The Sin That Will Never Be Forgiven
There is such a thing as an unforgivable sin, and we will not apologise for dealing with a sober theme. Now you know that every wise Christian will say such words as these to you about that sin (and most of you have heard these counsels often through your life) – hear me – that if you are anxious that you have committed blasphemy against the Spirit, you needn’t fear, for such blasphemy is always accompanied by complete indifference to that sin.
by Geoff Thomas
Mark 3:29&30 "’Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.’ He [Jesus} said this because they were saying, ‘He has an evil spirit.’
The glory of the Christian gospel is the finished work which Jesus Christ completed, by which a full atonement was made for the guilt of countless sinners. In anticipation of this the prophet can declare, "’Come now, let us reason together,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’" (Isa. 1:18). Scarlet sins made as white as snow! So it was for King David’s sins of adultery, dishonesty, and murder there was forgiveness. For the many sins of the woman of Luke 7 there was forgiveness. For the prodigal son’s riotous living in a distant city there was forgiveness. For Simon Peter’s triple denial of Christ by swearing and profanity there was forgiveness. For Jerusalem men who had nailed the Son of God to a cross and let him die hanging there forgiveness was prayed for by Christ and freely offered at Pentecost. For Saul of Tarsus’s merciless persecution of Christians there was forgiveness. For the Corinthian church member who slept with his father’s wife there was forgiveness.
Whatever your guilt – if you were once an SS guard in Auschwitz, yet there is forgiveness. You have been a modernist minister who has led people astray for years preaching error, and calling your humanist ideas the gospel, and yet to you too forgiveness is offered. Consider the man called the ‘Son of Sam’, that merciless serial killer of many young women in New York more than a decade ago. That murderer has found forgiveness through the Saviour in his prison and has walked in that jail for years in newness of life. The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin. "But that’s not fair," men complain. No it is not fair. It has nothing to do with fairness. It has everything to do with the vastness of God’s pity; forgiveness is freely offered to the vilest offenders. So may there be forgiveness for me too? Yes!
The hallmark of divine mercy is that it is utterly immeasurable. God’s love extends to the heavens. He is abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon him. The psalmists were overwhelmed at a realisation of this: "If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with thee" (Psa. 130:3&4). In a letter Paul reminded Timothy of his own case, should Timothy ever worry that he had out-sinned the grace of God. Paul was the very evidence of the perfect patience of Christ. The Lord Jesus was never once impatient, and never will be. Paul had formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted Christ himself and yet he found mercy (I Tim. 1:13). There is forgiveness for all the sins and blasphemies of men. Two weeks after John Wesley had his great experience of conversion in Aldersgate Street in the city of London on 24th May in 1738 Wesley was invited by the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University to preach at an official university service in St. Mary’s Church. The whole university assembled there, and Wesley began preaching on the text, "By grace are ye saved," speaking to these students and their teachers on the sublime mercy of God in Jesus Christ covering all their past sins, deliverance from guilt, from fear, and from the power of sin. Then Wesley paused and envisaged some objections going through the minds of his sceptical audience. He paused and said to them:
"Ah, some will say, ‘This is an uncomfortable doctrine." Nay! It is very full of comfort to all sinners, that ‘whosoever believeth in him shall not be shamed.’ That same Lord over all is rich in mercy unto all that call upon him. Here is comfort. High as heaven! Strong as death! What? Mercy for all? For Zacchaeus, a public robber? For Mary Magdalene, a common harlot? I can hear someone saying, ‘Then, even I, may hope for mercy?’ And so you may, you who are afflicted, whom none has comforted. God will not reject your prayer. No, perhaps he will say this next hour, ‘Be of good cheer, thy sins are forgiven thee, so forgiven that they shall reign over thee no more, yea and that Holy Spirit shall bear witness with the Spirit that thou art a child of God.’
"O glad tidings! Tidings of great joy which are sent unto all people! Ho, everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters. Come ye, and buy without money and without price. Whatsoever your sins are, though red like crimson, though more than the heirs on your head, return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy on you, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. This must be the foundation of all our preaching, that is, forgiveness must be preached first." Those themes were the foundation of the Great Awakening, the message that men were sinners, but through the love of God in Jesus Christ full forgiveness could be offered to them and that they could receive it by faith. And if there were to be another mighty work of God in our land before the end of the world it will again be characterised by such lively offers of pardon through the grace of God in our Lord to the chief of sinners.
The theme of divine forgiveness is at the very heart of the good news about Jesus Christ. If some people reading this are obsessed by one sin which they have committed then there is wonderful news of free forgiveness from heaven offered to you. For all of you who listen week by week, some who for many years have been distrusting Christ and now are beginning to think that it is too late, that the day of mercy is past, I say No! To you too forgiveness is offered in Jesus’ name. There is good news of mercy to all creatures, however enormously defiling their sins, no matter the grief and pain they have caused others.
Then if all that is true what is the Lord Jesus talking about when he says here that "whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin" (v.29)? Why is this warning in such urgent tones? Is there some specially heinous sin amongst the roster of sins which we commit? Then which one is it? Is there one of the ten commandments which, if we break it, brings this terrible judgment upon us? Does a violation of that command plunge a sinner into the despair of the unforgiven for ever? Our Lord does tell us that there is an unforgiven sin. The Lord Jesus speaks of it, and what is recorded her in Mark is repeated in also in the gospels of Matthew (chapter 12) and Luke (chapter 12). All three refer to his words about the eternal sin. This warning is put into the Bible that none should presume that every single sin of every single person is going to be forgiven. Let none think of forgiveness lightly as though it were simply God’s job, like a machine when a coin is inserted dispenses soft drinks or chocolate.
This warning is put into Scripture three times to help every one of us resist sin more earnestly than we’ve been doing. Remember that they are not my words, nor man’s words but they are the words of loving Jesus. Let me say immediately that I know the identity of the sin which can never be forgiven, and so do many of you. In other words, there is no mystery as to what is the unforgivable sin, and by the end of this sermon those of you who want to know the answer to that question will know it too. We have the biblical data so to speak with such confidence. He who has ears to hear let him hear!
1. WHAT THE UNFORGIVABLE SIN IS NOT.
There are many gross sins which, like all sins, are sins against the Holy Spirit, yet they are not this sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which is unpardonable.
i] The unpardonable sin is not blasphemy. You might think at first that it is because our Lord talks of "whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven" (v.29). But you must go back a verse and read the preceding sentence: "all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them" (v.28). Forgiveness for the blasphemer, and so we cannot take it to be blasphemy – of which the Heidelberg Catechism judges, "No sin is greater or more provoking to God than the profaning of His name" (Q. 100). Maybe that is true, but for that great sin we must affirm that there is great forgiveness. You remember that Saul of Tarsus in his rage against the first generation of Christians tells us "I tried to force them to blaspheme" (Acts 26:11). He brought some terrible pressure or torture to bear upon them to make them curse the name of Jesus, but the God who pities his children will certainly forgive them for that. A student once came to me troubled with blasphemous thoughts racing through his mind. How distressed he was. We looked together at other men in the history of the church who have also been troubled like that, men like John Bunyan. Those thoughts are the fiery darts of the wicked one. We read and prayed together a few times – "Drop thy still dews of quietness till all our strivings cease" – and those thoughts dissipated, not to trouble him ever again. They were not the unpardonable sin. I don’t know whether Peter’s swearing at a fireside that he didn’t know Jesus was accompanied by blasphemies, but there was forgiveness for Peter. Blasphemy is not the sin which cannot be forgiven. Be cheered you who have blasphemed! If you seek mercy in God through Christ your sin will be covered.
ii] It is not any sexual sin. There are all sorts of sexual aberrations commonly spoken of today, which are the laughter of fools, so hideously and blatantly trivialised. I wouldn’t minimise the special implications of sexual sin for the destruction of personhood and peace and purity, let alone for the spread of sexual disease and the break-up of families and so much pain, but sexual sins are not unpardonable sins. You know how soberly Paul refers to this is his first letter to the Corinthians. He has been informed that one of the church members has gone to a prostitute and he responds like this: "Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body" (I Cor. 6:18). It is a mysterious phrase, and maybe it is saying this, that in sexual union we communicate our love, our oneness with that person, in a very intimate way, by our actual bodies. But in sexual misconduct we sin also in a unique way against our bodies – bodies that are destined for heaven and the presence of God. Paul has referred to what that church member has actually been doing – a Christian has taken the members of Christ and joined them to a prostitute – think of it! How horrible. You are sinning against your bodies which are joined to Christ. Then he goes on to add this: "Do you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?" (2 Cor. 6:19). You will remember that Joseph in Egypt, when tempted by Potiphar’s wife, said to her, "How could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?" (Gen. 39:9). Yet there is nothing to suggest that any form of sexual sin whatsoever is the unpardonable sin. In those passages where we read about sin against the Spirit there’s no reference to the seventh commandment. So those of us who have sinned in this sphere, please do not even imagine that you have sinned the unforgivable sin.
iii] Suicide is not the unforgivable sin. I have a friend who lived for the first 30 years of his life without Christ, living for the world and making money. He made a million, but was in utter despair. There was no purpose at all to life. Who wants to be a millionaire? He had wanted to be one, and now that he was one life was no sweeter. He contemplated suicide most seriously, but the Jesuits who had taught him – he was raised a Roman Catholic – had told him that that would take a person to hell, and so he thought if he ended his own life he would be in a worse state than his present bleak condition. The fear of hell kept him from suicide and that was good, but did not give him knowledge of the Saviour from heaven. Then he met my friend Dave Dykstra who wisely and gently befriended him and they did things together and talked for some months. Then he went along to Dave’s church where I met him a few years later by which time he had come to know the Lord, and his darkness, and that of his wife too, had been turned to light. The purpose and attempt to self-murder is not the sin against the Holy Ghost. The jailer in Philippi intended to kill himself and Paul cried to him, "Do yourself no harm!" That is our message to the people of despair who live all around us. We have good tidings of great joy for them and all people. We have a Saviour for you: forgiveness for you: more abundant life for you. Saul of Tarsus had driven Christians to think that suicide could be better than the torture he inflicted upon them. What a monster! Yet his sins were pardoned. There is no grounds for us to believe that suicide is the unforgivable sin, or that those who take their own lives when the balance of their minds is disturbed are inevitably lost. I do not believe that.
So those are three cases which have been thought of as unpardonable sins, but they are not. There are many others. People think it might be growing apostasy, like Solomon, taking wife after wife, and erecting temples and idols to strange gods in Jerusalem. But even that wickedness is not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. There is hope for all of you who have sinned ever so fearfully in these great words of Christ, "I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven." He says that they will be, and so who are we to say they won’t be?
2. WHAT IS THE UNFORGIVABLE SIN?
Look at the context in which these words of Jesus are spoken. He has begun his public ministry and has set the nation on fire. By the power of the Holy Spirit he has healed every kind of sickness in everyone who has come to him. He has preached like the archangel himself, such authority, wisdom and graciousness. He has delivered people from demons: they flee back to hell with a word from Christ and those demoniacs are restored. Tens of thousands walk to Galilee to meet him and touch him. This is a mighty work of the Spirit of God. By the Holy Ghost Christ is doing these great works. The kingdom of God has come. It has been established in Capernaum by the King from heaven.
But there is powerful opposition. His mother Mary and his half brothers and sisters arrive from Nazareth. They want to take him away and keep him under control until his delusions have disappeared. The leading theologians in the land, the teachers of the law in Jerusalem, have been informed about all that is happening. They go north up the Jordan Valley to Galilee to examine all that Jehovah Jesus is doing and saying. After seeing for themselves the majesty and power of the works of God the Holy Spirit through our Lord this is the conclusion this Inquisition comes to: Jesus "is possessed by Beelzebub! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons" (v.22).
It is in answering that accusation that the Lord says the words of our text, "whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven." The setting in which those words are spoken is one in which the mighty accomplishments of the Spirit are present in abundance, but these men utterly pervert the Spirit’s works. They deny what is divine, and display hellish rage against Jesus and the testimony of the Spirit. It is in that context that we can start to understand what the unpardonable sin specifically is. It has obviously to do with attributing to the devil what is the work of the Holy Spirit.
i] The Unforgivable Sin During the Earthly Ministry of Christ.
But before we define it we need to look at how Matthew records these same words of Jesus because in his account something slightly puzzling is added: "And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven" (Matt. 12:31), but then, in this account in Matthew (and in Luke 12:10 too), Jesus goes on to say these words, "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" (Matt. 12:32). What can that mean? Blasphemy against Jesus is forgiven, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit never forgiven.
Let me explain it to you. It is not difficult to understand. That distinction between blasphemy against Jesus and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit was only relevant before Calvary. It doesn’t apply to us today. It has not applied since the resurrection of Jesus Christ and Pentecost. That distinction cannot be found in any of the New Testament letters, because it was only during the earthly ministry of our Lord that Jesus could make such a distinction. If you are still puzzled, then let me explain: the reason was that Jesus’ identity as the eternal Son of God was veiled from people during the thirty-three years he walked amongst men. So he perplexed people and they disagreed amongst themselves about him, some being very harsh in their judgments. His family considered him to be just the son of Mary and Joseph who had developed religious delusions about himself and so was one brick short of a load. Others argued, "He is Elijah, or he is one of the old prophets returned to us." Others suggested John the Baptist. But the Pharisees were most harsh, saying, "No. I think he’s the devil." Part of the reason they said such wicked things about him was that the Lord Jesus was deliberately hiding his glory from men. Who would dream that the Lord of glory could sleep in a stable in Bethlehem? What veiling of his glory to hang between two thieves on a cross. He wouldn’t let demons announce that he was the Holy One and the Son of God. "Keep it to yourself," he ordered them. He healed some men and then he forbade them to tell people that he was the one who had transformed them. Thirty years of obscurity were followed by three years of humiliation. He had nowhere to lay his head – what a strange son of king David! He was a wanderer on earth. He called himself the Son of Man, but he was the hidden Messiah. He entered Jerusalem as the prophesied Messiah, but he did so sitting on a little donkey. "Is this the Messiah?" people asked. He made such shadowy application to himself of Old Testament Messianic prophecies. His disciples were often saying to one another, "What is he saying to us? What does he mean?" He talked to them in parables and they didn’t know what he was getting at. Before his resurrection Jesus prevented men coming to a full knowledge of who he himself was. His nature is hidden from the eyes of men from his baptism right up to the resurrection morning. For that reason blasphemies against him during those years could be forgiven. If men made all manner of cruel judgments about him during those three years their blasphemies could be forgiven. We can understand that because the Lord Jesus himself was keeping his identity as the eternal Son of God hidden from us.
Then listen and look at what is going on in Galilee. What a contrast. No hiddenness there. The people are given such a a view of the unveiled work of the Holy Spirit in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, teaching, convicting, illuminating, saving and transforming sinners. The glorious person of God the Holy Spirit is not at all hidden. When a man blind from birth actually sees – how mighty is the work of the Holy Spirit. When many people are delivered from demons – how powerful is the activity of the Spirit! When every kind of illness in every kind of personality is healed – the Spirit is really at work in the land! When tens of thousands come from all over to see and hear Jesus Christ then how mighty is the work of the Spirit! The Spirit was not at all incognito. He had been poured out abundantly on Galilee, and yet . . . these teachers of the law came from Jerusalem, experienced the power and presence of the Spirit in these ways, and they jumped to the conclusion, "By the prince of demons this is being done. Beelzebub is at work." Jesus could not be the Messiah. They were blaspheming the work of the Spirit of God.
So the unforgivable sin is not some general antagonism towards Jesus; it is not the fact that many in Israel heard him and rejected him – "he came unto his own and his own received him not" throughout his ministry. The unforgivable sin during the life of Jesus of Nazareth was to experience the power and presence of God the Spirit and give the rationale for those mighty works to the power of Beelzebub. For such an attitude to the Spirit there could be no forgiveness. But during that same time some men could argue that Christ was an evil blasphemer, and sentence him to death, nail him to a cross, stand in front of him as he hung there, mocking and taunting him, and yet God didn’t say to them, "Right! The unforgivable sin! No forgiveness for you!" At Pentecost those very people experienced the love of God. They were called to repentance and 3000 were converted.
Now, if you have come with me so far . . . I have explained to you that during Jesus’ ministry, before his cross and resurrection, the unforgivable sin could have been committed by someone like you and me if we had lived in Galilee and we displayed this locked in and defiant attitude to Jesus. We attributed to the devil the mighty works of the Spirit of God that we had been actually experiencing in the life of the Lord Jesus. That would have been the definition of the unforgivable sin during the years of humiliation of the Son of God.
ii] The Unforgivable Sin Since the Resurrection of Christ.
Now let us move on to Easter morning and the message of the conquest of death increasingly preached abroad and confirmed and energised at Pentecost. This is a new era in which Christ is preached as the Son of God and as Lord. The apostles tell men plainly that Christ is the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of his person. From the resurrection on there is no distinction between blaspheming against the Spirit and blaspheming against Christ. There is still an unforgivable sin, but now it can be directed towards either the Son or the Spirit. How do the apostles speak of the unforgivable sin? They do so as in two famous passages in the letter to the Hebrews:
a] Hebrews 6:4-6: "It is impossible for those who have been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace." You understand that it is a very similar kind of situation that we have seen in Galilee in Mark 3. Again, under the apostles, there has been a wonderful outpouring of the Holy Spirit and some people have been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift Jesus Christ. They have shared in the Holy Spirit’s convicting work and have had a foretaste of heaven from God’s blessings poured out on a church, but after all that, these people have become apostate and fallen away. These Hebrews have gone back to the synagogue and the temple and the sacrifices of bulls and sheep and have said, "We tried Jesus Christ and he’s rubbish." They are in fact crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. While they reject Christ – after receiving so many blessings – they are guilty of an eternal sin. There can be no forgiveness for those who have a locked-in rejection of Christ.
b] Hebrews 10:26-29: "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?" Again, we can easily move back from these words to this Mark 3 situation in Galilee. Those teachers of the law from Jerusalem had come to hear and see the Lord Christ. They had received the knowledge of the truth, but they would not have the Messiah. They deliberately kept on sinning. So it was with the apostatising Hebrews. No other sacrifice for sins exist than the Lamb of God. They may return to dragging their lambs to the Temple, but there is no pardon in their blood. There remains for them only a fearful expectation of judgment and a raging fire to consume them. These once enlightened people who once professed to love the Lord Jesus are now saying that Christ was a blasphemer, and he deserved to die on Golgotha. They had looked at his cross, the blood of the covenant, and have turned and are now treating it as an unholy thing – the execution of criminal who got what was coming to him. They have insulted the Spirit of grace (Hebs. 10:29). The writer of the Hebrews says that there is no forgiveness for such a mentality. To have known the truth but then to have rejected it utterly, an d to say that Jesus of Nazareth got what he deserved when he died as a criminal on Calvary, to treat his blood as an unholy thing and insult the Spirit of grace as some ’emotional spasm’ – that is the end of their relationship with God. There is no hope for them. They have sinned the unforgivable sin.
The unforgivable sin is a sin against the obviousness of salvation, and the reality of Christ, a salvation which has come right up to us and we’ve had a taste of it and some knowledge of it. What have we done? We’ve dismissed it all as something below contempt, even evil, utterly unholy. The unforgivable sin is our radical, total, blatant and willful apostasy. Remember, when the Bible speaks about the unforgivable sin it is not speaking for the benefit of other people, it is for you and for me. It is a warning to every single Christian. It is not in order that I may speculate about people who were once baptized here by me and subsequently have fallen away. The warning has been given for me to lay it to my heart. It has been given in order to exhort me to live a more holy life, to mortify remaining sin, and walk with the Spirit, and present my body a living sacrifice to God.
What is most encouraging is this, that when you get a fearful section of warning like Hebrews 6 that tells us how close we can get to Jesus Christ without ever being actually eternally in him, and falling away and being lost, you find immediately after the deadly warning words like this: "Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case – things that accompany salvation" (Hebs 6:9). "I believe you yourselves haven’t rejected the gospel unlike that little group of apostates," he is saying. "You haven’t tasted and then turned away. You haven’t received the knowledge of the truth and then rejected it. You are going on trusting and obeying every day. You are stirring up one another to love and good works." I can say that to almost all of you.
So, let me define for you the unforgivable sin: it is the ongoing and continual rejection of the witness of the Holy Spirit to Jesus Christ as Saviour and God. That is the eternal sin. It is constant resistance to the grace and mercy of God. It is a stubborn fixed opposition to Jesus which expresses i