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.

Is Spiritual Conflict Real?: guidance from the Apostle Paul

This past weekend at Eastbrook I preached from Matthew 12:22-37, where Jesus is accused of exorcising demons by the power of Satan. You can watch or listen to my message, “The Messiah and Satan,” but the entire episode raises an important question: is spiritual conflict, or spiritual warfare, real?

The Apostle Paul addresses that pretty directly in the last chapter of the book of Ephesians, where he closes out the letter by writing these words:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”(Ephesians 6:10-12)

Paul’s final word to the believers here is that there is a spiritual conflict, and the struggle is real.

So, do I believe in real spiritual forces that stand against God and His people? Absolutely, yes. The Scripture is replete with that idea, from Jesus’ encounters with demons to hints of demonic forces in the book of Daniel and Revelation.

Because of that, we must arm ourselves appropriately for such a struggle by relying upon the strength of the Lord and not our own strength. We all know that our human strength is limited, but that God’s strength is unlimited.

As it says in Psalm 73:26, “My strength and my heart may fail but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forevermore.” Or as it says in Isaiah 40: “Even youths grow tired and weary, and the young stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.”

If we want victory, we must rely on God’s strength.

Paul says that we do this by arming ourselves appropriately in what he terms “the armor of God.” Notice that this armor is made by God and has its source in God. The goal of relying on God’s power and arming ourselves with His armor is so that we can “take our stand.” This tells us something important here: the armor and our role in the conflict is primarily defensive. Paul helps us understand how to defend ourselves against the onslaught of the devil and his forces.

What are those forces? Well, Paul lists out several aspects of them:

  1. they are not flesh and blood
  2. they are rulers and authorities
  3. they are the powers of this dark world
  4. they are spiritual forces in the heavenly places

We are not talking about people here, but about forces running higher and deeper than mere human force. Certainly, we are talking about the devil and spiritual forces. Jesus faced them and the early apostles faced them and we too will we face such demonic powers.

The words of 1 Peter 5:8-9 are still true for us: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”

Returning to Ephesians 6, we must also remember that along with the purely spiritual forces against us, Paul also speaks to the reality of other powers at play in the world.

There are kings and rulers of the world, there are social-cultural dynamics, there are hidden powers of sin and injustice that seem to have super-human power within societies and the world. The Ephesians believers lived in a context dominated by worldly living, idolatrous religion, and perverse customs and practices.[1] These, too, Paul says will often stand against us as believers. They are impersonal but often used by personal beings, whether human or demonic, to oppose God’s people.

Sometimes this evil is readily apparent, but at other times “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). This requires even more vigilance. Therefore, the attack comes in ways that might be appealing or enticing or just plain nice to be around. Yet, as Eugene Peterson writes, “Paul is calling us to be alert to the evil that, in fact, looks like the good.”[2]

“Believers,” Paul says, “this struggle is real. See it. Name it. Prepare yourself for it. And stand in the face of it.”


[1] John Henry Jowett, The Whole Armour of God (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1916), 13-15.

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection:  A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 257.

Two Ways that Shape Our Lives

All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit. (Proverbs 16:2)

We pursue what we think is best in our lives. If something is not right, we will only do it when we convince ourselves that the short-term gains are worth it. Overall, we order our lives according to what we think is best, or the highest good. But, as we realize through the prophet Jeremiah’s guidance, “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). We struggle to know ourselves and to accurately weigh our pursuits and desires. It is only by God’s grace that we can accurately see and know our ways.

And so, there are two ways forward. The first is the way of humility. In this way, we invite God, who weighs the spirit, to make known to us the rightness or wrongness of our ways. This is the way the psalmist takes in Psalm 139, where recognition of God’s ultimate knowledge leads to a request for insight:

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23-24)

The way of humility is marked by openness, confession, and a willingness to change. We have openness to what God may speak. We take up the practice of confession to identify our sin before God and to be willing to transformed before God’s word. We hold our lives before God, knowing that the life with God is always growing, developing, and changing for God’s glory.

The second way is the way of pride. In this way, we resist God’s revelation about our life’s way. We choose to harden our hearts to the Holy Spirit’s conviction and prompting. Instead of confession, we suppress God’s word and work, seeking instead to give full rein to our desires. It is here that our resistance will lead to a great revelation of our wrongs either in our earthly life or, ultimately, at the end. Jeremiah goes on to tell us:

“I the Lord search the mind
and try the heart,
to give to every man according to his ways,
according to the fruit of his doings.” (Jeremiah 17:10)

Our life is a response to this contrast of ways in every moment. Our life is made of the many decisions and actions we take each day. Will we take the way of humility or the way of pride?

Jesus’ Harsh Words: The Grace of Rebuke

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In Luke 11, Jesus offers a series of rebukes to the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law. These leaders not only had the Word of God but held authority for the Word of God in the lives of others. This should stop us in our tracks as pastors, ministry leaders, elders, or anyone who has some role of authority in the lives of others.

There are certain things about us—things we do and things inside of us—that are distasteful to Jesus. We must hear this side of Jesus’ teaching. We must reconsider whether we only take in Jesus’ loving, gentle words or whether we hear the comprehensive breadth of Jesus’ words. We must open our ears and hear even the words of rebuke as if they were spoken to us.

If our first response to Jesus’ rebuke is to think of how they apply to someone else, then we are likely avoiding the word that Christ is speaking directly to us. We must receive the hard words of Christ with radical humility and openness to correction for our thorough transformation. The spotlight is upon us and we should not be quick to divert it toward another.

The piercing sword of rebuke is a grace and it is vital that we remember that fact. The first step toward healing is an accurate diagnosis. Jesus’ rebuke is the difficult diagnosis that leads to the Soul-physician’s surgical grace in removing sickness from us in order to make our souls whole.

Jesus rebukes the Pharisees first of all because there is a different and better type of cleanness than what they are concerned about. They are concerned about external and superficial cleanliness but not the internal and deeper cleanliness. They are concealing deeper uncleanness of soul under the cover of superficial cleanness. They are like whitewashed graves that are clean and beautiful on the outside but hold death and decay inside.

The cure is found through Jesus the Life-giver who points the way through generosity to the poor (Luke 11:41), attention to justice, and practicing the love of God (11:42). Is this a salvation by works? No, it is the fruit of repentance as we turn toward God from self-seeking religion and hypocrisy. As we repent, Jesus leads us beyond ourselves into something stronger and more alive. It is the healing pathway out of soul-sickness.

Jesus secondly rebukes the experts in the Law because they have kept life from others. They weigh people down with religious burdens, locking the door to life by their mishandling of God’s Law. God’s Word intends to bring life but they wield it in such a way that life is snuffed out through incorrect usage.

The anger of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law reflects the reality that Jesus has touched upon a nerve with His rebuke. Do we feel angry or uncomfortable with the words of Jesus? Do we attempt to turn the attention of the difficult diagnosis toward someone else? Is it too painful to hear?

Linger in it. Do not flinch. Open your heart and mind to the rebuke of Jesus. Inside the rebuke is the grace of a loving and healing God.

Hearing the Stunning Invitation of Jesus

“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)

Here we have the stunning invitation of Jesus our Savior. Do we hear Him?

It is not an invitation only for a few, but an invitation for “all you who are weary and burdened.” Are any of us weary? Are any of us burdened? Praise God that our weariness and burdens do not need to push us away from God but can lead us closer to Him. So what are our areas of weariness? Where are we worn down? What has caused sheer tiredness in our experiences and circumstances today? What burdens do we carry? What things from our past, our present, or our future feel like weights upon our lives? May we bring them to the feet of Jesus today.

Our encounter with the tender acceptance and care of God leads us beyond ourselves into a new way of living. The yoke that Jesus describes is a new way of learning from Jesus. When we think of a yoke, we probably think of a cattle yoke, where two animals are yoked together. But it is highly likely that Jesus is referring here to the human yoke, or shoulder pole, which is used to carry burdens more easily. The concept of the yoke was often used as a metaphor for how we live our lives. The yoke was then connected to the idea of walking in God’s wisdom and law. One took up that yoke by learning from God’s Word and teaching. So we have the opportunity turn from our own yoke—our own way of life—and turn to Jesus’ yoke—His way of living.

As we hear Jesus’ invitation we then discover and encounter His character. What is Jesus like? He is gentle and humble in heart. He is meek. He is lowly. He is, as we will continue to encounter throughout Matthew’s gospel, a servant Messiah. In fact, Jesus, as the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), shows us that there is no one as gentle and humble as God. God is the most gentle and humble being we will ever meet.

When we respond to Jesus’ stunning invitation then we will experience true rest for our souls. Are any of us restless? Are any of us feeling like we are searching for a true place of peace and home to abide in? This is found in God through Jesus the Messiah. As St. Augustine writes near the beginning of his beautiful work Confessions, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”