I saw a comment on twitter yesterday insisting that, whatever the unforgiveable sin is, we should agree it definitely isn’t suicide. On my reading of scripture and understanding of the gospel, that is a fair statement. I see no biblical warrant to think suicide is the unforgiveable sin. There are a bunch of reasons why I think this.
Understanding of the gospel
I can see how a Catholic might draw this conclusion. Without absolution or last rites, you’re in trouble upstairs. Protestant understandings of the gospel, however, insist that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and this is not of works. We believe in instantaneous justification based upon Jesus’ finished work upon the cross. The moment we trust in Jesus, all our sin – past, present and future – have been forgiven; Jesus’ perfect life and death have been credited to our account. If we trust in the Lord Jesus, he has paid for all of our sin start to finish and removed it all from us. Should we ever get to the point of taking our own life, if we have genuinely trusted in Jesus, our justification in Christ does not hinge on that one event. If it does, we are actually arguing for justification by faith and works (the particular work being that we do not take our own life).
Nature of repentance
As I note above, when we repent and turn in faith to Jesus, we are justified by faith alone. That faith is itself the product of God’s gracious work in our life. On a Reformed understanding of salvation, our faith is the result of God’s grace and we cannot express faith without it. But that means our faith is a response to God’s grace. If God does not rescind his gracious and effective calling, then we cannot sin ourselves – even if our sin is particularly heinous – out of the kingdom.
Of course, if we continue in unrepentant sin, that is good evidence that we do not have genuine faith in the Lord Jesus. The issue is whether we are engaged in ongoing, unrepentant sin. The question mark many have over suicide is whether one can actually repent. But what is evident is that it is certainly not an ongoing sin. It may have undoable consequences, but it is not repeatable. The one thing it cannot therefore be is ongoing and continuous.
Protestants do not typically believe that we must repent of every specific sin, intentionally, before we can be forgiven for it. We believe Jesus has died for all of our sin – even those that we do not know about or recognise as sinful – when we put our trust in him. If we are, therefore, in Christ by faith, even though we cannot specifically repent by name of our suicide after the fact, genuine faith in Jesus means it was paid for long before we ever did it and we repented, not by name, but in posture when we trusted in Christ.
Many other unnamed sins
Our understanding of the full and final justification of sin once and for all when we trust in Jesus is crucial to our understanding of forgiveness. If we do not accept this to be true, there are all sorts of scenarios whereby someone might die in “unrepentant sin”.
For a start, the Anglican book of common prayer recognises that we need forgiveness for ‘our sins, known and unknown, things done and left undone.’ What do we do about all those sins that are very much sins but that we didn’t acknowledge or recognise, often in ignorance, that we never named and repented of? This, of course, only represents a problem if we do not believe in the full justification of Jesus, once and for all, at the point of our faith being first placed in him.
But even beyond this, there are scenarios whereby somebody may be unable to specifically repent of that given sin. What would be the situation for somebody losing their temper sinfully and dying in a car crash? They have no opportunity to repent specifically for that sin they committed knowingly. What about someone who has a heart attack whilst watching porn? They may well have repented of their sin, but now have no ability to repent specifically of that one. It is strange to insist that suicide is the only sin that would be unforgiveable even though there are countless examples of sins that might go specifically unnamed, unable to be repented of, that nobody is arguing are unforgiveable. Unless we believe in last rites and Catholic theology, we have no business making this sort of argument.
There are ways of repenting of this sin
I don’t wish to get into graphic matters (and so won’t), but I can think of plenty of ways one might be unable to undo the consequences of this particular sin whilst having the means to repent of it. I will allow you to use your imagination, but this is demonstrably possible.
Makes all sorts of questionable motives virtuous
As somebody who has attempted to take their own life, more than once, I fear what this unforgiveable sin argument does is make what is clearly not virtuous into a virtue. When I tried to kill myself in the past, clearly I was not very successful. But it bears saying, much of my lack of success can be put down to some not particularly good virtues. Am I more virtuous than somebody who committed suicide because I was either too cowardly to actually do what I planned, or too stupid to make it work, or driven by all sorts of ungodly desires that (by God’s grace) nonetheless stopped me doing it? I can pretend that I repented of my sin and stopped myself doing it, but that would be a massive self-aggrandising lie. I never stopped, or failed, because I had repented. I had committed that sin in my heart already and was absolutely intent on it. Only my inability, stupidity, cowardice and a host of other things stopped me. Yes, I have repented of it since, but are we really to believe I am more virtuous for failing to be any good at the one thing I wanted to do than somebody else who is just better at it than I was? Let’s be absolutely clear: my heart and theirs are exactly the same. The only difference is that the Lord intervened to mean my failures allowed me to repent specifically (and, frankly, much later).
Nature of God and his forgiveness
Aside from all of this, God is omniscient. He knows all things. He knows all the sins we have committed and all the sins we will yet commit. It bears remembering Jesus died on the cross for your sins in particular 2000 years before you were born to do any of them. The idea that God does not know specifically all the sin he was nailing to Jesus on the cross is nonsense.
If God knows all those sins, and God still nevertheless elects a people for himself, then it follows that even if someone professing to know Jesus commits suicide, Jesus must have died for that sin too. Jesus did not die for certain sins, but all types of sin. Jesus did not die for some of the sins of the elect, but all of them. The forgiveness of sin does not rest of lie in our specific naming of every sin, it lies in the finished work of Christ and our justification by faith. That is a justification that is pronounced, wholly and in full, when we put our faith in him. If nothing can separate from the love of God in Christ Jesus, including death and sin, then even a sinful death will not do so.
What is called the ‘unforgivable sin’
The Bible specifically names the unforgiveable sin as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Now, if sin itself is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (and what is intended in Mark 3:28-29) then we’re all in trouble because we will all have sins that we have not specifically repented of by name. But scripture doesn’t seem to be saying that.
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit seems to be a specific sin of its own. We could spend a long time talking about what that probably is, but suffice to say here, there is nothing in scripture that suggests or implies suicide is it nor that associates suicide with this. There is no reason to assume – particularly in light of the point above – that suicide is the unforgiveable sin and plenty of theological reasons to not suggest that.
The Bible is clear that the sin which keeps people out of the kingdom is the sin that refuses to bow the knee to the Lord Jesus. The sin of a hardened heart against him and his commands. The sin of wilful, unrepentant, continuous sin because we do not actually love the Lord Jesus at all. There is nothing in scripture that equates suicide with this of itself.
What it says about a person?
Even those who would affirm most (or all) of what I said above still sometimes insist that suicide is the action of someone who doesn’t love Jesus. If the one who perseveres until the end will receive the crown of life, what does it say about those who refuse to persevere to the end? What does suicide say about the one who commits it and their standing in Christ?
My answer is simple. It says they might be very ill. It says their medication might not have worked properly. It says their thinking has become disordered in some way. It says they were in serious need of support It says they gave into a particular sin. It says absolutely nothing of itself about their standing in Jesus. None of those things, of themselves, prove somebody is not a believer in the Lord Jesus. None of those things, of themselves, imply a heart that is against the Lord Jesus.
There is, in my view, no denying that suicide is wrong. Believers should not do it. Jesus asks us not to do it. But since when did a believer sinning, of itself, mean they necessarily do not belong to Jesus? Which of us belongs to Jesus if such is the case? 1 John 2 puts the matter clearly enough: ‘I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.’ Should we sin? No. Do we sin? Yes. What happens when we do? We have an advocate with the Father in Jesus Christ. Even if we happen to sin in this way. The same Jesus who knew we would sin this way when we died on the cross for us, stands next to the Father and reminds him it is paid for when a believer does it. It may be sin, but it is not a special category of unforgiveable sin. For the believer, even our grossest sins have been paid.