Article XVI: Of sin after baptism

This post is part of a Lenten series on the 39 Articles.

Article XVI: Of sin after baptism
Not every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent

These days, most Episcopalians will likely scratch their heads after reading this one. Well of course people can sin after baptism and be forgiven. It seems like a no brainer. Well, not so fast. I once had a friend who is a conservative fundamentalist. He maintained that once you were baptized, you were saved, and that you could do anything you wanted and still “get into heaven.” That seems like a strange position to take — not much like the Jesus of the bible. Jesus asks us to follow him, not to complete a sacramental check box and then do whatever we want.

So then, can we fall from grace after baptism? Our liturgy might seem to suggest that my friend was right, though our language much different. “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” We say that to everyone as we anoint them with chrism after their water baptism. What does it mean to say that one is marked as Christ’s own for ever. Is baptism a “Get Out of Hell Free” card?

Let’s reframe the question. As Christians, how are we called to live after our baptism? The answer, of course, is that we are called to follow Jesus, to take up our cross and follow him. While the Baptismal Covenant is very trendy these days, folks usually focus on the justice bits. But there are also some repentance bits in there too. We promise that whenever we fall into sin, we will repent and return to the Lord. Get that? Not “if” we fall into sin, but “when.” Our liturgy tells us that we’re going to mess up after baptism. After all, we are human.

The Article seems to assume that because we have been given the Holy Spirit in baptism, some people might claim that any sins we commit could be construed as sins against the Holy Spirit. There’s no particular biblical basis for this. In fact, it seems to me that the grace of the Holy Spirit may well help us in our inevitable struggle with sin. Only Christ is called to perfection, so our certain failing is not an assault on the Holy Spirit. Rather, it is a further opportunity for the fruits of that grace to work in us, bringing about our repentance.

Is it possible to fall from grace after baptism? I would be loathe to say much of anything about the operation of grace or about salvation with 100% certainty (and I am skeptical of others who make sure and certain claims). No doubt one can fail to repent, to willfully turn one’s back on one’s faith and thus deny and blaspheme the Holy Spirit. The bible tells us it isn’t going to go well for the person who does this.

In the end, I find myself agreeing with this Article. After baptism, we will of course sin. And if we truly repent, God is ready to embrace us. The catch is that we have to repent. We don’t like to contemplate that too much, because repentance is more than a quick “Sorry!” To repent means to turn, to change, to start over. As long as we’re willing to do that, the grace of the Holy Spirit will work in us to restore us people washed clean in the waters of baptism.

Here are some questions for pondering or meditation:

  • How does the Holy Spirit work in your life?
  • Can anyone sin to such a degree that it is no longer possible for the Holy Spirit to work in them?
  • Is the struggle against sin different for people who are baptized than from those who are unbaptized?
  • How does our Baptismal Covenant support or contradict the declaration to the baptized, “N., you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.?
  • What do you suppose it means to speak of blaspheming or sinning against the Holy Spirit?

O God, you prepared your disciples for the coming of the Spirit through the teaching of your Son Jesus Christ: Make the hearts and minds of your servants ready to receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit, that they may be filled with the strength of his presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Previous: Article XV: Of Christ alone without sin
Next: Article XVII: Of predestination and election

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2 Responses

  1. Bob Chapman says:

    I always thought this article spoke against the practice of the Church during the days of the Roman Empire of delaying Baptism until near death. The reason, as I understand it, was because Baptism forgave all your sins to the point of Baptism–but not necessarily afterwards. Therefore, delay and get the best deal you can for your Baptism. This turns Baptism into Works Righteousness. Do this, and you are forgiven.

    Delaying Baptism to get the maximum bang from the buck isn’t any different than telling someone to say the Sinner’s Prayer as a Get into Heaven Free card. Do this, and you are saved.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if Christianity were that simple to master! Of course, who would be in control at that point, God or Man?

  2. Scott Gunn says:

    Bob, the Article may well be addressing the issue you raise, at least partly. And clearly the Donatist heresy was part of the issue. But the Reformers were quite concerns with grace/faith/sin/works and spent lots of energy trying to sort out that equation, as exemplified in last week’s set of Articles.

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