Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles – Article XVI (Part 2)

Section II. — Scriptural Proof.

THE first thing we have to show from holy Scripture is, that “every deadly sin committed after baptism is not unpardonable,” and that “the place of forgiveness is not to be denied to such as truly repent.”

To prove this proposition, it will be desirable (1) to show that sins after baptism are not generally unpardonable. (2) To consider those texts of Scripture, which are thought to prove the great heinousness and unpardonable nature of some sins, especially if committed after baptism.

I. First, then, sins after baptism are not generally incapable of being pardoned.

Baptism is the first step in the Christian life, by which we are admitted into the covenant, and to a share of the pardoning love of God in Christ. Under the Jewish dispensation there was no such thing as baptism ordained by God; but circumcision admitted into God’s covenant with Abraham, and to a participation in the blessings of the congregation or Church of the Jews. Now it is a truth universally admitted, that the blessings we receive under the Gospel are greater than those which the Jews received under the Law. Especially, under the Gospel and in the Church of Christ, there is a fuller fountain of mercy and grace opened to all. “There is a fountain open for sin and for uncleanness,” such as the Jews had only in figure. “The Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (Joh. i. 17). Yet under the Law it is quite certain that there was a continual sacrifice offered for the sins both of priests and people, and a continual promise of pardon to the returning and penitent sinner. The prophet Ezekiel (ch. xxxiii. 12‒20) by God’s commandment clearly expounds to the Israelites, that, of those within the covenant, if the righteous man turn from his righteousness, he shall surely die; but if the wicked “turn from his sin, and do that which is lawful and right,” “none of his sins that he hath committed shall be mentioned unto him; he hath done that which is lawful and right; he shall surely live.” So the prophet David, after deliberate murder and adultery, was yet at once restored on his repentance. If then under the Law those who sinned were admitted to pardon, but under the Gospel, that is to say after baptism, those who sin are not admitted to pardon, then is the Gospel a state of less, instead of greater, grace than the Law; then those who have been made partakers of Christ, have been admitted to a sterner law and a less merciful covenant than those who were baptized into Moses, and admitted to that carnal commandment, which made nothing perfect.

It is true, indeed, that the greater God’s mercies are, the heavier will be the punishment of those who slight them. “If they who despised Moses’ law died without mercy, of how much sorer punishment shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden underfoot the Son of God?” (Heb. x. 28, 29). Yet, that the slighting of God’s mercies should be of so great guilt, results from the fact that those mercies are so great: and, if the grant of repentance be withheld from the Christian, which was conceded to the Jew, then we may say, that God’s mercies under the Law were greater than are His mercies under the Gospel.

Thus then we may naturally infer that pardon of sin would be given to Christians, and that sin committed after baptism would not in general exclude the sinner from all hope of repentance. Such reasoning is fully confirmed by the language of the new Testament. The Lord’s Prayer was ordained for the use of those who might call Almighty God their Father. We therefore may clearly see that it was to be used only by children of God. Now in baptism we are made children of God. In the Lord’s Prayer, then, God’s baptized children are taught to pray that their sins should be forgiven them. And our blessed Lord comforts us with the assurance, that, “if we forgive men their trespasses, our heavenly Father will also forgive our trespasses” (Matt. vi. 14). So in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke xv.), it is a son that leaves his father, and who on his repentance is welcomed home and pardoned. The parable plainly sets before us, that, if we, as sons of God, leave our Father’s home and revel in all iniquity, still on true and earnest repentance we shall be received, pardoned, comforted.

To the chief ministers of His Church our Lord gave the power of binding and loosing; binding by censure upon sin, but loosing again by absolution and reconciliation (Matt, xviii. 18); and to confirm this power to them the more strongly He declared: “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John xx. 23). If the reconciliation of offenders to the Church be so sanctioned in Heaven, can there be a doubt that there is also pardon in Heaven for such as, having so offended, have repented and been reconciled?

We have instances in the new Testament of the Apostles giving hope of pardon, and restoring communion to those who had sinned most heavily after baptism. Thus Simon Magus, just after he was baptized, showed himself to be “in the gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity;” yet St. Peter urged him to repent of his wickedness, and to pray God, if perhaps the thought of his heart might be forgiven him[1] (Acts viii. 22, 23). Even of the man who after baptism had committed incest, and whom St. Paul (1 Cor. v. 1‒5) bids the Corinthians to excommunicate, he yet gives hope that “his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (ver. 5). And when the incestuous man had given signs of true sorrow for his sin, but a very short time after his excommunication, the Apostle ordered him to be restored to communion, declares that he ministerially pardoned his offences in the name and as the minister of Christ (2 Cor. ii. 10); recommends the Corinthians to comfort him, that he should not be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow (ver. 7); and assures them, with reference to the same subject, that “godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of” (2 Cor. vii. 10). Nay! he expressly says that the object of excommunicating the guilty man was that his “spirit might be saved” (1 Cor. v. 5).

Again St. Paul exhorts the Galatian Church. “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault (ἐν τινὶ παραπτώματι) you, which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness, considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” The words made use of are perfectly general, and we may infer from them, as a general rule, that a man entrapped or overtaken by any kind of transgression or backsliding is, on his repentance, to be restored to communion. In the latter part of the second Epistle to the Corinthians (xii. 20, 21), the Apostle speaks of his apprehension that he shall be grieved at the state of the Corinthian Church, for he feared that many of the Corinthian Christians had committed all those sins which most grievously defile the temple of God (ἀκαθάρσια, πόρνεια, ἀσέλγεια), even every kind of uncleanness; but then the way in which he adds καὶ μὴ μετανοησάντων, “and have not repented,” seems clearly to indicate that the poignancy of his grief was derived from their impenitence; and that for those who repented there was still room for pardon and hope.

St. Peter tells us, that God “is long-suffering to usward” (meaning, as we may suppose, to Christians), “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. iii. 9). St. John says that, as all men are sinners, so “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins.” And when he writes to Christians, calling them his “little children,” and exhorting them that they sin not, he yet adds, “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He is the propitiation for our sins.” Here we have an evident address to those who were members of Christ’s Church by baptism, an earnest exhortation to them not to sin, yet an encouragement to those who fall into sin, not to despair, as there is yet an Advocate, yet propitiation, through Jesus Christ (1 John i. 9; ii. 1, 2). St. James (James v. 13‒15) enjoins, that if any member of the Church be sick, he should send for the clergy, the elders of the Church, to pray over him, and, among other blessings, promises that “if he have committed sins they shall be forgiven him.” Lastly, in the Apocalypse, referring to men who had been seduced from their faith to all the abominations of the worst kind of heresy, our blessed Lord speaks of “giving time to repent;” and threatens heavy punishment, “unless they repent of their deeds” (Rev. ii. 20‒22).

The general promises to repenting sinners do not, of course, belong to our present inquiry. Such promises may have been made to such as had not been baptized, and may be performed only in baptism. But those now adduced all evidently concern Christians, who had been brought to Christ by baptism, and who had afterwards fallen into sin. And they seem clearly to prove, that not even the deadliest sin committed by a baptized person makes it utterly impossible that, on hearty repentance and true faith, he should be forgiven.

There are indeed some passages of Scripture, and some very serious considerations, which have led to the belief that deadly sin after baptism has never forgiveness; and these we must take into account.

The fact that St. Paul speaks of the whole Church and every individual Christian as temples of the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. iii. 16; vi. 19; 2 Cor. vi. 16; Eph. ii. 22), joined with many similar considerations, shows that at our baptism we are set apart and consecrated to be temples of God. And then St. Paul declares that “if any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are” (1 Cor. iii. 17). In like manner, we know that in baptism we are made members of Christ (see Gal. iii. 27; Ephes. iv. 15, 16, &c). And St. Paul, reminding the Corinthians of this, says: “What, know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid” (1 Cor. vi. 15). Such sayings prove, with exceeding force, the great wickedness of sin, and especially of sins of uncleanness, when committed by a baptized Christian; who thereby “sinneth against his own body” (1 Cor. vi. 18), and against the Holy Ghost, whose temple his body has been made. So our blessed Saviour, speaking of Christians as branches of the Vine, whose root and stem is Christ, says that, “If a man abide not in Me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered” (John xv. 6).

These passages, however, though they show the great guilt of sinning against grace, do not prove such sins to be unpardonable, though probably they suggested the opinion that sin after baptism was the sin against the Holy Ghost, which hath never forgiveness.

There are strong and very fearful passages in the first Epistle of St. John, which have still more led to some of the opinions disclaimed by the Article we are now considering. In 1 John iii. 6, 8, 9, we read that, “Whosoever abideth in Him, sinneth not. . . . He that committeth sin is of the devil. . . . Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” This passage led Jovinian to teach that a baptized Christian could never sin; and has been one argument from which it has been inferred, that, if by any means this high estate of purity should be lost, it would be lost irrevocably. Jerome, in his answer to Jovinian,[2] well explains the general tenour of St. John’s reasoning. He remarks that St. John exhorts those whom he addresses as little children, to keep themselves from idols (1 John v. 21); showing that they were liable to be tempted like others, and to fall; that he writes to them not to sin; and assures them still that, if they sin, they have an Advocate in the Lord Jesus Christ (1 John ii. 1, 2); that their best way of knowing that they know Christ is to keep His commandments (ver. 4); that he, who says he abides in Him, ought to walk as He walked (ver. 6). “Therefore,” he continues, “St. John says, ‘I write unto you, little children,’ since ‘every one who is born of God sinneth not,’ that ye sin not, and that ye may know that ye abide in the generation of God, so long as ye do not sin; yea, those who continue in God’s generation cannot sin. For what communion hath Christ with Belial? If we have received Christ as a guest into our hearts, we put to flight the devil. But if we sin again, the devil enters through the door of sin, and then Christ departs.” This seems a correct account of St. John’s reasoning, and shows that what he means is, that the regenerate man, so long as he continues in the regenerate state, overcomes sin and casts it out; but if he falls from the regenerate state and sins, then he becomes again the servant of the devil. But it neither proves, that the regenerate man cannot sin, nor that, if he does, his fall is irrecoverable.

But St. John (1 John v. 16, 17) speaks of the distinction between “sin unto death,” and “sin not unto death;” and encourages us to pray for the latter, but not for the former. Bp. Jeremy Taylor has some good remarks on this verse. “Every Christian,” he says, “is in some degree in the state of grace, so long as he is invited to repentance, and so long as he is capable of the prayers of the Church. This we learn from those words of St. John, ‘All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not unto death;’ that is, some sorts of sin are so incident to the condition of men, and their state of imperfection, that the man who hath committed them is still within the methods of pardon, and hath not forfeited his title to the promises and covenant of repentance; but ‘there is a sin unto death;’ that is, some men proceed beyond the measures and economy of the Gospel, and the usual methods and probabilities of repentance, by obstinacy, and preserving a sin, by a wilful, spiteful resisting, or despising the offers of grace and the means of pardon; for such a man St. John does not encourage us to pray; if he be such a person as St. John described, our prayers will do him no good; but because no man can tell the last minute or period of pardon, nor just when a man is gone beyond the limit; and because the limit itself can be enlarged, and God’s mercies stay for some longer than for others, therefore St. John left us under the indefinite restraint and caution; which was decretory enough to represent that sad state of things in which the refractory and impenitent have immerged themselves, and yet so indefinite and cautious, that we may not be too forward in applying it to particulars, nor in prescribing measures to the Divine mercy, nor in passing final sentences upon our brother, before we have heard our Judge Himself speak. ‘Sinning a sin not unto death’ is an expression fully signifying that there are some sins which though they be committed and displeased God, and must be repented of, and need many and mighty prayers for their pardon, yet the man is in the state of grace and pardon, that is, he is within the covenant of mercy; he may be admitted, if he will return to his duty: so that being in a state of grace is having a title to God’s loving-kindness, a not being rejected of God, but a being beloved of Him to certain purposes of mercy, and that hath these measures and degrees.”

Again, “Every act of sin takes away something from the contrary grace, but if the root abides in the ground, the plant is still alive, and may bring forth fruit again. ‘But he only is dead who hath thrown off God for ever, or entirely with his very heart.’ So St. Ambrose. To be ‘dead in trespasses and sins,’ which is the phrase of St. Paul (Eph. ii. 1), is the same with that expression of St. John, of ‘sinning a sin unto death,’ that is, habitual, refractory, pertinacious, and incorrigible sinners, in whom there is scarcely any hope or sign of life. These are they upon whom, as St. Paul’s expression is, (1 Thess. ii. 16,) ‘the wrath of God is come upon them to the uttermost, εἰς τὸ τέλος unto death.’ So was their sin, it was a sin unto death; so is their punishment.”[3]

But by far the most terrible passages in Scripture, on the danger of backsliding and the difficulty or impossibility of renewal, are to be found in the Epistle to the Hebrews. We learn indeed from Tertullian (De Pudicitia), that the difficulty of the 6th chapter of that Epistle was the main reason why the Roman Church was so long in admitting it into the Canon.

In the 10th chapter we read that, “if we sin wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins; but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses’ law, perished without mercy under two or three witnesses; of how much sorer punishment, think ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the Blood of the Covenant an unholy thing, and hath done despite to the Spirit of Grace?” (Heb. x. 26‒29). The peculiar strength of this passage is in the words, “If we sin wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins.” The word “sin” in the first clause, is here supposed by many to mean “apostatize.” So in Hos. xiii. 2, we read וִעַתָּה יוֹסִפוּ לַחֲטאֹ “Now they add moreover to sin;” where the sin spoken of is a revolting from God, and apostatizing to Baal. And, as regards the “remaining no more sacrifice for sin,” the Apostle had been showing, throughout the early verses of the chapter, that the priests under the Law kept constantly offering sacrifices, year by year and day by day (vv. 1‒11). But Christ offered but one sacrifice for sin, and by that one sacrifice hath perfected all that are sanctified (vv. 12‒14). So then, if we reject the sacrifice of Christ, and after a knowledge of its saving efficacy, apostatize willingly[4] from the faith, there are not now fresh sacrifices, “offered year by year continually;” and by rejecting the one sacrifice of Christ, we cut ourselves off from the benefit of His death; and since we have chosen sin instead of God, there is no new sacrifice to bring us to God.

Another of the hard sentences, which has led to a belief in the irremissibility of post-baptismal sin, is Heb. xii. 17. The Apostle, warning against the danger of falling from grace, bids us take heed, lest there be “any fornicator or profane person like Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited a blessing, he was rejected; for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.” There can be no doubt, that Esau is here propounded to us as a type of those who, having been made sons of God by baptism, and so, having a birthright and promised inheritance, by thoughtlessness and sensuality, “for one morsel of meat,” throw themselves out of God’s favour, and, leaving God’s family, return to the condition of mere sons of Adam. St. Paul reminding us that, when Esau had sold his birthright, he found no place for repentance, even when he sought it with tears, puts us on our guard against the like folly, by fear of the like fate. Yet it does not follow of course, that every person who lives unworthily of his baptismal privileges, shall be denied access to repentance. We can never, when we yield to sin, know that God will give us repentance; and we may die in our sin. And even if we repent, our repentance, like Esau’s, may be too late; after the door is shut, and when it will not do to knock. We are told elsewhere of those who came and cried, “Lord, Lord, open unto us,” and who received no answer but, “I know you not” (Matt. xxv. 11, 12). Such a late repentance is that of those who would repent in the grave, perhaps of some who seek only on the bed of death. But if we follow out the history of Esau, we may gain at least this comfort from it, that, even late as he had put off his seeking repentance, so late that he could never be fully restored, yet, though not to the same position as before, he was still restored to favour and to blessing (Gen. xxvii. 38, 39). So that we may hope from this history, as set forth to us for a type, that, though such as cast away their privileges as Christians find it hard to be reinstated in the position from which they fell, and may, perhaps, never in this world attain to like blessedness and assurance as if they had never fallen, still the door of repentance is not shut against them. Their place in their Father’s house may be lower; but still it is not hopeless that there may, and shall, be a place for them.

The strongest passage, and that on which the Novatians most rested their doctrines, remains yet to be considered. It is Heb. vi. 4, 5, 6: “It is impossible for those, who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again to repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame.”

The Syriac Version, Theodoret, Theophylact, and others of the ancients, who are followed by Ernesti, Michaelis, and many learned men of our own times, understand by the word “enlightened” (ἅπαξ ϕωτισθέντας) here, and in Heb. x. 32, “baptized.” Clement of Rome, Justin Martyr, and others of the very earliest Christians, used the word in this sense.[5] But whether we admit this to be the right interpretation or not, we must allow the passage to teach that a person, after baptism and Christian blessing and enlightenment, may so fall away that it may be impossible to renew him to repentance. The words made use of seem to say that persons once baptized, endued with God’s Holy Spirit, made partakers of the Christian Church,[6] if they despise all these blessings, rejecting, and, as it were, afresh crucifying the Son of God, cannot be again restored to repentance. The difficulty of the passage lies almost wholly in two words, παραπεσόντας, “having fallen away,” and ἀνακαινίζειν, “to renew.” Most commentators consider the word “fall away,” which occurs here only in the New Testament, to signify total apostasy from the faith.[7] If indeed the other two participles (ἀνασταυροῦντας and παραδειγματίζοντας) be to be coupled with it, as in apposition to, and explanation of it, then we may well conclude that it can mean no less. It is the case of those “who sin wilfully after they have received the knowledge of the truth,” of him from whom one devil had been cast out, but to whom it had returned with seven worse devils. Rejecting their faith and their baptism, they fall away from Christ, reproach and crucify Him afresh, as much reject Him for their Saviour as they who actually nailed Him to the Cross. Bishop Taylor describes them as persons, who, “without cause or excuse, without error or infirmity, choosingly, willingly, knowingly, called Christ an impostor, and would have crucified Him again if He were alive; that is, they consented to His death by believing that He suffered justly. This is the case here described, and cannot be drawn to anything else but its parallel; that is, a malicious renouncing charity, or holy life, as these men did the faith, to both which they have made their solemn vows in baptism; but this can no way be drawn to the condemnation and final excision of such persons who fall into any great sin, of which they are willing to repent.”[8]

And for the other word of difficulty, ἀνακαινίζειν, “to renew,” some think we must understand to rebaptize. The Church has no power to rebaptize those who fall away; and so, as first they were washed in the waters of baptism from original sin, to wash them again from their guilt of apostasy.[9] Others understand to admit by absolution to the fellowship of the Church, and so restore them to repentance and penance, when they have once thoroughly apostatized.[10] Others understand, that, whereas they have rejected the Gospel and all its means of grace, their case has become hopeless, because no other covenant can be provided for them: “There remaineth no more sacrifice for sins.” No new method of salvation will be devised for them; and as they have utterly given up the one already provided, rejected Christ, and despised His Spirit, so it is impossible that any other should renew them. “Other foundation can no man lay, save that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ;” “for there is no means of salvation but this one; and this one they hate, and will not have; they will not return to the old, and there is none, left by which they can be renewed, and therefore their condition is desperate.”[11]

On the whole, there can be no doubt of the awful severity of the language of this passage, and of the warning it gives us against falling from grace; but, when we compare it with other passages somewhat like it, and contrast with it those which assure us of God’s readiness to receive the penitent sinner, and to give repentance even to those who sin after grace given; we can hardly fail to conclude that it concerns particularly extreme cases, and not those of ordinary occurrence; and that, though it proves the heinousness of sinning against light and grace, and shows that we may so fall after grace as never to recover ourselves, yet it does not prove that there is no pardon for such baptized Christians as sin grievously, and then seek earnestly for repentance.

The fact that our Lord left to His Church the power of the keys, allowing its chief pastors to excommunicate for sin and restore on repentance, and that the Apostles and first bishops ever exercised that power, shows that even great sins (for none other led to excommunication) do not exclude from pardon. Nay, “Baptism is εἰς μετάνοια, the admission of us to the covenant of faith and repentance; or as Mark the anchorite called it, πρόϕασίς the introduction of repentance, or that state of life that is full of labour and care, and amendment of our faults; for that is the best life that any man can live; and therefore repentance hath its progress after baptism, as it hath its beginning before; for first, ‘repentance is unto baptism,’ and then ‘baptism unto repentance.’ . . . . Besides, our admission to the holy Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a perpetual entertainment of our hopes, because then and there is really exhibited to us the Body that was broken and the Blood that was ‘shed for the remission of sins.’ Still it is applied, and that application could not be necessary to be done anew, if there were not new necessities; and still we are invited to do actions of repentance, ‘to examine ourselves, and so to eat.’ All which, as things are ordered, would be infinitely useless to mankind, if it did not mean pardon to Christians falling into foul sins even after baptism.”[12]

We may therefore conclude that, severe as some passages of Scripture are against those who sin wilfully against light and grace, and strict as the discipline of the early Church was against all such offenders, there is yet nothing to prove that heinous sin committed after baptism cannot be pardoned on repentance. The strongest and severest texts of Scripture seem to apply, not to persons who have sinned and seek repentance, but to apostates from the faith, who are stout in their apostasy, and hardened in sin.

II. Our next consideration is the “Sin against the Holy Ghost.”

The statements of Scripture already considered have, as we have seen, been supposed by some to show that the sin against the Holy Ghost must be falling grievously after baptism. For, as it has been supposed that these statements make deadly sin after baptism the unpardonable sin, and our Lord makes blasphemy against the Holy Ghost to be unpardonable, and both our Lord and St. John (1 John v. 16) seem to speak as if there were but one unpardonable sin, therefore deadly sin after baptism and the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost must be identical. The foregoing arguments seem sufficiently to have shown that this hypothesis is untrue.

If we examine the circumstances under which our Lord uttered His solemn warnings concerning blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, we may probably the better understand the nature of that sin. He had been casting out a devil, thereby giving signal proof of His Godhead. But the Pharisees, instead of believing and acknowledging His heavenly mission, ascribed His power to Satan and Beelzebub (Matt. xii. 24). Those who thus resisted such evidence were plainly obstinate and hardened unbelievers, such as, we may well believe, were given over to a reprobate mind, and such as no evidence of the truth could move to faith and penitence. Accordingly, many believe that by thus rejecting the faith, and ascribing the works of our Lord’s Divinity to the power of evil spirits, they had committed the sin against the Holy Ghost.

That they were very near committing that sin there can be little doubt. They had stepped upon the confines, they had uttered daring and desperate blasphemy. They had reviled the holy Son of God. They had called His works of love and goodness the works of the devil, thereby confounding light with darkness. But still our Lord consents to reason with them. He still puts forth parables, by which to convince them that they were in error (Matt, xii. 23‒30). And He would scarce do this, if there were no hope that they might repent, no possibility that they might be forgiven. And then He warns them. Warning and reasoning are for those who may yet take warning and conviction, not for those to whom they would be useless.

And of what nature is His warning? They had just blasphemed Him, disbelieved His mission, disregarded His miracles. Yet He tells them in gracious goodness, that all manner of sin and blasphemy which men commit shall be forgiven them, that even blasphemy against Himself, the Son of Man, shall be forgiven: but then He adds, that, if they went farther still, and committed the same sin moreover against the Spirit of God, it should never be forgiven, neither in this world, nor in the world to come (vv. 31, 32).

Now Christ was then present with them as the Son of Man. The glory of His Godhead was veiled under the likeness of sinful flesh. Those were “the days of the Son of Man;” and “the Spirit was not yet given, because that Jesus was not yet glorified.” There is no doubt, that it must have been deadly wickedness which led men to doubt the truth of His doctrine when taught with such power from His sacred lips, and proved so mightily by the works which He wrought. But the full power of the Gospel had not been put forth; especially the Spirit had not been poured on the Church, — a blessing so great, that it made it expedient for His disciples that even Jesus should go away from them in order that He might give it to them (John xvi. 7). But when the Spirit was poured forth, then all the means of grace were used; Jesus working without, and the Spirit pleading within. And in those who received the word and were baptized, the Spirit took up His dwelling, and moved and ruled in their hearts. This then was a state of greater grace, and a more convincing state of evidence to the world and to the Church, than even the bodily presence of the Saviour as the Son of Man. Accordingly, resistance to the means of grace, after the gift of the Spirit, was worse than resistance during the bodily presence of Christ. Resisting the former, refusing to be converted by it, rejecting its evidence, and obstinate impenitence under its influence, was blasphemy against the Son of Man. Still even this could be forgiven; for farther and yet greater means of grace were to be tried, even on those who had rejected Christ. “The Gospel was to be preached unto them, with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven” (1 Pet. i. 12). But this mission of the Comforter was the last and highest means ever to be tried, the last and greatest dispensation of the grace of God. Those, therefore, who after this still remained obstinate, still rejected Christ in His kingdom, as they had rejected Him in His humility, still refused to be converted, ascribed the gifts of His Apostles and the graces of His Church, not to the Spirit of God, but to the spirit of evil, such men blasphemed not only the Son of Man — the Word of God when veiled in human flesh — but they rejected and blasphemed the Spirit of God, and so had never forgiveness.

This seems the true explanation of the sin against the Holy Ghost, namely, obstinate, resolute, and wilful impenitence, after all the means of grace and with all the strivings of the Spirit, under the Christian dispensation as distinguished from the Jewish, and amid all the blessings and privileges of the Church of Christ. And this view of the subject does not materially differ from the statement of St. Athanasius, namely, that blasphemy against Christ, when His manhood only was visible, was blasphemy against the Son of Man; but that, when His Godhead was manifested, it became blasphemy against the Holy Ghost: nor from that of St. Augustine, that the sin against the Spirit of God is a final and obdurate continuance in wickedness, despite of the calls of God to repentance, joined with a desperation of the mercy of God.[13]

III. The last subject to which we come is the question of Final Perseverance, or the Indefectibility of Grace.

The Article says, “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.” The arguments which have been already gone into, concerning the grant of repentance and pardon to those who sin after baptism and the grace of God, sufficiently prove the latter clause of the above statement. Indeed the former clause may be considered as proved also; for if there is a large provision in the Gospel and the Church for forgiveness of sins and reconciliation of those who, having received the Spirit, have fallen away, then must it be possible, that, “after we have received the Holy Ghost, we may yet depart from grace and fall into sin.” Jovinian indeed held that every truly baptized person could sin no more. But such an error has been very uncommon in the Church, so uncommon that it is scarcely needful to prove that a person may have received grace and yet be tempted and fall into sin; as David so grievously fell in the matter of Uriah, or as St. Peter, when he denied his Lord. But the question, whether a person who has once received grace can ever fall finally and irrecoverably, has been much agitated since the days of Zuingle and Calvin; and though possibly not expressly determined by the wording of this Article, it yet properly comes to be considered here.

The doctrine of the Zuinglians and high Calvinists has been, that if a man has once been regenerate and endued with the Holy Ghost, he may fall into sin for a time, but will surely be restored again, and can never finally be lost. We have seen, on the contrary, that St. Augustine and the more ancient predestinarians held that grace might have been given, but yet, if a person was not predestinated to perseverance, he might fall away. We have seen that the Lutherans held that grace given might yet be lost utterly. We have seen that the reformers of the Church of England, whether following St. Augustine in his views of predestination or not, appear clearly to have agreed with him, and with Luther and the Lutherans, in holding that grace might be lost, not only for the time, but finally.

1. The passages of Scripture most in favour of the doctrine that those who have once been regenerate can never finally fall from grace, are such as follow.

Matt. xxiv. 24, which must be set aside, if rightly translated.[14] Luke xxii. 32, which shows that our Lord prays for His servants. John vi. 39; John x. 27, 28; but these last must be compared with John xvii. 12, which shows, that though the true sheep of Christ never perish, yet some may, like Judas, be given Him for a time, and yet finally be sons of perdition. Rom. viii. 38, 39, xi. 29, show that God is faithful and will never repent of His mercy to us, and that, if we do not wilfully leave Him, no created power shall be able to pluck us out of His hand. They prove no more than this.

Stronger by far are such passages as 1 Cor. i. 8, 9; Phil. i. 6; 2 Thess. iii. 3. Yet they are addressed to whole Churches, all the members of which are not certainly preserved blameless to the end. The confidence expressed concerning the Philippians (Phil, i. 6) cannot have meant that it was impossible for any of them to be lost; for St. Paul afterwards exhorts them to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling” (ii. 12), and to “stand fast in the Lord” (iv. 1). So that we must necessarily understand the Apostle’s confident hope to result from a consideration of the known goodness and grace of God, and also of the Philippians’ own past progress in holiness. “He conjectured,” as Theophylact says, “from what was past, what they would be for the future.”[15]

The passages which speak of Christians as sealed, and having the “earnest of the Spirit,” (see 2 Cor. i. 21, 22; Ephes. i. 13; iv. 30,) are thought to teach the indefectibility of grace; because what is sealed is kept and preserved. But sealing probably only signifies the ratifying of a covenant, which is done in baptism. And though the giving of the Spirit is indeed the earnest of a future inheritance, it does not follow that no unfaithfulness in the Christian may deprive him of the blessing, of which God has given him the earnest and pledge, because a covenant always implies two parties, and if either breaks it, the other is free.

So again Jas. i. 17 tells us of the unchangeableness of God, and 2 Tim. ii. 19 shows that He “knoweth them that are His.” But neither proves that we may not change, nor that all who are now God’s people will continue so to the end, though he knoweth who will and who will not.

The expression “full assurance of hope” (Heb. vi. 11) has been thought to prove that we may be always certain of continuance, if we have once known the grace of God. But the Apostle does not ground the “assurance of hope” on such a doctrine. His words are: “We desire that every one of you do show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope to the end; that ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” This shows, that our assured hope will spring from a close walk with God, and that slothfulness, or a lack of diligence, is likely to impair our hope and disturb our assurance. The more diligent we are, the more hope we shall have; our hope not being grounded on the indefectibility of grace, but on the evidences of our faith given by a consistent growth in grace.

Again, 1 Pet. i. 4, 5, speaks of an inheritance “reserved in heaven for those who are kept by the power of God, through faith unto salvation.” The word “kept” is in the Greek ϕρουρουμένους, i. e. “guarded as in a garrison.” The figure represents believers as attacked by evil spirits and wicked men, but defended by the power of God, through the influence of their faith. It does not show that all believers are kept from falling away; but that they are guarded by God through the instrumentality of their faith. “If” then “they continue in the faith” (Col. i. 23), “if they hold the beginning of their confidence steadfast unto the end” (Heb. iii. 14), then will “their faith be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one” (Eph. vi. 16), and will “overcome the world” (1 John v. 4). But, as it is expressly said that it is “through faith” that they are “kept” or “guarded,” we cannot infer that their faith itself is so guarded that it can by no possibility fail.[16]

But the strongest passage on this side of the question is 1 John iii. 9: “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” From this Jovinian inferred that a regenerate man could never sin again; but the Zuinglian and Calvinist infer, that the regenerate man having the seed of life in him, may indeed fall into sin, but is sure to recover himself again, and to be saved at the last. If the text proves anything about indefectibility of grace, it plainly proves Jovinian’s rather than Calvin’s position; namely, that the regenerate man never falls into sin at all, not merely that he does not fall finally.

The truth is, the Apostle is simply contrasting the state of the regenerate with that of the unregenerate, and tells us, that sin is the mark of the latter, holiness of the former. “He that doeth righteousness is righteous . . . he that committeth sin is of the devil” (vv. 7, 8). Here is the antithesis. It is like the statement, “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit” (Matt. vii. 18). This does not mean, that a good tree can never cease to be good, and so cease to bear good fruit.[17] So it is with that of St. Paul, “The carnal mind cannot be subject to the law of God” (Rom. viii. 7). But it is not meant, that a man of carnal mind may not be converted, and then love holiness and God’s law. So Ignatius writes, “Spiritual men cannot do the things of the flesh;”[18] that is, obviously, so long as they continue spiritual.

Just so St. John. He points out the difference between the righteous and the wicked; namely, that the former do righteousness, the latter commit sin. Then he says, “Every one that is born of God[19] cannot sin, because of the seed of God which is in him.” He is righteous, and therefore doeth righteousness; he is a good tree, and therefore cannot bring forth bad fruit; he is spiritual, and therefore cannot do carnal things. But this does not prove that he may not fall from grace, and so lose his title to be a son of God, and also that seed of God in his heart which keeps him from sin. “The regenerate man,” says Jerome, “cannot sin so long as he continues in the generation of God . . . . but, if we admit sin, and the devil enters into the door of our hearts, Christ goes away.”[20]

2. So much of the arguments from Scripture by which the doctrine that grace in the regenerate can never fail has been maintained. Against this doctrine many passages of Scripture are alleged.

(1) There are frequent statements of the condemnation and rejection of such as, having been in a state of grace, fall away from it, and which it is hard to believe are only meant to frighten us away from an impossible danger. Such are Ezek. xviii. 24; xxxiii. 18. Matt. v. 13. Matt. xxiv. 46‒51, comp. Luke xxi. 34‒36. Heb. x. 26‒29, 38. 2 Pet ii. 20‒22.

(2) There are declarations, that those only “who endure to the end” shall be saved, those “who keep their garments” shall be blessed; that “if we continue in the faith grounded and nettled, and be not moved away,” we shall be presented holy in the sight of God.

Matt. x. 22. Col. i. 22, 23. Heb. iii. 6. Rev. xvi. 15.

Thus final salvation is promised not merely to present, but to continuing and persevering faith.

(3) Accordingly, there are numerous warnings against falling away, exhortations to stand fast, and prayers for perseverance and against falling.

Rom. xi. 20, 21. 1 Cor. x. 1‒10, 12. 1 Cor. xvi. 18. Col. ii. 6, 7, 8, 1 Thess. v. 19. Heb. iii. 12; xii. 15, 16. 2 Pet. iii. 17. Jude 20, 21, 24. Rev. xvi. 15.

All these passages speak of the danger of falling away, and of the final condemnation of such as fall, and warn and pray against falling. The advocates for the doctrine of final perseverance say, that although all grace comes only from God, yet He ordains means to be used for obtaining grace; so, although perseverance is the gift of God, and never withholden from such as receive grace at all; yet warnings against backsliding, and declarations concerning the punishment of backsliders, are useful and necessary means to keep believers in a state of watchfulness, and therefore are instruments in God’s hands to work in them the grace of perseverance, which however could as easily be given without them, and will assuredly be given to all who have once been regenerate. Their opponents reply, that such reasoning is an evident attempt to explain away the obvious sense of Scripture; God’s threatenings could never be denounced against a sin which was impossible. If utter falling away in the regenerate is, in God’s counsels, a thing which cannot occur, then can we believe that God would give the most solemn warnings to be found in the whole of Scripture against it? Would the Apostle put up the most earnest prayers against it? Would the condemnation pronounced upon it be so severe and so terrible? But it is argued farther, that,

(4) There are express and positive statements, that men may, nay, do, fall away from grace given and accepted, and so do finally perish.

The parable of the sower (Matt. xiii. Mark iv. Luke viii.) contains a statement of this kind. Four different kinds of hearers are there described. Of these, one, the way-side hearer, disregards it altogether; one, compared to good ground, receives and profits by it, and brings forth fruit to life eternal. But two kinds, those like the stony ground, and those like the thorny ground, embrace it and profit by it for a time, and then fall away. The seed in the stony ground springs up (Matt. xiii. 5). Such hearers received the seed with joy (ver. 20), but they last only for a while (ver. 21); they “for a while believe, but in time of temptation fall away” (Luke viii. 13). So the seed which falls among thorns springs up; but the thorns spring up with it, and choke it. “The cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word” (Matt, xiii. 22).

Again, the parable of the Vine and the Branches (John xv. 1‒10) teaches the same thing. Christ’s disciples are compared to branches of a Vine, the Lord Himself being that Vine. “Every branch,” He says, “in Me that beareth not fruit, He” (i. e. God the Father) “taketh away” (ver. 2). “I am the Vine, ye are the branches; he that abideth in Me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit; for without Me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in Me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered, and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” (vv. 5, 6).

Heb. vi. 4‒8, seems to contain a positive statement that men do sometimes so fall away from grace already received as to fall not only finally but hopelessly: “It is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame,” &c.

So 2 Pet. ii. 21, 22. The Apostle is evidently speaking of persons who had fallen away from grace, apostates from the faith of Christ. For though, in ver. 20, he speaks only hypothetically, “If after they have escaped the pollutions of the world,” &c., yet in vv. 21, 22, he speaks of their apostasy as having actually occurred: “It had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened (συμβέβηκε) unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.”

(5) Finally, it is contended that, with all these proofs from Scripture that grace given may be lost, the doctrine of the indefectibility of grace would never have been thought of, but that it fell naturally into a system. Accordingly, the more ancient predestinarians, like Augustine, though they believed in the irrespective and immutable decrees of God, yet did not teach the doctrine of absolutely indefectible grace. But Calvin’s great characteristic was his logical acuteness, which led him to form all his doctrines into harmonious systems. He could never leave mysterious doctrines in their mystery, on the principle that our finite intellects are permitted to grasp only part of the great plans of infinite Wisdom. The doctrine of final perseverance seemed necessary to the harmony and completeness of the predestinarian scheme; and on that account, not because Scripture taught it, it was adopted and received.


  1. καὶ δεήθητι Θεοῦ, εἰ ἄρα ἀϕεθήσεταί σοι ὴ ἐπίνοια τῆς καρδίας σου.
  2. Adv. Jovinian. Lib. II. circ. init. Tom. IV. pt. II. p. 193.
  3. Of Repentance, ch. IV. § 2.
  4. ἑκουσίως ביד רמה with a high hand, presumptuously. See Numb. xv. 29, 30; and Rosenmüller thereon; Kuinoel on Heb. x. 26.
  5. See Suicer, s. v. ϕωτίζω, ϕωτισμὸς. Also Bingham, E. A. I. iv. 1, XI. i. 4.
  6. δυνάμεις μέλλοντος αἰῶνος, the very phrase used in the LXX. (cf. Isai. ix. 6) of the Christian Church. See Hammond, in loc. Rosenmüller and Kuinoel both understand these words of the Kingdom of Christ, the Reign of Messiah. Hence “the powers of the world to come” would be the blessed effects of Christ’s kingdom and gospel.
  7. παραπίπτειν is the translation of the LXX. for אָשַׁם Ezek. xxii. 4, and מָעַל Ezek. xiv. 13. Schleusner compares 2 Chron. xxix. 19, where the LXX. translate בִּמַעַלוֹ, ἐν ἀποστασίᾳ αὐτοῦ.
  8. On Repentance, ch. IX. sect. 4.
  9. Dr. Hammond, in loc. observes that, as ἐγκαινίζειν is to dedicate, consecrate, so, ἀνακαινίζειν is to reconsecrate. Persons utterly apostate could not be reconsecrate. There was no power to repeat their baptism, nor, if utterly apostate, could the Church readmit them by penance to Church-communion.
  10. Many understand ἀνακαινίζειν as applied to the ministers of the Church. It is “impossible for the ministers of Christ to renew them again;” that is, there is no other sacrament by which we can restore offenders to the same position in which they were before their fall, and in which they were once placed by the sacrament of baptism.
  11. Bishop Jeremy taylor, as above.
  12. Jeremy Taylor, On Repentance, ch. IX. sect. 2.
  13. See the statement of their opinions in Sect. I.
  14. The English version translates εἰ δυνατὸν “if it were possible.” The whole strength of the passage as favouring the Calvinistic theory is in the words it were, which are not in the Greek. Render it “if possible,” and the argument is gone.
  15. ἀπὸ τῶν παρελθοντῶν καὶ περὶ τῶν μελλόντων στοχαζόμενος. — Theophyl. in loc. quoted by Whitby, whom see.
  16. See Whitby and Macknight on 1 Pet. i. 4, 5.
  17. “Bona arbor non fert malos fructus, quamdiu in bonitatis studio perseverat.” — Hieron. In Matt. vii. 18, Tom. IV. pt. II. p. 25, cited by Dr. Hammond on 1 John iii. 9.
  18. Ignat. Ad Eph. c. viii.
  19. πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος. Rosenmüller says that it is the same as γεννητός יְלוּד, Job xiv. 1, or τεκνὸν, as in ver. 10. And Dr. Hammond observes, that the perfect participle indicates that we must not refer the words “born of God” to the moment or instant of regeneration. It indicates not a transient, but a permanent condition.
  20. He thus explains the passage in St. John: “Propterea, inquit, scribo vobis, filioli mei; omnis, qui natus est ex Deo, non peccat, ut non peccetis; et tamdiu sciatis vos in generatione Domini permanere quamdiu non peccaveritis. Immo, qui in generatione Domini perseverant peccare non possunt. Quæ enim communicatio luci et tenebris? Christo et Belial? . . . . Si susceperimus Christum in hospitio nostri pectoris, illico fugamus Diabolum. Si peccaverimus, et per peccati januam ingressus fuerit Diabolus, protinus Christus recedit.” — Hieron. Adv. Jovin. Lib. II. init. Tom. IV. Par. II. p. 193.


E. Harold Browne

(Edward) Harold Browne was an English bishop, born at Aylesbury and educated at Eton and Cambridge. He was ordained in 1836, and two years later was elected senior tutor of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. From 1843 to 1849 he was vice-principal of St David’s College, Lampeter, and in 1854 was appointed Norrisian professor of divinity at Cambridge. His best-known book is the Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles (vol. i., Cambridge, 1850; vol. ii., London, 1853), which remained for many years a standard work on the subject and is still beloved today. In 1864 he was consecrated bishop of Ely.

'Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles – Article XVI (Part 2)' has 1 comment

  1. July 5, 2022 @ 6:07 pm Mike G.

    …“every deadly sin committed after baptism is not unpardonable,” UGH. It’s so difficult to read an article when it is begun with a glaring error in grammar.
    Consider the difference between the following statements:
    – Not every pancake is round
    – Every pancake is not round
    Do you see the difference? The former draws a distinction, but the latter declares that no exceptions exist. So the meaning of the phrase in quotation marks is that EVERY single such ‘deadly sin’ (without exception) is pardonable; but this is untrue since we must distinguish between the ‘unpardonable sin’ and pardonable (though serious) sins. In addition, the phrase in quotes contains a clunky double-negative, and “not unpardonable” is more properly expressed in the single word, “pardonable.” Therefore, the proper sentence structure is, “NOT EVERY deadly sin committed after baptism is unpardonable.”


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