Boston’s first question to himself was, “Whether or not the sins of believers, while unrepented of, make them liable to eternal punishment?” To understand the question we must be clear on some of its terms. If you remember in the introduction of this series, I spoke of the axiom or starting place of a belief. A proper answer to the question also depends on our axiom.
Repentance, as it is used in scripture, signifies a turning away from something and a turning to something else. The Latin origin of the word has to do with a sense of guilt or sorrow. However its biblical usage is an imperative action. Most often repentance is used in both the Old and New Testaments to command a departure from worshiping other gods to a following of the true God. Most common to us however is a forsaking of sin and that is where Boston focuses the question. Unrepented of sin is a continuing in the lack of conformity to or transgression of God’s law.
The second term we must agree on is “eternal punishment.” Although it may seem obvious to most that here Boston is referring to the punishment reserved for those who are condemned to Hell, we must also be able to agree that there is the very real notion of temporal punishment in this life. Temporal punishment is God’s fatherly act of shepherding his children, as a parent levies a penalty for disobedience upon a child out of love and a desire for its own well being. There is a sector of the church that does not believe in God’s corrective discipline in this life. That in some way God removes himself from the daily oversight of man. If man is left to follow his own will, God will sit back and wait for him to come around and correct his own errors. By some basic reasoning man will see the “light,” come to his senses, and determine that following after Christ is the best alternative. Then, after he sets his mind to follow a new path, he will endeavor to be holy. If this is your belief, then your axiom will not allow you to answer this question correctly. For a reliance upon a self initiated repentance, by definition, makes each sin a charge liable to eternal punishment.
Basically what Boston is asking is, if after you have been saved, can your unconfessed and remaining sinful behavior cause you to lose your salvation? I suspect that most of you would answer a definitive “no.” However, there may be some of you that, either now or at some point in your life, have doubted your own security in Christ based upon the sin that still abides within you. You may say that of course no one is perfect, and I know that there is still some of the old man inside of me. Then we start to categorize sin like the Roman Catholic into what are minor and major sins. My guess is that you have, at some point, felt the need to reconsider the effectiveness of your faith.
I hope that by making my next statement I don’t turn any of you away, but I do intend to startle some of you. If you have been following my posts you are aware that I write from a reformed theological perspective. If you are not familiar with this doctrinal position you are in the majority today, and what I am about to say will run contrary to mainline church practices, but bare with me. I despise the practice of having children say the “sinners prayer.” This practice includes the motivating of a group of captivated children by some emotionally charged speaker, to make a “decision for Christ,” and to in the form of a prayer “give their lives” to Christ. I won’t get into the doctrinal issues here that we don’t make decisions for Christ, and our lives aren’t ours to give. Rather I will comment on how the practice has caused me, and others I know, excruciating and agonizing doubt. As a child I “gave my life to Christ” several times. When I, after an episode of sin, determined that my prayer was not accepted, or I said the wrong thing , or must not have done it right, or this magical procedure didn’t work the first time, I would call for a “do over.”
I promise I am not trying to make light of the practice. Rather I am calling attention to the seriousness of the effect. The misunderstanding of God’s Justice system and how our salvation is brought about, totally disrupts the ability to have any assurance of faith. If my lack of repentance is an indication of condemnation then there is no security to be had.
The best example in scripture to explain liability is David. After committing sins of adultery and murder for hire, was David liable to eternal punishment? Hypothetically, if David had not been made aware of his sins by Nathan, would he have gone to Hell? Or did David, simply by feeling sorrow for his sin and not killing and not having extramarital affairs anymore meet the requirement for biblical repentance and thus avoid the liability to eternal punishment? Or was David not saved before he committed these sins? Or did David temporarily lose his salvation and have to have a “do over” by repentance? The short answer to all these questions is no. The long answer is that David did deserve eternal punishment for his sins, but he in no way was liable to eternal punishment. The punishment had already been arranged for another to bare God’s wrath in David’s stead. David’s awareness of, sorrow for, and turning from his sin did nothing to relieve his liability because he could not be liable. David had already been declared just by the Judge prior to committing the sins, because he had been united to Christ. David did not have to do a “do over” to be right with God. Christ’s atonement for sin was sufficient for David’s sin as well as all those of the rest of God’s children.
I see too often, especially from the pulpit and from parents, there is a hesitancy to teach what the scriptures say about repentance. The only notion that many believers have about repentance is that of “stopping of sinning.” We rely too much on ourselves and not on God when we give attention to the term. As a parent, I was remiss in failing to teach my children early on what biblical repentance was. This was a twofold problem in that first I did not understand the concept myself, and secondly I was afraid that if I told my children that sin would continue to plague them I might be giving license to sin. I believe some of the problems stem from the left over practices of Roman Catholicism that hold the penalties of sin and the punishment of Hell over the heads of the congregation. Repentance and confession of sin are seen as a work to relieve liability. Absolution from sin is made effective only after sins are confessed and penance paid. As mentioned earlier, the notion of venial and mortal sin, sins that can either hinder or destroy God’s grace, play a role in even our Protestant understanding of Grace. I can almost guarantee that some of you, if not now, at some point, have held the belief that if sin is not confessed, it is not forgiven. This is a result of our natural tendency to try to make ourselves right with God and earn our salvation. Biblical Christianity teaches that God has done all the work and nothing is dependent upon us. Even though faith is required, even it is a gift of God, lest anyone should boast. If we are required to repent of every sin as a component of our salvation, then we are saved by our works not by God’s Grace. This works righteousness, my friends, though it may seem subtle, is what scripture is really calling us to repent of. Turning from faith in ourselves, our good religious work, to faith in Christ’s good religious work is what true repentance is. If we believe that our salvation depends on our works and God’s grace, then we are still idol worshipers. We may as well have statues of our own likenesses to bow down to.
The other side of coin is that repentance is necessary and commanded by God. Repentance is a result of God’s working in us by the Word and Spirit. Turning from particular sins is required by God, but the purpose for this repentance is meant for our good and God’s glory. In a continuing on with Boston’s line of thinking, I will deal more with repentance and the need for it in the next post.