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Article 16 — Of Sin after Baptism

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Posted by Clare Hendry, 17 Mar 2017

Clare Hendry explores the pastoral realities of sin in the life of a Christian, as part of our “40 Days in the 39 Articles.”

Not every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again, and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say, they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.

Recently, I was helping with our church holiday club over half-term. On one of the days, following the main teaching slot, I was chatting in my group with two eight year old boys. We were talking about sin and the need for Jesus to save us. In trying to help them understand the teaching I asked them ‘Do you think you could get through the whole day without sinning, without doing anything wrong?’  One clearly thought he could and explained how! It took a little time and some challenging questions for him to begin to think that maybe he couldn’t quite make it through a whole day sinless, even if he tried very hard.

Well he was not alone in thinking he could be perfect. And over the centuries people have wrongly taught that you can be perfect this side of heaven. I guess most of us know that our experience of life after conversion does not reflect that.

Such a teaching can raise all kinds of difficulties pastorally as well as being unbiblical! I have come across those who struggle with assurance about whether they are truly saved. How can I really be a Christian if I keep on sinning? Some have done things which they think puts them beyond the reach of God, that they can’t be forgiven. Surely if the Holy Spirit now dwells in me I shouldn’t sin, so perhaps he doesn’t. Such thoughts are not unique to the twenty first century.

One error rife at the Reformation was the revival of the old idea from Novatian, in the third century, that serious sins committed after baptism (conversion) could not be forgiven. But it was also taught by some that it was impossible for the regenerate to sin. So apart from the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit, is there any sin so serious that can put someone beyond forgiveness? Slightly different language from what we use today but the same issues we face.

The 39 Articles continue to speak into a fallen world, dealing with such false teaching and helping point us back to biblical teaching and the amazing grace of God. So how does Article 16 speak into the world today?

It can be helpful in the pastoral situations we have already mentioned. Article 16 helps point to the reality that we will sin after we have come to faith, but those sins will not put us beyond God’s forgiveness. As we look back, we can see how God has changed and is changing us through his Holy Spirit. No, we won’t reach perfection this side of heaven, but we shouldn’t lose heart either as we seem to struggle with some repeating sin, because we know that God is at work. ‘And we who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit’ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Talking about sin is not the best topic for dinner party conversation. Surely if you must talk about religion, people say, then talk about how loving God is! People don’t want to talk about sin. But aren’t we short-changing people if we don’t talk about sin? If we don’t understand the role of sin in our lives, then we can’t fully understand that amazing love God has for us in sending Jesus to die in our place. The fact that we can do nothing to sort out sin. That even when we come to faith and sin over and over again, we can come in repentance to God and he forgives us time and time again. And how through the work of the Holy Spirit he is changing us, so that we might one day be presented to Christ “as a radiant church, without stain, or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27).

This group of articles (Articles 12-16) are actually very encouraging. They are realistic and help us see where we start from – the human condition. And as we understand our sin and see our need for rescue, so we appreciate even more deeply the grace and goodness of God in adopting us into his family and continuing to work in our lives.

We are works in progress. So yes, we do sin even though we have been made righteous through Christ’s blood. But we have this certain hope that one day when we stand before God he will see us perfect. All possible because of what God has done, not something we have earned which therefore could be lost. What an amazing truth!

Take some time today to thank God that he has rescued us from the power of sin and is, by his Holy Spirit changing us to be more Christ-like, so that one day we can stand before him holy and blameless.

Clare Hendry is Assistant Minister at Grace Church, Muswell Hill and formerly taught pastoral counselling at Oak Hill Theological College.

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