Gentle Answers: Revisiting the Iron Cage

A reader named Justin submitted the following question to our “Gentle Answers” feature found on the right sidebar.  My answer to him is below.

Barry,

I just read your post on the unpardonable sin entitled the “Iron Cage“.  I have struggled with this particular topic for a few years now.  A few years ago I indeed had not be watchful and been somewhat lax in my spiritual walk.  Because of an awful thought I had a few years ago, during that time, while reading the unpardonable sin passage in Mark I have feared that I have committed the unpardonable sin.  Ever since then I have feared that all that awaits me is eternal punishment and this terrifies me.  I have earnestly prayed for God’s forgiveness over and over but still feel anxiety.  I feel as if because of what I’ve done and thought, the promises of God no longer apply to me and He has left me and I can’t be forgiven for the things I’ve thought; I can’t imagine standing before Him and those particular thoughts being brought up; I hate them!  I noticed you quoted J.I. Packer in your post and I read that portion of his book Concise Theology and he goes on to say that if someone has anxiety that they’ve committed this sin that itself is evidence they have not, due to the hardheartedness of such a sin.  However your excerpt from Bunyan shows a man who is very remorseful for what he has done yet finds no mercy; his anxiety over committing the sin has no bearing on his state whatsoever.  Could you clarify?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dear Justin,

Thank you for your honest question.  I appreciate this opportunity to clarify this issue for you.  Though I do not know you nor your heart, I do want to encourage you.  Please allow me to state succinctly at the outset my answer to your concern over whether you have committed the unpardonable sin, then explain it.

Justin, if the words above sincerely represent your heart, there is no way you have committed this sin.  Matter of fact, they reveal quite the opposite.  Rather than the calloused heart of unbelief that the man in the iron cage had that was not able to receive Christ’s grace, you would appear to have a tender heart of faith that needs and is longing for a fuller experience of that grace.

How can I say this?  Let me offer these three comforts to you.

First, your own testimony above would indicate you have not committed this sin.  You are struggling about it, which those whom Jesus condemned for committing this sin did not and cannot do.  You state that you hate the sins that you fear are unforgivable, yet again those who have committed the unpardonable sin do not hate but love their sin.  Justin, you describe your sin as an awful thought or thoughts you had years ago.  Yet to get to the point where you could not be forgiven, you would have to move out of the realm of mere thoughts.  You would have to exhibit a sustained lifestyle with accompanying words and actions that demonstrate you are unregenerate and hardened beyond hope.  As the original article described, you would have to take the knowledge of the gospel and, like the Pharisees to whom Jesus was speaking (see Matthew 12:32; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10), call Jesus evil and deny openly the gospel’s saving power.  Notice carefully again what the man in the iron cage says about himself:

CHRISTIAN: Then said Christian, Is there no hope, but you must be kept in the iron cage of despair?

THE MAN: No, none at all.

CHRISTIAN: Why, the Son of the Blessed is very pitiful.

THE MAN: I have crucified him to myself afresh, I have despised his person, I have despised his righteousness; I have counted his blood an unholy thing; I have done despite to the spirit of grace, therefore I have shut myself out of all the promises

Do you remain unmoved by the gospel?  Do you despise Jesus?  Do you consider it laughable that Christ can give you His righteousness?  Do you look at His blood and treat it as unholy?  From what you describe above, this seems far from the case to me.  You have much reason to hope, Justin.

Secondly, do not press the Scriptural warnings nor Bunyan’s allegory beyond their desired intent.  Rather, as you are in part rightly doing, be warned toward obedience by them.   The passages listed in the above paragraph, and the several others warnings in the Scriptures given in the original article, are placed there by the Lord to create a holy fear in our hearts.  We are to read them and tremble over how dwelling in sin and unbelief could lead us to despise God’s Son, and thus turn from this to trust in the Lord of all mercies.  The Scriptural warnings are not given to worry us over whether we have committed the unpardonable sin or not.

Justin, think of a sign on the road that says “Warning: Bridge Out Ahead.”  If a drunken fool ignores that warning, and his car plunges over the edge of a cliff, he is not going to worry whether he has ignored that warning sign or not. He paid no attention to it.  He’s just going to die!  Similarly, a person who has reached the state of blaspheming the Holy Spirit is so drunk and hardened with his pride, pleasures, and impenitence that he does not even care about the warnings.  He’s too busy rushing headlong into destruction.

That’s why I also say you have to be careful not to push Bunyan’s allegory of the iron man too far.  I do not think anyone who is truly in this state would actually be cognizant enough of his own standing before God to be able to express himself like the iron cage man.  He had no true concern which the above quote shows.  Rather, Bunyan just put strings of Scripture in his mouth as a reminder to us of God’s warnings.  Remember that the Interpreter told Christian, “Let this man’s misery be remembered by thee, and be an everlasting caution to thee.”  These warnings are God’s gracious reminders for believers so they will never forget the mercies of God and always remember to be cautious in their walk with Him.

Finally, Justin, take heart that the promises of God are for you.  That is why I said above you are partly responding rightly to the warnings.  You must go further, for you express above a great deal of fear and anxiety.  That does not mean you are  in the Iron Cage, Justin, but it does indicate that you are in Doubting Castle where Giant Despair dwells.  Satan loves to use doubts, fears, accusations, and anxieties to bind up believers.  Though you may feel emotionally that His promises do not apply to you, as you say above, you are not beyond them.  The promises do not depend on our emotions but on Christ!  For do you  remember how Christian and Faithful finally escaped Doubting Castle?  Bunyan writes:

Now, a little before it was day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out into this passionate speech: What a fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty! I have a key in my bosom, called Promise, that will, I am persuaded, open any lock in Doubting Castle. Then said Hopeful, That is good news; good brother, pluck it out of thy bosom, and try.

The promises of God freed them from their doubts and fears.

In his work The Everlasting Espousal, Thomas Boston portrayed the gospel as Christ holding out a marriage covenant with vows to be signed.  Christ has signed the covenant in His own blood.  He then asks you to sign.  Boston addresses those who may be hesitant to sign because they feel unworthy by asking this question, “What is your name?”   He uses the different names a sinner might identify himself by, then offers a Scriptural promise especially directed to them.   Here is an excerpt:

  • Will you answer to the name of thirsty sinner? Then read your name, and see how it is directed to you in Isaiah 55:1. “Ho every one that thirsts, come to the waters, and he that has no money; come, buy and eat, yea come, buy wine and milk without money, without price.”
  • Wilt you answer to the name of willing sinner? Then it is directed to you in Rev. 22:17. “Whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.”
  • Are you called heavy-laden sinner?  Arise then, the Master calls you in Matthew 11:28.  “Come unto me, all that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
  • Is thy name whorish backslider? “‘You have hast played the harlot with many lovers, yet return again unto me,’ says the Lord,” Jeremiah 3:1.
  • Are you a lost sinner? “The Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost,” Luke 19:10.
  • Nay, are you the chief of sinners? Even to you is the word of this salvation sent: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief,”  I Timothy 1:15.

Justin, grab hold of one of these promises, or one of the hundreds of others found in the Scriptures, and do not let go!  Read and believe it as if it were written just for you.

Let me give you one or two more promises in closing.  “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).  Justin, if you asked Jesus to cleanse you from these thoughts, He has.  If you doubt His willingness to do so, remember the leper who asked to be cleansed said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”  Remember the response of Christ?  “Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I am willing; be cleansed'” (Mark 1:40).  He is willing, Justin, so very willing.  After all, He  went to the cross to save fearful, doubting sinners like you and me.

I’m praying that you will find His perfect peace (Philippians 4:6-7).

Barry

9 Comments

  1. Scott February 15, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    Justin, I struggled with this exact problem not for a few years but almost two decades. The key of promise to unlock this dungeon is John 6:37

    All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.

    It is the same Christ, the same unbreakable word of God that made this statement that made the statement in Matt 12.
    Which is to be believed? I understand that for someone who had committed this sin to come to Christ would involve God in a conflict of principles. He would have to break one word in order to fulfill another. Therefore it is impossible that these two conditions can every coincide.
    If you come to Christ he has stated in the strongest way possible that he will not cast you out.
    You come to him aright by coming as a dead man who can do nothing and offer nothing and plead nothing but his mercy and grace.

    Come to Him, he cannot fail to obey his Father’s will vs 38-40,

    38 For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.
    39 And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day.
    40 And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.

  2. alcoramdeo February 18, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    Justin, I certainly have nothing more profound to offer you than Barry and Scott have done, but I hope to encourage you just the same.

    The struggle you describe has plagued me for much of the 50 years since my first profession of Christ. We cannot afford to interpret Scripture according to our feelings or experiences, but must do the precise opposite, subjecting our fears and doubts to the absolute authority of the Word of the God who cannot lie.

    Please consider how the words of Bunyan’s caged man are not about Christ, but about his own mistreatment of Christ: “I have crucified… I have despised… I have counted… I have done despite… I have shut myself out… I did then promise myself… how shall I grapple with the misery…”

    Barry has referred you to Philippians 4:6-7. I will extend that to include all through verse 9. Please give yourself time in this passage to reflect, contemplate, and pray for wisdom (see James 1:5) to understand our Lord’s intent for us in giving us these instructions in this exact format and wording.
    Pay special attention to the things verse 8 instructs us to think upon, then go back to Philippians 2:5-8 and see that those qualities we are to keep on our minds are the very personal characteristics that describe our gracious Lord Jesus Christ.

    The point is that our destiny is not established by our faulty handling of the Truth, but by the faultless Truth Himself’s acting on our behalf and for our good (see Romans 8:28-39). Again, give ample time and effort to prayerful reflection on the implications of each of these passages. If you find such study and reflection to be hard work, then we have much in common. But our souls are at stake, so what better way to invest them?

    Finally, Justin, know that when God invests Himself He also pledges Himself to finish what He has begun, that is to see it through to its absolute completion (Philippians 1:6). That pledge applies to us whom He has purchased with the precious blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:20, 1 Peter 1:18-19), an cost He will never allow to have been in vain. What God has purposed He will also do, and no power in heaven or earth can prevent the carrying out of His will which is always perfect and His pleasure which is always good (see Isaiah 55:10-11, and be comforted by verses 8-9).

    You are in my prayers.

  3. Otis September 17, 2016 at 3:43 pm #

    I too have been in torment dealing with the blasphemy against the spirit . I lashed out in anger at God for not helping me . I had asked God to let me feel His presence and let me feel His peace . I felt like He was ignoring me and I became angry. This is what I said to God . ” I asked you to give me a measly peace and you can’t even do that for me . Then I made up a song that was mocking Him . I felt God tell me not to do it but I did It anyways . I said / sang ” He didn’t lift me up when I was down ” after that I had fear fall on me like I had just crossed the line with God . I begged for mercy but I felt it wasn’t there for me . Then I remembered the passage about blaspheming the Holy Spirit . I have dealt with this for many years . I’m in torment and misery . All I want is Jesus. I want His forgiveness. I want to hear Him say I love you you are forgiven.

    • Barry York September 19, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

      Otis,

      Read the Scriptures cited above and you will hear the voice of Jesus. The one who offered forgiveness to those who crucified him can forgive you these things.

      Barry

  4. James December 5, 2016 at 9:12 am #

    I know Christ came to me and I didn’t recognize him.He has left me.My health has gone.
    Please pray he wil give me another chance because he is not hearing me.

    • Barry York December 5, 2016 at 10:00 am #

      James,

      Please do not despair. I’m praying for you now.

      The only way the Lord will not hear your prayer is if you cherish sin in your heart more than him (Ps. 66:18). But if you repent and believe in the goodness of the Lord, he will hear and help you. As Psalm 32:5 states:

      I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.

      If you will be sincere with Jesus, he will sincerely come to you.

      • James December 5, 2016 at 10:08 am #

        I am being sincere but His spirit will not speak to me. Please continue to pray that he will.
        My email
        Pictureman3120@gmail.com

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Check out | HeadHeartHand Blog - February 18, 2013

    […] Revisiting the iron cage Barry York replies to a letter from a young man who fears he has committed the unpardonable sin. […]

  2. God’s Faithfulness | Quality of Life Ministries - February 18, 2013

    […] Gentle Answers: Revisiting the Iron Cage (gentlereformation.org) […]

Leave a Reply

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.