Is it possible to commit a sin that is too big for God to forgive? Will God still forgive someone who lived a lifetime full of criminal and sinful behavior? Can God forgive anything? Many people avoid God because they believe they have sinned too much and one of the primary barriers to a relationship with Him is the belief they have committed sins that are too great for God to forgive. “You don't know what I've done”, someone might say, or “God could never forgive me.” Have some of us gone too far and is it too late to be brought back? Are some of us so deserving of eternal punishment in hell there is no chance of being saved?
What Does God Say About Forgiveness?
"'Come now, and let us reason together', says the Lord, ‘though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow ; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool'” (Isaiah 1:18). Notice He did not say, “Come now, those who have only committed a few sins.” Jesus instructed Peter to forgive his brother “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22), in other words, an unlimited number of times. Some other notable instances of forgiveness mentioned in the Bible include:
“As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Again, notice John did not say God would forgive us “some” or “most” of our sins.
“Praise the Lord … and forget not all his benefits - who forgives all your sins” (NIV)
There are many more not listed here. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible lists 112 instances of the word “forgive” or variation of the word. We start to get the idea that God is very willing to forgive.
What About Really Big Sins, Like Mass Murder?
One pleasant summer evening, August 4, 2009, an aerobics class had just begun at the LA Fitness club in Collier, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. A 48-year-old man, George Sodini, walked into the club, set down his gym bag and shot 12 women, killing three. Uncovering the reason for this seemingly senseless act was not difficult: The shooter had been posting his thoughts on a blog for months prior to the shooting. His unsuccessful love life left him feeling resentful toward women. He claimed to have been a member of a local church and even made this statement about the pastor:
“…religion is a waste. But this guy teaches (and convinced me) you can commit mass murder then still go to heaven.”
Sodini went on to write only one day before the shooting:
"Maybe soon, I will see God and Jesus. At least that is what I was told. Eternal life does NOT depend on works. If it did, we will all be in hell. Christ paid for EVERY sin, so how can I or you be judged BY GOD for a sin when the penalty was ALREADY paid. People judge but that does not matter. I was reading the Bible and The Integrity of God beginning yesterday, because soon I will see them."
Is it possible the shooter could have been saved? While we must be extremely careful when judging someone's relationship with God, we are instructed in the Bible to judge the doctrine and the fruit.1 George Sodini knew some truth, but obviously did not live by it. Even Satan tells the truth sometimes. The shooter apparently had no relationship with God, probably due in large part to the lack of relationship with his earthly father, as was evident in his blog.
What about the Son of Sam mass murderer?
David Berkowitz, also known as the Son of Sam, shot 15 people, killing six, in New York City between July 29, 1976 and July 31, 1977. The murders were completely senseless, he did not know the victims, and when apprehended, Berkowitz claimed a demon possessed his neighbor's dog telling him to commit murder. On a whacked-out crazy scale, that's off the chart. Berkowitz was sentenced to 365 years imprisonment and, while many surely believe he should have received the death penalty, an interesting thing happened to this psychopathic murderer. In 1987, another prisoner told the “Son of Sam” that Jesus Christ loved him and wanted to forgive him. David Berkowitz called on the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13) and received (so it appears) God's forgiveness for his sins. While this is certainly no consolation to the victims' families, the Bible does not exclude the worst sinners from the possibility of salvation.
Can God Save The Worst Sinners?
The Apostle Paul provides himself as a prime example of this:
“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost (or, worst) of all. Yet for this reason I found mercy, so that in me as the foremost, Jesus Christ might demonstrate His perfect patience as an example for those who would believe in Him for eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
It would be a bold assertion indeed for someone today to claim the title of “worst sinner”, having to wrestle that title from the Apostle Paul. God showed his perfect patience not only to Saul of Tarsus, but also Moses, who committed murder. And, one of the most egregious examples of bad behavior was David, who committed adultery, then arranged for the husband's death to cover his sin (2 Samuel 11). God not only forgave these men, but then used them mightily for His purposes. God does not change and can do the same for people today.
What About Repentance?
Obviously, if we have no sorrow for our sins and no intention of turning from them, forgiveness is not possible. The Bible clearly states we must repent (Luke 13:3, Acts 2:38, Acts 3:19, 2 Peter 3:9, and others). Repentance does not depend on the severity of the sin; in fact, those who have committed worse sins are usually more cognizant of their need to repent (Luke 7:47). Repentance does not mean we must live perfect lives afterward. Of course, we strive to do good and avoid evil, but the word “repent”, from metanoeo in the Greek, denotes a change of mind. It is a mental decision to turn from disbelief and disobedience toward faith and to God.
What About The Unpardonable Sin?
Anyone who determines to read the Bible eventually arrives at those verses that mention “the unpardonable sin” and Satan – clever fellow he is - will probably try to plant the thought that we have done this, thereby sealing our eternal damnation. Jesus stated, “ whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgive n; he is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:29). Context is critical here, as with most Biblical passages. In this verse, Jesus is speaking to teachers of the law – who should know better – who accused Him of casting out demons because He was possessed by demons; in other words, attributing the work of God (the Holy Spirit) to Satan. But, as Hank Hanegraaff explains, “with premeditation and persistence, they (Jewish religious leaders) willfully blasphemed the Holy Spirit's testimony that Christ was the Son of the living God. It is crucial to recognize that the unforgivable sin is not a single act but a continuous, ongoing rejection.”2 Anyone who has committed this sin would have no desire in this life to repent and believe in Jesus.
How Can Anyone Be Saved?
Forgiveness is a free gift:
“By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God ” (Ephesians 2:8).
The word translated as “grace” in the Greek is charis , which is described in more detail by Spiros Zodhiates:
“It was used especially to describe favors done without expectation of return. In reference to God we might understand it as the absolutely free expression of His loving-kindness to men, finding its only motive in His bounty and benevolence as the Giver: His unearned and unmerited favor... Strictly speaking, grace is the favorable disposition of God toward sinners on account of Christ.”3
Paul explains that we are justified not by any work, but by belief alone:
“Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:4-5).
One of the more common misconceptions about God is that we must still earn at least some of His forgiveness and acceptance. If that is true, then the death of Jesus Christ on the cross was not fully sufficient to erase all sins. (See article on Purgatory, this website.) The last words from Jesus' mouth before His death were, “It is finished”, not “partially” or “mostly” finished.
One Crucial Requirement
One issue that could place a barrier between us and God's forgiveness is our willingness to forgive others. Jesus related a parable of a man who was released from his debt of 10,000 talents (Matthew 18:23-35). Craig Keener estimates this amount as very roughly 60 million days' wages4, which would equate to around nine billion dollars, give or take a few hundred million, if the median annual salary today is 45,000 USD. Anyone not named Bill Gates or Warren Buffet would have trouble with this. However, the man in the parable would not forgive another who owed him 100 denarii (about 100 days' wages, very roughly $15,000), much less than he was forgiven. Exact amounts aside, we get the point: If we have $9 billion worth of sin forgiven, be sure to forgive others who have wronged us. Jesus informed, “if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:15).
This article by no means is intended to minimize sin, which is the cause of evil and death in the world (Romans 5:12). But, there's no separation of mortal and venial sins with God. James stated, “ For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). So, whereas there may be levels of sin, all will keep us from God, even the smallest. Conversely, even the biggest can be forgiven. James went on to state, “ judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). God takes no delight in punishing people for sins (2 Peter 3:9), but is pleased to show mercy and give us the kingdom of heaven (Luke 12:32).