Those who have read the gospels would be well-acquainted with this rather daunting passage, when Jesus spoke these infamous words:
“And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:31-32)
There are more than sufficient reasons for why many Christians have stumped over this passage with great anxiety – the biggest one being that the frightful ramifications that come out of this biblical text appear to threaten the assurance of faith that we have in Christ: Are there really sins that we can commit that are so heinous and abominable, that it will leave us outside the realm of God’s forgiveness? Isn’t the atoning work of Christ sufficient enough to redeem us from every lawless deed (Titus 2:13-14)? Will not God be faithful to forgive us of any sort of unrighteousness we may commit, if we come to Him in confession (1 John 1:9)?
How are we supposed to wrap our heads around this?
1. The context of Matthew 12:22-32
This passage is exclusively found only in the Synoptic gospels; in Mark 3:22-30 as well as Luke 12:10. This means that Jesus’ teaching about the blasphemy against the Spirit as the ‘unpardonable sin’ must be understood within the surrounding context to which Jesus stated it in.
Jesus’ teaching on the unforgivable sin was only said in response to the Pharisees’ off-handed ad-hominem insult, accusing Jesus that He drew His power to perform these miraculous works of healing, from Satan Himself, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” (Matt 12:24).
Jesus dismantles their fallacious statement, reasoning that it would be foolish for Satan to impart His power to Him, only for Him to use His spiritual powers to divide His Kingdom in two by driving out His forces (vv. 25-26). He then follows the logical flow of His argument to assert that if His power doesn’t come from Satan, then it must come from the Spirit of God instead (v. 27), and if it is by the Spirit that He drives out these demons, then this raw demonstration of supernatural power should make it most evident to His watchers that the Kingdom of God is at hand (v.28).
When the coming King declares that the Kingdom of God is at hand, He demands that everyone needs to heed this call of utter submission, and to ready their hearts to answer to the King’s call in repentance and faith (Mark 1:15). This is where we see that Jesus, the King of this Kingdom, warns these corrupt leaders of their spiritual depravity and ill-standing before God:
“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:30-32)
2. The nature of this unforgivable sin
Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the culmination of all of God’s redemptive promises He made to His people in history, and the miraculous works He performed by the power of the Spirit testifies to the profound claims of His identity. God has come down from the heavenly thrones to dwell among them. The Kingdom has come, and the King promises everlasting life to those who receive Him in saving faith, with the privilege to live harmoniously with Him as co-heirs of His Kingdom. But His covenantal people reject His call. And it doesn’t stop there. They not only reject His call and the works He performs, but they attribute the miraculous works He performs to be the works of Satan. The impenitent Jewish leaders are driving the crowds away from Jesus’ truthful teaching, declaring that the power He draws from God by the Holy Spirit, is actually the power of Satan. They blasphemed against the Spirit, as to say that His ministry is to build the kingdom of God, rather than the kingdom of Satan.
So why is Jesus’ charge against this blasphemy so harsh? One interesting characteristic of those who are guilty of this unforgivable sin, is that they have physically witnessed the plethora of miraculous works that Jesus has performed across His ministry (Matt 8:1-4, 14-17, 28-34; 9:1-8, 27-34; 11:20). They were saturated with evidence from Jesus Himself that He was the Messiah that the Scriptures spoke of, and so they certainly weren’t ignorant of Him. So why won’t they still believe? Because their hearts were so hardened that their eyes failed to see the manifestation of the Messiah’s coming through the testified works of Jesus. They weren’t interested in investigating the authenticity of Jesus’ truth claims, but already had their minds made up about who they think Jesus is: a demon-possessed man, a liar, a sinner. And if people that possess hearts this hard never acknowledge their own bias, and if they never allow the vast amount of evidence for Jesus’ claims to speak for themselves, no matter what you show them, then what else can you actually say to these kinds of people?
They don’t see a need for repentance, and that is evident from the fact that they have attributed the ministry of the Spirit, the author of repentance, to the kingdom-building ministry of the devil. They possess hearts that have hardened to the point in which they are incapable of repentance. Hence they will never believe in the Son of God, and therefore they will never be forgiven.
3. Can Christians commit this sin?
We finally get to the crux of this matter at hand that many of you might be asking: Can Christians commit the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit? Can’t God forgive any sin ever perpetrated by sinful mankind? Doesn’t the Holy Spirit have sufficient power to drill through even the hardest of hearts? Am I really assured of my salvation if I feel like at some point in my unregenerate life, I’ve blasphemed against the Spirit?
These are hard-pressed questions, but nevertheless Scripture sheds hope and light to those who seeks to be taught under its wisdom. Here are some extrapolated principles that will help us find both assurance (but also a solemn warning) to those who are wrestling with where they stand with God:
a) The unforgivable sin is a persistent hardness of heart, not a specific kind of sin
The common misconception with the unforgivable sin is that it is a specific deed that can be done at any given moment. We would horrifically imagine the gates of heaven closing right in front of our eyes as soon as someone mutters out the blasphemic curse and seals their own fate. But what we have seen is that this blasphemy is only the fruit yielded from a special kind of hardened heart contained within impenitent people who don’t see their need of a Saviour (Luke 6:45). The unforgivable sin signifies more of a rebellious attitude, rather than a defining moment of weakness.
b) The dilemma is that forgiveness is not sought out, not that forgiveness is not granted
Now some might still think that it is awfully strange for God to not grant forgiveness to those who may have been transgressors of this particular sin, but perhaps it would be good to reiterate the points made previously – it is not that Jesus doesn’t desire to grant forgiveness to those who plead for it or lacks the saving power to forgive such a heinous sin, but it is that the people who possess unrepentant hearts, do not desire to grant forgiveness for themselves. The incapability of the impenitent individual to come to genuine repentance and belief, speaks less about the Spirit’s power to save and speaks more about the degree of hardness of the heart that does not want to sought out forgiveness from God.
c) The salvation of regenerate Christians is sealed in eternity, regardless of whether you committed the unforgivable sin
It must be clear, then, that if the unforgivable sin is defined, more or less, as a hardness of heart that has tasted the goodness of God and is repulsed by it, then those with renewed hearts who have savoured God’s goodness and cherish it, are incapable of committing this unforgivable sin. Those with fresh and regenerate hearts that have newfound affections for loving and serving God (Ezek 36:25-27), will naturally appreciate the Spirit’s ministry work of illumination and sanctification in their own lives, and will never undermine His ministry to such an extent as to echo the same sentiments as those Pharisees back in Jesus’ time.
If we can recall previous moments in our lives where sin has grabbed a foothold of our tongue as to ever slander the ministry of God, Jesus says that our sin and slander can be forgiven (Matt 12:31; cf. 1 John 1:9; 2:1). What a blessing that Jesus is our Perfect Advocate, to which we can confess any transgression, regardless of its degree of atrocity, with the profound assurance that forgiveness will be granted.
True Christians can and should also take enormous comfort that as the Spirit does His handiwork in crafting them to be molded more like the image of Christ, the less likely they would ever fall into the snare of slandering His work, but to fall in much deeper appreciation for what He is doing in their lives.
d) Nevertheless, we mustn’t be complacent but to constantly guard our hearts against this sin
Though God has fully shown His goodness and grace to us, we must earnestly remind ourselves that any human heart is more than capable of hardening to the point to which it no longer seeks repentance. Even if we have tasted the graces of God offered to us by His Word, and have shared in the Spirit’s gifts, and yet fail to evaluate the spiritual state of our hearts by the persistent indulgence in our sin, then we have very well demonstrated ourselves to be outside the Kingdom (Heb 6:4-6). As followers of Christ, the existence of this abhorrent sin condition should instill fear and trembling into our hearts to always work out our salvation (Phil 2:13) and to test ourselves always in the pursuit to ground assurance that we are trusting our lives to Christ through the mortification of our sin (2 Cor 13:5).
e) If you are truly concerned about whether you have committed this sin, there is still hope for you
If you have come to the end of reading this article still searching for answers that will quench your worries on whether you committed this sin, then take comfort to know (at the very least) that you haven’t committed it – well, at least, not yet. Your genuine concerns over your relational standing with God are healthy indicators that the Spirit is softening your hard heart to see your crucial need to assess your spiritual health. Unregenerate people would never entertain such a thought as to see whether they need to be right with God; for either they are: (a) deluded beyond help to think that they are already right with God by their own works of righteousness, and thereby discredit the work of the Spirit, or (b) so egocentric, and living their own lives as though they are their own King, that they cannot conceive a need for God and to be right with Him.
But if you are concerned about your spiritual standing with God, and have not entrusted yourself to Jesus yet, may I encourage you to hear the voice of God found within the Word, who calls you to turn away from your wicked ways and your idols, and to trust in Him for everlasting satisfaction. Do not waste such a grand opportunity, while your heart is still softened, to come to know the King personally and to know you are in right terms with Him (Heb 3:7-8). Come and taste the goodness, freedom, and forgiveness that comes from Christ alone.