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.
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?
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).