The Vault

T.C. Hammond: Can Wilful Sinners be Forgiven?

We are introduced by this Article to a very ancient misconception of God’s message of salvation. Tertullian, who attained prominence at the very beginning of the Third Century, held very rigid views concerning the remission of serious sins committed after baptism.

When Tertullian became a Montanist this rigour was intensified. So fearful was he of the danger of falling into sin which had no forgiveness he exhorteth his followers to abstain from the baptism of infants. The same opinions were revived by Novation so far as sin after baptism was concerned. At least he denied to any such transgressors restoration to Church privileges. At the period of the Reformation certain Anabaptists revived the error of Novatian. The Anabaptists also held that persons once justified could never lose the grace of God. They extended this idea to convey the impression that any who fell into sin were thereby proved to be without God’s grace. The Article deals with this early error which arose again in the Sixteenth Century very explicitly. It denies expressly that every deadly sin willingly committed after baptism, is sin against the Holy Ghost. Beveridge in commenting on these words writes, “Be sure every deadly sin, that is, every sin (for every sin is deadly) willingly committed after baptism, is not sin against the Holy Ghost.” Beveridge is theologically correct, and cites, as is his wont, ancient authorities to support him. But it is just possible that Cranmer, when framing the Article, had in view the distinction, made by Tertullian and adopted by the Novatians, between daily lapses and overt and grievous departures from the truth. All sins are deadly but some sins are so deleterious in their effects on ourselves and others as to be peculiarly death dealing. This seems to be the significance of the word -deadly- in the petition in the Litany against fornication and may reasonably be its signification here.

A Conflict of Desires.

Again attention needs to be directed to the words “willingly committed.” The consent of the will was regarded by the rigorists, to whom we have referred, as a particular aggravation of the offence. Some were ready to be lenient towards sins of inadvertence. But an overt action such as the handing over of the sacred Scriptures was regarded as unpardonable. The Anabaptists taught that grace controlled the will so that the truly regenerate might be deceived but could not willingly transgress. It must be borne in mind however, that for the most part the tenets attributed to the Anabaptists are culled from the criticisms of their opponents and may in some instances be exaggerated.

A willing sin means a sin committed when we are in possession of the full use of our faculties. There may be a conflict of desires but the final choice is a determined act of our personality. St. Paul in Romans 7 indicates this conflict of desires very explicitly. It is instructive to notice how the Ego passes as it were from one mood to the other. “With the mind I serve the law of God but with the flesh the law of sin.” The weight of the individual’s choice is finally thrown on one side or the other and thus, when the decision is adverse to holiness, sin is willingly committed.

The Scripture evidence in support of this first proposition of the Article is very clearly summarised by Rogers on the Thirty-Nine Articles. We may separate the statement for convenience into two distinct assertions. The first is that no-one commits sin after Baptism, who is truly regenerated. The second is that those who commit sin after Baptism have sinned against the Holy Ghost and can never secure forgiveness. The New Testament is abundantly clear on the fact that many believers willingly commit sin after Baptism. St. James, writing to baptized Christians said, “In many things we offend all.” St. John writing to those who had been baptised warns them, “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves,” and adds, “if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Again writing to the Churches of Ephesus, Pergamos and Thyatira, St. John in the Revelation exhorts them to repent. If it were impossible to fall into sin after Baptism such exhortations could not have been made. Yet again St. Paul exhorts us to restore one taken in a fault in a spirit of meekness considering also ourselves lest we be tempted. Such language would be wholly incompatible with fact if the baptized were either incapable of sinning, or incapable of restoration after they had fallen into sin. The exhortation to Simon the Sorcerer, “Repent of this thy wickedness,” and the example of Peter whom Paul withstood to the face because he was to be blamed point in the same direction. The problem of sin against the Holy Ghost we reserve to the next discussion.

39 Articles – Article 16: Of Sin After Baptism

Not every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say, they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.

From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, November 8, 1956.This article is part of our Articulate series, listening to T.C. Hammond unpack the 39 Articles one by one.