Can you go too far?


I have been confronted by a couple of literary dialogues that have forced me to answer the question, "can you go too far?" Can someone fall too deep in the mire of sin and self that they are no longer salvageable?

Evangelicalism tell us no. The gospel tells us no, does it not? The classical story of the prodigal son follows many of our own journeys from darkness to light. The younger son demands his inheritance while his father is alive (which is the equivalent of wishing him dead). He goes off into the world and squanders the inheritance in profligate living: partying, drunkenness, and prostitutes. But the sensual lifestyle is short lived; a famine enters the land and the Prodigal is forced into poverty status. He is starving, and is employed as pig feeder--desiring even the "pods the pigs were eating" to fill his empty stomach.

The Prodigal is gone. Pretty far gone I might add--but he is not too far gone. It is in this lowly, impoverished state that the text says that he "came to his senses!" "Maybe I will go back and see my Dad. I am not good enough to be his son, but maybe, just maybe he will take me in as a servant." This light bulb moment sends the prodigal home, who is met by the loving arms of his Father who is eagerly waiting for him.

The prodigal went very far; but he did not go too far for the grace and forgiveness of the Father.

Another New Testament example is the apostle Paul himself. Paul was a self-described Pharisee of Pharisees. He was the most elite Jewish leader you could find. As such, the then Saul was zealous about the preservation and integrity of the religion he so loved. It is with this fire in his soul that he attempts to crush the latest Jewish heresy known as Christianity. Saul throws himself with all the energy his self-righteous being can muster at persecuting and silencing the early church of Jesus Christ.

But Saul, enemy of Christ though he was, was not outside the mercy of Jesus Christ. On the road to Damascus he is confronted by Jesus himself and asked, "Why are you persecuting me?" Saul is blinded and broken--and to make a long story short--he is the one who ends up spreading the church to much of the gentile lands (writing most of the New Testament in the process).

Could there ever be anyone more far gone than pre-conversion Apostle Paul? It is just like Jesus to take those least likely to serve him, those chief of sinners--it is so like Jesus to redeem those least among us and use them the most powerfully for his Kingdom.

There is even an instance in 1 Corinthians 5 where a young man is called out for gross sexual sin. An incestuous relationship which is not even acceptable among the pagans has been detected among this church member, and Paul will not tolerate it. His verdict is harsh: expel the evil one among you! But the purpose of this hardline stance is not to leave him forever apart from the grace of God. Paul writes (vs. 5) that he is doing this so that his soul might be save!

You see, even this sinner, as far as he had gone--had still not crossed the point of no return. Paul's exhortations are harsh, but even in this instance they are for the future purpose of a possible restoration

***

With such a case, the position seems quite impregnable. Scripture is full of just about innumerable examples of those dead in their sins, coming to life by the grace of God. And we affirm: "While there is life there is hope." Surely there is not anyone who has gone too far for the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, right?

John Bunyan writes in Pilgrim's Progress of "Christian", a man who is escaping the City of Destruction and embarking on a long and perilous journey towards the Celestial City. It is a classic parallel of the Christian life. Early in his journey Christian comes to the Interpreter who is there to encourage him along the long road he has yet to travel. The Interpreter shows the pilgrim an image of a man in an iron cage. "The man, to look at, seemed very sad; he sat his eyes looking down to the ground, his hands folded together, and he sighed as if he would break his heart." Christian is curious as to why the man is in such a state, and the Interpreter gives him permission to dialogue with the imprisoned man.

Christian asks him what he once was. The man responds: "I was once a fair and flourishing professor, both in mine own eyes, and also in the eyes of others; I once was, as I thought, fair for the Celestial City, and had then even joy at the thoughts that I should get thither."

Christian asks: "Well, what art thou now?"

The man in the cage responds: "I am now a man of despair, and am shut up in this iron cage. I cannot get out. Oh, now I cannot!"

Christian asks how it was that this man found himself in this position. He again responds: "I left off to watch and be sober. I laid the reins upon the neck of my lusts; I sinned against the light of the Word and the goodness of God; I grieved the Spirit, and he is gone, I tempted the devil, and he is come to me; I have provoked God to anger, and he has left me: I have so hardened my heart, that I cannot repent."

The humbling scene grieves Christian, and he asks the Interpreter if there is any hope for such a man. He responds that there is none at all. That he is indeed too far gone. Farther than Saul the Persecutor, farther than the Prodigal son. Why? He answers: "I have crucified him to myself afresh (Heb 6:6); I have despised his person (Luke 19:14); I have despised his righteousness; I have 'counted his blood an unholy thing'; I have 'done despite to the Spirit of grace'. (Heb 10:28-29) Therefore I have shut myself out of all the promises, and there now remains to me nothing but threatenings, of certain judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour me as an adversary."

The Interpreter gives one final entreaty: "But canst thou not now repent and turn?"

The man's answer is chilling: "God hath denied me repentance. His Word gives me no encourage to believe; yea, himself hath shut me up in this iron cage; nor can all the men in the world let me out. O eternity, eternity! how shall I grapple with the misery that I must meet with in eternity!"

The Interpreter then concludes this sorrowful exchange by telling Christian: "Let this man's misery be remembered by thee, and be an everlasting caution to thee.”

***

Bunyan was communicating in the above illustration that though the grace of God is indeed far reaching, though His faithfulness extends from generation to generation, though his love reaches to even the worst of sinners--we can still come to a place where we are so numb to his voice, so dull to his conviction, so hardened in our hearts--that we are too far gone. We have rejected and neglected him, we have blasphemed his Spirit--and we have been given over to the prison of our flesh. We have become a person who has degenerated towards self so far that we can no longer come back. Can there be any thought more sobering than that?

Jesus writes of this very thing when he describes the unforgivable sin in Matthew 12:31, "And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven." What blasphemy of the Spirit looks like is just like what the man in the cage looks like; someone who has rejected the precious conviction of the Spirit, and his given over to an unrepentant state. Hebrews 12:16-17 gives us a similar warning of the point of no return of Esau: "See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done."

Now, when discussing this with my Dad, he reminded me that though these characters of Esau and the "Man in the cage" still maintain a desire to repent to illustrate a point; this does not mean that Christians need to live in constant fear that they have "crossed the line of grace". Such an understanding can cripple a struggling Christian from the assurance that they are in Christ. The fact that someone is fearful of the wrath of come, that in their heart they genuinely desire repentance is evidence that they have not gone too far. The picture of people who have truly blasphemed the Holy Spirit is that they regressed to a point where they no longer even desire to repent. They want nothing to do with the things of the Spirit, and for that reason there is no turning back

I will say, however, that it is not for us to judge the souls of man. The misapplication of this warning would to inflate ourselves to heaven's role and write people off by what we deem "too far". Scripture shows us, by the wild reaches of God's mercy and grace, that our view is far too limited to see what is the outcome of those we deem the "worst of sinners". The proper application is to look inward and to take the warning to heart. May we be ever sensitive to the Spirit's promptings in our own life. May we pray to God for sin to sting and call us quickly to right our course. May we never get to the place where we have been so unresponsive to the truth, and so deafened to the Holy Spirit's prodding--that we have become truly numb to the things of Christ. May it never be.

"Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon."

--Isaiah 55:6-7

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