Sunday, 27 February 2011

Is there no way back once faith as been rejected?

Although a convinced Christian quite a few years ago, I fell away entirely as a result of many factors, living also a life that was, frankly, dissipated. Yet all through this period, there was always a consciousness at a very fundamental level that, though I had turned my back, God had not departed, but remained there, ignored, in the background. I could never quite shake that off, even during a period of near atheism.

Now, after much self-searching, study and reflection, I see things in a wholly different way, and am sort of on the threshold of faith. However, considering my earlier rejection of the christian faith I once held, I was hugely depressed by the words of (?) Paul in Hebrews Chap. 6, v 4-6, which seems to state that, once faith in Christ has been accepted, then rejected, there is categorically no way back. Though these are not Christ's words, they are an accepted part of a universally accepted scriptural canon, but they appear to lay a wreath on hope. Is there something I am not grasping?

We know from Jesus himself that God stands ready in open love to welcome back those who return to Him. Think of the Prodigal Son, or of Peter who formally denies Jesus three times. Think of Jesus’ whole life and teaching of unconditional love and repentance (not 7 times, but 70 times 7). And many great Christians have fallen away and come back: St Augustine and CS Lewis to name just two.

It is hard to know exactly what is meant in Hebrews 6:4-6 but it cannot be contradicting the basic message of love and hope for all that Jesus offers. What the writer of Hebrews (almost everyone agrees that it is not Paul) seems to be saying is this: In the first part of this letter I have been dealing with the basics – now I am going on to advanced material and I am not going back over old ground. Bear in mind this was addressed to gatherings of early Christians who were struggling with persecution, but by definition the ones who had fallen away would not be part of the gathering. They must have been very worried about their former fellow-Christians who had fallen away. What can we do for them? How can we convince them?

The writer seems to be saying: I’m going to give you advanced instruction to build you up beyond the basics, but I can’t produce instruction or arguments to convince people who have fallen away. Don’t worry about this (at least for now). It is not in our power (adunaton) for us to restore them to repentance. What he does not need to say, because his readers will already know, is what Jesus says in Matthew 19:26 “With men this is impossible (adunaton) but with God all things are possible.”

From your account it seems clear that it is God working within you – not man. You have not been won back by some earnest people from your former church coming and haranguing you, but “much self-searching, study and reflection” One of the Church fathers (and I’m afraid I can’t find the quotation) says something about the waters of baptism bubbling up within you saying “come to the father”. This is God, working within you, and nothing stands in the way of God’s love.

John adds: Like Nicholas, I am sure that God’s love and mercy is everlasting and that no one who truly and penitently turns to him will be rejected. The only thing that can frustrate return is a stubborn unwillingness to recognise its necessity. I think that this must be what those difficult verses in Hebrews are getting at. It’s a bit like the sin against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29), which I believe is a wilful refusal to recognise the truth. As preachers sometimes say, if you’re worried about whether you have committed this sin, you are sufficiently concerned about God for it to be a sign that you haven’t.

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