pastor had preached his sermon (on sin, no doubt) and gave the altar call. For those who don’t know, an altar call is given at the end of sermons and ‘sinners’ are urged to come forward to pray and be ‘saved’.
A woman went forward, knelt at the altar (a backless bench in front of the church devoted to this purpose), and began to pray fervently. Others joined her and prayed just as fervently for her. This was all routine; I had seen it many times and even had gone to the altar, myself, to be saved. But after praying for a while the woman said, ‘I don’t feel satisfied!’
I was puzzled. She was at the altar begging God to save her; who was she to expect God to satisfy her when it was God who needed to be satisfied with her travail? Later I realized that she meant she was not satisfied God had ‘saved’ her.
“I’m Tired of Sin and I Want to be Saved”
There is a long tradition that believes God is reluctant to forgive certain people—that in fact he refuses some people no matter how deeply they desire him. This is well illustrated in a plaintive song current during my childhood. It was first released by the Louvin Brothers in 1955 and was included on several later albums.
This song is filled with bad ideas, but it did not occur to me that it was odd in any way. My church was part of a tradition in which it was widespread for people to seek God in church service after church service, and revival after revival, and leave each time fearing that God would never ‘save’ them.
This is horrible! God is not like that. Why would anyone think this way?
Among some believers there is a fear that they have missed their last chance to be accepted by God (My Spirit shall not always strive with man – Genesis 6:3 KJV. Way out of context!). Often this is part of a view that we can only come to God when he is wooing us and if we resist too many times he might never draw us again. Therefore we can never be forgiven because we have wasted our last chance.
Besides this, and the old tradition and expectation we’ve already discussed, the unforgivable sin might play a part in their thinking.
What is the Unforgivable Sin?
In some conservative circles, a lot of concern and speculation revolves around the Unforgivable Sin. Mark 3 contains the passage below, and Matthew 12 and Luke 12 reference the same incident—both probably borrowing from Mark:
People can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin. He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”
There is little explanation here of what this means. Some scribes had accused Jesus of casting out demons by Satan, but how is this offense the one unforgivable one? With so little clarification, there is all kind of speculation about the unforgivable sin.
Hebrews 6 mentions this:
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance.
This leads some to speculate that the unforgivable sin is apostasy, but in my opinion the contextual meaning of the writer is lost to us. It might mean that a mature believer who abandons their belief is unlikely to embrace it again, but I cannot see this to mean that they are beyond God’s forgiveness were they to recognize their error.
Another suggested unforgivable sin is suicide, the idea being that suicide is murder and once you are dead you cannot repent of that sin. This represents a very legalistic view of sin; in fact many think that dying during the commission of any sin is unforgivable. A famous tent evangelist was once found drunk and dead. In our circles we knew for sure that he was already in hell for his drinking because he was drunk when he died.
However, there is a more loving understanding of God’s forgiveness.
Why Do We Beg for Forgiveness when God Desires our Reconciliation?
Jesus never made anyone beg for acceptance into the kingdom of God. Instead, hear what he says in Mark 1:
Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Jesus urged people to change their minds and direction (repent) and believe the good news of the kingdom. It is an invitation; it did not require convincing Jesus to accept them into the kingdom; they didn’t have to agonize in prayer to be accepted.
In Matthew 11, Jesus says it another way:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Jesus doesn’t refuse those who want to follow him; he invites us to come to him to remove our burdens and to learn of him. He does not push us away. There ARE commitments in becoming part of the kingdom, but this growth comes later (Jesus said take my yoke and learn of me). Is it then appropriate to ask permission to come to him? He already gives permission in the invitation.
The Father already offers forgiveness. We don’t have to beg for it; we just accept it and align with God and his kingdom. The desire for God and the kingdom is itself proof that a person has not committed some unpardonable sin. We are assured of God’s acceptance because he loves us and desires our healing and reconciliation. We never have to beg or doubt our acceptance.
God never refuses to forgive anyone.
Articles in this series: Sin and Forgiveness
The Story of Sin and Salvation—Common Baggage Version (CBV)
What is Sin but Pain and Alienation?
Addressing Sin in the Old Testament
The Prophets Begin to Talk about Sin in a New Way
What Does Jesus Say about Sin? Not Much!
The Misguided Concept of ‘Loving the Sinner and Hating the Sin’
What does Jesus’ Death on the Cross Do for Us?
How Substitutionary Atonement Fails
Why Did Jesus Die on the Cross?
Does Jesus Tell Us to Judge People in Matthew 18?
Are Sins Primarily Sins against God?
“If There’s No Hell then I Will Sin All I Want!”
Problems with the Sinner’s Prayer
What does the Story of Eden Tell Us? Is it about Sin?
We Do Not Inherit Original Sin from Adam
Original Sin or Original Self-Centeredness?
Who Does God Refuse to Forgive?