The “Unforgivable Sin” and understanding the Bible

Recently, I was asked to preach on Matthew 12:30-32—the passage where Jesus talked about the “unforgivable sin” and “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” After my initial shock at being asked to preach on that passage, I realized that I had questions of my own about it. What is the deal with this passage? What is the unforgivable sin? And more to the point—have I committed it?

This passage has led to much confusion throughout the history of the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas was so scared of the “unforgivable sin” that he devoted four articles to this form of blasphemy in is monumental work, Summa Theologiae. John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress struggled with fear of this sin for years. Today, we find atheist groups on the internet who challenge others to take the “Blasphemy Challenge”—where people are invited to publically “blasphemy the Holy Spirit” by uploading their denials of God onto YouTube. Over the centuries, people have wondered what this unforgiveable sin is: is it adultery, murder, suicide, fornication, Satan worship, or something else?

So, how do we make sense of the passage? Let’s treat it as a case study in how to properly interpret a passage of Scripture. First, here is the troublesome passage (Matthew 12:30-32):

30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Taken in isolation, it is hard to make sense of this passage—how is it that all kinds of sins can be forgiven but one sin will not be forgiven? What is going on here? Well, here is a principle of sound biblical interpretation:

Principle #1: In order to correctly understand a passage, we must always look at it within its context.

And what is the passages context? The broader context can be found in Matthew 12:22-32. In this broader context we read of Jesus performing a miracle (he performs an exorcism and heals a blind and mute man), we read of the crowd’s amazement and wonderment over the identity of Jesus (“Could this be the Son of David?”), we find the slanderous (and murderous) charge of the Pharisees, and we find Jesus’ response to the Pharisees charge (both his reasoned response to their explicit charge that he drives out demons by Satan’s power as well as his warning to the Pharisees if they continue to attribute to Satan what is in fact the work of God’s Spirit).

After looking at this passage in context, we find that the “unforgivable sin” is (basically) attributing what is in fact the work of God’s Spirit to His ultimate enemy, Satan.

Fair enough, you say, but there are other problems passages that talk about the unforgivable sin—Hebrews 6, 1 John 5, and Hebrews 10 come to mind. What about those passages? Well, here is our second principle of biblical interpretation:

Principle #2: Always interpret unclear passages in light of the clear teachings of Scripture (as a whole).

And what is the clear teaching of Scripture related to sin and forgiveness? It is this:

Forgiveness of sins is a consequence of man’s repentance, and repentance is a consequence of the activity of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. So in the end, it seems that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is nothing more or less than the unrelenting rejection of His advances.

So, in the end, this troublesome passage is really about the gospel—and it reminds us (as Tim Keller likes to say) that there are really three ways to live, not two. It is typically assumed that there are only two ways to live—the IRRELIGIOUS and the RELIGIOUS. But, both of these are self-salvation ways of living. The irreligious life says, “I will find salvation apart from God.” The Religious life says, “I will earn my own salvation.” But there is a third way, a way hinted at in our Matthew 12 passage—and it is the GOSPEL-CENTERED life that says, “I cannot earn my own salvation, it is a gift given to me by God.” So, have you committed the unforgivable sin? Well, in whom do you trust? Are you living a life of self-salvation (whether irreligious OR religious)? Or have you placed your faith/trust in Jesus—to forgive you of your sins, and to satisfy your heart and soul? If so, then you cannot commit the unforgivable sin—this is part of the good news—if you have trusted Jesus for your salvation—your sins, past, present, and future are forgiven once and for all. This is good news indeed!

Click here to listen to my full sermon on the unforgivable sin.

 

 

 

 

9 Responses to The “Unforgivable Sin” and understanding the Bible

  1. Pingback: What is the “unforgiveable sin” in Mark 3 and Matthew 12? « Wintery Knight

  2. Nelson Mejia says:

    Great article. I had been struggling with this passage for about one month. So, the “unforgiveable sin” is basicly not believing in Jesus as our saviour?

    • paul.gould@facultycommons.org says:

      Yes, Nelson–I think this is the basic meaning of the text–unbelief in Jesus as our saviour is the only unforgiveable sin. I hope this post helps you a bit! You can find more on this in my sermon on the topic, which is linked from the post. warmly, Paul

  3. Nelson Mejia says:

    *basically
    sorry

  4. Uzoma says:

    This Article has helped me a lot
    I read the book of proverb 6 : 33-35
    and got scared that I might have lost
    salvation due to fornication. But God
    obviously is a Merciful God… Thanks

  5. Pingback: What is the “unforgiveable sin” in Mark 3 and Matthew 12? | Wintery Knight

  6. Joseph says:

    Good article, thanks. I would like to add something else to this matter.

    Let me show you some scripture where people mocked the miraculous workings of the Holy Spirit, and how they got saved.

    Acts 2:4-15 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. (5) And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. (6) Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. (7) And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? (8) And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? (9) Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, (10) Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, (11) Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God. (12) And they were all amazed, and were in doubt, saying one to another, What meaneth this? (13) Others mocking said, These men are full of new wine. (14) But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice, and said unto them, Ye men of Judaea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and hearken to my words: (15) For these are not drunken, as ye suppose, seeing it is but the third hour of the day.

    So, the Holy Spirit was present there and people mocked what the Holy Spirit was doing. Did Peter stand up and declare that they had committed the unpardonable sin? No, Peter tells them to repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and we read that about three thousand souls who listened to what Peter had to say and got saved and were baptized.

    The logic is that if the mockers had committed the unforgivable sin then Peter wouldn’t tell them to believe, repent and be baptized, and even if Peter was wrong to say that then why does it say that “they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship”?

    The answer here is that they didn’t commit the unpardonable sin, and it was only Jesus who spoke of this sin, and he did so to the Pharisees and Scribes who were accusing him with being in league with the devil in order to perform miracles.

  7. Richarx says:

    God will answer prayers

  8. I know this might seem like a rhetorical question, but is speaking negatively and/or cursing God and the Holy Spirit the same as blaspheming God and the Holy Spirit? What are the bad things a person would say to blaspheme God and the Holy Spirit?

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