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How bad can you be and still be saved?

Seven deadly sins signpost
Seven deadly sins signpost | iStock/RTimages

John Piper tells a story about a woman who heard one of his messages many years ago on the doctrine of eternal security, which states that once a person is saved, they can never lose their salvation. She approached Piper, thanked him for his message, and then went on to say that she was in an adulterous affair, but was relieved to learn that because she was saved, she could continue in the relationship with no worries.

Piper’s reply was certainly not what she expected: “God will damn you to Hell if you continue in your sin.”

Why would Piper say that?

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If we all agreed that no “work” can earn you Heaven, then once saved, what “work” can damn you to Hell? Isn’t a plan of salvation that says nothing good you do will save you, but dive into anything from a specific list of ‘bad things’ and you’re on your way to eternal separation from God a bit wonky?

Truth be told, many of us have a list of “bad things” in our heads that we think disqualifies someone from salvation. But we rarely wonder if the sins we struggle with on a routine basis are on some other Christian’s bad things list and they’d say we’re eternally condemned for committing them.

How do you know? And of course, let’s not forget about the “unpardonable sin” (Mark 3:28-29; Matt. 12:31-32; Luke 12:10), which is as ominous sounding as anything could get.

Outside of the you-were-once-saved-and-not-you’re-lost crowd, some believers say that if a confessing believer is committing so-and-so acts, it proves they were never saved to begin with. However, such “No true Christian would…” accusations run a great risk of committing the “No true Scotsman” logical fallacy.

It all begs the question: how bad can a Christian be and still be saved?

What we know

So, let’s start with the basics and drill down from there.

God’s gift of salvation can’t be accepted without us acknowledging we have a problem. If you give me a present that’s several bottles of mouthwash, I’m not going to take it unless I admit I have bad breath.

In other words, unless I see my need for a savior, I will never call on God to be merciful to me, the sinner (Luke 18:13). But if I do, I admit that I have moral wrongs that need righting.

So far so good. This brings up that ever-so-touchy subject of repentance.

John the Baptist started his ministry with that theme: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). Jesus talked a lot about it too saying, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32) and denouncing those who did not: “The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Luke 11:32).

Our acts of repentance flow into the process of sanctification, a march towards personal holiness, which we’re told is what God wants for us: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3). Plus, we’re commanded to “present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification” (Rom. 6:19), all of which is a progression where we’re being “conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29).  

Fine, but does anyone ever make it to the point of being totally sinless? Is 1 John 3:6, 9 implying that when it says, “No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him. No one who is born of God practices sin because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God”?

In short, no. John says earlier in his letter, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8), so the notion of perfectionism certainly isn’t being discussed later in chapter 3. Instead, the idea of a habitual sinful lifestyle devoid of any moral checks is in view as is the understanding that all Christians have a regenerate nature that competes with their old, unsaved state.

This is most famously underscored in Paul’s statements in Romans 7: “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate … So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (Rom. 7:15–19).  

What you see in Paul’s writings is something devoid in the woman who approached Piper. Notice how he says he is “doing the very thing I hate?” Although Paul says he sins, he doesn’t bathe in it with affection.

As one Christian teacher put it, “I don’t have a problem with a Christian who has a sinful habit, but do with a Christian who has a sinful habit and doesn’t think it’s sinful.”

Scripture tells us that we can know a tree by its fruit (Matt.7:18). Before salvation, a person only bore bad fruit from God’s perspective. After salvation, the same person is now capable of bearing good fruit, but the “old tree” is also still there and will also manifest its fruit as Paul makes clear in Romans 7.   

So that said, is there a you’ve-gone-too-far list of sins in Scripture that a believer can commit and then be lost? What about Paul’s list in Galatians: “Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal. 5:19–21, my emphasis).

If that’s the you’ve-crossed-the-line list, then I have bad news for you — we’re all doomed. Pick just one — how about idolatry? — and do a deep study on it and if you’re honest you’ll conclude you’re still guilty of it from time to time.

This naturally bothers some Christians who fear they’ve “fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4) and are now lost. “You don’t know all that I’ve done since I was saved,” they say.

Well, hold on, here’s a question for you: how many of your sins were in the future when Christ died? All of them? Correct. And were there just some sins He died for or all of them? Same answer as before, right (see Heb. 10:12)?  

The good news is Paul’s list of sins in Galatians is not an are-you-ever-guilty-of-this checklist but is instead a state of mind and way of continuous daily living (notice the word “practice”). Ditto for John’s verses that speak about a believer and sin.

Here’s the thing: there are people who profess to be Christian and yet live in a way that’s opposed to the faith. But sooner or later, if they continue in that manner, they reach a point where the mask falls and they bail on Christianity (1 John 2:19).

They don’t so much cross a line into being lost but reveal the sin they’ve always had that’s kept them there: the sin of unbelief. It’s the one that keeps anyone guilty of it from God’s grace.

But if that person instead comes into a real relationship with Christ, their saving faith will result in godly affections that begin to compete and wrestle with the old nature in them, a fact spelled out well in Jonathan Edward’s work, The Religious Affections.

Fake faith, on the other hand, always ends in apostasy.

As Paul well articulates in Romans, perfect victory isn’t won in this life, but a march towards holiness will be evident. A wonderful test of this is whether a person feels the weight of their sin, grieves over it, and cries out like Paul did, “Wretched person that I am!” (Rom. 7:24).

So how bad can you be and still be a Christian? The sin of unbelief is the ultimate test of lostness that always manifests in time when a person is at home with their sin, has love for it, and is devoid of godly affections that testify to a valid saving faith.

One could say that a good name for such a thing is the “unpardonable sin.”

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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