March 10, 2024

Unforgivable Sin

Last week, we discussed the usurping sin of taking the Lord’s name in vain. In our investigation, we uncovered the seriousness of this sin; breaking the Third of the Ten Commandments…

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.”  Exodus 20:7 and Deuteronomy 5:11

Image by Adis Resic from Pixabay
The explicit statement that God will not hold guiltless (will not forgive) anyone who takes His name in vain is a particularly unsettling thought. That’s a very steep penalty, especially in light of the New Testament, where salvation from our sins is based on the crucifixion of Jesus. Christ’s blood covers the sins of all who believe in Him, but we previously discussed why an outward statement of faith is not necessarily a true statement of what is in one’s heart. Even the New Testament mentions one sin that will not be forgiven. The unpardonable sin is revealed to us in Matthew 12:31, “…every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven…”

It might be easy to conclude that since both testaments mention a sin which will not be forgiven, the two sins in question must be the same. I have heard this argument made in sermons from time to time, but I believe it to be based on a misconception, much in the same way that people misunderstand what it actually means to take the Lord’s name in vain. Let’s explore the reasons why these verses refer to two very different sins.

It is at least plausible to imagine a scenario where a person could be forgiven for taking the Lord’s name in vain. Say that a man, let’s call him Bob, grew up in a family which regularly attended church services and participated in church events. Bob’s parents (and even his pastor) may have never taken the time to explain to him that while all of the good works which they performed were good things, the works themselves were not the source of salvation. Bob could have easily grown into adulthood, deeply involved in church activities, without ever coming to know the Lord, Jesus Christ. Up to this point in his life, Bob calls himself a Christian, and he may even live a Christian lifestyle, but he has never been born again. He has never been faced with the need for his spiritual life to be anything deeper than a social event.

Then something happens. Maybe there’s a tragedy in Bob’s life: death of a parent, spouse, or loved one; loss of a career; bankruptcy; any number of life-shattering scenarios could come along and shake Bob out of his complacency. Or perhaps he simply hears a powerful sermon which breaks through his internal fa├žade. For whatever reason, he finally realizes that he needs something more, and the thing he so desperately needs has been staring him in the face for his entire life. Bob realizes that he has never truly become a born again believer. He has, sadly, been living a lie. He has been taking the name of the Lord in vain. Bob had always thought himself to be a good guy in good standing with God just because of his own good deeds. Right then and there, Bob realizes his mistake, falls prostrate at the feet of the Lord and begs for forgiveness. He experiences the presence of God for the first time in his life. He is forever changed: born again. Saved. A new creation.

Bob’s case is not very far-fetched. It’s quite believable, and you’ve probably even heard someone’s testimony at some point that included a story much like Bob’s. One might even argue that Nicodemus was one such case (see John 3:1-21, John 7:45-52, John 19:38-40). Regardless, let’s just be glad that Bob finally saw the light and has come to a saving knowledge of the Lord. Bob recognized his sin, begged forgiveness, and repented: he no longer takes the name of the Lord in vain, and he has been forgiven. Hallelujah!

But why, you might ask, does the Old Testament say that those who take the Name of the Lord in vain will not be forgiven if they can be forgiven? Two possible circumstances spring immediately to mind. It is not difficult to imagine that one such as Bob might never realize that he is in danger of condemnation. The third installment of this series will examine those instances more fully. It is also fairly easy to consider those who would knowingly accept the title of “Christian” for some type of personal gain. Perhaps most heinous among these would be those whom Paul mentions who preach Christ from envy, strife, and selfish ambition (Philippians 1:15-16). In any case, even though forgiveness and salvation are available to these sinners, they never repent, and they die in their sins.

At this point, you may be wondering, “so what does blasphemy against the Holy Spirit even mean?” Let us once again turn to the scriptures…

 (see Matthew 12:22-45 for the full context)

“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.” Matthew 12:31-32

This passage begins with the word, therefore, always an indication that the text which follows is strongly connected to the passage(s) which came before. In this case, the previous passage contains a rebuke to the Pharisees who claimed that Jesus was casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons. Whatever blasphemy against the Holy Spirit may mean (and I have heard numerous interpretations of this phrase), it seems to involve words spoken (or perhaps only thought?) which condemn the works of the Holy Spirit as evil.

Perhaps looking at the same event as recorded in the gospel of Mark will provide more clues as to what it means…

“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 condemnation”— because they said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Mark 3:28-30

Mark’s record of this incident identifies the problem a bit more directly: the scribes accused Jesus of having an unclean spirit. They wrongly attributed the work of the Holy Spirit to the work of the enemy. Moreover, the clear implication is that these scribes have misidentified the Holy Spirit as an unclean spirit. They are completely blind to the core nature and essence of the Holy Spirit. It would seem that those who are guilty of the unpardonable sin have no understanding of the difference between good and evil.

 Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, And prudent in their own sight! Isaiah 5:20-21

Clearly, the Pharisees who wished to condemn Jesus were quite confused about a number of things. They thought themselves to be good and righteous because of their outward show of following the Law, yet Jesus repeatedly berated them for neglecting to be merciful, loving, or even simply helpful to those in need. Even so, all of those sins are forgivable. They are behaviors which can be corrected, decisions which can be reversed. But blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?

Unforgivable.

Yet still, it may seem to you that these scribes and Pharisees could have had some hope of salvation. Could they not somehow learn the error of their ways? They were still alive! Shouldn’t they have time to repent? Why should a single ignorant, mistaken accusation seal their eternal fate? Why is it that this one statement was enough to damn them irrevocably to hell?

We must go even deeper. Do we really understand what blasphemy is, in the first place? Strong’s concordance defines blasphemy primarily as vilification. Other definitions are offered, such as defame, rail against, revile, or speak evil of. No sense of the word is positive in any way, yet the scriptures indicate that all blasphemies are forgivable, except the one directed at the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ words in Matthew even state that one could be forgiven for blaspheming, reviling, defaming, speaking evil of, or vilifying the Son of Man, which is a clear reference to Jesus himself! Why, then, is it any different when the blasphemy is directed at the Holy Spirit?

Consider my assertion that an atheist cannot be guilty of taking the name of the Lord in vain, as explained in my previous essay. It is easy to imagine, however, that atheists might blaspheme the Holy Spirit. One might almost expect them to do exactly that, and on a regular basis! They do certainly deny the existence of God. Some accept Jesus as a historical figure, even as a religious leader, but not as the living incarnation of God in human form. Atheists often blame the church (sometimes rightly so) for atrocities committed in the name of God. But can an atheist vilify that which they do not believe exists? Their accusations are typically directed towards the people who identify as Christians, or against Christianity as a philosophical worldview, rather than actually toward God or the Holy Spirit. They don’t even believe that those entities exist. So no, I do believe it to be atheists who would commit this sin.

Blaspheming the Holy Spirit requires that one actually believe in the existence of spirits, both holy and otherwise. That realization makes it easy to see how believers in other religions might blaspheme the Holy Spirit. Satanists, in particular, claim that the enemy of God is the mischaracterized hero of the Bible. Therein lies blasphemy. Therein lies confusion between good and evil.

And yet, there are reformed Satanists who have become Christians. Dare we question whether God has forgiven them? I think not. Haven’t they committed blasphemy by being a Satanist? Certainly, but blasphemy can be forgiven, aside from the one unpardonable blasphemy.

We must, therefore, come to realize that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not committed with a single utterance. In fact, it may never even be spoken aloud. It is a deep-seeded, insidious sin which infects one’s soul. It may be revealed in a single statement, but that statement is only the tip of the iceberg.

The Pharisees who accused Jesus of having an evil spirit believed in the God of the Old Testament, or at least in a version of that god which they carried in their own minds. Sadly, for all their knowledge, they lacked understanding. They had all the information they needed at their fingertips, but they allowed their own reasoning to take precedence over the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They were leaning on their own understanding, their own interpretation of the scriptures. As a result of this, they drifted so far from God that they could no longer reliably discern that which was good from that which was evil. They failed to recognize (and even defamed) the work of the very God which they claimed to worship! This was not the result of a one-time event, but a deeply entrenched lifestyle. They were so far gone that they would never understand their own error and their need for repentance and forgiveness. They had passed beyond the point of no return, into an inescapable pit of their own design; the spiritual equivalent to the gravity well of a black hole.

I’ve heard some preachers define blasphemy of the Holy Spirit as living a life that never accepts Christ, and while that is perhaps not an incorrect assessment of the sin, it is woefully incomplete. It leaves out the most dire of situations: those who are thoroughly convinced that their Jesus is the one who saves, but who don’t truly know the Son of God at all. In the final installment of this series, we will look at the tragic plight of those who wrongly believe themselves to be right with God.

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