What is the Unforgivable Sin?

I can remember so many times I have been hurt by others and others have been hurt by me. This is, unfortunately, part of what it means to be human. One of the great gifts of our humanity one with another is to forgive each other. I often say when officiating weddings that two of the most important phrases we can keep at the ready in relationships are: “I am sorry,” and “I forgive you.”

But have you ever been hurt so badly you weren’t sure you could forgive someone? Or have you hurt someone so badly you weren’t sure they could forgive you?

What about God? Can we wrong God so badly that He will not forgive us?

“Praise the Lord, my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins…” (Psalm 103:2-3a)

Psalm 103 tells us to praise God and remember all His benefits, including that He forgives all our sins. But is there anything we can say or do that cannot be forgiven? Much to our surprise, Jesus In the midst of a conversation with the Pharisees accusing him of casting out demons by the power of Satan says:

“I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” (Matthew 12:31)

Return with me to the tension that started this whole story. Jesus heals a demon-possessed man and the people are astonished, wondering if Jesus could be the Son of David, the promised Messiah. The Pharisees, when they hear this from the people, begin to offer a counterclaim that Jesus works His deliverance not by God’s power but by Beelzebul or Satan’s power. They are ascribing God’s good work through Jesus to evil.

Jesus, however, makes it clear that He delivers by the power of God’s Spirit (12:28) and that His missional activity will divide humanity, leaving some who are with Him and some who are against Him (12:30).

This is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that Jesus is describing. He is not just speaking about grieving the Holy Spirit or faltering in our walk with the Holy Spirit. The only unforgivable sin, here, is to starkly stand against Jesus, identifying His God-given work instead as devil-driven work, and choosing to move away from Him.

I have, from time to time, had people ask me what the unforgivable sin is and whether they have committed it. They have asked me whether God can forgive them of a certain word, activity, thought, or event in which they have taken part. The heart of such a person is in great tension and feels the weight of sin. That, in my mind, testifies that they are not hardened toward God, but open to God.

As Craig Keener writes about this section of Scripture: 

“the context of blaspheming against the Spirit here refers specifically to the sin of the Pharisees, who are on the verge of becoming incapable of repentance. The sign of their hardness of heart is their determination to reject any proof for Jesus’ divine mission, to the extent that they even attribute God’s attestation of Jesus to the devil…We therefore must reiterate the point in this context: the sin is unforgivable only because it reflects a heart too hard to repent. Those who desire to repent, troubled by the fear that they may have committed this sin, plainly have not committed it!”[1]

May we stay soft-hearted toward Jesus and open to the work of the Holy Spirit revealed in Him.


[1] Craig S. Keener, Matthew, IVPNTC (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 232.

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