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September 23, 2020
What is the unforgivable sin?
Christians have debated this question ever since Jesus spoke it.
The unforgivable sin—sometimes called “the unpardonable sin”—can often be made into a complicated theological issue, but Jesus was trying to communicate a very simple point.
In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at:
Let’s dig in!
The unforgivable sin is contained in three texts in the gospels—known as “the synoptic gospels” because they share much overlapping material. Those relevant passages are contained in Mark 3:28-30, Matthew 12:30-32, and Luke 12:8-10.
“‘Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’ — for they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” (Mark 3:28-30)
“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 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.” (Matthew 12:30-32)
“I tell you, everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man will also confess him before the angels of God. But whoever denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” (Luke 12:8-10)
There are several differences between these gospel accounts which reflect each gospel writer’s attempt to highlight a different aspect of Jesus’s teaching.
Matthew omits Jesus’ emphasis on the publicity of judgment for the unforgivable sin. Conversely, Matthew frames the unpardonable sin as the breaking of divine law which will rule the kingdom to come, rather than emphasizing the internal reality of resisting the Holy Spirit.
Mark omits the deeper theological elements and stresses the importance of honoring the Holy Spirit as an action. On the other hand, Mark stresses the reality of the coming judgment.
Luke omits the eternality of the consequences. However, Luke emphasizes the ability to publicly confess Christ, but deny the Holy Spirit in your heart. Moreover, Luke stresses that there will be public consequences for the actions we take in our inner life.
Christians have always wrestled with these passages in the Gospels as they have sought to guard Christians against either (1) committing the unforgivable sin or (2) believing they have committed it when they have not really committed it.
In this section, we will survey how some of the greatest minds in church history have sought to make sense of the unforgivable sin.
“First then it were well to listen to the very words: All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy of the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto them. And whosoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever speaks against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”
“What now is it that He affirms? Many things have ye spoken against me; that I am a deceiver, an adversary of God. These things I forgive you on your repentance, and exact no penalty of you; but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven, no, not to those who repent. And how can this be right? For even this was forgiven upon repentance. Many at least of those who said these words believed afterward, and all was forgiven them. What is it then that He says? That this sin is above all things unpardonable. Why so? Because Himself indeed they knew not, who He might be, but of the Spirit they received ample experience. For the prophets also by the Spirit said whatever they said; and indeed all in the Old Testament had a very high notion of Him.”
“What He says, then, is this: Be it so: you are offended at me, because of the flesh with which I am encompassed: can you say of the Spirit also, We know it not? And therefore is your blasphemy unpardonable, and both here and hereafter shall you suffer punishment. For many indeed have been punished here only (as he who had committed fornication, as they who partook unworthily of the mysteries, among the Corinthians); but you, both here and hereafter.”
“It is unrepentance that is a blasphemy against the Spirit.”
“But that blasphemy of the Spirit Himself, whereby in an impenitent heart resistance is made to this so great gift of God even to the end of this present life, shall not be forgiven. For though a man so oppose himself to the truth, as to resist God speaking, not in the Prophets, but in His Only Son (since for our sakes He was pleased that He should be the Son of Man, that He might speak to us in Him), yet shall he be forgiven when in repentance he shall have recourse to the goodness of God, who forasmuch as He wills not the death of the wicked, but rather that he should turn from his way and live, has given the Holy Spirit to His Church, that whosoever forgives sins in the Spirit, they should be forgiven.”
“But whoever stands out as an enemy to this gift, so as not in repentance to seek it, but by impenitence to gainsay it, his sin becomes unpardonable; not sin of any one specific kind, but the contempt, or even opposing of the remission of sins itself. And so a word is spoken against the Holy Spirit, when men never come from the dispersion to the congregation which has received the Holy Spirit for the remission of sins. Unto which congregation if any come without hypocrisy, though it be through the ministry of a wicked clergyman, a reprobate and a hypocrite, so he be a catholic minister, he shall receive remission of sins in this Holy Spirit.”
“For such is the working of this Spirit in the Holy Church, even in this present time, when the grain is as it were being threshed with the chaff, that he despises no man's sincere confession, and is deceived by no man's false pretences, and so flies from the reprobate, as yet by their ministry to gather together those that are approved. One refuge then there is against unpardonable blasphemy, that we take heed of an impenitent heart; and that it be not thought that repentance can avail ought, unless the Church be kept to, in which remission of sins is given, and the fellowship of the Spirit is preserved in the bond of peace.”
“There are two kinds of blasphemy. First, there is active blasphemy when we consciously and intentionally look for reasons to blaspheme…. But second, there is passive blasphemy, when the devil introduces such perverse thoughts into our heads against our will and in spite of our struggle against them. By means of these thoughts, God wishes to occupy us so that we don’t get lazy and snore, but fight against them and pray.”
Calvin believed that the unforgivable sin is committed “only when we knowingly endeavor to extinguish the Spirit.”
“[The] Master… declares, that ‘all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men, but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men,’ ‘neither in this world, neither in the world to come,’ (Mt. 12:31; Luke 12:10) … Hence it follows, that to no sin is pardon denied save to one, which proceeding from desperate fury cannot be ascribed to infirmity, and plainly shows that the man guilty of it is possessed by the devil.”
“… But those who are convinced in conscience that what they repudiate and impugn is the word of God, and yet cease not to impugn it, are said to blaspheme against the Spirit, inasmuch as they struggle against the illumination which is the work of the Spirit. Such were some of the Jews, who, when they could not resist the Spirit speaking by Stephen, yet were bent on resisting (Acts 6:10). There can be no doubt that many of them were carried away by zeal for the law; but it appears that there were others who maliciously and impiously raged against God himself, that is, against the doctrine which they knew to be of God. Such, too, were the Pharisees, on whom our Lord denounced woe. To depreciate the power of the Holy Spirit, they defamed him by the name of Beelzebub (Mt. 9:3, 4; 12:24).”
“The spirit of blasphemy, therefore, is, when a man audaciously, and of set purpose, rushes forth to insult his divine name. This Paul intimates when he says, ‘but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief;’ otherwise he had deservedly been held unworthy of the grace of God. If ignorance joined with unbelief made him obtain pardon, it follows, that there is no room for pardon when knowledge is added to unbelief.”
“Blaspheme against the Holy Spirit by declaring that the works of Jesus were the works of the Evil one.”
“There is no sin peculiar to reprobates but the sin against the Holy Ghost. Do you read of any other in the word of God? And if you do not read of any there, what ground have you to think any such thing? What other rule have we, by which to judge of such matters, but the divine word? If we venture to go beyond that, we shall be miserably in the dark. When we pretend to go further in our determinations than the word of God, Satan takes us up, and leads us.”
“It seems to you that such sins are peculiar to the reprobate, and such as God never forgives. But what reason can you give for it, if you have no word of God to reveal it? Is it because you cannot see how the mercy of God is sufficient to pardon, or the blood of Christ to cleanse from such presumptuous sins? If so, it is because you never yet saw how great the mercy of God is; you never saw the sufficiency of the blood of Christ, and you know not how far the virtue of it extends. Some elect persons have been guilty of all manner of sins, except the sin against the Holy Ghost; and unless you have been guilty of this, you have not been guilty of any that are peculiar to reprobates.”
It will be helpful at this point to use the tools of these great minds from our Christian heritage to make sense of these incredible compact passages of Scripture. Feel free to use these observations in your sermon outlines.
Chrysostom puts his thumb on the issue best.
It is odd that in this passage, Jesus essentially says: “It’s understandable that you would reject me, because I look like any other human being. But you don’t have that same excuse when you reject the Spirit, who does not bear the distraction of having a human body.”
It certainly feels strange to us that Jesus would permit his own rejection. But he is making a very generous accommodation for human psychology. Humans are right to be skeptical of things that they don’t understand. But the Spirit encounters us in a way that is identifiable as God himself—it is the direct speaking of God to the human heart. Insofar as we are able to reject God’s direct encounter with us, we are without hope of forgiveness.
But there is a more basic theological point here.
The more directly God encounters the individual, the more consciously they must reject God and the forgiveness he offers. In other words, what makes the unpardonable sin so unforgivable is that it is the explicit rejection of forgiveness itself. It is unpardonable to the degree that the free offer of pardon on God’s part is itself insulted and rejected on its very premise on man’s part.
Augustine argues that, since the Holy Spirit was dispensed to the church at Pentecost, the true unforgivable sin is the rejection of the church itself, since the Spirit and the church cannot be separated.
This interpretation is more than a stretch—it’s simply not in the text.
Jesus’ emphasis is clearly on the individual’s relationship with God and His Spirit proper, and the notion that the church serves as the exclusive proxy for that relationship is not found anywhere in the text.
The church is necessary, important, and the proper place in which God desires to dispense salvation and its benefits to the world.
However, this text does not give individuals the ultimatum: “Join the church or else you will burn in the fires of Hell.” While some theologians might strive to make this point, they will have to look elsewhere in Scripture, because such a notion is alien to the teaching of Jesus in any proximity to this text.
Luther is right to distinguish between active blasphemy and passive blasphemy. When he speaks of passive blasphemy as those self-sabotaging ideas which the Devil insidiously plants in the brains of believers, he is happy to include believers in the population of individuals who are susceptible to such an attack.
Yet, if you know anything about Luther, he would never in his wildest imaginings permit that a believer could have their very forgiveness from God stripped from them against their will by the Devil. And so, Luther’s distinction is helpful to guard believers with besetting sins and doubts from the notion that they have committed the unforgivable sin by the mere fact that they continually struggle with sin—even a single sin—their entire lives. This, Luther believes, does not qualify as the kind of unrepentance which justifies condemnation.
Active blasphemy, alternatively, is the conscious rejection of the Holy Spirit. Luther uses words here that indicate a roving sentinel—the human mind that delights in blaspheming God, rejecting the Spirit, speaking words of spite against Him, and perpetuating doubt among the world about His worthiness to be worshipped. This, Luther believes, is the sin which is unforgivable, because it despises the faith by which God saves all humankind.
Edwards makes the interesting point that the unforgivable sin is the sin that only unbelievers can commit.
On its face, this point is redundant, but at a deeper level, Edwards is saying something profound.
While each of the other theologians has made sense of Jesus’ teaching by working directly from the text, Edwards takes a backward approach to draw a circle around exactly what is the unforgivable sin.
Edwards essentially asks: “What is it that only those who don’t have forgiveness actually do?” The answer is that they reject the gospel, which is a good faith offering by God, from Christ, through the Spirit—which is the point of contact between the gospel message and the recipient’s heard. So, Edwards argues, the rejection of the Holy Spirit, conceived as the rejection of God’s free offer of grace to the individual, is the act which itself makes forgiveness impossible.
The lingering pastoral question many believers face is: “So, if I blaspheme the Holy Spirit once, does that mean there remains no hope for me for the rest of my life?”
This question has been parodized by atheists on YouTube who, as an expression of their fearless disbelief in God, consciously, verbally, and willingly blaspheme the Spirit as a gimmick.
The answer to the pastoral question is: “No. God’s offer of forgiveness is always open to you.”
But how can we square this with the horrifying overtones of definitive judgment in the gospel passages?
Jesus does not say that if you reject the gospel once in your life, and hence blaspheme the Spirit, you can never accept it again. Rather, he frames this issue in terms of the final judgment.
Here’s what that means: The unforgivable sin is the only sin which you can commit as an act which endures for as long as you reject the Spirit and consider the work of Christ the work of Satan.
But, as soon as you stop blaspheming the Holy Spirit, and receive the gift of God’s grace through faith, then you no longer spite forgiveness, and that forgiveness is extended to you.
Take the Apostle Paul. There may be no Christian in the history of the church who, before they came to Christ, considered Jesus’s work and message intrinsically demonic more than the Apostle Paul.
And yet, God rescued him from his blasphemy (Acts 9:4), called it exactly what it was, and endowed him with God’s saving Spirit, which Paul received by faith.
The Apostle Paul is proof that no person can commit a single act in this world which can fall outside the scope of God’s ability to forgive, or outside the domain of sin for which Christ’s blood can atone. This is what makes the gospel a “stumbling block” (Greek: skandalon; 1 Cor. 1:23).
Use these insights as a guide to your own reading of the relevant passages of Scripture in order to acquire a proper understanding of the unforgivable sin.
With these resources in hand, you can be equipped to achieve precisely what Christians have always sought to achieve with these verses:
These are sensitive pastoral issues that should be addressed with a light hand. Too light, and you may fail to share the gospel with someone who truly needs it. Too heavy, and you may crush those who have not committed the unpardonable sin and feel discouraged by their own doubt and sin.
Use these insights to provide care and counsel for your congregants, none of whom are above the reality of besetting sin, and none of whom are outside the scope of God’s grace.
Editor's note: To take a deep dive into the Person and work of the Holy Spirit, check out 24 Must-Know Characteristics of the Holy Spirit.