Beyond Forgiveness: Blasphemy Against the Spirit
Mark 3:20–35 says,
The crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for people were saying, “He is beside himself.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And he called them to him, and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house.
“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
And his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting about him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”
About eight years ago a young woman came into my office at Bethel, extremely distressed over this issue of the unforgivable sin. She told me how one day when she was a young teenager, she got so angry at her mother who was a Christian that she locked herself in her room and used every swear word and oath and all the foul language against the Holy Spirit that she could think of. That day was seared into her conscience and came back to haunt her again and again. She wanted to know if she had committed the unforgivable sin. It is not a merely academic question. What could be more terrifying than to believe you are beyond forgiveness and bound for eternal misery with no escape?
Let’s ask three questions to our text:
- Is there really an unforgivable sin?
- If so, what is it?
- How should we live in view of it?
1. Is There Really an Unforgivable Sin?
Is there really an unforgivable sin? Note verse 29, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” Three observations:
God’s Forgiveness in View
First, the forgiveness in view is God’s forgiveness. The sweetest news for a sinner is that God has forgiven him, that God no longer holds his sins against him. But the worst news in the world is that God will never forgive you. God is the one to reckon with. What men think about our sin is relatively unimportant. What God thinks is infinitely important.
On God’s Lips, “Never” Really Means “Never”
Second, Jesus says that God will never forgive a person who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit. When a human says, “I’ll never forgive you,” we may go on with life. There are others we can turn to; and “never” really doesn’t mean never. But when God says, “I will never forgive you,” then there is nobody to turn to in all the universe and “never” really means “never.” If God says to you, “Never will I forgive you,” then a million ages from now his verdict will be like granite. His sentences are as unbreakable as his pardons.
Someone may say to you, “Literally Jesus simply said that forgiveness would not be given ‘unto the age,’ meaning in this age; but in the future age pardon can be found.” This is not what Jesus meant. Matthew 12:32 makes his meaning more precise, “Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this age or in the age to come.” When Mark 3:29 calls blasphemy against the Holy Spirit an “eternal sin,” it means a sin that God will not forgive to all eternity. If all the mountains on the earth were wearing down at the rate of one millimeter every thousand years, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit would still be unforgiven when the face of the earth is as smooth as a billiard ball. It is an eternally unforgivable sin.
Forever Under God’s Wrath
Third, therefore the person who commits this sin is guilty forever before God and under his wrath without end: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness; but is guilty of an eternal sin.” If forgiveness is withheld for eternity, guilt is sealed for eternity. God is never neutral to sin. He either forgives it or punishes it. There is no neutral middle ground of indifference. Not to be forgiven by God forever is to suffer his wrath forever. To reject the doctrine of eternal hell under the wrath of God is to reject the forthright teaching of our Lord Jesus. Mark 3:29 is one of the clearest passages in the Bible to the effect that there will be those shut out of forgiveness, bearing their guilt forever. And it is the teaching of Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us!
There Is an Unforgivable Sin
So in answer to the first question, yes, there is an unforgivable sin. Jesus calls it an eternal sin, one that never has forgiveness, one that sends a person into eternity to bear his guilt under God’s wrath forever.
2. What Is This Unforgivable Sin?
The second question: What is this sin that is beyond forgiveness? Again verse 29: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness.” The unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But what is that?
The Context in Mark
Verse 30 makes clear that Mark wants us to understand blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in relation to the scene in verses 20–27. Verse 30 gives the reason why Jesus brought up the issue of an unforgivable sin: “for they had said [or: were saying], ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” That points us back to verse 22: “The scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.’”
Note very carefully: Jesus does not say that these scribes have committed the unforgivable sin. He hears them attribute his power over demons to Satan instead of to the Holy Spirit and he says, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness” (v. 29). It is a warning to the scribes. Maybe they have committed the unforgivable sin, maybe they haven’t. But when they see the work of the Holy Spirit and call it the work of Satan, they are at least on the brink of never-ending guilt. Perhaps they have even fallen over the edge.
“Whatever Blasphemies They Utter”?
Why do I hesitate to equate what the scribes said with unforgivable blasphemy? I hesitate because Jesus invites me to with verse 28. “Truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter.” Literally: “All things will be forgiven to the sons of men, the sins and the blasphemies whatever they blaspheme.” No exceptions are mentioned. The key to understanding the unforgivable sin is how verse 28 can be stated so absolutely (“all sins and blasphemies will be forgiven”) and yet verse 29 can say that there is a blasphemy and a sin beyond forgiveness.
What does verse 28 mean? Mark makes it plain that sins are forgiven only if a person repents. Mark 1:4, “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark 1:14–15, “Jesus came into Galilee preaching the gospel and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.’” (See also 4:12; 6:12, and Acts 2:38 and 5:31.) In order for anyone to receive forgiveness of sins, they have to repent — that is, to turn from sin to God and trust his grace and follow him. So when Jesus says in Mark 3:28, “All sins will be forgiven the sons of men and whatever blasphemies they utter,” he means, all sins and blasphemies from which you genuinely repent.
Why, then, in verse 29 does Jesus seem to exclude one sin and one blasphemy from this promise: the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? I think the reason is that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit puts you beyond repentance, and therefore beyond forgiveness. Verse 29 is not an exception to verse 28. Jesus is not saying, All blasphemies that you repent of will be forgiven except blasphemy against the Spirit. He is saying, all blasphemies that you repent of will be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven because it puts you beyond repentance — you won’t be able to repent of it. If a sin makes it impossible for you to repent, then that is an unforgivable sin, because forgiveness is promised only to those sins from which we genuinely repent (cf. 4:12).
Why This Particular Sin Makes Repentance Impossible
But why does this one particular sin, this one blasphemy, make it impossible to repent and be forgiven? What about blasphemy against the Son of God, or God the Father, or angels, or Scripture, or the church? Why do these not put us beyond repentance and forgiveness? Why only blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? I think it’s because of the unique and decisive role the Holy Spirit plays in our salvation. If we look to God the Father and then turn from his glory to embrace sin, that is bad. If we look to his Son Jesus Christ whom he sent into the world and then turn away from his glory to embrace sin, that is doubly bad.
But in either case there is hope. The Father has planned redemption and the Son has accomplished redemption. This wonderful redemption is outside ourselves and available to us if we repent of our sin and turn back to Christ in faith. But it is the unique and special role of the Holy Spirit to apply the Father’s plan and the Son’s accomplishment of it to our hearts. It is the Spirit’s work to open our eyes, to grant repentance, and to make us beneficiaries of all that the Father has planned and all that Christ has done for us.
If we blaspheme and reject the Father and the Son, there is still hope, for the Spirit may yet work within us to humble us and bring us to repentance. But if behind the Father and the Son we see and taste the power of the Holy Spirit and reject his work as no more precious than the work of Satan, we shut ourselves off from the only one who could ever bring us to repentance. And so we shut ourselves off from forgiveness.
Not Simply a Lifetime of Resistance
Let’s take one more step before we define the unforgivable sin. Some people say that the unpardonable sin is continual rejection of the Holy Spirit until death. And thus only death puts a person beyond forgiveness. I think that is wrong for two reasons. One is that in Matthew 12:32 Jesus says, “Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this age or the age to come.” If the possibility of forgiveness were taken away only after death, then Jesus would not have said that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable in this age as well as the one to come. Another reason is 1 John 5:16 teaches that there is a sin unto death which is pointless to pray about. It puts a person beyond forgiveness even in this life. Therefore the unforgivable blasphemy against the Spirit is not simply a lifetime of resistance against the Holy Spirit.
The Unforgivable Sin Defined
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.
3. How Shall We Live in Light of This Possibility?
Our final question is: How should we live in view of this possibility?
Run from Sin with Fear and Trembling
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.
The Offer of Grace: Repent and Be Forgiven
You have heard the warning. Now hear the offer of grace. “All sins will be forgiven the sons of men and whatever blasphemies they utter.” I urge you in the name of Christ: If by God’s grace you can repent today of your sin, do it now, because you may not be able to tomorrow.
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