Filling up the measure of sin

Does God draw a line in the sand when it comes to sin? That is, can unbelievers rebel against God so grievously, and reject His grace so persistently, that ultimately they pass a point beyond which they can never be saved?

It appears the answer is yes. Consider the following passages of Scripture.

Gen. 15:16 – “for the iniquity of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” The Lord tells Abraham that his descendants are to be enslaved and oppressed for 400 years (in Egypt), after which God delivers them from bondage and brings them into the Promised Land.

Why the delay in fulfilling His promise to Abraham? Because the Amorites’ measure of sin is not yet full. The Amorites are engaged in degrading sin. God has determined to destroy them and to give their land to His chosen people.

In a similar manner, Noah proclaims judgment upon the wicked for 120 years, but God determines the day in which He closes the door of the ark and opens the floodgates of heaven.

Matt. 23:32 – “Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers’ sins!” Jesus speaks these words to the scribes and Pharisees in the midst of pronouncing eight woes on them for their wickedness. He likens them to their forefathers, who rejected the prophets sent to them.

And now, by rejecting Jesus as Messiah, they are crossing a line the nation of Israel has been approaching since its return from the Babylonian captivity.

Jesus further prophesies a time of terrible trouble for the nation — a time that comes in A.D. 70 when the Roman general Titus besieges Jerusalem, destroys the temple, kills an estimated 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, and scatters the rest in the Dispersion.

1 Thess. 2:16 – “they are always adding to the number of their sins, and wrath has overtaken them completely.” Paul commends the Thessalonians for their faithfulness in the midst of opposition and oppression. And he seeks to comfort them by pointing out that Paul’s own countrymen resist the gospel, killing Jesus and the prophets, persecuting the apostles, displeasing God, advancing hostility, and hindering Paul and his companions from evangelizing the Gentiles.

As a result, judgment awaits. Preaching from this text in 1735, Jonathan Edwards declared, “God hath set bounds to every man’s wickedness. He suffers men to live, and to go on in sin, till they have filled up their measure, and then cuts them off.”

Jude 4 – “For certain men, who were designated for this judgment long ago, have come in by stealth; they are ungodly, turning the grace of our God into promiscuity and denying our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Jude later makes it clear that these false teachers were never saved — he says they are “merely natural, not having the Spirit” — and their everlasting destiny in hell is foreseen by God in eternity past. Nevertheless, their judgment comes only after they fill up their measure of sin.

These false teachers are like the Gentiles Paul writes about in Romans 1, whom God “delivers over” to their wicked desires. They have crossed the line, and there is no turning back.

Four truths

These and other passages of Scripture reveal at least four truths:

(1) God establishes a limit to sin for every person – and likely for every nation.

(2) God alone knows that limit, which is set according to His omniscience and sovereignty.

(3) We must never give up on those who reject Christ and His offer of salvation, for we cannot say with certainty whether they have crossed the line.

(4) The measure of sin depicted in these passages has to do with unbelievers. This must be distinguished from divine discipline, in which God may take the lives of His disobedient children, but not their salvation (see Prov. 3:11-12; Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 11:27-32; Heb. 12:3-13).

As Charles Spurgeon once proclaimed from the pulpit, “It is a well-known truth … that God has great long-suffering, but that there is a point beyond which even His long-suffering will not go.”