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16. The Meaning of “Perfect” in Hebrews


– Chapter 16 –

The Meaning of “Perfect” in Hebrews

Perfection is central to Hebrews

In this chapter we aim to bring out the essence of the letter to the Hebrews by focusing on a central theme in it: perfection.

Hebrews is a mysterious book to many Christians because it deals with a topic that is obscure to them: the Old Testament sacrificial system. It is import­ant, however, that we grasp the mess­age of Hebrews or else the spiritual meaning of the Old Testa­ment will remain opaque and obscure to us. In fact, Hebrews sums up for us the spiritual essence of the Old Testament. It is a key to under­standing the Pentateuch in part­icular, and the Old Testament in general.

In the necessarily concise exposition of Hebrews in this chapter, we will consider a key to understanding Hebrews itself. It is found in the word “perfect” or “make perfect”. Another word that is related to “per­fect” in Hebrews is the word “holy” or “make holy” (often translated “sanctify”) in its various forms. But in the scope of this chapter, we can only consider “perfect”.

How central is the idea of “perfect” in the book of Hebrews? In the original Greek text, the verb occurs 9 times in Hebrews versus 14 times in all the rest of the New Testament. Hence Hebrews accounts for almost half the New Testament occurrences of “perfect” in the verb form. When cognate (related) forms are taken into account, perfection is mentioned 14 times in Hebrews. These statistics make it evident that perfection is central to the book of Hebrews.

What then does “perfect” mean in Hebrews? We must not arbit­rarily impose our own definitions upon a word in Scripture; we need to establish what the word means in Scriptural usage. It is not just a matter of looking up “perfect” in a standard dictionary such as Oxford English Dictionary and then importing its definition into Hebrews, because that definition might not express the meaning in­tended by its author. What the writer himself means by “perfect” needs to be estab­lished by examining how he himself uses the word. The task is made easier by the fact that “perfect” in its var­ious forms appears many times in Hebrews. If the word had oc­curred only once or twice, we may feel obliged to resort to guess­work, but when it occurs 14 times, the guessing can be elim­inated.

The Old Testament sacrifices did not make anyone perfect

Hebrews is concerned with the Old Testament sacrificial system and the priestly system associated with it. Hence, in Hebrews, “perfect” is used in the context of the law, the sacrifices, and the priesthood. To narrow our field, let us start with Hebrews 10, and then widen our field from there. In chapter 10, “perfect” occurs twice in the first 14 verses. Verse 1 says:

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming — not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. (Hebrews 10:1, NIV)

The sacrificial system made no one perfect, not even those who sincere­ly tried to draw near to God. The sacrifices that a man offered, even if done regularly and frequently, could not make him perfect. The sacrifices had to do with atonement [1] for sin. Since the sacrifices could not “make perfect those who draw near to worship,” those who drew near were unable to enter into communion with God. Only through the sacrifice of Christ do we have access to God, and dare enter into the Holiest Place to draw near to Him.

The Old Testament sacrifices — many though they were, and a complex system though they formed — could not perfect the worship­pers, whereas “by a single offering Jesus has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (v.14).

Perfect: Free from sin

The meaning of perfect emerges when we survey Hebrews 10. Verse 1 says that the Law “can never … make perfect those who draw near.” Note the strong word “never”. The sacrifices, which are central to the Law and the Old Testament way of life, were unable to perfect anyone no matter how often or faithfully they were offered. Nor were they designed for that purpose, being only a “shadow” pointing to the “good things” (10:1) that God has in store for those who have faith in Him. In God’s plan of salvation, the Law served an important didactic purpose: It was “our tutor to lead us to Christ” (Gal.3:24).

But once the Law had fulfilled that crucial role and achieved its God-given purpose of leading us to Christ, its task was completed. Because we have come to Christ and are justified by faith in him, having learned from this “tutor” (the Law) the necessity of his death for our salvation, we remain deeply thankful for the tutor even if his services as “school­master” are required no more (Gal.3:25).

As a shadow of the good things, the sacrifices pointed forward to the true and effect­ual sacrifice that was to be made for us in Christ. The sacrifices were therefore pro­missory in character, so that those who offered them could be “saved in hope” just as we are (Rom.8:24). The fact that the sacrifices could never perfect anyone, even when repeated, should have made its promissory character evident to the spiritually discerning. Perfecting the sinner had never been God’s purpose for these sacrifices; hence they could never bring anyone to perfection.

If the sacrifices could perfect sinners, “would they not have ceased to be offered?” (Heb.10:2a). Obviously, if the sac­rifices could per­fect you, you wouldn’t have to offer them again. In this hypothetical situation, “the worship­pers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sin.” (v.2b).

To be made “perfect” (10:1) means to be “cleansed” from sin (10:2); if we have been cleansed — perfected — we wouldn’t have to offer the sacrifices again. But because they could not cleanse us, the people had to keep on offering the sacrifices under the Old Testament.

Verse 3 says, “In these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year.” Far from cleansing the people from sin, the sacrifices reminded them of sin. The continual consciousness of sin and guilt arises from the inability of the sacrifices to cleanse the sinner.

Verse 4 says, “For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins.” The sacrifices were made repeatedly precisely because it was “impossible” for them to remove sins.

So far we have seen three parallel concepts: perfect means cleansed, which in turn means the removal of sin. Hence perfection has to do with the removal of sin. But sanctified — made holy — also means to be cleansed from sin. “Jesus also, that he might sanctify (‘make holy’, NIV) the people through his own blood, suf­fered outside the city gate” (Heb.13:12). “By this will (of God, v.9) we have been sanctified (made holy) through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb.10:10). “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb.10:14). Here we see the intrinsic link be­tween “perfected” and “sanctified,” [2] or “made holy”.

When we are sanctified, we can draw near to God and commune with Him. Having been sanctified, every Christian is a saint (Rom.1:7; 1Cor.1:2; etc.). The Greek words for saint and sanctify (hagios, ἅγιος and hagiazō, ἁγιάζω) share a common root. A saint is simply one who has been sanctified, cleansed from sin — perfected. When sin has been removed, one is no longer oppressively cons­cious of sin or burdened with a sense of guilt. It is now clear that in the book of Hebrews, perfection means freedom from sin.

Jesus made perfect through suffering

Interestingly, the definition of perfection given in Hebrews, namely, freedom from sin, applies in a specific sense even to the Lord Jesus him­self. How is this possible in view of the fact that Jesus has never sinned? The answer is found in Hebrews chapter 2.

In this chapter, it is said that Jesus was made “perfect … through suffering” (v.10). This included the suffering of temptation: “He himself was tempted in that which he has suffered” (v.18). Because he shared our nature of “flesh and blood” (v.14), he was subjected to the same tempt­ations and pressures of sin as we are, yet he triumphed consistently over sin, and remained free from sin. He estab­lished his freedom from sin through his cost­ly yet decisive victory over it.

A comparison with Adam can help us understand this point more clearly. Adam began life in the Garden without sin, but when faced with the tempt­ation to disobey God, rather than being willing to en­dure whatever suffering was needed to remain faithful to God and not succumb to the temptation, he yielded to temptation, disobeyed God, and lost his freedom from sin.

If he had obeyed God in the face of temptation, he would have been “made perfect” through obedience and would have remained free from sin. He was initially perfect in the general sense of being free from sin by virtue of not having sinned yet; but he would have been “made perfect” in the deeper sense (the true meaning of Biblical perfection) if he had triumphed over sin. Jesus was victor­ious where Adam failed.

Having won that victory, Jesus can set us free from sin. A slave of sin cannot overcome sin because a slave has no authority over his mas­ter. But when Jesus sets us free from the bondage to sin, we can triumph over sin as he did. He was tempted in every way, yet he never sinned (Heb.4:15). He triumphed against the fiercest assaults which sin and the powers of darkness could launch against him.

Freedom from sin

“If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). This refers specifically to freedom from sin because just two verses earlier Jesus said, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin”. There is no true freedom apart from the freedom from sin.

Let us take the case of a drug addict who lives in Canada. He may be free as far as the law is concerned if he hasn’t yet been prosecuted and charged. He enjoys all the rights of a citizen. He may be free from financial burdens. He is free in every legal sense of the word “free”. But so long as he is not free from sin or his drug addiction, he is not “free indeed,” and does not enjoy true freedom.

You may be financially free because you have an adequate bank account. You might not be a millionaire, but you’re not going to be evicted from your apartment over unpaid rent. You may be free from any crippling disease, and free because your rights are protected by the Constitution. But if you are a slave of sin, being controlled by any form of addiction such as greed or lust, you are not truly free.

Only “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” Freedom from sin is the only true freedom. Jesus goes on to say, “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). The truth in Christ sets us free. When Scripture speaks of freedom, it does not refer to political or fi­nancial freedom but to spiritual freedom — freedom from sin — without which no other freedom has any substan­tive meaning.

Two dangers relating to freedom from sin

Here we must tackle two dangerous ideas pertaining to freedom from sin. If we err in either point, there will be grave consequences. The first danger is to think that we are free when we are not. The second danger is to misuse a freedom that we really do possess. Scripture deals with both dangers.

First danger: Thinking you are free when you are not

(1) The consciousness of sin

If a sacrifice truly sets a person free from sin, he “would no longer have con­sciousness of sin” (Hebrews 10:2). The consciousness of sin re­mained under the Old Testament system, but not so in Christ, for “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (v.14), and frees us from the consciousness of sin.

But we need to be careful in how we understand “consciousness of sin”. Does the term imply that becoming a Christian is a psycholo­gical matter, by which you no longer feel a sense of guilt because you now believe that Jesus died for you? Is the main benefit of Christian­ity something of a psycho­logical nature that removes a feeling of guilt that is bad for our mental health? Does Christianity remove psycho­logical burdens, guilt com­plexes and the like, leading to the conclusion that Jesus died mainly to heal us on the “inner” or psychological level?

(2) The danger of self-deception

We will not venture into the subject of psychiatry or psychology. Yet many have fallen for a dangerous self-deception: Whether you “feel” forgiven is one thing; whether you have truly been freed from sin is another. The point is simple: If you are still under the power of sin yet don’t feel any guilt, then you are in a dangerous self-deception because you are enslaved to sin without your realizing it. You have taken spirit­ual opiate. Karl Marx’s accus­ation, that religion is the opiate of the people, can under these circumstances be correct.

As Marx would put it, religion makes people feel good even if nothing has changed in their true situation. Religion gives people the hope of going to heaven even while they are living in poverty and are being exploited by landlords and capitalists. They feel good because they take opium (religion) and forget their true sit­uation. The oppress­ors grow stronger while the wretched people remain addicted to the opiate of religion. Marx could be right up to a point.

We too could become spiritual drug pushers who peddle opium to a people languishing in spiritual wretchedness. It is like giving a shot of morphine to a wounded soldier. The inject­ion will ease the pain but is he really any better? He may feel better, but his actual condition is still the same; he will bleed to death if the wound is not speedily treated.

In preaching God’s word, we must not fall into self-delusion or peddle spiritual opiate. Let no one live in self-delusion, for it is bondage of the worst kind. Self-delusion is to think we are free from sin on the basis of some Christian doctrine when in fact we are still enslaved to sin — for example, a doctrine that declares that you are forgiven simply by accepting God’s forgiveness. That sounds good. “Believe that you have been forgiven, and you are forgiven.” But please tell me what to do about the sin that enslaves me, and the debt of sin that is piling up. So I plead for forgiveness every day: “Lord, I’m sorry that I failed You yesterday, today and probably tomorrow.” Is this the Christian life?

You might even go one step further: After asking for forgive­ness, you try your best to lose all consciousness of sin. Even if you are still controlled by sin, just take it easy. Don’t talk about sin, don’t think about it, don’t worry about it, because the blood of Jesus has cleansed you in the past, and will continue to cleanse you after.

(3) No need to be concerned about your sins?

Don’t worry about sin, we are told, not even if sin is eating you up like a cancer ravaging the body. “No matter how often you sin, no matter how wretched your spiritual state is, there is forgive­ness. You may be living in spiritual bankruptcy and piling up debt, but it has all been written off. Even if you accumulate debt for the rest of your life, Jesus’ infinite account will be there to write them off!”

Isn’t there something wrong here? Can we pile up debt forever just because we think that God will forgive them? Do you see the mortal danger of this kind of thinking which leads to carelessness about sin?

Some Christians want to forget about sin because it is tiring to plead for forgiveness again and again, apologizing to the Lord day in and day out. Shouldn’t this come to an end? Wouldn’t God be tired of listening to our endless apologies? In what way does our repeated plea for forgiveness differ from the repeated sacrifices under the Law?

(4) Is Romans 7 a picture of the Christian life?

Many Christians have not crossed over from the bond­age to sin described in Romans 7 to the freedom from sin, available in Christ, described in Romans 8. Some even say that Romans 7 describes the Christian life! If that were true, the “Christian” life of Romans 7 would be a flat contradiction of what is expounded in Romans 6 and 8. A careful reading of Romans 7 makes it clear that it speaks of the failure to live the spiritual life, one which can hardly be labelled as “Christian”. Sadly, many Christians identify with the description in Romans 7, taking it as a stark portrayal of their own failed “Christian” lives.

Our failures must be examined in the light of Scripture, and our lives must conform to what Scripture describes as being “in Christ”. A Christian is “in Christ” when he has been “baptized into Christ … into his death” (Rom.6:3). In Christ, he has died to sin, for “how shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (6:2). Living in the grip of sin is the situation described in Romans 7. Paul speaks of having “died to sin” not merely in some legal or ceremonial sense, but as a practical matter of daily living, which is his concern throughout chapter 6.

But many Christians did not die with Christ at their baptism. They did not die to sin, and consequently have never experienced the truth of Romans 6:7: “He who has died is freed from sin”. Still living under the power of sin, they are caught in the destructive cycle of sin and guilt. They seek psychological release from the guilt which hounds them relentlessly. But seeking a feeling of forgive­ness when we are still con­trolled by the power of sin is self-deception.

(5) The consciousness of sin: psychological or spiritual?

When Hebrews 10:2 says that the “conscious­ness” of sin is removed through Jesus’ sacrifice, is it referring to some­thing purely psychologi­cal? If being a Christian is to have a psy­chological feeling of forgive­ness, wouldn’t the Old Testament sacrifices be equally effective? As far as psychological benefits are concerned, there is nothing defective about the Old Testament sacri­fices. Would not the blood of bulls and goats be sufficient? When I see the animal being sacrificed on my behalf, I trust that Yahweh God accepts the offering because He Himself instit­uted the sacrificial system. I confessed my sins, the animal has been sacrificed, and therefore I am forgiven. There is no obvious reason why the Old Testament sacrifices are not effective psychologically.

I am not aware of any statements in Jewish writings to the effect that the Old Testament sacrifices were unable to remove their guilt feelings. I have not encountered any such statement in the rabbi­nical and Jewish literature I have read. The animal sacrifices do appear to provide psychological release from a sense of guilt to those who offer them.

The writer to the Hebrews is, however, dealing with spiritual reality rather than psychology. His basic point is that the Old Testa­ment sacrifices did not avail because they could not free anyone from the power of sin. The guilt returns when sins are committed, and the offering of sacrifices is needed again. In this cycle of sin and guilt, alternating with sacri­fices, there is psycho­logical relief, but not for long because there is no true freedom from sin.

Visiting a psychologist may provide some mental relief. He or she may suggest a holiday on a Carib­bean island, and who wouldn’t feel better after that? On the purely psychol­ogical level, a holiday can do as much for you as going to church.

By contrast, we think that the Lord Jesus makes life difficult for us when he says that you cannot be his disciple without denying yourself. Deny yourself? That requirement alone is enough to kill off all good feelings! It is bad psychology, you might say. And you are right because Jesus does not preach psycho­logy.

(6) A psychological gospel cannot save us

A psychological pain killer to ease the pain of guilt and com­fort the vexed heart is found in every religion. All religions have something to offer on the psycholo­gical level that attracts people.

The Old Testament sacrifices have a real psycho­logical value. But when Hebrews speaks of the removal of the con­sciousness of sin through Christ’s sacrifice for us, it is referring to some­thing more than psychology, namely, the spiritual experience of deliverance from sin. If we have been freed from sin and its power, we are no longer conscious of sin as an ever-present entity controlling our lives and making us do what it wants us to do.

If you say to a drug addict, “Drugs are bad for you, but don’t you worry about it because everyone is taking drugs now­adays,” you are ministering to him psychologically while he is still controlled by drugs. Notwithstanding your assurances, he is aware that drugs are destroy­ing his health and finances.

The gospel of psychology fails in the same way: You tell the sinner, “Everything’s fine because Jesus has forgiven your sins,” yet he feels that something is amiss. Then you explain to him, “Your problem is a lack of faith. Claim the free gift of for­giveness even if you are still enslaved to sin. Who’s perfect anyway?”

What are we telling the sinner? Ignore sin even if it enslaves him? He will soon discover that no matter how often he takes hold of God’s for­giveness, the power of sin will compel him to sin again and again. He begs for forgiveness all the time, and knows that something is wrong, yet he is being told that it is a problem of his faith. Quack doctors are giving him the wrong diagnosis and the wrong medication. It is like giving symptomatic treatment to a critically ill person, “Just take this pain killer, and everything’s going to be fine.”

Let God search our hearts and reveal to us whether the sacrifice of Jesus and the power of his blood have freed us from the power of sin. If we feel good on the psychological level while still living under sin’s dominion, then we are in a state of spiritual paralysis or self-delusion, or both, and are dead in “trespasses and sins” (Eph.2:1).

If we are controlled by sin, it would be better for us to feel bad. Then we will say to the Lord, “Please free me from bondage.” I recently read a book by a medical specialist who said that where there is pain, there is life and the hope of recovery. But when an affected area is dead, the pain is felt no more. May the pain of being afflicted by sin still be felt in us and drive us to the Savior.

If you are truly free from sin (or from the addiction to drugs), you won’t need anyone to tell you to feel free. The psychological will follow the actual without the use of gimmicks.

(7) The light view and the serious view of sin

There is a light view of sin, and there is a serious view. The light view is to think we can continue to sin because Christ has paid the penalty. This view is deadly because it destroys our sensitivity to sin and quenches our conscience with a dose of religion. The light view of sin is often seen in the psychological present­ation of the gospel.

The other is the serious view of sin. If God didn’t take a serious view of sin, would it have been necessary for Christ to die for our sins? God did not spare His own Son, but delivered him up for us all” (Rom.8:32). Paul teaches the serious view of sin: “If God did not spare the natural branches [the unbelieving Jews who persisted in disobeying God], neither will He spare you” (Rom.11:21). God is gracious and kind, but also holy and just. “Continue in His kindness otherwise you also will be cut off” (Rom.11:22).

The Lord Jesus himself takes a very serious view of sin, especially for his disciples. Consider these striking words:

“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29)

These words are addressed to his disciples and the crowds gathered around him (Mt.5:1). If there were no danger of being cast into hell for a disciple who sins, how would this statement apply to them? If it has little relevance, why would the rest of the Sermon on the Mount be relevant to them? Paul warns the Galatian Christians:

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7-8, ESV)

Gouging out the eye is to be taken spirit­ually, not literally. In the history of the church no one has been known to literally pluck out an eye. In any case, this would not solve the problem of sin because, as Jesus says in the previous verse, sin is a problem which has its cen­ter in man’s heart (Mt.5:28). Gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand (v.30) will not get at the root of the problem. The eye looks at what the heart desires, and the hand follows what the heart dictates. Jesus is saying that drastic action is called for when our entry into eternal life is at risk. His serious view of sin is seen in another passage:

If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. (Matthew18:89-9, NIV; cf. Mark 9:43‑48)

To whom does Jesus address these words? Who are the “you” in this statement? The beginning of the chapter shows that Jesus is speaking to his disciples, and therefore to us Christians.

Jesus does not teach a light view of sin or a cheap atone­ment. Anyone who views sin lightly does not realize that the atone­ment was unimaginably costly to the Lord. Some people have a type of faith that borders on presumption, that grabs things in the name of “faith”. To presume on God’s kindness and forgiveness is the biggest mistake that one could make. “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

(8) Willful sin versus unwitting sin

The main word for sin in the Hebrew Old Testament is חטא, chata, which has the basic meaning “to miss the goal” or “to miss the way”.[3] For example, if we fail to live the victorious Christian life to which the Lord calls us, we have sinned either by commission or by omission. Either way we have missed the goal, the mark, the calling.

In the Old Testament, sin falls into two main categories: unwit­ting sin versus willful sin. Unwitting sin is a sin that is committed uninten­tionally; a command of God was transgressed without our realizing it. We made a mistake and missed the mark or the standard of conduct which God has set before us.

In the Bible, the only kind of sin that can be forgiven through the sacrifices is unintentional sin — sin committed by mis­take. I stress the word “mistake” because many Christians draw a false distinction between sin and mistake. If you do something that is wrong and call it a mistake, meaning that it is less than a sin, then you don’t really understand what sin is in the Bible. You have taken a light view of sin, not realizing that a sin by mistake is still a sin.

Many give the excuse that they only made a mistake. That is the human understanding of sin. In Script­ure, sin does not necessarily involve a deliberate decision to commit it.

To say that unintentional sin is still a sin committed by mistake is not to say, conversely, that every mistake is a sin. If you dialed the wrong number on the telephone, that is a mistake but not a sin; sin is something that affects the spiritual life. A mistake on the spiritual level can be unintentional sin, for we did something wrong without realizing it. We were inconsiderate to someone, or have forgotten to carry out a responsi­bility entrusted to us. These are sins of omission, often due to careless­ness. Careless­ness is not a minor matter because it can cause serious incidents with fatal conse­quences.

Significantly, the word “mistake” or “error” rarely occurs in the Bible, which is not surprising because a mistake is still a sin for which restitution plus a penalty or sacrifice may be required. An example of the first is found in Leviticus 22:14, “If anyone eats a sacred offer­ing by mistake, he must make restitution to the priest for the offering and add a fifth of the value to it”. Other translations have “unwittingly” or “unintent­ion­ally” instead of “by mistake”. Another exam­ple is seen in Leviticus 4:13-15:

Now if the whole congregation of Israel commits error, and the matter escapes the notice of the assembly, and they commit any of the things which Yahweh has commanded not to be done, and they become guilty; when the sin which they have com­mitted becomes known, then the assembly shall offer a bull of the herd for a sin offering, and bring it before the tent of meeting. Then the elders of the congregation shall lay their hands on the head of the bull before Yahweh, and the bull shall be slain before Yahweh.

Here the error is regarded as something “committed,” for which the congregation is guilty. It is described as a “sin” even though the peo­ple were not aware of the error at first. Consequently, a sin offering had to be made.

The second danger: to misuse the freedom or the forgiveness that one has

No forgiveness for intentional sin

In the case of intentional sin, the consequences are extremely serious. If for example you tell a lie deliberately with the purpose of harming someone by misleading him, you are in big trouble because you have sinned intent­ionally. Scripture gives a frightening warning: There is no forgiveness for de­liberate sin. Such a sin is unpardonable. That is undoubtedly one reason why the apostle Paul exhorts us to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil.2:12). As a rabbi, Paul thoroughly understood sin in its Biblical meaning. But many people, not knowing this important fact about sin, are baffled by the apostle’s words. In this connection, consider carefully these words of the Law:

But if just one person sins unintentionally, he must bring a year-old female goat for a sin offering. The priest is to make atonement before Yahweh for the one who erred by sinning unintentionally, and when atonement has been made for him, he will be forgiven. One and the same law applies to everyone who sins unintentionally, whet­her he is a native-born Israelite or an alien. But anyone who sins defiantly, whe­ther native-born or alien, blas­phemes Yahweh, and that person must be cut off from his people. Because he has despised Yahweh’s word and broken his commands, that person must surely be cut off; his guilt remains on him. (Numbers 15:27-31, NIV)

To sin willfully or intentionally is an act of defiance against God. It is to deliberately ignore and reject God’s will defiantly by insisting on doing one’s own will. It is the hubris and arrogance of putting our will above the will of the Most High God. In the Hebrew text, this idea of self-exaltation is found in the words which literally mean “with a high hand,” translated “defiantly” in the text just quoted. RSV and ESV give the literal translation “with a high hand”. It can be said with some justification that deliberate sin is a form of apostasy, for by it the sinner in his arrogance “blasphemes the Lord” (Numbers 15:30).

In the Old Testament the only kind of sin that can be forgiven was unwitting sin. For defiant intentional sin, there was no forgiveness or sacrifice. The high priest entered the Holy of Holies once a year to present an offering of blood “for himself and for the sins of the people committed in ignorance” (Hebrews 9:7).

This principle is seen in Hebrews 10:26: “For if we sin deliberate­ly after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” This verse is frightening because it plainly states the seriousness of willful sin. It is addressed not to non-Christians but to Christians (“we”), the covenant people of God who have received the “knowledge of the truth” (cf. “His people,” v.30).

Verse 29 too refers to a Christ­ian when it speaks of one who has profaned “the blood of the covenant by which he was sanc­tified,” one who is, in the light of verse 14, a believer who has been “sanctified” by Christ’s sacrifice. Hebrews 13:12 says that Jesus suffered in order to “sanctify the people through his own blood.”

If anyone spurns the blood of the New Covenant after having been sanctified by it, there is no more sacrifice for him. Hebrews brings out this point in the form of a question: What punishment is approp­riate in such a case, seeing that the punish­ment was already severe under the Old Testament for this kind of sin? Hebrews 10:28,29 says:

Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punish­ment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?

Yet there are some in the church who close their ears to what Script­ure teaches so clearly. “This cannot be. It must be a mis­take.” A mistake? How our eyes deceive us, and our ears are deaf to plain language. For the sake of our eternal being, let us examine what is written here.

The word “deliberately” or “willingly” (ἑκουσίως, hekousiōs) is often used in the Greek Old Testament (LXX) of the freewill offer­ing. This word occurs, for example, in Psalm 54:6 [4]: “With a free­will offering [5] I will sacrifice to You”. The word “freewill” implies that the person is not under any external compulsion or pressure. He chooses to do something willingly, intentionally, and freely.

The same word hekousiōs is used in 1Peter 5:2 where Peter exhorts the elders to tend the flock of God “not by constraint but willingly”. Again the contrast between serving willingly and under compulsion. The leaders are to shepherd the flock voluntarily, freely, gladly.

If a man sins deliberately, he has chosen to sin of his own free will. He was not under any external compulsion to sin. For such a person there is no more sacrifice. It will be for our eternal blessing if this truth frightens us enough to shake us out of spiritual complacency.

(1) Sinning without external compulsion

In the Old Testament, if a person sinned delib­erately without exter­nal compulsion, he was put to death without mercy, even if he had committed the sin in weakness.

Let’s take the sin of adultery. Let’s suppose that two persons com­mitted adultery, but without prior plan or arrangement. They didn’t say to one another, “Let’s get together and do this thing.” But one day they found them­selves alone and as the hours went by, the mut­ual attraction grew stronger. In their weakness they finally committed adultery without any prior plan, design, or arrangement. Do you think this is pardonable under the Law of Moses? The unequivocal answer is found in Leviticus 20:10, “The adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” — “without mercy” as Hebrews 10:28 puts it. This is consistently the case under the Law.

Weakness was not a legitimate plea under the Old Testament. Do we think it is under the New Testament? It is not. And why not? The answer is simple: We have no excuse for this kind of weakness under the New Testament because God has given us all the grace and power we need through the Holy Spirit to be victorious in every situation. That is the good news of Romans 8.

If the plea of weakness was not accept­ed under the relatively excusable conditions of the Old Testament (they hadn’t received the Holy Spirit as we have), how much less under the New Testament? In the old system, it was much more difficult to resist temptation (though not imposs­ible, as the case of Joseph shows, Gen.39:10-12) because people didn’t have the Holy Spirit. Frailty of the flesh was a more reasonable plea under the Old Testament, yet it wasn’t accepted. The one who committed adult­ery, or who murdered in a fit of rage (Lev. 24:17), was liable to the death sentence even if he appealed for mercy on the grounds of human weakness.

Brothers and sisters, in the case of deliberate sin, how will a Christ­ian plead under the New Test­ament? God has given every Christian the Holy Spirit such that by the Spirit’s enabling he can triumph in the face of every temptation. So this leaves him without excuse. The fearful truth is that if sin is committed deliberately, there is no longer a sacrif­ice to atone for it. As we saw earlier, deliberate sin is decidedly a form of apostasy.

For this reason many in the early church era (includ­ing, nota­bly, the first Christian emperor Constantine) would not get baptized until they reached their death beds, being afraid of the judgment await­ing those who commit post-baptismal sin and particularly deliberate sin.

Concerning this very serious matter, I venture to make a suggest­ion, though I dare not be dogmatic about it: If I under­stand Scripture correct­ly, it seems to me that even in the case where a person has sinned deliber­ately, or thinks he has done so, he should repent immediately, pleading to God for forgiveness. What do we lose by throwing ourselves upon His mercy?

Whether forgiveness will be granted or not, we don’t know, for admit­tedly the words in Hebrews 10:26 are unmistakably clear. And even John, known as the “apostle of love,” does say that we should not pray for the one who has committed “a sin that leads to death” (1John 5:16-17). But all sin leads to death (Rom.6:23). So clearly John is referring to a kind of sin that leads to death irreversibly, that is, a sin for which there is no sacrifice or forgiveness. Hence, it refers to intent­ional or defiant sin, of which the most heinous is apostasy.

Could it be the case that those who commit deliberate sin have so hardened their hearts against God to the extent they will adamantly refuse to repent, thus putting themselves beyond the reach of mercy and forgiveness? If so, then a person who still genuinely repents shows there­by that he hasn’t yet so hardened his heart as to be beyond mercy and forgiveness. And God looks into our hearts.

(2) A closer look at the meaning of “intentional sin”

To gain a more precise understanding of the vital matter of intention­al sin, we need to take a closer look at the words “intent­ional” and “sin”.

(1) Intentional. The synonyms intentional, willful, deliber­ate all have to do with the human will. If a man’s will is not free to funct­ion normally due to mental illness or derange­ment, he will not be held accountable for his actions in a court of law. Similarly, if our wills are not free, we wouldn’t be liable for our actions before God’s judgment seat. “Willful” presup­poses at least a relative freedom of the will.

To assert that man’s will is in total bondage to sin is also to assert that man is thereby absolved of responsibility for his sins. But Scripture holds man responsible for his sins, and prescribes the penalty he must bear for it. No plea based on the loss of the freedom of the will is anywhere entertained in the Word of God.

Some mistakenly think that Romans 7, espec­ially in verses 15-19, speaks of a bondage of the will. A careful reading shows that exactly the opposite is true. The man who is in bondage to sin, as depicted there, repeatedly laments the fact that the good he desires to do, he finds himself unable to do, but ends up doing “the very evil that I do not wish” (v.19b). The same lament is made in v.15, which the NIV translates concisely as “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do”. His will is free but he is unable of carrying out what he wills. The fact that he is still capable of willing is clearly stated in v.18: “To will is present with me” (NKJV). The problem is not in the willing but in the doing: “how to perform what is good I do not find” (v.18b).

This truth can be illustrated by the case of a man in prison. His will remains free even though his body is incarcerated behind prison bars. He is unable to do what he wants to do, but the activity of his will is not immobi­lized by prison walls. Many followers of Christ, though imprisoned for years, have never lost their commit­ment and devotion to Christ. Their enemies can imprison the body but they cannot subdue the will. This is true of many political prisoners who remain committed to their ideo­logy even after long imprison­ment. That is the truth portrayed in Romans 7.

It is not true to Scripture or human experience to say that all non-Christians are necessarily compulsive law-breakers who can­not help but com­mit adultery, robbery, or murder. If unregenerate people were in such bondage as to be incapable of willing anything but evil, then even hu­man courts of law cannot pass judgment upon them. More­over, unregenerate judges would themselves be in the same predica­ment as the unregenerate accused. How then can they hand down just judgments? The plain fact is that unre­generate people can be good law-abiding citizens.

What then did Paul mean when he said that the good “I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (7:15)? This question leads us to the word “sin” as in “intentional sin”.

(2) Sin. An accurate understanding of the word “sin” in this context is necessary. The matter of “good” and “evil” is prominent in Romans 7 (vv.19,21). Hence Paul is concerned with spiritual realities, not legal ones. What is spirit­ual is internal, having to do with the “inner man,” or the spirit of man. The legal, on the other hand, is external; it cannot govern man’s will or what he thinks.

Once we understand the distinction between the spiritual and the legal, the inner and the outer, we will see how a person can be a law-abiding citizen, yet inwardly remain a wretched sinner before God.

Paul’s blamelessness with respect to the Law (Phil.3:6) which he observed meticulously (as some Jews today) in no way contradicts the fact that he still found himself in bondage to sin, as is so woefully ex­pressed in Romans 7. Some people, failing to distinguish these two levels of life (the level of legal obser­vances versus the spiritual level), conclude that the apostle was contra­dicting himself.

Sin on the spiritual level, as distinct from the legal, is understood in the light of the two great commandments: loving God and loving the neigh­bor (Mt.22:37-40; Mk.12:29-31). Love in Scripture is not just a matter of emotions but of the will, just as obeying the com­mand­ments is a matter of the will. Moreover, the two great commands are spiritual in character. Love cannot be legislated into existence by law. To have God’s love in us is possible only if we have God’s life in us. It is the new life that empowers us to fulfill His call to love.

Law delineates the actions to be carried out in certain situations, but cannot provide the power to do them on the spiritual level. That is why the law, on the moral level, is generally prohibitive in what it prescribes, “You shall not …” Law as such cannot legislate on the inner or spiritual life, but can only govern man’s external behavior. But love is of the heart, of the will. Love with its fruit stands outside the scope of law because, as Paul puts it, “against such there is no law” (Gal.5:23).

It is clear that the seriousness of “intentional sin” lies in the fact that it is committed first and foremost on the spiritual level. It is no mere external act, but an act emanating from the will, the heart, the spirit, and the innermost being of a person.

(3) The danger of willful sin: an illustration

It is of the greatest importance that, after having been freed from the guilt and the power of sin, we exercise the utmost care never to willfully misuse our freedom in Christ. As disciples of Jesus, we have been granted the power to overcome temptation and to stand against the forces of evil. But that does not stop us from sinning if we deliberate­ly choose to sin. We are especially open to this danger if our commit­ment to the Lord is partial and therefore inadequate.

Let me illustrate this with a story I read in Daily Gleaner (Feb.10, 1984), a Jamaican news­paper I picked up during a visit there. It is a news report about an ex-police chief in Mexico City. While he was still the chief of police, the authorities became suspicious when they found out that he was exceedingly rich. He owned two large estates, 17 thoroughbred horses, 19 collector’s cars, a huge cache of weapons, and a super-modern discotheque to entertain his guests. One of his two residences was located in a resort city, and decorated with statues, fount­ains, and even gold bathroom fittings.

In his tax returns he declared a net worth of 600,000 American dollars, substantial by most standards. But his true worth was at least 12.5 million dollars, an amount that was scandalous given that he was earning a civil servant’s salary. When the story came out, the people of Mexico, a poor country at that time, were outraged.

His main aide published a book describing his activities. The police chief would sometimes throw a party and use police heli­copters to fly in 300 or more guests, with no scruples about using public funds for these events. He encouraged his offi­cers to accept bribes. Drivers in Mexico City had to routinely pay bribes to avoid being charged with traffic violat­ions. Mexico City’s traffic is so con­gested that finding a place to park is often difficult. The usual solution is to park illegally and to give the policeman on the beat a bribe. A share of these bribes is passed on from officer to officer, right up to the police chief, who also receives large bribes from other activities.

The book describes how the police chief was involved in fraud, homicide, and drug smuggling. The writer himself confesses to carry­ing out several of the murders on the orders of the police chief, who felt that his rank would protect him from prosecution. But when the investigators were closing in on him, he was nowhere to be found. He had already made his exit, taking a lot of money with him.

Here was a chief law enforcement officer who was supposed to protect the rights of the citizens and the welfare of the poor. Yet in his few years in office, he had stolen 12.5 million dollars. The chief guardian of the law turned out to be the biggest crook of all.

What was the root problem? Did this man initially join the police force with the intention of reaching the top and making a fortune through corruption? That is, was he a criminal from the start, with the intention of using his office for criminal gain? Or did he join the police force as an officer with noble ideals of law and justice, but as the temptations came along, he could not resist them and finally became the top crook of all? Which was the case? Was he a criminal in the first place, or was he a genuine officer who succumbed to tempt­ation? How do we analyze this problem?

In the end it doesn’t matter what his real motives were when he joined the police force, for what matters is the end result. Whether he started out as a criminal or as an honest man, he ended up being a criminal.

Ezekiel 33:13 says that if a righteous man returns to iniquity, none of his former righteous deeds will be remembered, and he will die. He may start off as a righteous man, but if he ends up in wicked­ness, he will be judged as a wicked man, not as a righteous man.

In this example, there was a fun­damental problem of commitment either way. In the end it made no difference whether this person joined the police force with a commitment that eroded with time, or with a partial commitment, or with no commitment at all, because all these tend to end in the same way.

(4) Partial commitment: A door to deliberate sin

Why would a person sin delib­erately? The problem is with the will. How do we prevent the deadly drift into deliberate or willful sin, for which no sacrifice remains to atone for it (Heb.10:26)? There is only one way: It is absolutely essential that we make sure that our will is fully yielded to God and is kept that way day by day by God’s grace. “No one who lives in Him keeps on sinning” (1Jn.3:6).

Make sure that your will is wholly in line with God’s. That is total commitment: Every part of your will — every aspect of your life — must be unre­servedly committed to God. If this is not the case, brothers and sisters, one of these days you could sin willfully.

How many Christians claim to be committed to the Lord when they are in fact only partially committed? Part of your will may be committed to God, perhaps 90%, but then you are holding back 10%. In the face of the pressure or the temptation to sin, you will eventually succumb to it. It is said that a chain is no stronger than its weakest link. How long can a city stand when 10% of its walls are breached, providing an opening for the attacking forces?

A partially committed person is in fact un­committed because he decides for himself what he chooses to commit and what to hold back. He, not Christ, is the lord of his own life. Partial commit­ment leads to dangerous self-delusion because you are claiming to be committed when in fact you are not. One of these days, when you are under tempt­ation or persecu­tion, you will find an exit door.

Total commitment, on the other hand, means that I burn the bridges behind me that lead back to the world and the old way of life governed by sin. After putting my hand to the plow, I don’t look back (cf. Lk.9:62). I am finished with the past, forgetting the things behind me, and I press ahead. I live facing the future. I travel on a one-way street that goes forward.

But the partially committed person, like Lot’s wife (Gen.19:26; Lk.17:32), keeps looking back. When the going gets tough, he sneaks out through the back door.

Why do so many marriages end in divorce? Would divorce happen if husband and wife were totally committed to one another? But because their commitment is partial, they open the escape hatch when their marriage runs into difficulties. If they were totally committed to each other in the first place, there would be no question of separation or divorce. Commitment is commitment, so I will stick to the end. I will love to the end even if my love is not recipro­cated.

Some people “try out” marriage. But marriage is not something you try out like a pair of shoes. If the marriage doesn’t fit, discard it like a pair of shoes, and go for divorce!

There are those who “try out” the Chris­tian life. Nowa­days there is a trial period for many products. If you are not satisfied with the pro­duct, return it within 30 days for your money back. But Christian­ity is even better. You can try it out for as long as you like. If in the end you don’t like it, just walk away. What kind of Christianity is this?

But the Lord says, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk.9:62). Hence let no Christian disqualify himself by heading for the exit doors when the going gets tough. In choosing to quit, we sin deliberately, exposing God’s Name to public shame. To desert God is to apostatize.

Let us examine our commitment before God. Paul’s exhortation, “Let a man examine himself,” is something that benefits us when we do it regularly, especially before partaking of the bread and the cup at the Lord’s table (1Cor.11:28). May the Psalmist’s prayer be ours too:

Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults. Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins (NIV, “willful sins”). Let them not rule over me. Then shall I be blameless, and I shall be acquitted of great transgression. (Psalm 19:12,13)

[1] See for example Leviticus 1.4; 4.20; 5.6; 6.7; 9.7 etc. “Atonement” in all these references translates the Hebrew kapar (כפר), which occurs 44 times in Leviticus and 121 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. Therefore more than one third of all the occurrences of kapar in the OT are in Leviticus, with 13 in Leviticus chapter 16 alone. In Numbers, it occurs 17 times.

[2] In Paul’s letters, “sanctified” and “sanctification” are used in essen­tially the same way as in Hebrews. 1Corinthians 6:11 says, “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God”. Here “sanctified” stands after “washed” but before “justified,” indicating its link to the cleansing from sin through Jesus’ blood. In 1Cor.1:30, “sanctification” is mentioned before “redemption”. It is through this sanctificat­ion that salvation is attained (2Th.2:13). We are sanctified “by the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God” to “cleanse” us, that we may “serve the living God” (Heb.9:13,14). Sanctifi­cation is essential to salvat­ion because “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb.12:14).

[3] Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament defines hata as “miss, miss the way, sin, incur guilt …” It says further that “the basic meaning of the root is to miss a mark or a way.” (R.L. Harris, G.L. Archer Jr, B.K. Waltke, Moody Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1980)

[4] Psalm 53.8 in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) due to diff­erences in the verse referencing system.

[5] On the “free will” offering, besides the standard Bible dictionaries, refer­ence can be made to the old but still informative work “Sacrificial Worship of the Old Testament” by J.H. Kurtz (translated by J. Martin), Baker 1980, p.262f.


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