How Does ‘Willful Sinning’ Threaten My Salvation?
Interview with John Piper
Christians struggle with sin because we, in this life, are still sinners. The presence of sin in us will not be eradicated until that glorious day when we see Jesus face to face. What a day that will be! But until then, we fight sin by faith, and we can experience assurance inside the fight. But we also believe there are forms of “willful sin” that evidence a heart that has not been saved. Which leads to today’s question.
The question is regarding some of those hard verses in the book of Hebrews, specifically Hebrews 10:26–29. The writer seems to be speaking about the ability to lose salvation by engaging in ‘willful sin,’ as it has been called. The question: What is the opposite of a ‘willful sin’? Is it an accidental sin? Or something else? It seems to me that, due to the presence of the Holy Spirit’s conviction, all sin done by the believer is done willfully. Is there something I am not seeing within these verses?”
Hebrews 10 and Hebrews 6 often give people the impression that a person possesses the fullness of salvation and then loses it. These texts can even look that way, but there are clues that this is not what the author of Hebrews wants to communicate.
The question is twofold:
1. Do these verses teach that we can lose our salvation?
2. What does Hebrews 10:26 mean by referring to “sinning deliberately” (or “willingly”), since in one sense all sin is an act of the will and thus deliberate?
Two Kinds of Willing
The key verse that he’s referring to goes like this: “For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:26). In other words, we’re beyond salvation.
“What destroys the soul is an eager, deliberate, willing, persistent, settled pattern of sin.”
Now, two observations about this phrase “go on sinning deliberately” are really important.
First, the word deliberately translates the Greek hekousiōs. This word is used in 1 Peter 5:2 like this: “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly [hekousiōs].” Willingly — here is the same word that we translate as deliberately in Hebrews 10:26.
Now, what this usage shows (and the reason I cite it) is that there are two different kinds of willing, aren’t there? One is eager and wholehearted, and the other is under compulsion.
In both cases, one could argue that the elders are in fact exercising their will to shepherd the flock of God. In the one case, it’s glad. It’s an act that engages the whole will. It’s happy and energized. In the other case, it’s begrudging, an act that evidently goes against significant parts of the will because they would rather be doing something else. They don’t really want to shepherd the flock of God, but for money or for fame or to avoid guilty feelings they gut it out and shepherd the flock of God.
Sins That Destroy
This is a correction to Josh’s assumption that all sinning is equally willing — or all human acts are equally willing — since all acts, including sin, are acts of the will. That’s true. They are acts of the will. We choose them.
This text, Hebrews 10:26, is saying something more than that the sin which destroys the soul is an act of the will. Of course, it is, but it’s more than that. All sins are acts of the will, and not all sins destroy. It’s a more intentional, eager, wholehearted act of the will. An act which shows there isn’t a real identity of spiritual newness inside, which acts as a constraint holding back the will, at least in part.
Patterns of Sin
Now here’s the second thing to notice in the phrase “go on sinning deliberately” [or “willingly” or “eagerly”].” It’s that phrase “go on sinning,” which is a good translation of the present tense of the Greek verb for sin.
In other words, it’s not a single act; it’s not a few acts; it’s not periodic acts. It’s rather a settled, persistent continuation in sin. What destroys the soul, what puts it beyond forgiveness in verse 26 is not sin per se, but an eager, deliberate, willing, persistent, settled pattern of sin.
“If we don’t hold fast to the end, then we never had come to share in Christ.”
We can see how serious this is by looking at what comes just before and what comes just after verse 26. Verse 26 begins with the word for, which shows what kind of sin is being referred to in the preceding verses — namely, the sin of forsaking the Christian fellowship and rejecting all brotherly exhortation. In other words, this person is walking away from Christ and his church.
Then if you look after verse 26, especially at verse 29, you see that the pattern of sin is so deep and repeated that it’s called “trampling underfoot the Son of God” and “profaning the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified,” and “outraging the Spirit of grace” (see Hebrews 10:29).
Right here is where it looks like we can lose our salvation because of the reference “by which he was sanctified.” By such a deliberate, continued, settled pattern of sin, you can profane the blood of the covenant by which you were sanctified. Which sounds like, “Oh, well, he was saved. But now he’s beyond forgiveness. So you can lose your salvation.”
There are two passages in Hebrews that keep me from going there.
Lost and Found
I have two passages that stop me from saying that his reference to some kind of sanctified condition for the person who is lost means that we can have the full experience of salvation in Christ and be lost or lose it. There are two passages, Hebrews 10:14 and Hebrews 3:14.
Here’s Hebrews 10:14 (see what you think): “For by a single offering” — that’s the offering of Christ — “[God] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” In other words, there is a kind of being sanctified that absolutely guarantees perfection for all time. In other words, nobody is lost who is experiencing this kind of sanctification.
“There is a kind of sinning that is more deliberate, more eager, more persistent than the way a genuine believer sins.”
Here’s the second one, Hebrews 3:14: “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.”
Note, it doesn’t say, “We will come to share in Christ if we hold fast to the end.” It says, “We have come to share in Christ if we hold fast to the end,” which means that if we don’t hold fast, like the person in Hebrews 10:26, then we never had come to share in Christ. That’s the clear teaching of Hebrews 3:14.
We didn’t lose our share in Christ. We never had it.
United with Christ
My conclusion is that the experience of sanctification referred to in the lost person of Hebrews 10:26 and 10:29 is a measure of God-influenced moral renovation in a person that has been absorbed by being part of the church, professing some kind of faith, being attracted by many things about the Christian faith and Christian people, but never really coming to believe in Christ in such a way as to be united to him — to have a share in him and his eternal life and salvation.
My answer is:
1. No, I don’t think genuine believers in Christ lose their salvation.
2. I think there is a kind of sinning that is more deliberate, more eager, more persistent than the way a genuine believer sins — sins that are confessed and forgiven.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons.