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

Nicholas Wolterstorff on the Neverness of Loss

While reading through Nicholas Wolterstorff’s powerful book Lament for a Son, I came across this moving description of how tragic loss leaves a hole that cannot be replaced. In this book Wolterstorff, who taught philosophy at Calvin College, the Free University in Amsterdam, Notre Dame, and Yale, chronicles his own journey through grief after the loss of his 25-year-old son, Eric, to a mountaineering accident.

These words helped put words to a loss our family is dealing with as my 21-year-old nephew died tragically just over three weeks ago. While we hold firmly to the faith-filled hope of eternity in Christ, we also wrestle with the painful reality of living without one we love so much. Wolterstorff gives a word for that which I find so real and fitting: the “neverness” of loss.

Gone from the face of the earth. I wait for a group of students to cross the street, and suddenly I think: He is not there. I go to a ballgame and find myself singling out the twenty-five-year olds; none of them is he. In all the crowds and streets and rooms and churches and schools and libraries and gatherings of friends in our world, on all the mountains, I will not find him. Only his absence.

Silence. ‘Was there a letter from Eric today?’ ‘When did Eric say he would call?’ Now only silence. Absence and silence.

When we gather now there’s always someone missing, his absence as present as our presence, his silence as loud as our speech. Still five children, but one always gone.

When we’re all together, we’re not all together.

It’s the neverness that is so painful. Never again to be here with us—never to sit with us at table, never to travel with us, never to laugh with us, never to cry with us, never to embrace us as he leaves for school, never to see his brothers and sister marry. All the rest of our lives we must live without him. Only our death can stop the pain of his death.

A month, a year, five years—with that I could live. But not this forever.

I step outdoors into the moist moldly fragrance of an early summer morning and arm in arm with my enjoyment comes the realization that never again will he smell this.

As a could vanishes and is gone, so he who goes down to the grave does not return, he will never come to his house again; his place will know him no more. (Job 7:9-10)

One small misstep and now this endless neverness.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 14-15.

What is the Secret of Jesus’ Easy Yoke?: insights from Dallas Willard

This past weekend I preached from one of my favorite teachings by Jesus, where we hear His stunning invitation:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

One of the most powerful insights into understanding what Jesus means by the easy yoke comes from Dallas Willard in his profound book The Spirit of the Disciplines. In the opening chapter, entitled “The Secret of the Easy Yoke,” Willard writes the following:

And in this truth lies the secret of the easy yoke: the secret involves living as he lived in the entirety of his life — adopting his overall life-style. Following ​“in his steps” cannot be equated with behaving as he did when he was ​“on the spot.” To live as Christ lives is to live as he did all his life. 

Our mistake is to think that following Jesus consists in loving our enemies, going the ​“second mile,” turning the other cheek, suffering patiently and hopefully — while living the rest of our lives just as everyone around us does. This is like the aspiring young baseball players mentioned earlier. It’s a strategy bound to fail and to make the way of Christ ​“difficult and left untried.” In truth it is not the way of Christ any more than striving to act in a certain manner in the heat of a game is the way of the champion athlete. 

Whatever may have guided us into this false approach, it is simply a mistake. And it will certainly cause us to find Jesus’ commands about our actions during specific situations impossibly burdensome — ​“grievous” as the King James Version of the New Testament puts it. Instead of an easy yoke, all we’ll experience is frustration. 

But this false approach to following Christ has counterparts throughout human life. It is part of the misguided and whimsical condition of humankind that we so devoutly believe in the power of effort-at-the-moment-of-action alone to accomplish what we want and completely ignore the need for character change in our lives as a whole. The general human failing is to want what is right and important, but at the same time not to commit to the kind of life that will produce the action we know to be right and the condition we want to enjoy. This is the feature of human character that explains why the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We intend what is right, but we avoid the life that would make it reality. 

…So, ironically, in our efforts to avoid the necessary pains of discipline we miss the easy yoke and light burden. We then fall into the rending frustration of trying to do and be the Christian we know we ought to be without the necessary insight and strength that only discipline can provide…. 

So, those who say we cannot truly follow Christ turn out to be correct in a sense. We cannot behave ​“on the spot” as he did and taught if in the rest of our time we live as everybody else does. The ​“on the spot” episodes are not the place where we can, even by the grace of God, redirect unchristlike but ingrained tendencies of action toward sudden Christlikeness. Our efforts to take control at that moment will fail so uniformly and so ingloriously that the whole project of following Christ will appear ridiculous to the watching world. We’ve all seen this happen. 

So, we should be perfectly clear about one thing: Jesus never expected us simply to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, bless those who persecute us, give unto them that ask, and so forth. These responses, generally and rightly understood to be characteristics of Christlikeness, were set forth by him as illustrative of what might be expected of a new kind of person — one who intelligently and steadfastly seeks, above all else, to live within the rule of God and be possessed by the kind of righteousness that God himself has, as Matthew 6:33 portrays. 

Instead, Jesus did invite people to follow him into that sort of life from which behavior such as loving one’s enemies will seem like the only sensible and happy thing to do. …Oswald Chambers observes: ​“The Sermon on the Mount is a statement of the life we will live when the Holy Spirit is getting his way with us.”

[Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 4-8.]

The Pastoral Work of Community-Building: Esther [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 6]

“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

In the fifth and final section of Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work he searches out how the book of Esther, the fifth of the Meggiloth scrolls, guides pastors in the important work of building the community. As Peterson writes:

Pastoral work is interested in people and their failure to achieve the humanity that is theirs by the will of the God who created them. The pastor who works with such people sees them not as a unicellular organism but as ‘members of the body.’ (194)

But there are many challenges to this work, particularly in an American context that emphasizes rugged individualism, which stands in sharp contrast to the “biblical view of man and woman [as] person-in-community, a ‘people of God’” (195). Pastors will always struggle to recall people to a sense of who they are as a people, not just as individuals. Not only that, Peterson claims, but the very context of church as community is often misunderstood as just one more voluntary organization amidst many. However, that is not what the church is.

The story of Esther and the rescue of the people of God celebrated at Purim is an antidote to these misunderstandings and a guide to pastors today. The joy of God’s salvation for the people of God is evident in this book and marked with the festival and guides the pastoral concern for joy and salvation to be seen as gifts of God for our congregations.

Esther and Purim provide a model for exhibiting the celebrative existence of a people who freely share and exchange God’s gifts of created and redeemed life together. It is the story and feast of what is discussed in theological terms under the heading communio sanctorum, the communion of the saints. (202)

God’s people, Israel, traces their identity to Abraham, but that identity becomes clearer after the deliverance from Egypt at the Exodus and the establishment in the Promised Land of Canaan. After generations in the land, the monarchy fails and the people turn away from God. The end of this is exile to Babylon, which leaves questions of what it means to be God’s people now. The book of Esther picks up the story of God’s people within this radically changed existence, but an existence, nonetheless. The community has survived by God’s grace, even if it is limping along imperfectly.

With the help of archaeological backgrounds, Peterson helps us see that the Jewish communities we know of at this time, in Susa and Elephantine, struggled and were not ideal. He reminds us they “are important for pastoral work inasmuch as neither demonstrates a community at its best. Neither is a ‘model’ congregation” (207). Still, this non-ideal community is God’s community, saved by Him, and this theological reality must orient us as pastors.

The pastoral  imagination that is oriented in this history will be quick to spot essentials and sense what is foundational. It will develop a  theological understanding of the community of faith as opposed to a sociological, or even historical understanding. It will understand the people of God as a grouping of persons who God has called together, whom God will keep together, who will survive by God’s grace. It will not understand them as a group of people who attempt to be religious together. (208)

This theological many times stands in sharp contrast to the guides we are often given for understanding or “evaluating” the church. Read this paragraph from Peterson on this point:

The pastoral understanding of community that is thoroughly immersed in this long, biblical tradition and comprehends the biblical dynamics of grace will not be quickly impressed with comparative statistics that judge the church by its visibility in the world or its impact on the census tables, and then be distracted into ventures of titanism and multitudinism. From a biblical point of view it is hard to conceive of a method for describing or understanding or evaluating the church that is less likely to get even a glimpse of its reality than those devised by statisticians or sociologists. Yet these persons provide the bulk of the material that is used to exhort the pastor in his or her work as a leader in the community of faith. (209)

And yet, as pastors today we feel the pressed urgency of contemporary statistical renderings of religion and the church in North America. Certainly we should not put our heads in the sand, yet at the same time we must consider what is truly shaping our understanding of our ministry and God’s people.

Because these variables are notoriously inconstant, spiritual and biblical integrity is far more important than the skillful use of propaganda in doing pastoral work, the doctrine of providence of more significance than any image-making publicity.  

As stewards of the community God has created, pastors may need to relearn what it means to stand in the biblical roots of community leadership. This may help free us from the pervasive fixations of many pastors today: “anxiety over survival, worry over size, an obsession with arithmetic” (211).  In America in particular we may need to come alongside of biblical figures like Mordecai to regain our senses.

For those familiar with Peterson, you may know his oft-quoted statement that one cannot truly be a pastor of a church over 750 people. I’ve wrestled with that statement as a pastor of a church larger than that. But I took some comfort from Peterson’s way of addressing pastoring and numbers in Five Smooth Stones:

The plain biblical fact is that it makes no difference whether a community of faith numbers thirty-seven persons or thirty-seven hundred. Each soul is of eternal value, and needs to live with a few other souls in order to grow in grace and charity. The pastors’ task is to guide the growth of the thirty-seven (if that is where they find themselves) or the thirty-seven hundred (if that be the place) by leading in prayers, preaching God’s word, and administering abilities and aptitudes of the Spirit so that ministry takes place. The plain biblical fact is that it makes no difference if there are ten persons in a cavernous gothic city church or five hundred persons  crowded into a suburban barn…the communities contrast in size and condition but are constituted by the same means (the Holy Spirit) and require the same ministries (worship, prayer, teaching, preaching). (212)

Returning to Esther, Peterson uses the character of Haman to emphasize the important insight of grasping that there are enemies to God’s people.

Wherever there is a people of God there are enemies of God. Pastoral work that seeks to build up the community of faith cannot afford to be innocent about Haman. (219)

How does a pastor respond to this reality? Peterson offers an apt summary of pastoral work:

The pastoral responsibilities for building up a community of faith under such conditions are grave and must not be trivialized or secularized: scripture must be taught and preached, prayers must be offered, visitation must be conducted, sacraments must be administered, counsel must be given, worship must  be led. (219-20)

There are other things that should be done, but the pastor shouldn’t do all of them.

The pastoral work ought to be defined as narrowly as possible to guarantee that it be accomplished expertly and thoroughly….Pastors who take upon themselves everything that appears worthy of ministry are either unsufferably arrogant, thinking they are the only ones in church capable of hearing commands and obeying in faith, or else extraordinarily faithless (ogligopistoi!) who do not give the Holy Spirit credit for being able to lead or direct anyone else. (220)

It was Mordecai who encouraged Esther to step forward to approach King Xerxes. Mordecai did not do it himself, because it was not his opportunity to take. Certainly he did other things, but he was not concerned with the center stage. “The importance of Mordecai for the pastor derives from his style of leadership, a style that exemplifies the way of the servant” (225). Peterson points out that many biblical examples of leadership in Scripture are attractively charismatic – “Gideon and Deborah; Elijah and Elisha; Amos and Hosea” – but the leadership of the diaspora community is simply a servant. And this is what we need to recover now, more than ever. At a time when bold and catchy leadership models have taken over the church, when pastors aspire to become “church famous,” we need to recover the servant way of Jesus, lived out by Paul, and sung about in Isaiah’s “servant songs” (Isaiah 42:1-9; 49:1-9; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12). As Peterson reminds us, “‘Servant’ is not a particularly difficult concept to grasp. It is, though, a difficult role to embrace” (229).

It is perhaps fitting that this is the note with which Peterson ends his exploration of the Meggiloth. Pastors are servants. The imagery of Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work derives from David who, after having set aside Saul’s armor which did not fit him, stooped at stream for ammunition before facing off against Goliath (1 Samuel 17:31-40). As David set out on a new way, Peterson writes, “a new leadership ministry was taking shape.” May we pastors, too, take up a new, but old, way as we live out our calling before God in the midst of His people.

[This is the sixth (and final) in a series of posts on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]

The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying: Ecclesiastes [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 5]

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2)

With such strong words as an opening salvo, how could Ecclesiastes equip pastors for ministry? According to Eugene Peterson in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, Ecclesiastes, the fourth of the Meggiloth scrolls, teaches pastors to say “no” to what people often think they want when they approach the pastor for help.

At this point pastoral work encounters a complex difficulty, for the vocation of pastor does not permit trafficking in either miracles or answers. Pastors are in the awkward position of refusing to give what a great many people assume it is our assigned job to give. (152)

Qoholeth, the teacher, of Ecclesiastes names the vacuity—the vanity and meaninglessness—of much religious talk and activity, aiming for repentance and purging for all involved.

The pastor reads Ecclesiastes to get scrubbed clean from illusion and sentiment, from ideas that are idolatrous and feelings that cloy. (155)

As an unnamed teacher, Qoholeth stands alongside pastors “with concerns that a religious leader in the community has for the health of the people who assemble” (157). The clear, pure faith of early Israel has been tainted in Qoholeth’s time, leaving a polluted stream of stagnant religion. Qoholeth, and the pastor, calls people back to face the reality of God’s greatness and human encounter with the divine.

But this is no abstract religious fancy. Rather, it is an earthy holiness rooted in God’s yes to humanity and inviting humanity to respond with their own yes and amen.

Pastoral work consists in repeating the gospel yes in every conceivable life-situation and encouraging the yes answer of faith. (159)

The pastor helps their congregation answer “amen!” to God with a faith that is not false or full of pretense, that is more than propaganda and richer than cheer-leading. The Feast of Tabernacles, which Ecclesiastes is connected to, was one of the greatest festivals of thanksgiving, combining “the seasonal festivities of a harvest festival (bounty) with the historical memories of miraculous preservation in the wilderness (blessing)” (162). Tabernacles was a celebration of God’s yes to His people.  How strange, it would seem, that Ecclesiastes, which sounds more like a “no,” is the text of choice. Peterson suggests:

The most negative of the scrolls was required reading at the most positive of the festivals…[because] if at any point there is a separation between the God of blessing and the blessings of God…grave dangers threaten the life of the people of God. (162)

For the pastor this is instructive. We all know from experience how easy it is to lose perspective, to let go of wisdom with apparently-wise foolishness, to blur the differentiation between what is true and what only seems true but is false.

For the pastor has the responsibility to nurture the affirmative without encouraging the gullible; to keep alert and prepared to say yes to every yes of God in every part of existence without at the same time being a patsy for every confidence game in town; to train people in robust acceptance of what God brings to us and not to passively submit to the trashy merchandising of religious salespeople. (164)

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes, as well as the entire wisdom tradition, aims to ground God’s people in God’s truth for living. But this only functions in relationship to God, not in isolation. Ecclesiastes’ strong wisdom-words cut against the human tendency toward spiritualized inspirations and bumper-sticky theologies. It does the same for pastors, even as we’re tempted to cater to people’s demands for miracles and answers. The “nay-saying” of Ecclesiastes helps pastors, as well as their congregations, learn to say yes to living relationship with God and walking in His ways.

It is preaching the Scripture and prayer-infused worship that keeps us with God and in God’s wisdom. It is living as God’s community together with the Lord as our Shepherd that keeps us grounded instead of flying off in spiritual fancies and clouded individual self-actualization.

Everything we know about God comes out of the preaching and praying communities of Israel and church. Truths about God are not found, like arrowheads in old fields, by people off by themselves hunting souvenirs. (173)

Contrasting the cult of Baal with Yahwism, Peterson depicts the importance of covenant and the proclamation of the Word within the worship of God’s people. While drawn to the flashy and the miraculous, Ecclesiastes, echoing some of the prophets, calls us back to the heart of the matter. Yes, we have personal experiences and, yes, we may have feelings while we pray, but the heart of worship is not about us but about the God who has spoken His “yes” to us first. Our worship is all response and service to God.

People bring so many mistaken expectations to the gospel, so much silly sentiment, and so many petulant demands, that they hardly hear its real message or confront its actual message….[The pastor’s] work is simply to clear away what is mistaken for religion so that we are free to hear the word of God. (188-189)

Or, in the word of Qoholeth:

Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the duty of all mankind. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

[This is the fifth in a series of posts on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]