The Unforgivable Sin

Matthew 12:30-32


George Borrow, a 19th century author, wrote a book called Lavengro. In the middle of this book, he tells the lamentable story of a man who thought he had committed the unforgivable sin when he was seven years old. All his life he was tortured by it. He had this fascination with it as a child, and then one day he “blasphemed” the Holy Spirit. For ever after he was terrified of coming upon that place in Scripture which is our text, for he feared that he was condemned for eternity. As we go along, we will see some of the things which eventually helped him in understanding what this sin is and what this sin is not.

The context is extremely important for understanding what this sin is. The Pharisees have just said that Jesus is casting out demons by the power of Satan. They just called something very good something very bad. Furthermore, Jesus has said that He casts out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit. So whatever the unforgivable sin is, it is something that the Pharisees have been committing. They are saying that the Holy Spirit is really the spirit of Satan. That is the worst blasphemy that can possibly be committed.

A further hint at what this sin is can be gleaned from verse 30. Jesus there gives one His famous statements that there is no neutrality. There are only those who are for Christ, and those who are against Christ. The unforgivable sin, therefore, cannot be committed by a Christian. It is impossible. The Holy Spirit will not let that Christian commit it, since it is the Holy Spirit who ultimately lives in us and preserves us for the Final Day. The unforgivable sin can only be committed by unbelievers.

However, people can torture themselves even here, can’t they? They think they may have committed the unforgivable sin, and that makes them doubt their salvation. However, this is not the way we should go about determining these things. The question of whether we are Christians or not does not depend on the question of whether we sin. All Christians sin. And that is not to excuse sin in us. By no means. However, we have to realize that we are not sinless until we die. Rather, we should be asking ourselves these questions: do I repent when I sin? Do I confess my sin to God? Am I becoming more and more holy over time? And this progress does not have to be always in an upward direction. What we want to look at is the overall trend-line, not where we are at a given moment.

As many wise Christian scholars have said, ultimately speaking, if we are in any doubt whatsoever as to whether we have committed this terrible sin, that doubt is proof positive that we have not committed it. Let me repeat that: if we are in any doubt whatsoever as to whether we have committed this terrible sin, that doubt is proof positive that we have not committed it. If you have the teensiest, tiniest doubt about the matter, then you have not committed. You cannot accidentally fall into this sin. More tender consciences have been wounded by Satan in this regard than can possibly be imagined. I myself used to wonder whether or not I had committed this sin. I used to almost dare myself to commit it to see if lightning would strike, or to see if god could forgive this sin.

This brings us to one of the many motivations of those people who think they have committed it: they want to be in a position by themselves where they have done something that God cannot forgive. This is not something that people do out of conscious rebellion, but rather something that they do with fear and trembling. But the underlying motivation is pride. This is one of the main points in the story Lavengro: Peter (which is the name of the man who thinks he has committed this sin) has a wonderful wife, who is very understanding, and eventually she comes to say this to him (in tears, for she does not ridicule Peter, but is rather extremely compassionate). She says to him that Peter seems to want to have done something that will thwart God. Ultimately, this does not convince Peter, and yet it is true. Therein lies our strange fascination with this sin. We want to play around the edges of it. Then we think something against the Holy Spirit, and step back in some sort of shock as if we may or may not have crossed the line. Let me assure you that this sort of thinking, while childish and foolish, is not the unforgivable sin. Here are some characteristics of this sin: it is final and irrevocable. You cannot commit it, and then want to take it back. If you want to take it back, then you have not committed it in the first place. The person who commits this sin deliberately hates God, and has finally and ultimately rejected the Holy Spirit in his life. It is not a temporary hardening of the heart, but a final set-in-stone hardness of the heart. It is the judgment of God, in fact. We see this same judgment in Romans where God gives such a person over to a reprobate mind, and they commit all sorts of terrible sins because they have no conscience left. They delight in calling good evil and evil good.

I think oftentimes we think so much of the unforgivable sin that we forget to notice just how much comfort there is in these verses. Look at verse 31: “therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people,” full stop. There is forgiveness of all sins and blasphemies for those who will repent and turn from their sins to the Lord Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. There is no sin so large that God cannot forgive except this one sin, which is equivalent, as one scholar puts it, of the sick man on the hospital bed throwing out the very medicine that would save him, and reviling the doctor for trying to save his life. We would agree that such a man gets what he deserves. Forgiveness does require repentance on our part, which is a work of the Holy Spirit. It does require that we ask for forgiveness. The one who will not ask will not receive. It is really quite simple.

A word is necessary about the difficulty of understanding the first part of verse 32. When Jesus says that the words against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but not the words against the Holy Spirit, He is not saying that we can go ahead and revile the Son of Man with impunity, as long as we ask for forgiveness later. That is not what Jesus is saying. What Jesus is saying is that there were many people during that time who would look at Jesus and not see the King of the Universe. They doubted at first, and may even have said some things against Jesus. But many of those people repented later on, and their sins were forgiven as well. Again, more encouragement and comfort from this passage: it is quite possible to hate Jesus and blaspheme against Him, and say all sorts of horrid things about Him, but then be changed by Christ and repent, turn, believe, and be completely forgiven. Such was Saul, who later became Paul. He blasphemed against Jesus for quite a long time before the Lord changed him.

To explain the last part of verse 32 is also important. When Jesus says that there will not be forgiveness in this life, or in the age to come, He is not somehow implying that our sins can be forgiven after we die. All He is saying is that for this unforgivable sin there is no forgiveness, period. It is an eternally unforgivable sin. This verse cannot be made to say that there is a chance for forgiveness after death. That would contradict the rest of Scripture, which plainly tells us that this life is the only chance we have of belonging to Jesus.

Some practical applications: do not think you are alone in all this temptation. Again, going back to Lavengro, the thing that eventually convinced Peter that he had not committed this sin was the thought that many other people often thought this way, and yet that was no proof that they had, and they went on to mature in the faith and realize that they could not have committed such a sin. Peter became a very happy and useful minister after he finally found out why the Lord had let him think this all these years: it was to prepare him to be sympathetic in the ministry, and to be careful and gentle with wounded consciences.

Secondly, beware of rejecting the Lord Christ. While I have tried to make sure that we understand that fear of such sin is groundless, since the people who commit this sin know absolutely nothing of the fear of the Lord, we are still to take this sin seriously. We are not to be against Jesus, but to be with Jesus, and to be gathering, not scattering.

Thirdly, we see here the importance of confessing our sin. Do not try to hold it in, and thus have such terrible conscience problems. Confess freely before God your sin. And if you have a wounded conscience and are afraid, that is the very time to see a minister about it. A conscientious minister will never laugh or ridicule wounded consciences, but will rather lead the person back to Christ, where all hidden treasures of forgiveness and true happiness lie.

So, do not be overly concerned about whether you have committed this sin. If you fear you have and are remorseful,then it is proof that you have not, and have merely committed some lesser sin, which is surely forgivable. Cling to Christ, and He will show you what is good.

Fascinating Book

William Mackenzie was very gracious to me in giving me this book (along with a whole bunch of others). This book is a collection of narrative sermons told in the first person from the point of view of someone who lived in Bible times. The result is a kaleidoscopic canvas of imagination richly painted in variegated colors. He starts with the Incarnation, told from Mary’s point of view. He includes the story of John 4, told from the Samaritan woman’s point of view, the Transfiguration told from Peter’s point of view, and the resurrection told from the point of view of a “detective” Roman centurion who came six years later to determine what actually happened. This is a book completely unlike any other you have ever read. May he publish more sermons in the same vein. Alex MacDonald, by the way, is a Reformed pastor in Edinburgh, Scotland (ordained in the Free Church of Scotland).