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26 For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,
26. For if we sin willfully, or voluntarily etc. He shows how severe a vengeance of God awaits all those who fall away from the grace of Christ; for being without that one true salvation, they are now as it were given up to an inevitable destruction. With this testimony Novatus and his sect formerly armed themselves, in order to take away the hope of pardon from all indiscriminately who had fallen after baptism. They who were not able to refute his calumny chose rather to deny the authority of this Epistle than to subscribe to so great an absurdity. But the true meaning of the passage, unaided by any help from any other part, is quite sufficient of itself to expose the effrontery of Novatus
Those who sin, mentioned by the Apostle, are not such as offend in any way, but such as forsake the Church, and wholly alienate themselves from Christ. For he speaks not here of this or of that sin, but he condemns by name those who willfully renounced fellowship with the Church. But there is a vast difference between particular fallings and a complete defection of this kind, by which we entirely fall away from the grace of Christ. And as this cannot be the case with any one except he has been already enlightened, he says, If we sin willfully, after that we have received the knowledge of the truth; as though he had said, “If we knowingly and willingly renounce the grace which we had obtained.” It is now evident how widely apart is this doctrine from the error of Novatus
And that the Apostle here refers only to apostates, is clear from the whole passage; for what he treats of is this, that those who had been once received into the Church ought not to forsake it, as some were wont to do. He now declares that there remained for such no sacrifice for sin, because they had willfully sinned after having received the knowledge of the truth. But as to sinners who fall in any other way, Christ offers himself daily to them, so that they are to seek no other sacrifice for expiating their sins. He denies, then, that any sacrifice remains for them who renounce the death of Christ, which is not done by any offense except by a total renunciation of the faith.
This severity of God is indeed dreadful, but it is set forth for the purpose of inspiring terror. He cannot, however, be accused of cruelty; for as the death of Christ is the only remedy by which we can be delivered from eternal death, are not they who destroy as far as they can its virtue and benefit worthy of being left to despair? God invites to daily reconciliation those who abide in Christ; they are daily washed by the blood of Christ, their sins are daily expiated by his perpetual sacrifice. As salvation is not to be sought except in him, there is no need to wonder that all those who willfully forsake him are deprived of every hope of pardon: this is the import of the adverb ἔτι, more. But Christ’s sacrifice is efficacious to the godly even to death, though they often sin; nay, it retains ever its efficacy, for this very reason, because they cannot be free from sin as long as they dwell in the flesh. The Apostle then refers to those alone who wickedly forsake Christ, and thus deprive themselves of the benefit of his death.
The clause, “after having received the knowledge of the truth,” was added for the purpose of aggravating their ingratitude; for he who willingly and with deliberate impiety extinguishes the light of God kindled in his heart has nothing to allege as an excuse before God. Let us then learn not only to receive with reverence and prompt docility of mind the truth offered to us, but also firmly to persevere in the knowledge of it, so that we may not suffer the terrible punishment of those who despise it. 180180 See Appendix N 2.