As Christians, we all struggle with temptation and sin. Sometimes our attitudes and reactions get the best of us. Other times, temptation seems too strong to resist.
But what about those times when we seem to seek out sin—on purpose? How does God deal with those sins? Will he forgive us when we sin on purpose?
God forgives our sins— even the intentional ones—when we repent and confess. But scripture warns that seeking out sin could affect our hearts and lead us on a path away from God and toward destruction.
Intentional or Unintentional?
If we think of sin strictly in behavior terms, then we might conclude that all sin is deliberate. But sin encompasses more than just our actions. Sin is ingrained in our fallen nature, so it defines our state of existence before we come to Christ. This sin nature affects our thoughts and attitudes as well as our choices.
If you’ve read our article about mortal sins, then you know that one of the criteria that Catholic doctrine uses to distinguish between mortal and venial sins is intent. In order for a sin to be considered a mortal sin, according to Catholic teaching, it must be done consciously and willfully.
This is an evangelical blog, so we do not distinguish between mortal and venial sins. Instead, we affirm that all sins, regardless of their earthly magnitude, can be forgiven through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
Still, the Bible reveals some important truths about willful sin that deserve our attention.
Old Testament Law
Under Mosaic Law, deliberate sin and unintentional sin were handled differently. Leviticus 4 and 5 outline the sacrifices required when a person (or the whole community) unintentionally sins.
A summary reading can be found in Numbers:
‘But if just one person sins unintentionally, that person must bring a year-old female goat for a sin offering. The priest is to make atonement before the Lord for the one who erred by sinning unintentionally, and when atonement has been made, that person will be forgiven. One and the same law applies to everyone who sins unintentionally, whether a native-born Israelite or a foreigner residing among you.’Numbers 15:27-29
Compare that to the next two verses, which address willful sin:
‘But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel. Because they have despised the Lord’s word and broken his commands, they must surely be cut off; their guilt remains on them.’Numbers 15:30-31
Clearly, God gives weight to our intentions. But that does not mean that if we sin on purpose our situation is hopeless. It is important to remember that the Mosaic Law was instituted as much for maintaining community holiness as it was for individual holiness. The swift judgments that we encounter were often carried out in order to keep corruption from spreading within the community.
Still, the contrite and repentant, even after sinning deliberately, found grace and forgiveness.
We need to look no further than David, who willfully broke multiple commandments when he slept with Bathsheba and subsequently had her husband killed in battle (2 Samuel 11). But when David confessed his sin, the Lord declared him forgiven (2 Samuel 12:13).
So is Grace a Free Pass?
When we allow the guilt of sin to overwhelm us, even after we’ve repented and confessed, we are not fully living in the grace that God freely gives us.
However, it is equally damaging to our spiritual journey to err on the opposite extreme and assume that because we have been saved, we may continue to embrace and pursue sin.
Jesus taught that nobody can serve two masters. To turn toward sin is to turn away from God, and vice versa. The writer of Hebrews built his case for this dynamic on the function of Old Testament law:
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left… How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?Hebrews 10:26, 29
It is one thing, he says, to be given a set of rules and fail to keep them perfectly. But to remain in sin is to reject grace and reject the blood of Christ.
Still, it is important to note that this passage describes what happens “if we deliberately keep on sinning.” It is describing a willfulness to continue in sin in perpetuity. This might prompt us to refine our question and instead ask, “Will God forgive me if I sin on purpose just one time?”
Single Serving Sin
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.James 1:22-24
James uses a memorable image to describe the effect of isolated sin. To forget that you have been changed by grace, he says, is like forgetting your own appearance right after looking into a mirror!
It is important to note that James doesn’t suggest that sin changes our appearance. In this metaphor, he is not saying that a one-off sin affects our salvation—no, we still look the same. We just aren’t acting according to our appearance (a metaphor for God’s grace) in that moment.
This is certainly a stark contrast to the dire warning we read in Hebrews about continuing in sin. So what determines the difference?
See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God… As has just been said:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion.”Hebrews 3:12, 15
Just as thoughts lead to actions, actions repeated over time lead to habits. Habits become ingrained in our hearts and minds, shape our attitudes and thoughts, and lead to lifestyles.
When we follow sin down this path, the Bible tells us that our hearts may become hardened toward God. By quoting Psalm 95, the writer of Hebrews reminds us that this hardening of hearts was the core problem with Israel’s repeated rebellion against God throughout the Old Testament.
God gave us the law because our hearts, by nature, turn away from Him. Though we are not saved through the law (because none of us can follow it), the law serves to reveal the state of our hearts and our need for grace.
Between Law and Grace
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.Galatians 5:16-18
God, in His grace, gives us His Holy Spirit who not only empowers us to walk more closely with Him but continuously calibrates our hearts toward God.
Even though we still wrestle with sin and sometimes give in to temptation, the pursuit of holiness and a desire to overcome sin show evidence of the Spirit’s presence within us. In other words, they demonstrate our lifestyle choices to seek to avoid sin and to confess and repent when we fall into sin.
In this way, the Christian life is lived in constant tension between law and grace. We strive for holiness, but we cannot rely on ourselves to achieve it. So we must rely on God’s grace to constantly turn our thoughts toward Him.
A hardened heart, then, is a heart that has been conditioned to follow sin, and not only rejects forgiveness but fails to recognize the need for forgiveness. A hardened heart is a heart that justifies and rationalizes sin.
So when we do sin—even on purpose—how we respond to our sin reveals the state of our heart:
Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper,
but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.
Blessed is the one who always trembles before God,
but whoever hardens their heart falls into trouble.Proverbs 28:13-14
Grace does not ignore sin. Grace forgives sin.
So confession and repentance are where we receive grace anew. When we turn to God with a heart that truly seeks Him, He will forgive us and not turn us away.