The Unforgivable Sin

By Dr. Christopher Plumberg

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One of the most challenging concepts in Scripture is that of the so-called "unforgivable sin," which is discussed in passages such as Matthew 12:22-37, Mark 3:20-30, and Luke 12:1-12. These passages appear to make a distinction between blasphemy against Jesus and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. However, this raises an intriguing question: if God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are one God, why is blaspheming against God the Son forgivable while blaspheming against God the Holy Spirit is unforgivable?

Before I answer this question, I should note that because of the extreme difficulty of the passages dealing with this topic, the church has developed a number of different interpretations for what Jesus means to imply here. For simplicity, I will not attempt to address all of these different interpretations. Instead, I will stick with the interpretation adopted in the GotQuestions article "What is the unpardonable sin / unforgivable sin?"

I should also point out that there is no such thing as an unforgivable sin in Scripture, i.e., a sin which God cannot forgive. The terms "unforgivable" and "unpardonable" are never actually used in Scripture. To my knowledge they only appear in the section headings of English translations like the New American Standard Bible, and are not a part of the original texts. In my opinion, this has led to a lot of unnecessary confusion about what the sin actually is. The sin is not something which God cannot forgive. Rather, as Jesus Himself says, the sin "shall not be forgiven" for the person who commits it. It is not a sin which God cannot forgive, but which He chooses not to forgive.

Having clarified the nature of the sin we are discussing (which I will hereafter refer to as the "eternal sin" after Mark 3:29, NASB, let me actually answer the question I introduced earlier. Of the three passages I mentioned above, the first two show Jesus addressing the Pharisees and implicitly accusing them of the eternal sin. The third text mentions blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in the context of confessing or denying Christ on pain of persecution by unbelievers. God the Father is not mentioned in any of these texts, so we cannot speculate about any unique role which He plays in the context of the eternal sin.

Additionally, it is apparent from these texts that, whatever the eternal sin actually is, it cannot be committed against Jesus (i.e., the Son of Man), since words or blasphemies spoken against Him may be forgiven; the eternal sin can only be committed against the Holy Spirit.

Why is this? Here is the best answer I have found: the passages seem to make a distinction between rejecting Christ out of ignorance and rejecting Him intentionally. For example, the apostle Paul said of himself that "I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief" (1 Timothy 1:13, NASB). Clearly, Paul's blasphemies were forgiven because they were based, to a degree, in ignorant unbelief. The Pharisees, by contrast, could not claim this. Having just watched Jesus perform an incredible act of healing by freeing a man from demon possession, they should have responded by falling at Jesus' feet and worshipping, but instead, they attributed His miracle to the work of the devil. Their sin was not in ignorance, for they saw clearly that Jesus was the Messiah He claimed to be, and chose to oppose Him anyway. This is the kind of hardness of heart which God refuses to forgive, but instead gives those who commit it over to the hardness of their hearts, allowing them to become cemented in their conscious rebellion against Him.

So, to state the answer a bit more clearly, the kind of blasphemy which God forgives is directed toward Christ and is based out of ignorance, but the kind of blasphemy which God does not forgive is directed toward the Holy Spirit and is based out of conscious, intentional rebellion. It is understandable why God should be willing to forgive ignorant blasphemy but unwilling to forgive conscious blasphemy. What is difficult to understand is why these should be identified with blasphemy committed against, respectively, the Son of Man or the Holy Spirit.

I believe that we can understand this in the following way. Many people in our world hear about Christ and know about Christ without actually knowing Him. Consequently, many may say blasphemous things about Him without truly knowing what they are saying — they are speaking in ignorance. This is why words spoken against the Son of Man (Christ) may be forgiven. On the other hand, in order to speak against the Holy Spirit, a person must already have received special, direct knowledge of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the Holy Spirit must already have begun the work of conviction in that person's heart. In this way, when unbelievers choose to speak against the Holy Spirit, they are no longer speaking ignorantly; they are consciously rejecting the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, choosing instead to align themselves in opposition to His work, and not merely rejecting His work in their own lives, but speaking against Him in order to dissuade others from receiving His work in their hearts and lives as well.

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Published 3-27-17