Wednesday, November 1, 2006

What is the Unpardonable Sin


In our discussions on assurance of salvation and the perseverance of the saints, we touched on the question of the unforgivable sin. The fact that Jesus warns against the committing of a sin that is unforgivable is beyond dispute. The questions we must face then are these: What is the unforgivable sin? Can Christians commit this sin?
Jesus defined it as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit:

Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men.
Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come (Matthew 12:31, 32).

In this text Jesus does not provide a detailed explanation of the nature of this dreadful sin. He declares that there is such a sin and gives an ominous warning about it. The rest of the New Testament adds little in the way of further explanation. As a result of this silence, there has been much speculation about the unforgivable sin.
Two sins have been frequently mentioned as candidates for the unforgivable sin: adultery and murder. Adultery is chosen on the grounds that it represents a sin against the Holy Spirit because the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Adultery was a capital crime in the Old Testament. The reasoning is that, since it deserved the death penalty and involved a violation of the temple of the Holy Spirit, this must be the unpardonable sin.
Murder is chosen for similar reasons. Since man is created in the image of God, an attack upon the human person is considered an attack upon God himself. To slay the image-bearer is to insult the One whose image is borne. Likewise murder is a capital sin. We add to this the fact that murder is a sin against the sanctity of life. Since the Holy Spirit is the ultimate “life force,” to kill a human being is to insult the Holy Spirit.
As attractive as these theories may be to speculators, they have not gained the consent of most biblical scholars. A more popular view has to do with the final resistance to the Holy Spirit’s application of Christ’s work of redemption. Final unbelief is then seen as the unpardonable sin. If a person repeatedly, fully, and finally repudiates the gospel, then there is no hope of future forgiveness.
What all three of these theories lack is a serious consideration of the meaning of blasphemy. Blasphemy is something that we do with our mouths. It deals with what we say out loud. Certainly it can also be done with the pen, but blasphemy is a verbal sin.
The Ten Commandments include a prohibition against blasphemy. We are forbidden to make frivolous or irreverent use of the name of God. In God’s eyes the verbal abuse of his holy name is a serious enough matter to make it to his top ten list of commands. This tells us that blasphemy is a serious matter in God’s sight. It is a heinous sin to blaspheme any member of the Godhead.
Does this mean that anyone who has ever abused the name of God has no possible hope of forgiveness, now or ever? Does it mean that if a person curses once, using the name of God, that he is doomed forever? I think not.
It is crucial to note in this text that Jesus makes a distinction between sinning against him (the Son of Man), and sinning against the Holy Spirit. Does this mean that it is OK to blaspheme the first person of the Trinity and the second person of the Trinity, but to insult the third person is to cross the boundaries of forgiveness? This hardly makes sense.
Why then would Jesus make such a distinction between sinning against himself and against the Holy Spirit? I think the key to answering this question is the key to the whole question of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. That key is found in the context in which Jesus originally gave his severe warning.
In Matthew 12:24 we read: “But when the Pharisees heard it they said, ‘This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.’” Jesus responds with a discourse about a house divided against itself and the foolishness of the idea that Satan would work to cast out Satan. His warning about the unpardonable sin is the conclusion of this discussion. He introduces his severe warning with the word therefore.
The situation runs something like this: The Pharisees are being repeatedly critical of Jesus. Their verbal attacks upon him get more and more vicious. Jesus had been casting out demons “By the Finger of God,” which means by the Holy Spirit. The Pharisees sink so low as to accuse Jesus of doing his holy work by the power of Satan. Jesus warns them. It is as if he were saying: “Be careful. Be really careful. You are coming perilously close to a sin for which you cannot be forgiven. It is one thing to attack me, but watch yourselves. You’re treading on holy ground here.”
We still wonder why Jesus made the distinction between sinning against the Son of Man and sinning against the Spirit. We notice that even from the cross Jesus pled for the forgiveness of those who were murdering him. On the day of Pentecost Peter spoke of the horrible crime against Christ committed in the crucifixion, yet still held out hope for forgiveness to those who had participated in it. Paul says, “but we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:7, 8).
These texts indicate an allowance of sorts for human ignorance. We must remember that when the Pharisees accused Jesus of working by the power of Satan they did not yet have the benefit of the fullness of God’s disclosure of the true identity of Christ. These charges were made before the resurrection. To be sure, the Pharisees should have recognized Christ, but they did not. Jesus’ words from the cross are important: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
When Jesus gave the warning and distinguished between blasphemy against the Son of Man and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit it was at a time when he had not yet been made fully manifest. We note that this distinction tends to fall away after the resurrection, Pentecost, and the ascension. Note what the author of Hebrews declares:

For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:26-29).

In this passage the distinction between sinning against Christ and against the Spirit falls away. Here, to sin against Christ is to insult the Spirit of grace. The key is in the willful sin after we have received the knowledge of the truth.
If we take the first line of this text as an absolute, none of us has a hope of heaven. We all sin willfully after we know the truth. A specific sin is in view here, not each and every sin. I am persuaded that the specific sin in view here is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
I agree with the New Testament scholars who conclude that the unforgivable sin is to blaspheme Christ and the Holy Spirit by saying Jesus is a devil when you know better. That is, the unforgivable sin cannot be done in ignorance. If a person knows with certainty that Jesus is the Son of God and then declares with his mouth that Jesus is of the devil, that person has committed unpardonable blasphemy.
Who commits such a sin? This is a sin common to devils and to totally degenerate people. The devil knew who Jesus was. He could not plead ignorance as an excuse.
One of the fascinating facts of history is the strange way in which unbelievers speak of Jesus. The vast majority of unbelievers speak of Jesus with great respect. They may attack the church with great hostility but still speak of Jesus as a “great man.” Only once in my life have I heard a person say out loud that Jesus was a devil. I was shocked to see a man stand in the middle of the street shaking his fist toward heaven and screaming at the top of his lungs. He cursed God and used every obscenity he could utter in attacking Jesus. I was equally shocked only hours later when I saw the same man on a stretcher with a bullet hole in his chest. It was self-inflicted. He died before morning.
Even that dreadful sight did not drive me to the conclusion that the man had actually committed the unpardonable sin. I had no way of knowing if he was ignorant of Christ’s true identity or not.
Saying that Jesus is a devil is not something we see many people do. It is, however, possible for people to know the truth of Jesus and sink this low. One does not need to be born again to have an intellectual knowledge of the true identity of Jesus. Again, the unregenerate demons know who he is.
What of Christians? Is it possible for a Christian to commit the unforgivable sin and thereby lose his salvation? I think not. The grace of God makes it impossible. In ourselves we are capable of any sin, including blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But God preserves us from this sin. He preserves us from full and final fall, guarding our lips from this horrible crime. We perform other sins and other kinds of blasphemy, but God in his grace restrains us from committing the ultimate blasphemy.

HT: R.C. Sproul

1 comment:

LadyLydiaSpeaks said...

This was very helpful. The "unpardonable sin" doesn't seem to be mentioned after the resurrection, and in the list of sins that the Gentiles used to commit, it was not mentioned either.