The Unforgivable Sin
Our Lord speaks of a sin which "hath never forgiveness". What a bleak thought. What a horrifying concept. What a dreaded nightmare.
MARK 3:28-30 Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: but he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation: because they said, He hath an unclean spirit.
We wonder how there could be such a sin, a sin unforgivable. As loving and compassionate and understanding as our GOD is, how could there ever be some sin that there is no forgiveness for. And yet there it is, on three different occasions our Lord warned of it, first in MARK 3:28-30 and later in MATTHEW 12:31-32 and lastly in LUKE 12:10. Some say that the unforgivable sin is to be born of Satan, making the Devil one's lord and father. Still others teach that the unforgivable sin is to have no faith, or possibly to commit suicide. We think it prudent to look and search and see what the scriptures say, for what could possibly be a more deserving study than this. What could possibly be more profitable for our relationship with the Father than to know just what is that only sin which HE would not forgive.
Before we go and look at the context wherein the Lord warned of this unforgivable sin, let us first consider His instruction concerning the sins which were forgivable. As we search what our Lord and His disciples taught, we learn that there were basically two sets of requirements for obtaining forgiveness. The first was that they repented. The second is that as one forgave others, he was himself forgiven.
It is most curious that the very first recoded words of John the Baptist are, "Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (MATTHEW 3:2). Likewise, the first recorded words of our Lord's ministry are, "Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (MATTHEW 4:17). Repent was the message Israel most desperately needed to hear. That GOD should choose to twice stamp the beginning of this new dispensation with this same message is no coincidence and should speak loudly to us. Even at the close of Yeshua's earthly ministry, His charge to His followers was, "that repentance and remission [forgiveness] of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (LUKE 24:47). Of course this is exactly what we find them doing throughout the book of ACTS.
Soon after this charge to His followers to preach repentance, Yeshua ascended into heaven. Then a few days later His disciples found themselves confronted with a people desiring to hear their message. Peter closed the first sermon of the book of ACTS with this most vital call.
ACTS 2:38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Subsequently in Peter's very next recorded sermon, after the healing of the man at the temple gate, he again charged them with this necessary command.
ACTS 3:19 Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord;
As in the Gospels, so here in the book of ACTS we see GOD twice affirming this important message of repentance to Israel. They were to repent and be converted, that their sins would be forgiven, blotted out. They must fulfill this requirement before the times of their refreshing could come.
Then after the apostle's second imprisonment at the hands of the religious leaders, Peter for the third time warned them of their dangerous position.
ACTS 5:30-33 The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him. When they heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them.
Did these religious leaders feel remorseful when Peter confronted them concerning their evil treatment of Yeshua? Did they choose to repent? No, they did just the opposite, they became furious. Their hearts were seared as with a hot iron. They believed that they had acted rightly, even righteously in disposing of this Nazarene and they were not about to let these unlearned and ignorant men call their noble motives into question. Is this not exactly what our Lord was referring to in MARK 3 when He described the unforgivable sin? The religious leaders were rejecting the witness of the holy spirit and as such, were blind to their own sin. Believing themselves to be right, they were beyond the reach of reproof. Their eyes were shut, their ears were closed. They were rubber-heads in the true sense of the phrase. Truth just bounced off.
Later in the book of ACTS we find the apostle Paul also continuing this command to repent as he was teaching in Athens.
ACTS 17:30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent.
All men everywhere needed to repent. GOD did not just desire men to repent, HE commanded it, HE required it. HE commanded it by the ministry of John the Baptist, then by the ministry of our Lord. HE commanded it by Peter and now by Paul. HE had commanded it throughout the Gospels and now throughout the book of ACTS. It is for "all men everywhere". The only hope for man to be righteous with GOD was for them to first repent. Their only hope to be forgiven was to repent.
James Morison gives us an apt description of repentance which we pass along to the interested reader.
Our English word is by no means a perfect or precise synonym of the original Greek term (metanoeite). The English Repent brings prominently into view the duty of a penitent state of feeling (note the French repentir). The Greek term brings prominently into view the duty of a preliminary retrogressive acting of the intelligence (or nou/j). This retrogressive acting of the intelligence, or afterthought is only intended indeed to be preliminary; and if it did not issue in the conviction of the conscience, the sorrow of the heart, and the reformation of the life, it would be of no moral moment. It would be a useless mental fragment, a beginning without its appropriate ending. Nevertheless it is the indispensable beginning of a right state of spirit and life on the part of all such moral creatures as have already been wrong in their character and conduct. (See Matt. iii. 2.)
A Practical commentary on the Gospel according to St. Mark, pg 17
The Greek word for the term repent meant more than just feeling bad about something they had done or how they had lived their lives. That bad feeling was only the beginning. It had to be followed by a change of direction. They had to change whatever is required to demonstrate their serious intentions to live differently. Their lifestyle had to change. Something significant had to end and something else had to begin. Whether it be their friends, their vocation, their recreations, something had to change if they were going to change. Otherwise it was just talk, just jibber jabber. They were not fooling GOD, just maybe themselves.
They needed to seriously take a deep personal inventory of their lives and demonstrate to GOD actions that show forth that they really were changed. That they really were pursuing a new and better way. That the old man was indeed dead, and the new man now dominated their thoughts. That they were no longer the servants of sin but that they had truly become the slaves of righteousness. Paul declared to king Agrippa that this was the message he was endeavoring to set before all men, Jews and Gentiles alike.
ACTS 26:20 But [I, Paul] shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.
Paul was calling men and women "to repent and to turn to GOD, doing works worthy of repentance", as the direct translation of the Greek has it. The first century Judeans were faithful in their study of the Bible. They were faithful in their daily prayers, and in their weekly attendance at the synagogue. They faithfully paid their tithes. Thus they were confident that they were saved. And yet the repeated message from GOD was still repent! Many of them believed they were right with GOD but were as wrong as wrong could be.
Luke records an event concerning how some people that were present at our Lord's teaching pointed out to Him that the blood of other Galileans "Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices" (LUKE 13:1). It was perhaps a veiled threat to Him that if He didn't watch His step, He may well be killed like His fellow Galileans were. His response is quite interesting.
LUKE 13:1-5 There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus [Yeshua] answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
This theme of repentance Yeshua repeated many times over during His brief ministry. He was trying to drive home the point that thinking they were saved, believing they were righteous, can be a very dangerous place to be. They had to continually take personal inventory deep within themselves, and allow the word of GOD to cleanse them of any sin which may have crept in. Self righteousness is self delusion. Luke related for them another such parable.
LUKE 18:9-14 And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
In Yeshua's parable, the religious man, the Pharisee, who did everything right (so he thought), was dead wrong. We might even say that he was living a Puritan lifestyle for he did not pursue riches nor even his neighbors wife. He fasted twice a week and regularly paid his offerings to the Church. Yet, his confidence that he was righteous was all based on an illusion. He was dead wrong because he failed in the first and foremost thing our Lord requires, repentance!
The words of Yeshua's parable were intended to clean out impure thoughts from their minds. They were designed to humble them, bring them to their knees if need be. If they had been turned aside from the truth, Christ's words were to readjust their thinking to return them to fellowship with GOD. They were not to stand aloof in their imaginary righteousness but as the sinner above, they were to smite their breast and seek HIS mercy. But this was only possible if their hearts were still tender. But if their hearts had instead grown hard, GOD's word could not penetrate to initiate this "godly sorrow" (MATTHEW 13:3ff 2 CORINTHIANS 7:10).
And this is the burden of our Lord's ministry. Those who are proud of what all they have had to sacrifice for the Lord and who are confident that GOD accepts their dead works, are blind to the fact that GOD needs nothing which they might offer. GOD didn't want their sacrifices, HE wanted their heart-obedience. Yet those who were acutely aware of their failings and shortcomings, these are the ones GOD could work with, indeed, work in. GOD looked on the heart and sought out those of a contrite and humble spirit (ISAIAH 57:15).
In addition to repentance, there is another requirement one had to fulfill to be forgiven, which was to forgive those who had transgressed against them. We learn that on many occasions our Lord thus taught His followers.
MATTHEW 6:9-15 After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen. For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
LUKE 6:37 Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven:
LUKE 11:4 And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.
MARK 11:25-26 And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any: that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses. But if ye do not forgive, neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses.
It is pretty obvious from these passages that one was going to be forgiven when and if he forgave others. This goes a long way in pointing us in the right direction in understanding just what was this unforgivable sin Christ warned His listeners of.
It is worth noting that when Peter asked Yeshua how often he should forgive someone who had sinned against him, Christ went into a somewhat lengthy parable to answer his question.
MATTHEW 18:21-35 Then came Peter to him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus [Yeshua] saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.
Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife, and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.
But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest. And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.
So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
That is quite a sobering thought. This servant forfeited his forgiveness because he would not forgive another that had trespassed against him. This is astounding. What we are seeing is that one's forgiveness was not so much determined by what kind of sin he committed, but rather whether or not he was willing to repent of his own sins and then forgive others which had sinned against him.
The nature and seriousness of one's sin didn't seem to be the determining factor as to whether or not GOD was going to forgive them. We see this in the record of King Manasseh in 2 CHRONICLES 33. The summary of his life is well given by George Moore in his book Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, pages 523-524, which we quote below.
That God accepts the repentance of the worst of sinners is proved by king Manasseh. No figure in the whole history is painted so black. He had erected altars of the Baals throughout the land, and installed foreign gods and an idol in the very temple of Jehovah; he offered his children to 'the King' (Moloch) in the fires of the Tophet in the Valley of Hinnom; he practised nefarious augury, necromancy, and sorcery. In these ways he led his people astray till they outdid in evil the nations of Canaan that the Lord had exterminated when the Israelites came into the land. To the warning of the Lord, king and people gave no heed. The Chronicler adds that the Assyrians came and carried Manasseh off to Babylon in chains; there in his distress he humbled himself before the God of his fathers and prayed, and God yielded to his entreaty and heard his supplication and restored him to Jerusalem and to his throne. 'Then Manasseh knew that Jehovah is (the true) God' (2 Chron. 33, 11-13). His prayer is said to be recorded in the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel.
The inference was plain: if one who, in spite of the law (Deut. 13, 6 ff.) and the warnings of the prophets, had sinned so flagrantly and willfully, and caused the whole people to sin, could be forgiven and restored to God's favor upon his penitent prayer, there was no one whose repentance could not be accepted.
We today would be hard pressed to forgive such a one as this. He actually sacrificed his children to the fires. Is this not worse than anything we have ever witnessed? And yet he was forgiven. And yet our Lord told of a sin from which there was no forgiveness.
We must consider one last passage before we ponder the context of Yeshua's reference to the sin that is unforgivable. These verses in the fourth Gospel have some very interesting things to contribute concerning our topic.
JOHN 9:39-41 And Jesus [Yeshua] said, For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind. And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also? Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.
Their sin remained because they thought that they saw. They thought that they understood the Scriptures. They thought that they knew GOD. They thought that they were righteous. Because of this, because they thought that they were right when in fact they were wrong, they were beyond His reach. He couldn't teach them truth because they would not seriously weigh His words. They had already decided that He did not fit their mould, He was not what they expected from a Messiah, so they closed their ears, they shut their eyes and refused to consider.
And this is the very attitude we detect in other Pharisees when Yeshua is warning about the unforgivable sin. He was casting out devils and healing the sick, by the power of the holy spirit given Him from the Father, but they attributed it to "Beelzebub, the prince of devils" (MARK 3:22). GOD had empowered Christ to do all sorts of miraculous things, signs miracles and wonders, so as to confirm to the people that He was indeed their promised Messiah. But instead of recognizing and accepting Him, the religious leaders claimed He was duping the people with Black Magic. And so our Lord warns,
MARK 3:28-30 Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: but he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost [holy spirit] hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation: because they said, He hath an unclean spirit.
"Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit." The reason Yeshua issued this warning about being in danger of eternal damnation, was "Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit." To Blaspheme sounds like some monstrous thing to do, but really it simply means "to speak against someone in such a way as to harm or injure his or her reputation", Louw Nida. He that "blasphemes against the holy spirit" is simply saying things that harm or injure the reputation of GOD's holy spirit. We today may call it slander or libel. Saying something like, "These works of Yeshua are from an unclean spirit" is exactly what was happening in the incident recorded in MARK 3. In MATTHEW 12 they were exclaiming "This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils". This was their slander, their libel, indeed their blasphemy.
The unforgivable sin was unforgivable because the sinner refused to acknowledge the works of the holy spirit as being actually of the holy spirit. The sin wasn't unforgivable because it was so evil that GOD refused to forgive it. It was unforgivable because the sinner's heart had become hard and closed off to GOD. Stiff-necked and hard-hearted he refused to consider Yeshua's acts as the work of the holy spirit, whether they were signs, miracles and wonders or words of truth.
We should note in our consideration of blaspheming the holy spirit, that along with signs, miracles and wonders, the holy spirit's works included words. Words were just as much a work of the holy spirit as were any sign, miracle or wonder. Actually, the words given by the holy spirit may be the actual end, the completion or fulfillment of all of the signs miracles and wonders. The signs, miracles and wonders confirmed the words. They attracted one's attention to the words. It is the words that were the purpose for all of the signs, miracles and wonders.
The ultimate work of the holy spirit were words of truth, breathed into their inner ear. They were words spoken on the lips of a man or woman of GOD or words written on the holy page. Whoever spoke despairingly about any of these words, he may indeed have been blaspheming the holy spirit and in danger of eternal damnation. However harsh this may sound, this may very well be a significant aspect of the warnings from our Lord about the unforgivable sin.
That words are indeed a work of the holy spirit is a theme weaved continually throughout the scriptures. David spoke by holy spirit (MARK 12:36) and the holy spirit spoke by the mouth of David (ACTS 1:16). The holy spirit spoke by the psalmist (HEBREWS 3:7). The holy spirit spoke by Isaiah the prophet (ACTS 28:25). John the Baptist's mother and father were both filled with holy spirit, and prophesied (LUKE 1:41, 67). The disciples were to speak by the holy spirit (MARK 13:11). The holy spirit was to teach the disciples what to say (LUKE 12:12), and bring all things which Yeshua had said to them to their remembrance (JOHN 14:26). On the day of Pentecost the twelve apostles were filled with holy spirit and spoke with other tongues (ACTS 2:4). Peter spoke to the rulers as he was filled with holy spirit (ACTS 4:8). The disciples were filled with holy spirit and spoke the word of GOD with boldness (ACTS 4:31). Paul revealed that the words he spoke were taught to him by holy spirit (1 CORINTHIANS 2:13 EPHESIANS 3:5). He spoke as he was filled with holy spirit (ACTS 13:9). The holy spirit witnessed in every city that bonds and afflictions awaited Paul (ACTS 20:23).
And in culmination, the fullness of this is succinctly set forth for us in 2nd PETER.
2 PETER 1:20-21 Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost [the holy spirit].
All these men and women of scripture spoke as they were moved by the holy spirit. To impugn the words of these "holy men of GOD" was to slander or harm the reputation of the holy spirit. That was a major aspect of what it meant to blaspheme the holy spirit, which is the unforgivable sin. To reject those words, those words of truth that GOD used to bring men back into fellowship with HIM, was indeed the unforgivable sin. The words of GOD cleansed them. It rebuked and corrected them. It restored them to righteousness. To reject the words of the holy spirit was to erect an impenetrable wall between themselves and GOD.
This was also what it meant to be baptized by the holy spirit. Baptize simply means to cleanse and the holy spirit cleansed them of their sins by words of truth. Much of scripture was the holy spirit's work. They showed forth, they testified to the truth.
The failing of too many of the Pharisees was that they built walls around themselves and ceased ministering to GOD's people. We sometimes like to pat our own selves on the back and think that we are right and everyone outside our fellowship is wrong. And that is the great failing of religion. The failing of too many in today's Church is that they see everything through the doctrine taught them and consider not that they could be wrong. But we are all wrong in some way. Some just more than others. It is a healthy pursuit to be right, but never at the exclusion of those who see things differently than we.
Most all of us come to the Gospel with open hearts, but as the years role on it is easy to forget that everything good that we have acquired is only because of the goodness of GOD. We are tempted to think of ourselves as somehow superior, cleaner, whiter than we once were. But that is not always the case. Sometimes children grow up to become awful adults. So in the spiritual realm. Sometimes religion can make a monster out of a newly converted believer. Scripture testifies to this many times over. The heart can grow to become hard. Our own personal responsibility before our Creator is to continually measure our thoughts and beliefs with the Bible and then be willing to make the necessary changes.