What is the Difference Between Sinning Willingly and Sinning Willfully?
First of all, let us get some definitions.
WikiDiff gives the following explanation of these terms:
“As adverbs the difference between willingly and willfully is that willingly is of one’s own free will; freely and spontaneously while willfully is in a willful manner. It often means ‘purposely disobeying; purposely being contrary; purposely doing something wrong’.”
As we will see, this definition is close, but not close enough. Every day, true Christians wrestle against sin and the pulls of the flesh and Ephesians 6:12 also gives further information about our struggles: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
A spiritual giant in the New Testament, the apostle Paul, struggled as we do, as we read in Romans 7:19-20: “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.”
One website makes these incorrect comments: “Because of the sin nature that dwells within us, there’s a very real sense in which we often sin against our own wills (Romans 7). But we shouldn’t take this idea too far. It’s equally true that every sin is a ‘willful sin.’ If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be responsible. And if we’re not responsible for our own actions, a sin can’t be a sin at all. As James says, ‘Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death’ (James 1:14, 15).”
This can’t be a correct assertion “that every sin is a willful sin” because as we will see, a willful sin is one that is committed because of rebellion, spite and hatred for God’s Way of Life, and depending on one’s understanding, could lead to or constitute the unpardonable sin. Every sin needs to be repented of and a sin is a sin. But there is a difference between a willing sin and a willful sin – both are sins but have different meanings.
A sin which is committed through ignorance or neglect or a sin which is committed intentionally and willingly (because of weakness, temptation, lack of strength or will power or even because of neglect) is not a sin that is committed willfully—but as will be shown, it can become a willful sin.
As stated above, a sin that is committed because of rebellion and spite and hatred for God’s Way of Life is a willful sin and could well lead to committing the unpardonable sin. For example, in Hebrews 10:26 we read about the unpardonable sin: “For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins.” Note that Paul addresses the situation where someone has received the knowledge of the Truth through the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In our Q&A “Would You Please explain James 1:14-15,” we read the following:
“‘But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.’ When and how does sin start? Does death only await us when sin is ‘full-grown’?
“Vincent’s Word Studies explains that the terms ‘drawn away’ and ‘enticed’ ‘are metaphors from hunting and fishing.’ It continues: ‘Drawn away, as beasts are enticed from a safe covert into a place beset with snares. Note the present participle, as indicating the progress of the temptation: “is being drawn away.” Enticed– As a fish with bait. Also the present participle.’
“‘Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. After sin is brought forth in actual commissions, the finishing of it… is its being strengthened by FREQUENT ACTS and SETTLED INTO A HABIT. And, when the iniquities of men are thus FILLED UP, death is brought forth… the wages of sin is eternal death…’
“We see, then, that a PROGRESSION is described and settled into a habit.”
A progression can be defined as “a continuous and connected series, a sequence.” We all sin on a regular basis because we are not perfect but God sees the heart of each and every one of us. As previously mentioned, we can and do sin which can be committed unintentionally, intentionally and willingly (because of ignorance, weakness, lack of strength or will power, and neglect) but the heart is not set to sin in a way that is committed because of rebellion and spite and hatred for God’s Way of Life.
When we sin willingly, we can still realize that we have done wrong, repent of it and obtain forgiveness. We are truly sorry for what we did. When we sin willfully, we don’t feel any remorse over what we did. We don’t repent because we don’t want to repent. We have set our hearts on doing what is wrong, and we don’t care about it. We hate it when we are confronted with the need to repent. We absolutely refuse to repent. This describes the concept of sinning willfully. There is quite a difference and we should be aware of the differences.
On the E-sword website, the following observations are made:
“Sins of ignorance may be forgiven, Num[bers] 15:22-29. They are sins. Debts of shortcoming need pardon equally as do trespasses. But, as Paul teaches us, we may confidently count on forgiveness for evil things done unwittingly. See 1 Ti[mothy] 1:12-14; Heb[rews] 5:2. It is quite otherwise with sins of presumption, Num[bers] 15:30-36. If persisted in, these induce death. See 1 [John] 5:16.”
Let us review a few Scriptures which are revealing about willful sins, and let us begin with Numbers 15:30: “‘But the person who does anything presumptuously, whether he is native-born or a stranger, that one brings reproach on the LORD, and he shall be cut off from among his people.”
A presumptuous sin is committed defiantly, literally with a high hand. The Berean Study Bible says: “He shall certainly be cut off, because he has despised the word of the LORD and broken His commandment; his guilt remains on him.” A high hand denotes going deliberately against God.
This Old Testament example is not to be understood as describing a person who committed the unpardonable sin, because one usually has to have God’s Holy Spirit to be able to commit the unpardonable sin, and in all likelihood, the person mentioned in the Old Testament had not received the Holy Spirit. Most people in ancient Israel were not offered the Holy Spirit at that time. Their opportunity for salvation will come later, in the Second Resurrection. He was to be cut off physically; that is, he was to either be disfellowshipped or killed. But it serves as a good example for those who do receive God’s Spirit. If they act presumptuously and willfully against God’s Way of Life, they are in danger of losing God’s Spirit, thereby committing the unpardonable sin.
The same can be said about Ezekiel 14:3-4, which reads: “Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts, and put before them that which causes them to stumble into iniquity. Should I let Myself be inquired of at all by them? Therefore speak to them, and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: “Everyone of the house of Israel who sets up his idols in his heart, and puts before him what causes him to stumble into iniquity, and then comes to the prophet, I the LORD will answer him who comes, according to the multitude of his idols.”’”
The Soncino commentary explains: “More lit. ‘have brought up their idols to their hearts,’ an idiom for ‘have set their mind upon their idols.’ The phrase does not imply that they were worshipping idols, but that their thoughts were influenced by pagan ideas, such as believing in magical spells and divination. This has been a stumbling block to them willfully placed by themselves in their way and leading them into iniquity.”
On the other hand, Hebrews 6:4-6 addresses clearly a Christian who has received God’s Holy Spirit and who has lost it because of willful sin: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away (some other translations add “or have fallen away”), to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.”
2 Peter 2:20 is another Scripture that sheds light on true Christians who depart from God by sinning willfully:
“For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning.”
One commentator wrote: “Therefore a believer cannot continue in sin. We no longer live in the realm of sin, under its reign and practical dominion. We have, to use Paul’s words, died to sin. We indeed do sin and even our best deeds are stained with sin, but our attitude toward it is essentially different from that of an unbeliever. We succumb to temptations, either from our own evil desires (James 1:13), or from the world or the Devil (Ephesians 2:1-3), but this is different from a settled disposition… our sin is a burden that afflicts us rather than a pleasure that delights us.”
When true Christians begin to depart from and hate God’s Way of Life and settle it in their minds that they want to do the wrong and reject the right, even though they had at one time fully understood, embraced and practiced the Truth, then they are in grave danger. They might develop an attitude of hatred towards God and ultimately refuse to repent and lose God’s Holy Spirit. Filled with hatred towards God and towards true Christians, they sin willfully—they become guilty of the unpardonable sin. They may have started with sinning unintentionally and even intentionally and willingly, because they were not diligent enough in their struggle to avoid and strive against sin, but they ended up sinning willfully and presumptuously. They reached the point in their life that they cannot repent anymore, because they don’t want to repent anymore.
Other Q&A’s which are worth reviewing in respect of the unpardonable sin are:
Also, please read our free booklet, “Do We Have an Immortal Soul?” addressing the unpardonable sin on pages 29-32.
We must be very careful that we don’t fall into the trap of becoming lackadaisical about sin, as this can lead to sinning willfully.
Lead Writers: Brian Gale (United Kingdom) and Norbert Link