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Forgiveness for willingly disobeying?

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Can God still forgive me if I willingly do what I know is wrong?


Steve Answers:

Because of God’s patience and eagerness to forgive, it’s easy to say “Yes” to your question. God forgave those in Nineveh who had done what was wrong for years (see Jonah 4:2). Some think the reason Jesus hasn’t returned yet is to give people more of a chance to repent (see 2 Peter 3:9).

But there might be evidence to point out that God won’t forgive you, too! Most gentle people avoid this, but angry and uptight people quickly say “No” to your question. Paul talks about God giving up on people and turning them over to their own evil minds with the result of death (see Romans 1:28, 32). Hebrews 6:4-6 describes people who followed God but then turned away. Their repentance is described as “impossible,” because they are “crucifying the Son of God all over again.” So, can God forgive you if you willingly do what you know is wrong?

Most teens don’t read the book of Numbers because it opens with lots of lists, numbers, and even genealogies. But there’s plenty of helpful stuff in Numbers. In fact, we’ll go there for an answer to your question.

In Numbers 15 you can read the instructions God gave Moses concerning gifts and offerings His people would give in worship to Him when they entered the Promised Land. These instructions were for both the Israelites and any others who’d joined them (see Numbers 15:14-16).

Next comes a description of unintentional sin: “Now if you unintentionally fail to keep any of these commands the Lord gave Moses . . . the whole Israelite community and the aliens living among them will be forgiven, because all the people were involved in the unintentional wrong” (see Numbers 15:22, 24-26). An unintentional sin by an individual required a sin offering of a year-old female goat (see Numbers 15:27-29).

Notice what follows the description of unintentional sins: “But those who brazenly violate the Lord’s will, whether native Israelites or foreigners, blaspheme the Lord, and they must be cut off from the community. Since they have treated the Lord’s word with contempt and deliberately disobeyed his commands, they must be completely cut off and suffer the consequences of their guilt” (Numbers 15:30, NLT).*

That’s a pretty direct answer! When God’s people purposefully went against Him, they were to be “cut off from the community.” For those who think that meant they had to do a desert “walkabout” and try to survive on their own for a while like Australian Aboriginal males for a rite of passage, just read Numbers 15:32-36.

In those verses you’ll find a story recorded about a man who gathered wood on the Sabbath. This went in direct violation of what the people had been told to do (see Exodus 31:13-17). The people arrested the man and put him in custody. How could a person be so defiant? The answer from God to Moses to the people was that the “whole community must stone him outside the camp.”

So, the answer from Numbers 15 seems to be that there is forgiveness when somebody unintentionally does what is wrong, but there isn’t forgiveness when somebody intentionally does what is wrong. But it’s dangerous to base your entire understanding on one verse or one story. It’s far better to consider more of the evidence, especially since it’s readily available to us.

Chapters 14 and 16 of Numbers deal with your question as well. Let’s look at Numbers 14 first, then we’ll consider Numbers 16.

After hearing the report of the 12 spies who checked out Canaan, the Israelites chose to go with the majority report of discouragement because they heard, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes” (see Numbers 13:33).

The people cried all night. Next they told Moses and Aaron that they wished to die in Egypt or in the wilderness rather than face the giants in a war. Then they decided to choose a new leader who would take them back to Egypt (see Numbers 14:1-4).

Absolutely astounding! The people wanted somebody who would take them back to slavery after God had delivered them from it! But then I wonder how often I do the same type of thing (see Proverbs 26:11)!

When Caleb and Joshua gave the optimistic faith challenge that with God, they could easily overcome the giants, the people decided to stone them (see Numbers 14:10). But before they followed through, the presence of the Lord appeared over the sanctuary. That always seemed to get their attention when they’d lost their focus.

The message from God was far from light-hearted. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will these people reject me? Will they never believe me, even after all the miraculous signs I have done among them? I will disown them and destroy them with a plague. Then I will make you into a nation far greater and mightier than they are!’” (Numbers 14:11, 12).*

Moses begged God to reconsider, and God forgave the Israelites for their deliberate rebellion against Him. But He answered their prayers to die in the wilderness instead of face the giants in Canaan. Interestingly, the children they said would be slaughtered by the giants ended up being the ones who went safely into the Promised Land (see Numbers 14:28-33).

But that wasn’t all. The 10 spies who had spread the discontent were struck dead with a plague (see Numbers 14:36, 37). It seems that forgiveness was given to the rebellious community, but not to the leaders of the rebellion.

The next morning the people decided that dying in the desert wasn’t such a good prayer request after all. So they made plans to storm into the land of Canaan and overpower the giants. This was rebellion once again—doing it their own way instead of God’s way.

Moses told them not to do it because God wouldn’t be with them, and they’d get crushed by the enemies. They didn’t listen. They went into Canaan anyway and got crushed by the Canaanites and Amalekites (see Numbers 14:39-45).

Jump over to Numbers 16 for another example of what happens when people go directly against God. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram led 250 prominent leaders against Moses and Aaron, claiming that they had just as much right and authority to lead as Moses and Aaron did. The accusation was that Moses and Aaron hadn’t been good enough leaders, because the Israelites were still in the desert instead of in the Promised Land (a slight memory loss on the reason why from two chapters earlier).

Soon the entire community was against Moses and Aaron. That’s when the presence of the Lord showed up at the sanctuary again. This time the message from God to Moses and Aaron was not one of forgiveness. He said, “Get away from all these people so that I may instantly destroy them!” (Numbers 16:21).*

Next came a narrower sentence, “Get away from the tents of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.” In the ensuing standoff, the three rebellious men and their families got swallowed by the earth (read about it in Numbers 16:29-33). The other 250 rebellious leaders who claimed to have a place of privilege got burned up by fire that “blazed forth from the Lord” (see Numbers 16:35).

Still the Israelites didn’t catch on. The next morning people started complaining that Moses and Aaron had killed the rebellious people (see Numbers 16:41). You can probably guess what happened next. Yep, the glory of God appeared at the sanctuary again.

God told Moses and Aaron to get away from the complaining people, because He was going to destroy them. Moses and Aaron interceded again. This time Aaron took the censor with incense that represented prayers and carried it among the people, because a plague had broken out. But by that time 14,700 people had already died.

Let’s return to your question, “Can God still forgive me if I willingly do what I know is wrong?” In these stories we find that God does forgive, but there are certainly times when God either punishes or else lets consequences take their “natural” course.

What about us today? We don’t do animal sacrifices because the ultimate sacrifice was offered when Jesus died for us on the cross (see Hebrews 10:1-14). And because Jesus died in the past, we sometimes get careless, forgetful, maybe negligent when it comes to doing our own thing. We figure that we can always get forgiveness later. Our key verse is 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

There’s a double promise in 1 John 1:9—forgiveness for the sins you’ve already done (even the ones you did on purpose) and purification so you can live in God’s favor, instead of just doing your own thing.

From this important verse we see that confessing our sins is the condition for God’s faithful act of forgiveness and purification. In the previous stories we saw very little confession. Open defiance is willful disobedience to the extreme. The results are horrible.

Sin kills; God gives life. Without God, your sin is unforgivable, and it results in death. With God, you have the offer of forgiveness and eternal life (see Romans 6:23).

No wonder David wrote, “Praise the Lord, [may I] never forget the good things he does for me. He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases. He ransoms me from death and surrounds me with love and tender mercies. . . . The Lord is merciful and gracious; he is slow to get angry and full of unfailing love. He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever. He does not punish us for all our sins, nor does he deal with us as we deserve. . . . He has removed our rebellious acts as far away from us as the east is from the west. The Lord is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he understands how weak we are; he knows we are only dust. . . . But the love of the Lord remains forever with those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:2-4, 8-10, 12-14, 17).* *Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Wheaton, Illinois 60189. All rights reserved.

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