What was Jesus referring to when he spoke of the unpardonable sin?
Throughout the history of the Church, Christians of every stripe have wondered about the meaning of Jesus’ statement regarding the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit which is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels (Matt 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30; and Luke 12:10). In Mark, Jesus is recorded as saying: ‘I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin’. Some Christians, like the Welsh preacher Peter Williams in George Borrow’s Lavengro, are worried that they might have committed this sin.
In order to understand what Jesus meant by the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit we must explore the context in which this statement is located in the synoptic Gospels. At the outset, it must be pointed out that Matthew and Mark sets this statement in a similar context, while Luke places it in a different context thereby bringing to this statement a slightly different meaning.
In Mark’s account, the scribes or experts of the law went to Galilee from Jerusalem to assess the miracles of Jesus, particularly his ministry of exorcism. They came to the conclusion that Jesus was himself possessed by the prince of demons, Beelzebub, by whose power he was able to dispel demons (Mark 3:22; Cf., Matt 12: 24). In Canaanite culture, Beelzebub was the name of a god, ‘the lord of the high places’, but for the Jews this name refers to the ruler of the abyss, the abode of demons. Jesus pointed out the absurdity of the suggestion that evil would work against itself: ‘How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand’ (Mark 3:23-24; Cf., Matt 12:25-27).
At this point, Jesus made the statement regarding blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, a sin for which there is no forgiveness. In Matthew and Mark, therefore, the context suggests that the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit has to do with not only the refusal to recognise and acknowledge the work of God but with confusing God’s work with that of Satan. Those who are guilty of this sin have ascribed the Holy Spirit’s activity to demonic agency. In rejecting the redemptive work of God, those who commit this sin have, by implication, refused to accept God’s offer of salvation. In this sense, the ‘unpardonable sin’ is also the ‘eternal sin’. In his commentary on this passage in Mark, Robert Guelich writes: ‘One is culpably refusing God’s offer and thus sealing one’s own eternal judgement by committing the sin for which by definition there is no forgiveness’.
Luke places this saying of Jesus in a different context, giving it a slightly different meaning. He does give an account of the charge by the religious leaders that it was through Beelzebub, the prince of demons that Jesus was able to cast out demons (Luke 11:14-26), but this does not provide the context for the statement on the blasphemy of the Spirit. Instead the statement about the sin against the Holy Spirit is sandwiched between Jesus’ warning that whoever disowns him will ‘be disowned before the angels of God’ (12:9) and his assurance that the Spirit will teach his disciples how to reply their inquisitors (12:11). This suggests that the unpardonable sin, for Luke, is the apostasy committed by the persecuted disciple who refuses to receive help from the Spirit.
Put differently, in Matthew and Mark, the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit has to do with confusing God’s work with demonic activity. In Luke, the unpardonable sin is apostasy – the believer’s repudiation of Jesus as Lord.
Some scholars ask if Peter had committed the unpardonable sin in the Lucan sense when he denied the Lord three times before Jesus’ crucifixion. And what about Paul? Was he also guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in the Matthean-Markan sense when he persecuted Christians and even tried to make them blaspheme (See Acts 26:11)? Evidently not! A distinction must be made between a human failure – as in the case of Peter – and the persistent hardening of oneself against God. Peter repented of his failure, and was forgiven and restored by Jesus. As far as Paul was concerned, scholars believed that he acted out of ignorance and unbelief and therefore received mercy. Paul was receptive to the revelation that he received while travelling to Damascus. But if Paul had rejected that revelation and continued to persecute Christians, he would have been guilty of the ‘eternal sin’.
This means that there is always forgiveness for the repentant sinner, even if he has blasphemed against the Holy Spirit. We have this assurance in 1 John 1:9, which states, quite categorically, that God will always forgive the repentant sinner. But if this is the case, why did Jesus say that ‘anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven’ (Luke 12:10)? It is possible that Jesus was referring to the person who has so hardened himself against God that he is beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. In other words, the blasphemy against the Spirit is such that one does not repent of it. And because there is no repentance, there can be no forgiveness. This how the sin of blasphemy becomes ‘unpardonable’.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today, February 2015.