Tuesday, August 25, 2015

What is the Unforgivable Sin?

I recently received another question, and this one on the “unforgivable sin.” Before I go into my comments, I think I need to use this as an opportunity to remind everyone of this ministry’s motto. It is that the Bible has answers, and we are here to seek them together. The important point is that I am not the one with all the answers. Many things, I don’t know and can barely try to explain. I think this is an example of that, but it is still something worth grappling with.

The “unforgivable sin” refers to the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:31, 32 and Mark 3:28, 29. In the Mark passage, He says, “Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation.”

Blaspheming the Spirit

These words lead to questions for very obvious reasons. Jesus came to forgive sins. If He says there is a sin that cannot be forgiven, then it is necessary to avoid committing it at all costs. To fail to do so would lead to inescapable disaster. But what is it? What does it mean to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit?

To begin to suggest an answer, we should try to understand the situation that caused Jesus to speak in such harsh terms. In Matthew 12:22-37, Jesus casts a demon out of a possessed man, giving the man sight and speech in the process. Jesus’ enemies among the religious elite, rather than glorify God for the miracle, attacked Jesus and said He was able to accomplish what He did through the power of Satan.

It was this accusation that led to Jesus’ strong language of judgment. People like the Pharisees could be forgiven for not recognizing Jesus for who He was during His earthly ministry. They could be forgiven for disagreeing with Him, since He appeared to be just another man. Mark even records Him as saying as much. But to speak against the Spirit was a step too far.

And the Pharisees were in danger of speaking against the Spirit because they were maliciously attributing the works of the Spirit to the devil. This was a grave error for two reasons. First, and seen most clearly in Mark 3:30, it was an insult. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. His union with the Holy Spirit is eternal. When the religious rulers said Jesus’ works were done through the power of the devil, they were calling Jesus’ Spirit evil. It is understandable that He would be indignant.

Of course, one could also reasonably expect Jesus to be indignant about insults against Himself, but apparently He was not. There is an added element that makes their blasphemy against the Spirit a fatal error. That is what we find in Matthew 12:26-28. It is illogical for Satan to cast out Satan. He would be working against himself. The Pharisees are obviously wrong in their accusation, but they make it anyway because they do not want to face the only other alternative. God was at work in Jesus, which meant that the kingdom of God was at hand. To deny the work of the Spirit as coming from the Spirit was to declare themselves the enemies of that kingdom.

The Pharisees frustrated Jesus because they claimed to be seeking God, but they wanted nothing of Him when He came. They just kept moving the goalposts, demanding more and more proof and then denying it when it occurred. Jesus also criticizes them for this in Matthew 12:38-42. They wanted a sign from Him because they refused to believe everything else they had already seen. And of course, that meant nothing would ever be enough. Eventually, there would be an ultimate confirmation. The resurrection leaves no doubt of who Jesus was or what He came to do. But the hardhearted would ignore even that.

Then and Now

So I think we can know what Jesus meant then. But what does this admonition not to blaspheme the Holy Spirit mean now? I think we ask that for two reasons. For one, as I mentioned in the beginning, we do not want to fall into it. For another, we are afraid we might fall into it if we criticize people who claim to act in the Spirit’s power.  

I believe this is the wrong focal point, however. Consider again what Jesus says in Matthew 12:38-42 (which I previously linked). Particularly focus on verse 41. The Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah and were spared, but anyone who does not repent at the preaching of Jesus will be condemned. As Jesus also says in John 12:48, “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day.”

Why does this matter? Because Jesus is talking about a sin that will not be forgiven. Anyone who does not believe in Him is choosing condemnation. Eternal judgment is on the line here, too. So we have another question: Was Jesus wrong when He said earlier that there was only one unforgivable sin? Or does it make more sense to understand them as two ways to say the same thing?

Obviously, I would lean towards the latter. In either case, the unforgivable sin in unbelief. God has left a clear record of His love and His power. All sin is rebellion against Him, but the only one He will not forgive is the one that looks at the work of the Spirit, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and says “No thanks.” Anyone who goes through life saying it isn’t true, is calling God a liar. He will not save such people because they show clearly they do not want it.

Being Discerning 

That being said, then, I think the people worried most about committing the unforgivable sin are least in danger of committing it. Usually it is Christians who are afraid of the idea because they know the grace of Christ and do not want to lose it. The fact they have accepted that grace and acknowledge Christ as Lord means they have already avoided the deadly blasphemy. It is the people who do not care, who do not see the value in life with Christ, who face the threat.

This is not a matter of, as I sometimes hear it, whether we should criticize charismatic Christians for fear of losing our salvation. Every work needs to be evaluated on its own, measured by the standard of Scripture which we absolutely know is the work of the Spirit. We have to be discerning, because there is a risk of false prophets and we need to be on the lookout. Whether charismatics are right or wrong is not the issue here, though. Faith is. Submitting to God is.

Choose Your Reward

Keep this in mind most of all: we get the reward we choose. If someone chooses to deny Christ and continue to live for himself, he will get the reward of himself. And that might be the best definition of hell I can give. But it is a choice, not cruelty on God’s part. It is not Him being upset at disrespect, so much as it is Him respecting the freedom He has given humanity. You can have that, if you want it.

Better is available, though. Jesus knew that. That’s why He died to offer it. To choose yourself is to settle, when there is so much more available. With God, there is love, and joy, and belonging, and life. To be with Him is to be fulfilled. When thought of that way, the evil in blaspheming the Holy Spirit is evil against the self. If we know we are God’s, we have nothing to fear. But if someone calls Him a liar because he doesn’t want to admit God has spoken, can he really expect anything other than an eternity alone? That is what the unforgivable sin is, and where it leads. At least, that is how I take it.

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