Episode 4: What is the Unforgivable sin??
It's a terrifying reality: Jesus warned His disciples and the Pharisees that there was a sin that could be committed that was unpardonable - unforgivable for all eternity. People have speculated and worried about this teaching of Jesus for hundreds of years. What precisely is the unpardonable sin? How can we know whether or not we've done it? Let's dive in!
The Didache First century - RIGHT after the NT: Now concerning the apostles and prophets, deal with them as follows in accordance with the rule of the gospel. (4) Let every apostle who comes to you be welcomed as if he were the Lord. (5) But he is not to stay for more than one day, unless there is need, in which case he may stay another. But if he stays three days, he is a false prophet. (6) And when the apostle leaves, he is to take nothing except bread until he finds his next night’s lodging. But if he asks for money, he is a false prophet.
(7) Also, do not test or evaluate any prophet who speaks in the spirit, for every sin will be forgiven, but this sin will not be forgiven.35
Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 263–265.
ANDREAS Andreas of Caesarea (Greek: Ἀνδρέας Καισαρείας; 563 – 637) : It is the sin of heresy, or of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which leads to death. If one man sins against another, pray for him. But if he sins against God, who is there who can pray on his behalf?
And if even after all this, our opponents are still unwilling to learn and still unable to understand, they should at least stop speaking evil. They should not divide the Trinity lest they be divided from life.82 They should not classify the Holy Spirit with the creatures, lest, like the Pharisees of old who ascribed the works of the Spirit to Beelzebul,83 they too, on account of equal audacity, incur along with them the punishment which is unpardonable both now and in the future.
Athanasius Works on the Spirit: Athanasius’s Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit,
Grave-robbing, or the opening of graves, is divided into two kinds too, like theft, according to the present Canon, to wit, into pardonable and into unpardonable grave-robbing. For if the fellow opening the grave does not denude the dead person’s body, thus refraining from dishonoring (for that is what is meant by the expression “sparing devoutness”) the dead, but only takes the stones found in the grave, in order to use them in the building of any other work that is preferable and more beneficial to the community, though this too is by no means anything to be praised, yet custom has made it pardonable.2
St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain - 1700s, Greek Orthodox church.
Swearing is a dreadful and harmful thing; it is a destructive drug, a bane and a danger, a hidden wound, a sore unseen, an obscure ulcer spreading its poison in the soul; it is an arrow of Satan, a flaming javelin, a two-edged sword, a sharp-honed scimitar, an unpardonable sin, an indefensible transgression, a deep gulf, a precipitous crag, a strong trap, a taut-stretched net, a fetter that cannot be broken, a noose from which no one escapes.
19. Are these enough, and do you believe that swearing is a dreadful thing and the most harmful of all sins? Believe me, I beg you, believe me! But if someone does not believe me, I now offer proof. This sin has what no other sin possesses. If we do not violate the other commandments, we escape punishment; on the other hand, in the matter of oaths, we are punished just the same both when we guard against transgressing and when we transgress.
St. John Chrysostom, 300s AD St. John Chrysostom: Baptismal Instructions,
Hilary of Poitiers actually points us in a more biblical direction, in discussing the unpardonable sin: Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven to men, but blasphemy of the Spirit will not be forgiven.67 With a very grave qualification, he condemns the view of the Pharisees and the perversion of those who also think like them. He promises pardon of all sins but refuses pardon for blasphemy of the Spirit. While other words and deeds are treated with a generous pardon, there is no mercy if it is denied that God is in Christ.
68 And in whatever way one sins without pardon, he is gracious to us and reminds us again that sins of every kind can be completely forgiven, though blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven. For who is so completely beyond pardon as one who denies that Christ is of God, or repudiates that the substance of the Spirit of the Father resides in him
Hilary of Poitiers, Commentary on Matthew, ed.
Spurgeon - Nobody knows what that sin is. I believe that even God’s Word does not tell us, and it is very proper that it does not. As I have often said, it is like the notice we sometimes see put up, “Man-traps and spring gun set here.” We do not know whereabouts the traps and guns are, but we have no business over the hedge at all. So, “there is a sin unto death;” we are not told what that sin is, but we have no business to go over the hedge into any transgression at all. That “sin unto death” may be different in different people; but, whoever commits it, from that very moment, loses all spiritual desires. He has no wish to be saved, no care to repent, no longing after Christ; so dreadful is the spiritual death that comes over the man who has committed it that he never craves eternal life.
C. H. Spurgeon, Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress: A Commentary on Portions of John Bunyan's Immortal Allegory (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 73–74.
The sin of the religious leaders, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, was a refusal to accept the witness of the Holy Spirit to who Jesus was and what He had come to do, and then submit their lives to Him… Once again, the unpardonable sin is not some particularly grievous sin committed by a Christian before or after accepting Christ, nor is it thinking or saying something terrible about the Holy Spirit. Rather, it is deliberately resisting the Holy Spirit’s witness and invitation to turn to Jesus until death ends all opportunity.
Billy Graham is echoing the Augustinian (300s AD) view: Now the man who, not believing that sins are remitted in the Church, despises this great gift of God’s mercy, and persists to the last day of his life in his obstinacy of heart, is guilty of the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost, in whom Christ forgives sins.
Augustine of Hippo, “The Enchiridion,” in St. Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises, ed.
Augustine was reflecting the Origen view (early 300s): The Spirit dwells in those who live by faith. But those who once having been counted worthy to share in the Holy Spirit and then having finally and decisively turned their backs from grace are by this act said to have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit (ORIGEN Who, then, is not amazed at the exceeding majesty of the Holy Spirit when he hears that he who speaks a word against the Son of man may hope for forgiveness, but that he who is guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit has no forgiveness—either in the present world or in that which is to come. Origen
What then is it? The unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an act of resistance which belittles the Holy Spirit so grievously that he withdraws forever with his convicting power so that we are never able to repent and be forgiven. - John Piper.
Lee ann penick MODERN: There is only one “unpardonable sin” that can separate us from God for eternity. It is the ongoing, willful refusal to accept Christ as Lord and Savior and the forgiveness He offers.
Jacob Arminius defined it as "the rejection and refusing of Jesus Christ through determined malice and hatred against Christ".Nancy Hardesty “Ultimately the refusal to allow women to fully use their gifts in the church and in the world is a form of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.”
Pope John Paul II writes "'blasphemy' does not properly consist in offending against the Holy Spirit in words; it consists rather in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the Cross", and "If Jesus says that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven either in this life or in the next, it is because this "non-forgiveness" is linked, as to its cause, to "non-repentance," in other words to the radical refusal to be converted. This means the refusal to come to the sources of Redemption, which nevertheless remain "always" open in the economy of salvation in which the mission of the Holy Spirit is accomplished.
SO - What is The unforgivable sin?? - is it, as Origen, Augustine, Billy Graham, Pope John Paul 2 Lee Ann Penick suggest - the rejection of the Holy Spirit/not becoming a follower of Jesus?? Is it, as John Chrysostom claimed, swearing oaths? Is it the robbing of graves in a thieving manner? Is it not letting women use their spiritual gifts in the church? Is it Heresy? Is it, as Athanasius and many other church fathers declared, being wrong on the Trinity and calling the Holy Spirit a created being, rather than God Himself? Is it testing prophetic utterances of prophets?? (NO! - 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21 Don’t stifle the Spirit. 20 Don’t despise prophecies, 21 but test all things. Hold on to what is good.)
Confused? You should be!! People talk about this issue all of the time, but it doesn’t appear that all of them get their views from the Bible, so let’s begin there in seeking our answer.
Matthew 12:24 24 When the Pharisees heard this, they said, “The man drives out demons only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.”
25 Knowing their thoughts, He told them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is headed for destruction, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, who is it your sons drive them out by? For this reason they will be your judges. 28 If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you. 29 How can someone enter a strong man’s house and steal his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house. 30 Anyone who is not with Me is against Me, and anyone who does not gather with Me scatters.31 Because of this, I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.32 Whoever 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 one to come.
Mark 3: 22 The scribes who had come down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul in Him!” and, “He drives out demons by the ruler of the demons!”
23 So He summoned them and spoke to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan rebels against himself and is divided, he cannot stand but is finished!
27 “On the other hand, no one can enter a strong man’s house and rob his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he will rob his house. 28 I assure you: People will be forgiven for all sins and whatever blasphemies they may blaspheme. 29 But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 because they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Luke 12: 8 “And I say to you, anyone who acknowledges Me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God, 9 but whoever denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God.10 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven,but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.
So, I see two major ways we need to answer this question. Contextually and grammatically. What does the CONTEXT of the usage of ‘unpardonable sin’ tell us, and what does the grammar/word meanings tell us?
We find a massively important clue in Mark 3:30, where Mark tells us precisely WHY Jesus warned the Pharisees and Scribes about this sin. “Because they were saying, He has an unclean spirit.” The exact same situation is described in Matthew 12:31 “31 Because of this, I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” The scribes and pharisees are accusing Jesus of doing miraculous things - specifically driving out demons - by the power of Beelzebul rather than by the power of God.
Therefore, we know at least this: Ascribing something like an exorcism that is factually done by the power of God and His Holy Spirit to Demonic influence is AT BEST dangerously close to Blaspheming the Holy Spirit, and could, in fact, be blaspheming the Holy Spirit. (Jesus does not make it crystal clear that the scribes and pharisees were actually committing this sin, or merely getting close to committing it. It would seem like the latter is the best option.)
Practically speaking, what does this mean?? It means we need to be extremely careful about stating confident opinions on spiritual matters that we don’t have 100 percent clarity from Scripture on. Let me give a couple of examples:
What is blasphemy, exactly? More on that in a moment….
Side question - is Beelzebul = Satan??
It’s a great question, and I have a fairly lame answer…’maybe.’ Beelzebub (“Lord of the flies”) and Beelzebul (“Lord of the skies/heavenly realms”) both refer to the same entity.
In the Testament of Solomon, 1st century, non-Scripture, pseudoepigraphic text. Beelzebul (not Beelzebub) appears as prince of the demons and says (6.2) that he was formerly a leading heavenly angel who was (6.7) associated with the star Hesperus (which is the normal Greek name for the planet Venus (Αφροδíτη) as evening star). Seemingly, Beelzebul here is synonymous with Lucifer. the text describes how Solomon was enabled to build his temple by commanding demons by means of a magical ring that was entrusted to him by the archangel Michael.
The Bible reference comes from 2 Kings 1: 1 After the death of Ahab, Moab rebelled against Israel. 2 Ahaziah had fallen through the latticed window of his upper room in Samaria and was injured. So he sent messengers instructing them: “Go inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, if I will recover from this injury.” 3 But the angel of the Lord said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Go and meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and ask them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?’ 4 Therefore, this is what the Lord says: ‘You will not get up from your sickbed—you will certainly die.’” Then Elijah left.
The name also appears in Luke 11, where we can see the clearest connection between Beelzebul and Satan: Luke 11:14 Now He was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon came out, the man who had been mute, spoke, and the crowds were amazed. 15 But some of them said, “He drives out demons by Beelzebul,the ruler of the demons!” 16 And others, as a test, were demanding of Him a sign from heaven. 17 Knowing their thoughts, He told them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is headed for destruction, and a house divided against itself falls.18 If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say I drive out demons by Beelzebul. 19 And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, who is it your sons drive them out by? For this reason they will be your judges. 20 If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you.
So, Jesus mentions Satan and Beelzebul in the same context, but not in a way that indicates that they are the same entities.
My best guess is that Beelzebul is a separate entity from Satan, but I confess that I do not know, and my guess is based on the fact that the Bible never clearly identifies the two as the same entity.
What exactly is Blasphemy?
Luke 12:10 points us in the right direction - anyone who ‘speaks a word against the son of man will be forgiven.’ but the one who blasphemes the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.
Matthew 12:32 makes it even more clear: 32 Whoever 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 one to come.
Similarly: Isaiah 37:23 37:23&version=HCSB" rel="nofollow"> Isaiah 37:23
Who is it you have mocked and blasphemed? Who have you raised your voice against and lifted your eyes in pride? Against the Holy One of Israel!
The Word itself, Greek Blasphemos, is a combo of two words. Blaptō, which means, ‘to HURT’ and Pheemay, which means fame, report, or something like ‘reputation.’ So, etymologically, the word has a root meaning of injuring somebody’s fame, or good name. The word can mean ‘defame’ or ‘revile’ and isn’t always used of a deity. Paul speaks of being ‘defamed’ or blasphemed by people for being an apostle. Paul commands the church in Titus 3:2 not to slander/Speak evil of (or BLASPHEME) any person, which is a command that Christians would do well to take far more seriously than we do. 2 Peter 2:10 and Jude vs 8 both warn against blaspheming angels, demons, and other spiritual beings.
So- blasphemy is speaking evil of someone. Hurting them with your words, harming their reputation. Thus, blaspheming the Holy Spirit is speaking evil of Him, reviling Him, defaming Him, seeking to harm His reputation. The Pharisees and Scribes were doing that - or coming dangerously close - when they said that it was Satan/Beelzebul empowering Jesus, when it was factually the Spirit of God Himself.
R.C. Sproul: Their statements were directed against Jesus. So, He said to them: “You can blaspheme Me and be forgiven, but when you question the work of the Spirit, you are coming perilously close to the unforgivable sin. You are right at the line. You are looking down into the abyss of hell. One more step and there will be no hope for you.” He was warning them to be very careful not to insult or mock the Spirit.
Is it really unforgivable, and WHAT IF I HAVE COMMITTED IT?!
AUGUSTINE: It is not that this was a blasphemy which under no circumstances could be forgiven, for even this shall be forgiven if right repentance follows it
Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall, eds., Mark, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 48.
I’m worried that I have committed the unforgivable sin??
Graham: Many Christians have heard that there is an unpardonable sin and live in dread that something grave they have done before or after conversion might be that sin. Their fears are unfounded. While there is an unforgivable sin, it is not one that a true believer in Jesus Christ can commit.
Sproul: Humanly speaking, everyone who is a Christian is capable of committing the unforgivable sin. However, I believe that the Lord of glory who has saved us and sealed us in the Holy Spirit will never let us commit that sin. I do not believe that any Christians in the history of the church have blasphemed the Spirit.
As for those who are not sure they are saved and are worried they may have committed the unpardonable sin, I would say that worrying about it is one of the clearest evidences that they have not committed this sin, for those who commit it are so hardened in their hearts they do not care that they commit it. Thanks be to God that the sin that is unpardonable is not a sin He allows His people to commit.
I don’t share Graham and Sproul’s assurances, though I respect them both deeply. The Bible NEVER says a believer is unable to commit the unpardonable sin. Jesus NEVER indicates that, and I see no other passage that promises such...just a sober warning.
I think Piper strikes a better balance when talking about it:
Piper: The fact that there is an unforgivable sin — that there comes a point in a life of sin after which the Holy Spirit will no longer grant repentance — that fact should drive us from sin with fear and trembling. None of us knows when our toying with sin will pass over into irrevocable hardness of heart. Very few people feel how serious sin is. Very few people are on the same wavelength with Jesus when he said in Mark 9:43, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”
Instead, many professing Christians today have such a sentimental view of God’s justice that they never feel terror and horror at the thought of being utterly forsaken by God because of their persistence in sin. They have the naïve notion that God’s patience has no end and that they can always return from any length and depth of sin, forgetting that there is a point of resistance which belittles the Holy Spirit so grievously that he withdraws forever with his convicting power, leaving them never able to repent and be forgiven.
They are like the buzzard who spots a carcass on a piece of ice floating in the river. He lands and begins to eat. He knows it is dangerous because the falls are just ahead. But he looks at his wings and says to himself, “I can fly to safety in an instant.” And he goes on eating. Just before the ice goes over the falls he spreads his wings to fly but his claws are frozen in the ice and there is no escape — neither in this age nor the age to come. The Spirit of holiness has forsaken the arrogant sinner forever.
Another of the devil’s fiery darts is this, “You have committed the unpardonable sin.” Ah! this arrow has rankled in many a heart, and it is very difficult to deal with such cases. The only way in which I argue with a person thus assailed is to say, “I am quite certain that, if you desire salvation, you have not committed the unpardonable sin, and I am absolutely sure that, if you will now come and trust Christ, you have not committed that sin, for every soul that trusts Christ is forgiven, according to God’s Word, and therefore you cannot have committed that sin.”
C. H. Spurgeon, Pictures from Pilgrim’s Progress:
My close - God the Holy Spirit is all powerful. Tremble:
I don’t want to blunt the warnings of Jesus with false assurance. It is likely that - if you are worried you’ve committed the unpardonable sin, that you haven’t because only the Spirit’s work in your life would make you fear the Lord. But the way that Jesus addressed this is with the highest level of seriousness...so must we. This passage RIGHTLY inspires fear in us, and that’s ok, it should. It is obviously recorded in the Scripture for that purpose.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline.
you will understand the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of God.
The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked are cut short.
Rev 14:6 6 Then I saw another angel flying high overhead,(I) having the eternal gospel to announce to the inhabitants of the earth—to every nation, tribe, language, and people.(J) 7 He spoke with a loud voice: “Fear God and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come. Worship the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water.”
The word for fear there has the same meaning as our word fear. It means FEAR.
Luke 12: In the same breath that Jesus speaks about the unpardonable sin, He says this:
4 “And I say to you, My friends, don’t fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. 5 But I will show you the One to fear: Fear Him who has authority to throw people into hell after death. Yes, I say to you, this is the One to fear! 6 Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. 7 Indeed, the hairs of your head are all counted. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows!
Treat the Holy Spirit with great - remarkable sobriety - fear and wisdom. Fear the Lord, as Jesus said, and don’t be afraid to trust Him - He who knows all of the sparrows and numbers our hairs, counts us as of great worth and Loves the World enough to send His son to rescue it.
Here’s the good news: GREEAR: False gods mutilate us; the true God mutilated himself for us.
The prophets of Ba’al begin by dancing around their altar. They end by slashing at themselves until their blood runs (1 Kings 18:28). False gods always push us toward destruction: “Work harder. Do better. Obtain more. You still aren’t getting my attention. Slash yourself!” So we slash at our bodies by going through crash diets to attain that perfect figure. We slash at our families by overworking to make extra money. We slash at our souls by compromising our integrity to get someone’s affection.
False gods push us to mutilate ourselves, because we desperately want to win their approval. But only one God was ever mutilated for us—Jesus Christ. This story ends with a magnificent fire coming from heaven, but as Jesus himself points out to his first disciples, the fire was not intended for sinful humanity (Luke 9:51–56). It was ultimately intended for him: of all the characters in this story, Jesus is not Elijah, calling down fire; he is the sacrifice who receives the fire of judgment.
At the cross, Jesus took into his body the fire of God’s justice so that we could take into our lives the fire of God’s love. Other gods demand dancing, slashing, mutilation. But Jesus Christ is the only God who was slashed and mutilated for us. As Tim Keller has said, “Every other god will make your blood run; only the true God bleeds for you.”
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