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.
When I conclude a sermon series, I usually share the resources I used to help me study and prepare my sermons. Here is the second of two bibliographies for our recently completed series, “The Kingdom of God” (you can find the first one here). This bibliography has a backstory.
Before the pandemic we had a two-week series entitled “Faith and Politics” on the schedule with guest speakers NT Wright and Vince Bacote. As an extension site for Trinity Evangelical Divinity School we worked on a wraparound class for that series and I helped develop the first bibliography and reading list for that class, which was the genesis for what I’m sharing below.
As the pandemic accelerated, NT Wright was unable to travel in April (we rescheduled him for 2021) and we delayed the series on politics. I eventually re-worked the two week series on faith and politics into a broader five-week series on the kingdom of God. Thankfully, we were still able to have Vince Bacote join us and you can watch his lecture, as well as a follow-up Q&A, here: “The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life.”
It should go without saying that I do not agree with the perspective shared within all of these works. However, many of them which I disagree with are still important for any discussion of faith and politics.
Bibliography for “Faith and Politics”
Augustine.City of God. Edited and translated by R. W. Dyson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. (1278 pages – Augustine’s magisterial exploration of the relationship between the city of God and the city of earth)
Robert Benne. Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010. (120 pages – written out of frustration with current failures of thinking, Benne offers some core convictions about Christian political engagement and how that should shape public policy and political action)
________, ed. Five Views on the Church and Politics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015. (240 pages – part of Zondervan’s Counterpoints series, this book offers outlines of political thought from Anabaptist, African America, Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed perspectives, with responses to each outline by others)
Gregory A. Boyd. The Myth of a Christian Nation. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005. (207 pages – written around the 2004 election, Boyd’s central thesis is “a significant segment of American evangelicalism is guilty of nationalistic and political idolatry”)
John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007. (1059 pages – Calvin’s treatment of law and government were defining for Protestant theology since his time)
D. A. Carson. Christ and Culture Revisited. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012. (255 pages – an evangelical New Testament scholar offers a revision of Niebuhr’s typology of Christian cultural engagement with a chapter on church and state)
Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. Jesus for President. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. (355 pages – the authors offer a progressive evangelical theology that critiques American Christianity’s subjugation to empire)
Andy Crouch. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013. (284 pages – while not strictly about politics, Crouch offers a modern approach to broader cultural engagement for evangelicals)
Patrick J. Deneen. Why Liberalism Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019. (264 pages – an evaluation of why liberalism – in contrast to communism and fascism – is the only remaining viable ideology of the 20th century, but also how inherent features of the success of liberalism are generating its own failure)
Jacques Ellul. The Subversion of Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986. (222 pages – Ellul was an influential and iconoclastic 20th century thinker, and this book specifically looks at the deviation between the life of the Church and the teachings of Jesus)
________. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018. (238 pages – a historian’s evaluation of factors, particularly a politics of fear, that contributed to 80% of white evangelicals voting for Donald Trump)
Frances Fitzgerald. The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017. (740 pages – a Pulitzer-prize winning historian offers an insightful history of how evangelicalism has shaped American culture and politics)
George Kalantzis and Gregory W. Lee, eds. Christian Political Witness. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2014. (240 pages – a collection of essays on biblical, historical and theological proposals for thinking responsibly about the intersection of church and state in the contemporary cultural situation)
Martin Luther King, Jr. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2003. (736 pages – a collection of the most important writings and speeches by the premier leader of the American civil rights movement, including his invaluable “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”)
Richard J. Mouw. Political Evangelism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973. (111 pages – Mouw reflects on the inadequacies of separatism and activism, while also pointing to an alternative of appropriate political engagement as part of the evangelistic – outward – activity of the church)
Reinhold Niebuhr. Major Works on Religion and Politics. Library of America. New York: Library of America, 2015. (850 pages – Niebuhr was one of the premier thinkers of the early 20th century and his political thought continues to influence writers and practitioners, including Barack Obama)
H. Richard Niebuhr. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper & Row, 1951. (259 pages – this classic work provided the most enduring typology for evaluating Christian engagement with culture since its publication)
Mark A. Noll. God and Race in American Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. P., 2008. (226 pages – the premier historian of American evangelicalism evaluates the way that religion and race have factored into American politics)
Oliver O’Donovan. The Desire of Nations: Rediscovering the roots of political theology. New York: Cambridge U. P., 1996. (304 pages – a work of systematic Christian political thought, combining Biblical interpretation, historical discussion of the Western political and theological tradition, theoretical construction and critical engagement with contemporary views)
C. C. Pecknold. Christianity and Politics: A Brief Guide to the History. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010. (196 pages – a brief guide to the history of Christianity and politics, showing how early Christianity reshaped the Western political imagination with its new theological claims about eschatological time, participation, and communion with God and neighbor)
Elizabeth Phillips. Political Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Continuum Boos, 2012. (208 pages – This is a concise and accessible advanced introduction which distinguishes various approaches to political theology, and which explores several of the central issues addressed in political theologies)
James K. A. Smith. Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2017. (256 pages – the third part of Smith’s cultural liturgies series offers an Augustinian model for engaging the current political situation in our culture that is rooted in worship)
Howard Thurman. Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston: Beacon Press, 1976. (128 pages – demonstrates how the gospel may be read as a manual of resistance for the poor and disenfranchised because of Jesus entrance into the pain of the oppressed)
Tom Wright. God in Public: How the Bible speaks truth to power today. London: SPCK, 2016. (190 pages – a little known work of NT Wright that, while somewhat English in application, offers an approach to biblical theology that throws fresh light on political and ethical problems of our day)
As I continue reading through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion this summer, here is Calvin reflecting on the significance of the Lord’s Supper for our encouragement as believers. Notice Calvin’s powerful series of contrasts at the end of this quotation.
Godly souls can gather great assurance and delight from this Sacrament; in it they have a witness of our growth into one body with Christ such that whatever is his may be called ours. As a consequence, we may dare assure ourselves that eternal life, of which he is the heir, is ours; and that the Kingdom of Heaven, into which he has already entered, can no more be cut off from us than from him; again, that we cannot be condemned for our sins, from whose guilt he has absolved us, since he willed to take them upon himself as if they were his own. This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weak-poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness.
As I read through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion this summer, occasionally I am sharing sections that strike me with particular force. Here is Calvin reflecting on the summary of the Christian life beginning in self-denial in order that the life of Christ might spring up within us by God’s grace.
Even though the law of the Lord provides the finest and best-disposed method of ordering a man’s life, it seemed good to the Heavenly Teacher to shape his people by an even more explicit plan to that rule which he had set forth in the law. Here, then, is the beginning of this plan: the duty of believers is “to present their bodies to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to him,” and in this consists the lawful worship of him [Rom 12:1]. From this is derived the basis of the exhortation that “they be not conformed to the fashion of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of their minds, so that they may prove what is the will of God” [Rom 12:2]. Now the great thing is this: we are consecrated and dedicated to God in order that we may thereafter think, speak, meditate, and do, nothing except to his glory. For a sacred thing may not be applied to profane uses without marked injury to him.
If we, then, are not our own [cf. 1 Cor 6:19] but the Lord’s, it is clear what error we must flee, and whither we must direct all the acts of our life.
We are not our own: let not our reason no our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us therefore not set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are nor our own: in so far as we can, let us therefore forget ourselves and all that is ours.
Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal [Rom 14:8; cf. 1 Cor 6:19]. O, how much has that man profited who, having been taught that he is not his own, has taken away dominion and rule from his own reason that he may yield it to God! For, as consulting our self-interest is the pestilence that most effectively leads to our destruction, so the sol haven of salvation is to be wise in nothing and to will nothing through ourselves but to follow the leading of the Lord alone.
Let us therefore be the first step, that a man depart from himself in order that he may apply the whole force of his ability in service of the Lord. I call “service” not only what lies in obedience to God’s Word but what turns the mind of man, empty of its own carnal sense, wholly to the bidding of God’s Spirit. While it is the first entrance to life, all philosophers were ignorant of this transformation, which Paul calls “renewal of the mind” [Eph 4:23]. For they set up reason alone as the ruling principle in man, and think that it alone should be listened to; to it alone, in short, they entrust the conduct of life. But the Christian philosophy bids reason give way to, submit and subject itself to, the Holy Spirit so that the man himself may no longer live but hear Christ leaving and reigning within him [Gal 2:20].