SUICIDE AND FORGIVENESS
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, August 10, 2011 at 4:29pm
QUESTION: If a Christian commits suicide, does he or she automatically go to hell? Doesn’t the Bible say we must confess our sins in order for them to be forgiven? Surely suicide is a sin, but by its very nature it can be confessed only prior to the act. Is that sufficient in order to receive forgiveness for it?
ANSWER: We can certainly agree on some crucial points here: suicide (self-murder) is certainly a very serious sin, being a violation of the sixth commandment; committing any sin makes us guilty before God and worthy of hell; true repentance is definitely necessary as a condition for receiving forgiveness. When we put all these things together, it seems to require that anyone who commits suicide must go to hell. Is this conclusion Biblical?
It is commonly thought that the Roman Catholic Church takes this position, since it has traditionally denied a Catholic funeral and burial to anyone who has committed suicide. Recent Catholic writings have qualified this quite a bit, though. The website of “Catholics United for the Faith” says that the Catholic Church is more lenient on this today than it used to be. Even its past practice of denying a Catholic funeral and burial “was not a judgment on the deceased’s eternal destiny,” and today the Church “better understands the psychological disturbances that may influence a suicide and thus mitigate personal culpability” (www.cuf.org/faithfacts/details_view.asp?ffID=264). According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 2282-83), “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary [saving] repentance.”
While I deny the possibility of repentance after death (Heb. 9:27), I believe the point about motivation is important for this issue. If suicide is an individual’s act of defiance against God and a deliberate rejection of his Lordship, as an act of unbelief this may indeed separate the Christian from the grace of God and the hope of heaven. More commonly, though, the sin of suicide is actually an act of desperation and not a deliberate rebellion against God. As with most other specific sins, it does not automatically separate one from the grace of God, even if there have been no specific repentance and confession relating to it.
In many Protestant church circles, especially within the Restoration Movement, the view that underlies the question above—the idea that suicide automatically sends its perpetrator to hell—is based on a wrong approach to a specific passage of Scripture, namely, 1 John 1:9. In the NASB this reads, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This is taken to mean that the act of repentant confession of a specific sin is required for the forgiveness of that sin. (It is difficult to think that a confession made before a sin is being made out of sincere repentance, though.)
In my judgment this is a faulty understanding of 1 John 1:9, and is the result of a failure to properly understand the key doctrine of justification by faith. As Christians who live with an ever-present, on-going attitude of faith and repentance, we are in a constant state of forgiveness. We live as forgiven people, and we do so because of our faith in Jesus, apart from the record of our good works and our sins at any particular time (Romans 3:28). I have discussed this specifically in my book on grace, Set Free. Here is what I said, with some editorial changes:
A failure to understand 1 John 1:9 is a serious roadblock to assurance of salvation. The typical approach to this text assumes that every time we commit a sin, we literally fall from grace. I.e., we lose our salvation status and re-enter the state of lostness. Even though all our previous sins remain forgiven, each time we sin anew—whether it be suicide or anything else—we become guilty for that sin and are condemned to hell for it, unless and until that sin can be forgiven. This is why 1 John 1:9 is so important, because (it is assumed) this text tells us how to get forgiveness for the sins we commit in our ongoing Christian life. If we sincerely confess that specific sin (and pray for its forgiveness), God will graciously forgive that sin and restore us to the saved state again—until we sin yet again, in which case the process must be repeated.
With this understanding of 1 John 1:9, a sincere Christian sees himself or herself as being trapped in a kind of revolving door between the domains of wrath and grace. The cycle is endless: under grace – sin – under wrath – confession – under grace – sin – under wrath – confession – under grace – sin – under wrath – confession – under grace – and on and on. This compromises assurance because it causes the Christian to live in fear that he or she will die after committing a sin and before having the inclination or opportunity to confess it and pray for forgiveness.
What is the solution to this life of fear and uncertainty? Of course, the simplest solution would be: just don’t sin! But few of us (if any) are at this point. We still struggle with sin every day. Since that is the case, we need to see that the solution is: justification by faith! Committing a sin (even suicide), in and of itself, does not separate us from the grace of God! We live our lives, day in and day out, performing good works and bad works (sins), while remaining under the gracious umbrella of justification through our faith in Jesus. Persistence in sin can cause our faith to die, but individual sins are not equivalent to apostasy. As someone has put it, those who are on a ship in the middle of the ocean can fall or jump off the ship and perish; but they can also trip and fall down on the ship, and thus hurt themselves, without falling off the ship. We are under grace, even when we sin.
Contributing to our faulty understanding of justification by faith and of 1 John 1:9 is the common false idea that baptism is for the forgiveness of past sins only. This idea says that in baptism our past sins are forgiven like they are being erased from a blackboard; but after that, every time we sin, each new sin is added to the board until some subsequent ritual (such as the sacrament of penance, or the Lord’s Supper, or the confession of 1 John 1:9) gets it erased. This is a seriously false understanding of baptism. Baptism is “for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38) because in that act we enter into an ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ, a relationship that is equivalent to being constantly covered by his blood in the sense that the “robe of righteousness” (Isa. 61:10) constantly covers our “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). This covering remains secure unless we actually fall from grace by ceasing to believe in Jesus.
What, then, does 1 John 1:9 mean? We learn this by looking at its context, especially the verses that precede and follow it: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. . . . If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us” (vv. 8, 10). The problem in both these verses is not sinning as such, but denying that we have sinned. What is the opposite of denying that we have sinned? Simply put, confessing that we have sinned. In my judgment this is the point of v. 9: if we confess that we ARE sinners, and in need of God’s forgiveness, he is faithful to CONTINUE to keep us in the state of forgiveness. This is an element of our ongoing repentance. Even if we are not conscious of any recent specific sin, each time we pray we can still confess THAT we are sinners and claim anew God’s promise of justification. (Confession of specific sins is still necessary for the sanctification process, though not for justification.)
This understanding of 1 John 1:8-10 is illustrated and confirmed by Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee is a perfect example of 1 John 1:8, 10; he was conscious only of his perceived goodness and admitted no sins at all. What about the tax collector? What specific sins did he confess? None! In simple humility he prayed, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” But he went home justified (forgiven), whereas the Pharisee did NOT!
Any person who is contemplating committing suicide needs serious help, but the false threat of guaranteed condemnation to hell is not the answer. If it happens anyway, at least those of us who are left behind can grieve without being in despair over their eternal salvation.