Jesus came to deliver us from our sins by offering himself as a sacrifice so we could be forgiven. And scripture is filled with promises of God’s immeasurable forgiveness and grace being poured out on us over and over.
But scripture also pronounces judgment on those who depart from the faith, a sin known as apostasy. So will God forgive an apostate, too?
No scripture defines an apostate as someone who has turned against Christ and remains under judgment. Scholars debate whether apostates ever truly experienced conversion and salvation.
A Messy Topic
Scholars with better training and education than this writer have debated apostasy and have not come to a universal consensus. Still, we can isolate a few points to establish what is universally agreed about apostasy:
- An apostate has had previous participation in the faith (the degree of participation is a matter of debate).
- Apostasy is not backsliding but involves a conscious rejection of and opposition to the faith.
- Apostates are under judgment and unable to repent.
The passage most commonly cited when addressing apostasy is:
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.Hebrews 6:4-6
Many Christians have struggled when reading these verses, either over grief for loved ones, confusion over God’s grace, or fear of losing their own salvation.
When we broach the topic of apostasy, most of us (this writer included) end up with more questions than we started with. For the remainder of this writing, we will wrestle with our shared questions and search the scriptures together for answers.
Is Apostasy the Unforgivable Sin?
Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.Mark 3:28-29
Even though Jesus uses different words than the writer of Hebrews, there seems to be a correlation between blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and turning from God after sharing in the Holy Spirit. A plain reading of the two passages together suggests that apostasy is the outcome of the unpardonable sin described by Jesus.
How Can God Refuse to Forgive Someone?
We are all born into sin and worthy of judgment. That is why Jesus came to provide a means for us to be reconciled to God and restored to fellowship with Him.
Still, not everybody accepts the free offer of God’s grace. In some circumstances, God’s judgment is pronounced on those who consciously reject Him during their lifetime. The best example from scripture is when God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” This was a pronouncement of judgment against Pharaoh for willful rejection of God’s call to repent and obey.
Wasn’t Paul a Blasphemer?
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul says this about his own conversion:
Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.1 Timothy 1:13-14
Paul wrote extensively about God’s grace and the impossibility of man to be saved without it. He wrote about God initiating our rescue while we were still in sin because we are completely helpless to rescue ourselves.
And Paul recognizes the magnitude of God’s grace in his own life when he measures it against the degree to which he opposed Jesus prior to his conversion.
What is the Difference between Paul and Pharaoh?
Paul answers this question by stating that he was shown mercy because he acted in ignorance. Without the Holy Spirit, we are spiritually blind to the truth (2 Corinthians 4:3-4) of God’s grace.
In the account of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9), we read that Jesus temporarily blinded Paul, and later restored his sight when he was baptized into the fellowship of the church, as a symbol of his spiritual reality.
Pharaoh, on the other hand, had eyes to see and was already under judgment (as noted elsewhere). He was shown God’s power, and there was nothing hidden from him. Pharaoh could not have acted in ignorance, as the power of the Spirit was presented before him.
Did Apostates Ever Receive the Holy Spirit?
Comparing Pharaoh to Paul helps us find the answer to the most difficult question surrounding apostasy. Reading their respective stories, we can conclude that neither Pharaoh nor Paul was restored to a right relationship with God prior to their divine encounters.
Each was given a taste of the Holy Spirit, but only Paul was filled with the Spirit.
So we are left to wonder how big of a “taste” each received. And if so, was that “taste” enough to save the person?
More than a Taste
Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in himPsalm 34:8
We are invited to taste the Lord’s goodness. But we experience the full measure of His power by consuming—not just tasting—what He offers. This is more than just semantics. Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek, like modern English, use different words to describe “tasting” and “consuming.”
Jesus describes himself as the bread of life (John 6:51) and declares that those who partake of him will never die. Similarly, several passages speak of prophets and messengers of God eating His word (Jeremiah 15:16, Ezekiel 3:1-3, Revelation 10:9-10).
So those who have tasted the Spirit are not necessarily filled with the Spirit.
Were Apostates Ever Really Saved?
And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.Ephesians 1:13-14
When we receive the Holy Spirit, our salvation is guaranteed, along with our forgiveness for our sins past and future. So it is not possible for someone who has received the Spirit to subsequently lose the Spirit.
Going back to Hebrews 6, we see that this statement relies on tasting the gift of the Spirit, not receiving the Spirit. Other linguistic interpretations of Hebrews 6 (which we do not have the space to examine here) suggest that the writer is declaring that falling away is impossible for anyone who has already received the Holy Spirit.
Ultimately, these alternate readings are two halves of the same whole. Together they complete the idea that apostasy cannot affect anyone who has been purchased by Jesus’ sacrifice.
So will God forgive an apostate?
By definition, no.
Can a reborn believer fall into apostasy?
All who know Jesus are eternally secure in Jesus.