Q. What is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and is this the same as the unpardonable sin?
A. This subject is one who’s meaning nearly every Christian has wrestled with at some time in his/her life, and even some non-believers struggle with it also. As far as the phrase “unpardonable sin” goes, it is not found in the Bible. However, it has become the phrase used to describe blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which Christ declares as “will not be forgiven” and “an eternal sin.”
Three passages deal with this subject.
“‘And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 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.’” (Matthew 12:31-32)
“‘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.’” (Mark 3:28-29)
“‘And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.’” (Luke 12:10)
There are several points to consider in the context of these passages. In the Matthew account, the discussion is brought on because Jesus had just healed a blind and mute demon-possessed man. This appears to be the catalyst for the discussion. Mark records the discussion without a prompting event, while Luke disassociates it from the immediate context of the miracle and discussion (see Luke 11:14-21). That Jesus taught the identical matter on different occasions in not beyond reason.
The discussion occurred as a result of Jesus being accused of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebub. (Beelzebub had been a Canaanite god, “the lord of the high place,” which was in the land when the Jews arrived. By Jesus’ day, the Jews used the term for the ruler of demons, whom we now call Satan.) Jesus astutely pointed out the absurdity of such a proposition, observing that Satan would not drive out Satan, because a kingdom divided against itself is a fallen kingdom. He asserts that His power is derived not from Satan, but from the Holy Spirit. This is illustrated by the analogy of the binding of a strong man before the robbing of his house, an analogy explaining Christ’s power to bind Satan and to take his spoils, such as dispossessing demons from men. What then is the charge against these Jewish leaders? They are accused by Christ of attributing the works He accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit to works wrought by the power of Satan. This is evident from Mark’s comment: “He said this because they were saying, ‘He has an evil spirit’” (3:30). Their sin is that of failure to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit through Jesus.
What Jesus informs them is that this sin is one that is unforgiveable. Notice that Christ indicates that all other sin and blasphemy, even speaking a word against the Son of Man, is forgivable and will be forgiven, presumably when one repents of such sin. But this sin, blaspheming the Holy Spirit, “‘will not be forgiven’” (Luke), “‘will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come’” (Matthew) and “‘will never be forgiven’” (Mark). In addition Mark records Jesus as saying, “‘He is guilty of an eternal sin.’”
Since all sin is forgivable except this one, there is obviously something within the nature of this sin that is different. It could be that this sin is such a heinous sin that it is beyond God’s forgiveness. While God’s love is boundless, there are certain conditions under which he will not save. Why would Jesus declare that sin and blasphemy against “the Son of Man” is forgivable, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not? Perhaps because Christ Himself had veiled His identity and His work was as yet uncompleted He knew that anything said against Him would be done ignorantly at this point. But to speak against or blaspheme the very Spirit of God was to do so presumptuously, to deliberately refuse the grace of God. Maybe Jesus sees in this sin the deliberate rejection of His own identity as attested to by the works of the Spirit. Thus, within the context we realize that the Jewish leaders, by saying Jesus had “an evil spirit,” were deliberately discounting His works, refusing to believe that He was a representative of God at all, and equating His power with that of the evil one, Satan himself.
The question everyone now wants to know is this: Can this sin be committed today? Good scholars argue for both sides of this issue. Some deliberate that since Jesus is not alive today, such a sin cannot be committed. They would argue that it was a particular sin that applied only to Jesus’ day while He walked physically on this earth. Others disagree with this assessment, believing that since the Spirit is still at work today the sin could possibly still be committed. Are there contextual clues that assist us in answering this dilemma?
One fact pointed out by those who believe the former idea is that such a sin is not warned against by New Testament writers. Their assertion is that if it is such a terrible sin, why would the New Testament authors neglect to mention it? They dispute the idea of an “unpardonable sin.” There are several references, though, which may allude to sin that is unforgivable. The Apostle John mentions, “There is a sin that leads to death” (1 John 5:16). In the context of the letter, John seemingly indicates spiritual death, not physical, since that is the way he speaks of death in the epistle. He thereby refers to apostate individuals who are continuing in and condoning sin, a knowing and deliberate turning away from truth; prayer is useless for them because they are not repentant and no argument will change their mind. The author of Hebrews twice suggests that it is entirely possible to repudiate Jesus as Lord and apostatize to the point of no longer being able to receive forgiveness (Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:26).
One phrase used by Jesus could support the latter opinion, depending on its translation. Matthew records Jesus qualifying the unforgivable aspect of this sin with the words “‘either in this age or in the age to come.’” One translation of this phrase has Jesus referring to two different “ages” or dispensations. “The age to come” is used several times in Biblical reference to refer to a different time period. In other words, the sin is not pardonable in the age prior to Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit; nor is it forgivable in the church age following the giving of the Holy Spirit. If this is true, it continues to be possible to err in this and sin, thus never finding forgiveness. There is, nevertheless, another translation of this phrase. The possibility exists that this is idiomatic language, that is, a stronger way of saying that the guilt will be unpardoned forever, thereby reinforcing the idea that it will not be forgiven. If this translation is correct, it obviously could have been a sin only for Jesus’ day, or one that is still being committed today.
Many today interpret “blasphemy against the Spirit” wrongly by saying Jesus is speaking concerning those who reject the Gospel of Christ. They further conjecture that it is forgivable if a person later repents and accepts Jesus as his Lord. I personally have argued with those of this theology, and I pointed out that: 1) Jesus says this sin is absolutely unforgivable, making Him the authority; 2) the context argues for an entirely different interpretation; and 3) it is absurd to believe Jesus would use such strong language to overstate the obvious; anyone who has not accepted Jesus is definitely unpardoned!
We must also address the concern of someone who wonders if they have indeed committed the unpardonable sin. To this idea several things may be noted. First, if a person shows such great concern about his soul as to inquire concerning the commitment of this sin, it shows that he is not beyond the work of the Spirit on his life. The Spirit has not abandoned him, and forgiveness is possible. Second, this is a warning against such sin, but it is primarily an inducement to repentance of sin for forgiveness from God. Only those who continually assess the power of God as the power of Satan, without the least bit of remorse for their rebellion, are guilty of this sin. Third, a Christian could never certainly commit the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit unless he commits apostasy, thereby placing himself outside of the forgiveness of God. Such a person is no longer a believer, and forgiveness is impossible. A casual sin is not what Jesus forbids here as unpardonable, but a deliberate rejection of known truth, and a continual rejection of that truth.