What is willful sin?

Hebrews 10:26 states:

King James Bible
For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins

Bible in Basic English
For if we do evil on purpose after we have had the knowledge of what is true, there is no more offering for sins,

Weymouth New Testament
For if we wilfully persist in sin after having received the full knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains in reserve any other sacrifice for sins. 

Definitions for use/assistance in this post:

Willful:  unreasonably stubborn or headstrong; self-willed.

Despise:  to regard with contempt, distaste, disgust, or disdain; scorn; loathe.

Obstinate:  firmly or stubbornly adhering to one’s purpose, opinion, etc.; not yielding to argument, persuasion, or entreaty.

Malicious:  vicious, wanton, or mischievous in motivation or purpose.

Presumptuous:  unwarrantedly or impertinently bold; forward.

In a recent conversation, the subject of the difference between willful sin and non-willful sin became the topic.  One of the parties was considering sins that were not willful to be willful because those non-willful sins were committed “intentionally” – i.e. the person meant to commit those sins.  However, sin, by definition is KNOWING to do good and not doing it, so all sins are intentional in that respect.

In the conversation, I referred to two examples in expounding on the issue.  The first was Peter when he denied Christ three times.  If Peter had died immediately following the third denial, would he have gone to heaven or hell?  Was Peter’s sin in denying Christ “willful” as used in Hebrews 10:26?  Well, that’s not a question that is specifically answered in the scriptures and it requires some thought.  However, it is undeniable [no pun intended] that Peter was under SEVERE distress and temptation when he denied Christ – Peter was in the courtyard of the High Priest’s house while Christ was apparently being interrogated (See Luke 22:54-62).  If Peter had acknowledged knowing Christ at that moment, he likely would have been arrested, tortured and crucified.  It is not difficult to see why Peter pled ignorance in that situation – especially since Christ had not yet died, risen, gone to heaven and sent the “Helper” – the Holy Spirit.   But we’ll come back to Peter shortly. 

The second example I used was my daughter – on one or more occasions she has lied in an attempt to keep from getting in trouble.  For instance, she once came up with a very convoluted story to explain why her room was not cleaned (incidentally, for those who have met Siena, you will not be surprised to hear that even her “lying” stories are quite intricate, creative and entertaining. . .).

I asked the person on the other side of the conversation if I would/should disown my daughter because she had lied to me.  The person’s response was essentially, “No, of course not” – and that was the correct answer.  Funny how we, as humans, have a strange ability to project such goodness upon ourselves, but to also, in the same thought, project evil upon God.  After all, if basically any sin was willful, then we have fallen away at the first stumbling sin and there is no longer a sacrifice for our sins.  That would be a very harsh position for God to take towards His children – and God is not like that – I seem to recall Christ once saying, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”   

However, that brings us to the question of how much more we have to do to qualify as having committed “willful” sin . . . ?

The Geneva Study Bible comments that the term “wilfully” refers to committing transgressions “without any cause or occasion, or show of occasion.”

The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary states:

BEGIN QUOTE:  “If we be found sinning, that is, not isolated acts, but a state of sin. A violation not only of the law, but of the whole economy of the New Testament.


It is not a sin of ignorance, or error, but a deliberate sinning against the Spirit: such sinning, where a consciousness of Gospel obligations not only was, but is present: a sinning presumptuously and preseveringly against Christ’s redemption for us, and the Spirit of grace in us.

For there is but ONE Sacrifice that can atone for sin; they, after having fully known that sacrifice, deliberately reject it.”  END QUOTE

Matthew Henry’s Commentary states:

BEGIN QUOTE:  “This text has been the occasion of great distress to some gracious souls; they have been ready to conclude that every wilful sin, after conviction and against knowledge, is the unpardonable sin: but this has been their infirmity and error. The sin here mentioned is a total and final apostasy, when men with a full and fixed will and resolution despise and reject Christ, the only Saviour,-despise and resist the Spirit, the only sanctifier,-and despise and renounce the gospel, the only way of salvation, and the words of eternal life; and all this after they have known, owned, and professed, the Christian religion, and continue to do so obstinately and maliciously. This is the great transgression: the apostle seems to refer to the law concerning presumptuous sinners, Num. 15:30, 31. They were to be cut off.” END QUOTE

Assuming that the commentary above is an accurate portrayal of the meaning of the words, then Peter would have gone to heaven if he died the moment he denied Christ for the third time.  His sins were not presumptuous, persevering, nor was he in a state of [practicing] sin.  The three instances were all in one situation and were isolated acts – as far as I am aware, they were the only times he committed that particular transgression.  Peter was not despising Christ or the Spirit.  He was afraid of dying.  He had very serious cause and occasion for the commission of his sin of denial.

For what it’s worth, church tradition has Peter being martyred by upside down crucifixion.  Apparently he eventually overcame his fear of death. . .

There are two very important things to note about Peter’s denials:

1:  In Luke 22:61, Jesus turns and looks at Peter immediately after the third denial and Peter went and wept bitterly after remembering that Jesus had predicted Peter’s denials.  The weeping bitterly is hardly the behavior one would expect from a person who was willful, obstinate and malicious.

2:  One of Max Lucado’s books pointed this one out:  In Mark 16:6-7, there is a wonderful passage in which an angel states to Mary Magalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome (they were coming to the tomb to anoint the body of Christ and Christ had already arisen):

BEGIN QUOTE:  “But he [the angel] said to them, “Do not be alarmed.  You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He is risen!  He is not here.  See the place where they laid him.  But go, tell His disciples – and Peter – that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.” END QUOTE

The angel specifically singled out Peter and instructed the women to tell Peter, specifically, that Jesus was risen and would be coming to see Peter.  Note that of the remaining disciples (Judas had committed willful sin in selling Jesus out for 30 pieces of silver – there was no imminent danger for Judas at that time), Peter was the only one who denied Christ.  Note, though, that Peter was also the only one of the remaining disciples who actually followed Jesus to the house of the High Priest.  The other disciples were not there – they were hiding – and thus, they were not put in fear of imminent death.  (Note:  Peter made it a habit of being the first – or only – one to step “out of the boat” and to walk on water.  Perhaps that’s why he was the “Rock” on which the church was built.).

Imagine how bad Peter would have been feeling after his denials and after Christ’s death.  The angel knew that Peter would be feeling terrible, and specifically addressed him.

How wonderful of God to consider Peter’s situation and send him a special message for Peter, alone!

Published in: on March 8, 2008 at 4:46 am  Leave a Comment  

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