Novatianism is the belief that Christians who commit apostasy can never be readmitted back into membership in the church. The historical background which led to Novatianism is the Decian persecution of 250 in which Emperor Decius ordered that all Roman citizens make a sacrifice to the Roman gods on his behalf. Because Christians cannot engage in idolatry, many of them chose to die for their faith rather than comply with the emperor’s orders. But many professing Christians did apostatize from the faith by offering sacrifices to the gods so they could procure a libellus or document which would ensure their safety. Those who denied the faith by this act were called lapsi or those who lapsed in their commitment to Christ.
But what should the church do when those who are among the lapsi want to return to the church after engaging in idolatry? Some in the church, such as Bishop Cornelius of Rome, allowed the lapsi to return to the church after a period of penance while Novatian opposed all attempts to allow repentant apostates to return to the church. Those who followed Novatian were known as katharoi or “pure ones” who advocated for a pure church in which those who left could not return. The later followers of Novatian expanded the list of sins which permanently excluded one from the church to include murder and sexual immorality. The Novatians were in general agreement with Tertullian that God could forgive all sin, but that there were some sins the church could not forgive.
Now why would anyone believe that apostasy cannot be forgiven by the church? The Novatians came to this conclusion based on their understanding of Hebrews 6:4: “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened.” Because it is impossible to restore to repentance those who had apostatized in the Book of Hebrews, restoration is impossible for apostates. They also argued that we should not restore those who commit mortal sins that lead to a loss of salvation based on 1 John 5:16: “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life – to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.”
I have written elsewhere on Hebrews 6 explaining why it is impossible to restore these people to repentance. The mistake Novatian made with regards to Hebrews 6 is that he misunderstands why it is that repentance is impossible for them. The reason it is impossible is because such people will never desire to return to the church again because they will never be given the gift of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. But if a person believes that the act of baptism results in regeneration rather than it coming about by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of his elect through the gospel, then he will badly misunderstand the apostasy passages of Scripture.
Novatian’s interpretation of the passage is the only consistent way to interpret it if one believes that a Christian can lose his salvation because baptism brings about regeneration and not everyone who is baptized endures to the end. Those who use Hebrews 6 to argue that a Christian can lose his salvation are not being consistent because they believe that a person can be saved and lost many times during his life. If Hebrews 6 and 1 John 5 are describing mortal sins that cause a Christian to lose his salvation, then salvation cannot be restored and we should not pray for that person. But because those who believe in a category of mortal sins believe that salvation can be restored and that we should pray for apostates demonstrates that they really don’t believe what the text says. The Novatian controversy exposed the inconsistency of baptismal regeneration and the belief that salvation can be lost when the very texts used to support such beliefs taken literally in the sense in which they were interpreted resulted in the absurd conclusion that truly repentant people cannot be restored to repentance. But the fact that they are repentant demonstrates that they have not committed the sin of Hebrews 6 or 1 John 5.