Every once in a while I ponder the nature of pardonable and unpardonable sins, and sometimes I am led to muse on subjects without wishing to appear dogmatic (as is often the case). Given that this is a matter of considerable seriousness, I want to make it very plain that this is a thought piece, to explore the context of the references to this most serious of sins, and to examine (if not dogmatically) why this sin is considered unpardonable, when God can and does pardon our many sins that we commit against Him (and others) on a regular basis.
We find the two references to unpardonable sin in Mark 3:28-30 and Matthew 12:31-32). Mark 3:28-30 reads: “Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal damnation”–because they said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Likewise, Matthew 12:31-32 reads: “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”
Why is blaspheming against the Holy Spirit unpardonable? After all, blasphemies against God or the Son of Man (Jesus Christ) can be forgiven, thankfully for us. In order to answer this question, even provisionally, we need to take a look at context. In both Matthew 12 and Mark 3, we find that Jesus’ comments about the unpardonable sin directly follow a heated confrontation where the Pharisees witnessed a miracle of Jesus Christ healing a man of demon possession and accused Jesus Christ of casting out demons by Baalzebub (the Lord of the Flies, a common name for Satan, and a former god of the people of the Philistine city of Ekron). In order to understand the nature of the unpardonable sin, we have to first recognize that these enemies of Christ had seen a direct miracle of God and had ascribed it to the powers of evil rather than recognizing its source as being from the Eternal in heaven.
To add to this, we know from other references that these people knew that Jesus Christ had come from heaven, despite their hostility to Him. The Gospel of John gives several references. First, John 3:1-2: “There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher from from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Nonetheless, despite knowing this, and the fact that this truth was obvious even to ordinary people of the time, the Pharisees did not want to keep it in mind that Jesus was from God. Witness, for example, what happened in John 9:30-34: “”The man answered and said to them, “Why, this is a marvelous thing, that you do not know where He is from; yet He has opened my eyes! Now we know that God does not near sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him. Since the world began it has been unheard of that anyone opened the eyes of one who was born blind. If this Man were not from God, He could do nothing.” They answered and said to him, “You were completely born in sins, and are you teaching us? And they cast him out.”
Here we see that the Pharisees, even though they knew where Jesus Christ had come from, refused to admit it to themselves or others, and could not even bear to have the fact that Jesus Christ came from God told to them by other believers. It is this willful self-deception against the truth, with the knowledge of it, that made their ascribing of the power of Christ to Satan so offensive and so unpardonable. To know that God is doing a work and to oppose it with eyes wide open, to deliberately deceive one’s self and try to deceive others against the truth, is something that cannot be forgiven, for it is willful and presumptuous sin. As human beings we often sin because of our weaknesses, and it is (fortunately) very rare for us to sin presumptuously or in such a high-handed manner. In fact, I can only think of very few times where someone’s behavior or conduct that I have seen or heard has even come close to such a level of hostility toward of God.
We may better understand the nature of unpardonable sins when we look at the only other reference to this problem in Hebrews 6:4-6: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.” We ought to note, as is not often done, that falling away as conceived by the author of Hebrews is not a light matter. It is not merely a weakening of faith or a time in the wilderness of confusion and weakness, but a deliberate rejection of God’s ways. Someone who has openly and knowingly opposed God, deliberately setting his (or her) ways against God cannot repent, because there has been a choice of the will made to oppose God.
But we ought to note that this is a rare and difficult thing to do. The Apostle Paul, for example, murdered and imprisoned early Christians in the (mistaken) belief that He was doing so against those blaspheming against God. He was sincere, but sincerely mistaken, even as he opposed Christ and the way of God, being zealous for his beliefs. But he was able to repent and did so. Most of us, thankfully, have not opposed the way of God to such an extent as Paul, however we might struggle (or fail) in dealing with our own sins in our own lives. We ought not to torment ourselves, simply because we struggle with serious problems, that we are fallen away without hope of repentance, for as long as the longing to be made right, to be made whole, and to be reconciled with God and with man is present, we have not hardened ourselves against God’s will or God’s ways, and we have not committed the unpardonable sin.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, did know where Jesus came from. They saw His good works, His healings on the Sabbath (and at other times) and because He did not fit into their narrow box of what God was like, they openly and knowingly rejected Him, and cast out anyone from their synagogues who believed in Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah. To know God, to recognize the hand of God, and to openly and knowingly reject it and oppose it and seek to destroy God’s works and kill God’s servants is a sin that cannot be pardoned, for it is making one’s self into a servant of Satan to do his will, knowing the will of God and finding it unacceptable. This is unpardonable because the way that one repents is to gain knowledge of the gap between our ways and God’s ways, with the desire awakened within us to bridge that gap and to make our ways acceptable to Him. If we know there is a gap and we hate God and God’s people instead of desiring to be made right with God, there is no pardon or repentance for us, because we deny the only way that it can take place.
This is a matter of extreme seriousness, but because it is so serious, it is also a rare matter. It is serious enough that we need to be careful within ourselves to never harden our hearts to the extent that we would reject God’s ways or God’s people, even if we are faced with painful and unpleasant truths about ourselves. But it is rare enough that if we are sensitive souls given to painful self-reflection and self-criticism, that we need not torture ourselves either by supposing that our long and often unsuccessful struggles against our sins and weaknesses amount to the unpardonable sin, as our sensitivity to sin and our desire to overcome it are proof that we have not crossed that line. Let us find hope in that, at least.