By Pastor Glenn Pease
A certain seer warned Caesar to be on guard against a great peril on the day of March which the Romans called Ides. When the day came and Caesar was on his way to the senate house he greeted the seer with a jest, and said, "Well, the Ides of March are come." "Aye," said the seer. "They are come, but they are not gone." In other words, the warning would not be proven false until the day ended, and as we know, the Ides of March prove to be the last of Caesar.
Jesus gave His critics a very serious warning; in fact, the danger was so great that there is nothing else to equal it. He warned them concerning the unforgivable sin. It is such a terrible thing to consider that many prefer to ignore it, and others just dismiss it as a sin that could only be committed by people in the day of Christ, and it does not concern us now. They would dismiss the warning with a Caesar-like, "Well, that danger is past and gone." But the Sovereign Seer, our Savior, I fear would reply, "Aye, that danger is past, but it is not over. It is also present. It has come, but it has not gone."
It is unreasonable to think that Jesus would declare a sin to be unforgivable, and mean by it, it is only unforgivable if you do it now rather than later. If blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was unforgivable before the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost, then by what logic can it be maintained that it is not now unforgivable sense the Holy Spirit has more prominence then ever in God's plan? If Jesus meant to limit the danger just to those Pharisees who criticized Him that day; who said He was filled with the devil, He did not make it clear, and if this was the case, there would be some weight behind Bertrand Russell's criticism of Christ in giving this warning. Russell, the well known atheist writes in his book, Why I Am Not A Christian, concerning this passage:
"That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin
against the Holy Ghost, and thought it would not be forgiven them either in this life or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world."
The facts of history will back him up as to the misery this warning has caused. Doctors, psychiatrists, and preachers can testify to the fact that many people have gone insane over worry about this sin. D. L. Moody said in his wide experience, "We have not been in a place in this country-and I think we were not in more than one or two places while we were abroad-but we found some people who thought they had committed the unpardonable sin." We could quote from ancient history and modern days from men who find this same thing to be true. This means that if Jesus meant only to say that this sin applied just to those who criticized Him, and to no others, but did not make it clear, he would be guilty for all this history of unnecessary agony.
This leads us to the obvious conclusion that the warning was not just for them, but for all time. Men can blaspheme the Holy Spirit today just as they could then. This being so, it was not unkind for Jesus to give the warning as Russell charges, but was an act of marvelous mercy. Jesus could have let these cold-hearted cruel critics go on in their evil to a ruin without remedy, but as verse 23 makes clear, He called them aside purposely to show them their folly, and to warn them less they go beyond the point of no return. Where can one find an act of kindness to match this? Warning men who have just maliciously slandered you by calling you an agent of the god of flies and dung, in the hope that they might stop short of a sin beyond hope. The vast majority of commentators agree that the Pharisees were not yet guilty of this sin, but would be if they persisted in their accusation after this warning.
We have established then that the unforgivable sin is still possible, and will be to the end of history. And also that to be warned of it was an act of kindness on the part of Christ, there being nothing kind about letting men plunge to their doom without warning because you didn't want to make them nervous by telling them the bridge was gone. Any sane person would prefer the kindness that warns over the kindness that leaves one blind.
The fact remains, however, that there are masses of people, and many of them Christians, who go through awful but unnecessary anguish because of this warning. The problem is not in the warning, but in the ignorance of people concerning the warning. The vast majority who fear they have committed this sin are dupes of the devil, and are unaware of the subtle tricks of Satan whereby he can bring even a believer to despair about his salvation. Many men of God have had to go through real battles over this sin. This can be avoided if we cease to be ignorant of Satan's devices. I trust that our approach to this subject will diminish our ignorance, and give light for our own walk as well as light to help others who are in the dark. First we want to consider what this sin is not, for this will help us clear away a great many cobwebs of misconception. Then we will be able to see the light concerning what this sin really is.
I. WHAT THE UNFORGIVABLE SIN IS NOT.
It is not any sin that can be forgiven. This might sound simplistic, but a great deal of misunderstanding arises because this simple truth is missed. As you can imagine, there are a number of different ways men have interpreted the meaning of the unforgivable sin. There is usually so much truth in each of them that one gets confused as to which can be the right interpretation. By simply keeping in mind the fact that the unforgivable sin is not a sin that can be forgiven, you eliminate all the theories of men and narrow yourself down to the words of Christ. For example, could the unforgivable sin be a rejection of Jesus as the Son of God? Not a chance. Why? Because this sin is forgivable. No sin is more forgivable than the rejection of Christ, for when one repents of it and receives Christ, God and all the angels of heaven rejoice. Paul was a great Christ rejecter. He writes in I Tim. 1:13, "I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief." He even blasphemed Christ, but he was forgiven.
This gives us another clue. The unforgivable sin is not a sin you can stumble into accidentally, or perform in ignorance. You can blaspheme God and Christ in ignorance not knowing what you are doing, but the unforgivable sin is a sin done with clear and certain knowledge. It is a definite sin against light. Jesus said on the cross, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." Men who do grave sin like the men who crucified Christ, and like Paul who blasphemed and persecuted Him, but do so in ignorance, are forgiven. Any sin of ignorance is forgivable, and so no person need fear they can ever stumble into this unforgivable sin unknowingly or against their will.
This is important to understand, for it is just at this point that Satan is able to make so many miserable. Here, for example, is part of a letter written to Dr. W. L. Northridge, a Christian doctor who deals with many Christians who are distressed about this sin.
"I hope you will forgive me writing to you, but I feel terribly
distressed. I am worried about the unforgivable sin. My
thoughts are bad even when praying. I confess to a Christian
friend and gave her a fair idea of the bad words that come into
my mind. They are about holy personages and things, and about
the Savior Himself. I hope that these thoughts do not mean the
unpardonable sin mentioned in the Gospels. They haunt me, and
force themselves on me. Do tell me that I have not committed the
It was easy, of course, for him to assure her that she had not done any such thing. Her experience was a perfectly normal one which millions of Christians go through, but which can affect sensitive Christians even to the point of a breakdown, because they are ignorant of Satan's devices. One young married women came to Dr. Northridge, of whom there was no doubt as to her genuine Christian experience, yet she was a nervous wreck because she was obsessed with the thought that ran through her mind about damming the Holy Spirit. Other Christians have sacrilegious and obscene thoughts about Christ and God. None of these involuntary obsessions are even sin, let alone the unforgivable sin. The wise Christian does not suppress them, but recognizes them to be a normal possibility for anyone thinking on holy things.
The mature Christian will not give Satan advantage to use these obsessions, but will immediately take them to the Lord who knows they are involuntary, and come into your mind against your will. He will give you assurance that you are not cut off from Him by such thoughts. The unforgivable sin, we repeat, is not any sin that can be forgiven, or any thought that is involuntary. We need to stress in the emphasis of Jesus that this sin is the great exception. All other sin is forgivable. Only this one is not. It is distinct and in a class by itself. Many by not paying attention to this build up elaborate explanations about hardening the heart until one cannot repent, as if this was the unforgivable sin. They complicate the issue by making this, not an act, but a whole way of life. This leads to a total neglect of the exceptional nature of this sin.
Many men harden their hearts by a life of crime and immorality, and they die without Christ unrepentant. If you call this condition the unforgivable sin, you ignore completely the teaching of Christ, plus you make all sin that is never forgiven, unforgivable. You eliminate any idea of a distinct exceptional sin as Jesus stresses. We must be careful to distinguish between a sin that is unforgivable, and one that is never forgiven. Any sin can be in the second category, but there is only one in the first category.
Any sin can go eternally unforgiven if it is not repented of, and this will be the case for millions of sins that are not the unforgivable sin. The vast majority of people who will be lost will never even think of committing the unforgivable sin. Masses will be lost who are living in all kinds of sin, but not one of which God would not gladly forgive if they repent. Many sins will send men to hell, but not because they are unforgivable, but simply because, though forgivable, they have never been repented of and forgiven. Now lets consider-
II. WHAT IS THE UNFORGIVABLE SIN?
Jesus defines this sin very specifically as blasphemy which is directed against the Holy Spirit. It is not a matter of the hands that kill, the eyes that lust, or the feet that run to do evil. It is a very specific matter of the tongue. It is, of course, a matter of the heart as well, for the tongue draws it's material from the heart, but the act itself can only be done by speech. The context gives us a very clear idea of what this speech is.
The Pharisees who were trying anything to undermine his popularity with the people said that the spirit of Christ, that is the origin and source of His power, was unclean. His spirit was the spirit of evil. It was of Beelzebub, the god of flies and dung, and the prince of demons. This is a very unique and exceptional charge, and if you are honest you will have to admit that you have not heard anyone level such a criticism against Christ. D.L. Moody in all his contacts around the world wrote, "Now, I have met a good many atheists and skeptics, and deists and infidels, both in this country and aboard, but I never in my life met a man or a woman that ever said or ever thought that Jesus Christ was possessed of the devil." Many unbelievers in history have praised Jesus as a great and marvelous man.
The point is, that though this sin is still a danger, and can still be committed, it is rare that even a unbeliever will commit it, let alone a believer. D. L. Moody went on to say, "I don't believe any man or woman has a right to say they have committed the unpardonable sin unless they have maliciously and willfully and deliberately said that they believe that Jesus Christ had a devil in Him, and that He was under the power of the devil, and that He cast out devil's by the power of the devil." Moody did not complicate things as so many others do. He took the words of Scripture at face value, and saw the distinct and exceptional nature of this sin. Let us also be fully Scriptural in our attitude about this sin. Let us not be quick to suspect it, but give even the worse of sinners the benefit of the doubt.
John Chrysostom said many centuries ago, "It is notorious that men who imagine that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost invariably become Christians and live exemplary lives." Almost everything that men fear is unforgivable, the Lord stands waiting to forgive. The good news is that every sin but this rare exception is forgivable. There is more, however, to fear from common ordinary sin then from this rare exception, for it keeps only a very few, if any, out of heaven, but the great mass of the lost will be so because they never repented and asked Christ to forgive all their forgivable sins. More tragic than this ruin without remedy is the ruined lives that are never restored when the remedy is at their fingertips.
Dr. Curtis Hutson points out that technically all sin is unforgivable. If sin was forgivable, God was foolish to let Jesus die for our sin. But sin is not forgivable. It all has to be paid for. The sinner is forgiven and pardoned, but not the sin. God never says this sin is now okay and no problem. The sin remains out of His will, and never gets reconciled to His holy nature. All sin is repulsive and rejected by God, and never forgiven. But the one who commits the sin can be pardoned and forgiven if the penalty for sin is paid. It is sinners who are forgiven and not sins.
There is one exception just because God cannot forgive Satan, and so He cannot forgive a sinner who becomes so one with Satan that he calls good evil and white black. When one gets to this point one is satanic and part of the kingdom of darkness. Anyone who comes to the point of blaspheming the Holy Spirit is one with Satan. But why is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit worse than blasphemy of Jesus Christ? Since they are both members of the Godhead why should one be more serious than the other? It is because the sin of rejecting Christ was a sin of ignorance. Even Jesus said they did not know what they were doing. But the sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit is not done in ignorance. It is a deliberate calling of what is good and of God, evil, awful, and satanic. It is a hatred of holiness. To call the divine diabolical is a specific sin, and not just a persistent rejection of Christ.
Charles Woodbridge says, "God will never pardon the person who persistently, purposefully rejects until death the entire saving ministry of the Spirit: He is guilty of the unpardonable sin." The problem with this idea is that God will also never pardon the pleasant and lovable non-Christian who is very honest, ethical, and who lives by the Christian value system, even though he sins less than the average Christian. He is lost and has no Savior, and is forever unpardoned. But did he commit any unforgivable sin? Not at all.
So what is the difference if one does, or does not, if all it means is that one is lost? Very good people are lost who have not committed this sin. It is interesting that both God and Jesus are frequently used for slang and cursing, but the Holy Spirit is never so used. Even evil men do not seek to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, even though they freely blaspheme the Father and the Son. This sin is clearly dealing with the Holy Spirit and not the Father and the Son. It is also clear that it cannot be done by an act. The Pharisees were close by calling Jesus of the devil, but they had not yet committed the sin, and so one act of blasphemy does not make one hopeless. It has to be a process whereby one becomes so hardened that one is of the same mind with the devil himself.
John P. Milton, the Lutheran author, had defined it like this: "The unpardonable sin is the willful rejection of the Holy Spirit when He calls you to repentance and faith, until by continued rejection you so harden your heart against Him as to be incapable of repentance." The one who loves darkness long enough will not be able to respond to the light, no matter how bright it gets.
We should note that not all sin against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable. We grieve the Holy Spirit, resist Him, and quench Him, but all of these are forgivable. The question that is often raised is, can this sin still be committed today? Some like Richard De Haan say, "No! Not at all! It could only occur while Christ was on earth and in actual physical contact with men." He goes on to write about a man's experience.
"Some time ago I read about a certain person who foolishly
came to the conclusion that he had committed this great
transgression. He believed that he had passed beyond the
point of forgiveness. He went to his pastor and sought for
some assurance that he might be mistaken. Unburdening
his heart to the minister, he told him about his morbid fear
that he had "crossed the line" and had committed the sin
for which there is no forgiveness. The pastor responded
by asking, "And just exactly what sin did you commit?"
The troubled soul quickly answered, "I opposed the Word
of God." "So did Paul," the pastor replied, "and he was
saved." "Oh, but, I also denied Christ," the man blurted
out. "So did Peter," said the minister, "and he became one
of the greatest and most effective preachers of all time."
"Yes, but I doubted the power of Christ even after I
received strong evidence in His favor." "But," said the
wise pastor, "so did Thomas. Wasn't he forgiven?" The
man who had been tormented so long by fears and doubts
finally saw the folly of his anxiety, and realized that this
thing that he dreaded was a misunderstanding of Scripture.
He saw that even if such a hopeless state were possible in
this age, the very fact that he was so concerned about his
spiritual condition proved that he could not have committed
this great transgression. No, the "sin against the Holy
Spirit" cannot be committed today."
Dr. Charles Stanley, a great Bible teacher and preacher, agrees with this view. He writes, "The term blasphemy may be defined "defiant irreverence." We would apply the term to such sins as cursing God or willfully degrading things considered holy. In this passage the term refers to the declaration of the Pharisees who had witnessed undeniable evidence that Christ was performing miracles in the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet they attributed the miracles to Satan. In the face of irrefutable evidence they ascribed the work of the Holy Spirit to that of Satan. I agree with a host of biblical scholars that this unique circumstance cannot be duplicated today. The Pharisees had seen proof of Christ's deity. But instead of acknowledging Jehovah God, they attributed the supernatural power to Satan instead of the work of the Holy Spirit.
Christ is not in the world as He was then. Although the Holy Spirit still accomplishes supernatural things through His servants, they are merely representatives of the King. The circumstances of Matthew 12 make it impossible for this sin to take place today. This incident, I might add, is the only one in which a sin is declared unforgivable. The Bible states, "Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Rom. 10:13). No invitation to salvation carries with it an exception clause, "unless you have committed the unpardonable sin." No matter how evil our sins, there is pardon for them. God forgave David for his adultery, dishonesty, and murder (2 Sam. 12:13, Ps. 51). Simon Peter's denial of our Lord accompanied by profanity was forgiven (Matt. 26:74-75). The apostle Paul was forgiven of his pre-conversion merciless persecution of Christians (Acts 9:1). Just about every possible sin is listed somewhere in the New Testament. And every one of them falls into the category of forgivable.
Although there is no unpardonable sin today, there is an unpardonable state - the state of continued unbelief. There is no pardon for a person who dies in unbelief. The Bible refers to this in terms of having a hard heart. The hardening of the heart is not a one-time act. It is the result of a gradual progression in which sin and the conviction of the Holy Spirit are ignored. The hardened heart has no desire for the things of God. But if you have a desire in your heart for God, as expressed through concern that you have committed some sort of unpardonable sin, you do not have a hardened heart. Your concern confirms your innocence. God always welcomes those whose hearts are sensitive toward Him."
My problem with this view is this: Why would Jesus see to it that all three synoptic Gospels record this warning to be read for all of history if it only applied to those of His day? His life would soon end and this warning would be obsolete before it ever came into print. I think this view is commonly accepted because if it can still be committed it leads so many sensitive believers to have such fears. Dr. Samuel Cox, for example, the great Bible expositor, wrote, "I shall never forget the chill that stuck into my childish heart so often as I heard of this mysterious sin which carried men, and for ought I knew, might carry even me beyond all reach of pardon. And since then, I have again and again met with men and women of tender conscience and devout spirit who, by long brooding over these terrible words, had convinced themselves that they had fallen into this fatal sin, and whose reason had been unbalanced by a fearful anticipation of the doom they held themselves to have provoked." W.B. Riley, founder of Northwestern College wrote, "As a boy of 15, I greatly feared lest I had long since sinned away my day of grace." Such fears of believers have led to a number of theories as to what this sin is.
Many like to say it is the persistent rejection of Christ. This is the most common theory, because it is true that if one rejects Christ for all his or her life they will be eternally unforgiven. If this was what Jesus meant, it means this is the most common sin in the world then, for it is the cause for most people to be lost. Instead of a rare sin, it is the most common of all. It is a false theory because at any time this sin can be forgiven if the person repents and seeks forgiveness. This sin is clearly distinct from rejection of Christ. This sin has to be rare, and the great exception, and not the most common sin of all.
I like the view that it cannot be committed today, but it seems that the possibility of it still needs to be kept alive, for even though it has to be extremely rare, and as far as we know has never been actually committed by any human being, because it is recorded as a warning, and no warning should be eliminated, for it has a purpose. It is still a warning that can keep men limited in their opposition to Christ and the things of the Spirit. Let us keep it as the great exception.