What is the Unforgivable Sin?: insights from John Calvin

While studying for my message, “The Messiah and Satan,” from this past weekend at Eastbrook, I spent a good deal of time studying the nature of the unforgivable, or unpardonable, sin. Jesus says the following provocative 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 a wide variety of opinions on this, but it seems pretty clear that Jesus is not talking about simply grieving the Holy Spirit or resisting the Holy Spirit one time, but the steady rejection of God and His work manifested in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit’s power. I found these words from John Calvin within an extended section on regeneration and repentance with his Institutes of the Christian Religion to be particularly helpful. While not without his faults and blind spots (like all of us), Calvin is an astute commentator on Scripture.

Here, however, let us give the true definition, which, when once it is established by sound evidence, will easily of itself overturn all the others. I say therefore that he sins against the Holy Spirit who, while so constrained by the power of divine truth that he cannot plead ignorance, yet deliberately resists, and that merely for the sake of resisting. For Christ, in explanation of what he had said, immediately adds, ‘Whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever speaketh against the holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him,’ (Mt. 12:31). And Matthew uses the term spirit of blasphemy for blasphemy against the Spirit. How can any one insult the Son, without at the same time attacking the Spirit? In this way. Those who in ignorance assail the unknown truth of God, and yet are so disposed that they would be unwilling to extinguish the truth of God when manifested to them, or utter one word against him whom they knew to be the Lord’s Anointed, sin against the Father and the Son. Thus there are many in the present day who have the greatest abhorrence to the doctrine of the Gospel, and yet, if they knew it to be the doctrine of the Gospel, would be prepared to venerate it with their whole heart. But those who are convinced in conscience that what they repudiate and impugn is the word of God, and yet cease not to impugn it, are said to blaspheme against the Spirit, inasmuch as they struggle against the illumination which is the work of the Spirit. Such were some of the Jews, who, when they could not resist the Spirit speaking by Stephen, yet were bent on resisting (Acts 6:10). There can be no doubt that many of them were carried away by zeal for the law; but it appears that there were others who maliciously and impiously raged against God himself, that is, against the doctrine which they knew to be of God. Such, too, were the Pharisees, on whom our Lord denounced woe. To depreciate the power of the Holy Spirit, they defamed him by the name of Beelzebub (Mt. 9:3, 4; 12:24). The spirit of blasphemy, therefore, is, when a man audaciously, and of set purpose, rushes forth to insult his divine name. This Paul intimates when he says, ‘but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief;’ otherwise he had deservedly been held unworthy of the grace of God. If ignorance joined with unbelief made him obtain pardon, it follows, that there is no room for pardon when knowledge is added to unbelief.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter 3, Section 22

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