I charge you to guard your chastity, and let no thought enter your heart of another man’s wife, or of fornication, or of similar iniquities; for by doing this you commit a great sin. But if you always remember your own wife, you will never sin. For if this thought enter your heart, then you will sin; and if, in like manner, you think other wicked thoughts, you commit sin. For this thought is great sin in a servant of God. But if any one commit this wicked deed, he works death for himself. Attend, therefore, and refrain from this thought; for where purity dwells, there iniquity ought not to enter the heart of a righteous man.
Apart from what looks like another shout-out to a doctrine akin to “you can lose your salvation!” this looks pretty easy to understand in light of what Jesus and the Apostles teach throughout the New Testament. But, just like when the Youth Group gets to hear the sex talk, Hermas has a list of “what if” questions ready to go!
Question #1: What if the woman is acting adulterously (given that the command was worded as if spoken to the husband)?
Answer: If the husband is ignorant of her sin, then he’s blameless for continuing living with her. But if he’s aware of her sin, and not doing anything about it, then he shares the guilt of her adultery.
Question #2: What if the wife refuses to repent of her adultery?
Answer: In that case, the husband can divorce her. He is not free to remarry, however.
Question #3: What if the wife, in divorce, repents?
Answer: If she repents, the husband takes her back – they remarry! If the husband doesn’t accept her repentance and refuses to remarry her, then he is guilty of not showing mercy to the penitent.
In other words, divorce is permissible if adultery is involved, but even then, the divorce is not a “start afresh” card, but a tool in the work of reconciliation. And for those of us wondering about the opposite situation (the man is adulterous and wife trying to get him back), Hermas’ teaching angel has a revolutionary statement to make: “In this matter man and woman are to be treated exactly the same way.” Wow! Granted, Peter said the same thing in his first epistle, but somehow this comes off as even more blatant and up-front.
Question #4: What if a spouse dies; is remarriage to someone else an option?
Answer: “There is no sin in marrying again, but if they remain unmarried, they gain greater honor and glory with the Lord; but if they marry, they do not sin.” So the chastity of singledom that Paul championed clearly was still popularly appreciated nearly a century later when Shepherd of Hermas was written.
These commands extend beyond marriage, too. If someone in the Christian community is living in sexual immorality, Christians are to “withdraw from him, and cease to live with him. Otherwise you are a sharer in his sin.” Yet for every harsh word and warning, there is always the gospel message reiterated: “there is One who is able to provide a cure, for it is He, indeed, who has power over all.” Thus, repenting of sin is actually quite a wise thing to do!
In the second half of this Mandate, though, things get a little more dicey. Hermas asks another question, this time about repentance:
I heard, sir, some teachers maintain that there is no other repentance than that which takes place when we descended into the water and received remission of our former sins.
In other words, the greatest repentance we ever experience and make is when we get baptized. Okay, that’s fine; conversion is the Great Repentance in a Christian’s life, but where Hermas’ angel teacher goes with this is a little confusing.
That was sound doctrine which you heard; for that is really the case. For he who has received remission of his sins ought not to sin anymore, but to live in purity. Since, however, you inquire diligently into all things, I will point this also out to you, not as giving occasion for error to those who are to believe, or have lately believed, in the Lord. For those who have now believed, and those who are to believe, have not repentance for their sins; but they have remission of their previous sins. For to those who have been called before these days, the Lord has set repentance.
I honestly have a difficult time unpacking this speech. So far, he’s espousing a high view of holiness that Christians ought to be exhibiting after they’re baptized, which is in line with New Testament teaching, and he seems to be implying that God has set baptism as our primary time of repentance. So what does that mean about the sins that Christians commit as Christians, post-baptism?
I say to you, that if any one is tempted by the devil, and sins after that great and holy calling in which the Lord has called His people to everlasting life, he has opportunity to repent but once. But if he should sin frequently after this, and then repent, to such a man his repentance will be of no avail; for with difficulty will he live.
It would be remiss of me if I didn’t admit that the New Testament does betray a similar phraseology:
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
So there is a place for this kind of thinking. On its own it sounds very straightforward and clear, but at the same John tells us that “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ the righteous One. He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world.” One way of resolving this tension would be to make a distinction between “levels” of sin such as “venial” and “mortal” sin in Thomas Aquinas’ reckoning, or “sins of infirmity” versus “sins of malice” in Celtic/Anglican pastoral tradition.
Whateverso, Hermas is inspired to live a purer life from that day on, “for I know that I shall be saved, if in future I sin no more.” It’s difficult to read this statement without thinking of the constant danger of the Pelagian heresy, which teaches that we’re able to earn our salvation simply by good behavior, and God’s grace just helps us along (but isn’t absolutely necessary). But Hermas could be referring to a more orthodox idea that as long as he avoids mortal/malicious sin, (that is, as long as he doesn’t utterly reject God) he’s safely in God’s hands. Of course, many Christians don’t believe that salvation, once truly gained, can ever be lost at all. If that’s the case, then Hermas is definitely speaking erroneously, and much of the teaching in this Mandate is useless.
For sake of historical interest, it’s noteworthy to observe that it’s teachings like this which fed many Early Christians’ drive to postpone baptism until their deathbed, so they’d be sure not to commit any horrific sins after baptism, and thus secure their salvation more assuredly. The ending of that practice within a couple centuries and the rejection of Hermas from the New Testament canon, however, together make it quite clear that it was not a good practice, and one we should avoid. So we ought to read this 4th Mandate with a grain of salt, no matter what tradition of Christian we are.