“…but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”
I remember my high school history teacher once jokingly asking the question: “Could God create a stone so heavy that even He could not lift it?” My 17-year-old head spun. What I didn’t know was that the question was a popular version of what is known as the “omnipotence paradox.” To say God could not create such a stone would mean He is limited in His power, but to say God could not lift such a stone would also mean He is not omnipotent, thus the paradox.
For Jesus to teach about an “unforgivable sin” seems like a paradox for an omnipotent and boundlessly merciful God. Is there a sin so monstrous that even God cannot forgive it? Have we reached the limits of God?
Or worse, is there a sin that God simply won’t forgive? Isn’t forgiveness one of God’s signature moves?
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:8-12)
Didn’t Jesus teach us to stretch our imagination over how much forgiveness we could fathom giving one another?
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. (Matthew 18:21-22)
To hear of an unforgivable sin from the mouth of Jesus is alarming and chilling. How many heavy souls have wrestled over this perplexing warning? “Have I committed ‘the unforgivable sin?’ When I addressed my angry profanity to God or when I spoke rebelliously against Him, did I commit unforgivable blasphemy? Or what about my patterns of sin and fickle repentance, and then returning time and time again to the same sins? I feel like I’m profaning and exhausting the forgiveness of God.”
What exactly is the unforgivable sin?
Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is mentioned in three of our four Gospels. It is found in Matthew 12:22-32; Mark 3:22-30 and again in Luke 12:10. Matthew 12 provides the fullest narrative surrounding Jesus’ teaching. A man who was both blind and mute was brought to Jesus. Jesus cast out the demon and healed the man. Instantly, the man could see and speak. The miracle was incontestable and beyond dispute. No one doubted that he was truly blind and mute and demonized beforehand. Without a doubt, something supernatural must have happened.
The undeniable nature of the miracle trapped the religious leaders, in a way. There were only two possible explanations for the miracle—it was either the work of God or the work of Satan. Since they refused to acknowledge Jesus as coming from God, they instead accused Jesus being an agent of Satan (or Beelzebul).
Jesus’ response was brilliant. He said first that even Satan isn’t reckless enough to send an emissary against Himself—”And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?” (12:26).
Then, Jesus reminded them of the nature of the Kingdom work He was doing. Jesus has been assaulting and plundering satanic rule by virtue of his sinless life, by His resistance to temptation in the wilderness, by His authoritative teaching, by His way of grace and truth, by making the lame walk, the blind to see, the lepers cleansed, and the good news preached to the poor.
Then Jesus said it:
Therefore, I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (12:31-32).
Three common, but deficient interpretations have been offered for Jesus’ words.
- The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was a sin that could only be committed at the time while Christ was physically on the earth. Therefore, this specific blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, the unpardonable sin, cannot be committed today.
- This sin is equal to the sin of unbelief that continues to the time of death. In a 2015 interview when asked if there was any unforgivable sin, Billy Graham cited this passage and said, “Only one sin that can’t be forgiven is on God’s list — and that is the sin of rejecting Him and refusing His offer of forgiveness and new life in Jesus Christ. This alone is the unforgivable sin, because it means we are saying that the Holy Spirit’s witness about Jesus is a lie.”
- The unpardonable sin is equal to serious apostasy by genuine believers, and only those who are truly born again could commit this sin.
A fourth interpretation is warranted: The context indicates that Jesus is speaking about a sin that is not simply unbelief or rejection of Christ, but one that includes (i) a clear knowledge of who Christ is and of the power of the Holy Spirit working through him, (ii) a willful rejection of the facts about Christ which his opponents knew to be true, and (ii) slanderously attributing the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ to the power of Satan, i.e. blaspheme.
Theologian, Louis Berkhof explains that the sin itself consists “not in doubting the truth, nor in a sinful denial of the truth but in a contradiction of it that goes contrary to the conviction of the mind, to the illumination of the conscience, and even to the verdict of the heart.”
Nineteenth century theologian, Henry Alford, said this sin is “not a particular species of sin which is here condemned….but a definite act showing a state of sin, and that state [is] a willful determined opposition to the present power of the Holy Spirit.”
Jesus recognized that many would question Him, struggle to understand Him, and even reject Him for a time. Attacking Jesus is one thing, but it’s completely ruinous to see what God is doing and turn to attack His Spirit. Who is left to help these religious leaders if they’re fortressing themselves against the Spirit of God? If you slur, dishonor, and make enemies with the Spirit, and who is left to bring you back to God?
By naming the unpardonable sin, Jesus fired a warning shot. The religious leaders were so dangerously close to being unforgivable because they were evidencing such a settled, hard heart—not just against this perplexing “Son of Man,” but against the Spirit — that their hearts may no longer be capable of return.
Is anyone unforgivable today?
Jesus’ warning shot rings through every age.
Pastor, Sam Storms writes that this sin is not a “one-time, momentary slip or inadvertent mistake in judgment. This was a persistent, life-long rebellion in the face of inescapable and undeniable truth. Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is not a careless act committed only once in a moment of rage or rebellion, but a calloused attitude over time; a persistent defiance that hardens and calcifies the heart…. This [unforgivable] sin, therefore, isn’t unforgivable because there is a defect in the atoning death of Jesus. It isn’t unforgivable because there is a limit to God’s grace and mercy or because of some other shortcoming in the character of God…
Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, therefore, is not just unbelief that is so typical in our world. This is defiance of what one knows beyond any shadow of doubt to be true. It is not mere denial, but determined denial; not mere rejection but wanton, willful, wicked, wide-eyed rejection.”
According to N.T. Wright, “Jesus is warning us against looking at the work of the spirit and declaring that it must be the devil’s doing. If you do that, it’s not just that you won’t be forgiven; you can’t be, because you have just cut off the very channel along which forgiveness would come. Once you declare that the only remaining bottle of water is poisoned, you condemn yourself to dying of thirst.”
To answer “if anyone unforgivable?” we must ask if the same kind of entrenched hardness of heart possible now as in the time of Jesus? To understand Jesus’ teaching is not to fear a momentary sin or even massive failure. But it is to be aware that there is a state of willful, determined hardening of the heart such that a person can be so at odds with God’s Spirit, that he becomes incapable of true repentance. Even so, it’s not that God’s refuses to grant forgiveness or is powerless to forgive, but that forgiveness will never be sought.
Am I in danger of committing the unforgivable sin?
A simple way to answer this is to say that if you fear you’ve committed some “unforgivable sin,” or that you regret how hard your heart has been toward God, then you are not there. Hearts in willful, determined opposition against the Spirit don’t go around worrying about it. In fact, it might be evidence that God is actively calling you back to Him.
Practically, this means this sin is probably not something we can point at others and identify. The sin of murder is easy to spot, but how do we identify when someone has put themselves by their own doing beyond repentance? We are not the blasphemy-of-the-Holy-Spirit-police. Our role seems to be similar to Jesus, to keep firing the warning shot with the gospel and inviting all to repentance.
Sam Storms is helpful here. “People who are ashamed of their sin have not committed the unforgivable sin. People who feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, who sense the piercing presence of guilt for having violated God’s Word, have not committed the unforgivable sin. People who are in fear they have committed the unforgivable sin have not committed the unforgivable sin! People who are broken by their sin, who are grieved by their sin, have not committed the unforgivable sin.”
Maybe your angst over the unforgivable sin is one of God’s ways of alarming you of your resistance to the Spirit and calling you back before you get to a place beyond softening. Jesus has wide, expansive, open arms for all types of sins and all types of sinners.
His voice is what you should never ignore. Today, if you hear His voice, if you see His deeds, if you sense His conviction, do not harden your hearts.
- N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology.
- Sam Storms, “10 Things You Should Know about Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.”
- David Mathis. “What Is the Unforgivable Sin? Hope for Those Feeling Too Far Gone.”