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.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day” [Poetry for Lent]

Poetry for Lent 2.001

Every Thursday during Lent, I post a poem that I find helpful for deeper engagement with Jesus’ journey to the Cross and the significance of Lent. Here is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day.” Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit priest of the Victorian era whose poetry was published after his death and had a significant influence on the modernist movement of poetry in the 20th-century.


I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw, ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.

With witness I speak this. But where I say
Hours I mean years, mean life. And my lament
Is cries countless, cries like dead letters sent
To dearest him that lives alas! away.

I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree
Bitter would have me taste: my taste was me;
Bones built in me, flesh filled, blood brimmed the curse.

Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours. I see
The lost are like this, and their scourge to be
As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse.


Previous poems in this series:

John Donne, “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness”

Langston Hughes, “The Ballad of Mary’s Son”

Why Was Jesus Baptized?: insights from Theodore of Mopsuestia

One of the somewhat confusing issues in studying the gospels is the rationale for Jesus’ baptism. In fact, this issue was hotly debated and widely written about in the early church. The question goes like this, “If John’s baptism was a sign of repentance, then why would Jesus, who is described as sinless, undergo baptism?”

While studying for my message on Jesus’ baptism at Eastbrook for this past weekend, “Baptized with Water and Spirit,” I was encouraged and built up by insights from Theodore of Mopsuestia. Theodore was a church leader in present-day Turkey during the 4th and 5th centuries. These insights are taken from a fragment of his writings.

Many raise the question, What in fact was the nature of this baptism with which the Lord was baptized? What did it amount to, the baptism of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who, for the sake of the salvation of all, became human? As such he was to show himself to be the beginning of a certain paradoxical life on account of which he is called Adam, since for Adam’s sake and for the rest of those who have arisen from Adam he becomes the beginning of everlasting life, in the same way that Adam was the original of this temporary and mortal life.

This Jesus, I say, recapitulated in himself everything that pertains to our salvation. For just as he both died and rose again, we also shall do so, in the same way. Since necessarily we were to be symbolically transferred from this present life by baptism and settled in that life which is to come, he saw to it that this baptism should be fulfilled first of all in himself. In his providential dispensation of things, he had received, before all others, this baptism of adoption which is by water and the Spirit. He thereby showed this baptism to be great and honorable, in that he himself, first of all, truly accepted it. Moreover, he himself identified himself with that part of society outside the law of grace, in which we also take part. For it was fitting the the Lord, in humility of spirit, should become subject both the the prophet and Baptist, like a common person from among the people. He was baptized that he might hallow the waters and bestow upon us, through the basin, regeneration and adoption and remission of sins and all the other blessings that came to us through baptism, prefiguring them in himself. As God, however, he is the One “who takes away the sin of the world,” and as such he has no need of baptism.

[Theodore of Mopsuestia, found in Manlio Simonetti, ed., Matthew 1-13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture 1a (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 51.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 25 July 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


Lewis and Packer“Growing Young and Growing Old: The Legacies of John Lewis and J.I. Packer” – Russell Moore writes after the passing of two great figures last week: “Within a span of 24 hours, we learned of the deaths of two titanic figures—civil rights leader and United States Congressman John Lewis, and evangelical theologian J.I. Packer. Both were old—Lewis was 80 and Packer 93—but upon reflection, I couldn’t help but see each, in my own imagination, at radically different periods in life. With Lewis, I saw the smiling, young civil rights worker in the mug shot after his arrest in Mississippi. With Packer, I saw the frail, wizened theologian ambling through a library, a stack of books precariously cradled in his arms.”


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“Multiracial Congregations May Not Bridge Racial Divide” – Via NPR: “Twenty years ago, a sociologist at Rice University directed a study of efforts by white evangelical Christians to address racial inequality. Michael Emerson’s provocative conclusion, summarized in his book Divided By Faith and co-authored with Christian Smith, was that evangelicals ‘likely do more to perpetuate the racial divide than to tear it down,’ largely because they tended to worship in racially segregated congregations and viewed racial prejudice as an individual, not a societal, problem….Emerson then proposed an answer to the problem he had highlighted: If Christians of different racial backgrounds began worshipping together, he suggested, racial reconciliation could follow. In a 2004 book, United By Faith, a sequel to his earlier book, Emerson and a team of collaborators called for a new church movement.”


alan jacobs“Plurality and Unity” – From Alan Jacobs at his blog, Snakes and Ladders: “A few years ago I would have said that the greatest danger facing the Christians I know was a kind of carelessness about the truth, a shrugging at difference and disagreement; now I think it’s the opposite, a kind of premature foreclosure, which is a way of immanentizing the eschaton. Obviously in any group of people we will find both intellectual flaccidity and intellectual rigidity present, but I do think that rigidity is now in the ascendent, simply because it is in the ascendent in our ambient culture and Christians, for the most part, behave as their ambient culture behaves.”


J I Packer“6 Reasons Christians Worldwide Thank God for J.I. Packer”Ajith Fernando is one of my favorite Bible teachers and commentators. I really enjoyed his reflections on the worldwide appreciation for J. I. Packer after Packer’s passing last week. “Often when the church in the West commemorates the giants it produced, it forgets the contribution these leaders made to the church in the Global South, and the part they played in the renewal our churches are experiencing today. We have just seen the passing away of another of those giants: J. I. Packer. This is a personal reflection on his impact on my life, and I believe on the lives of many Christians in the majority world.”


Evans - systemic racism“What Is Systemic Racism (Dr. Tony Evans)” – There is a lot of discussion right now around issues of racism, sin, systemic racism, and systemic sin. This is not an easy topic to discuss but also requires a good deal of thoughtfulness in how we approach it. In this six minute video Dr. Tony Evans offers a fairly helpful look at the topic in his typically balanced manner.


what is the church?“What is ‘the Church’?” – In Comment, philosopher Peter Kreeft revisits a two-thousand-year-old question: what is “the Church”? His reflections reveal that the answer isn’t simple, which is to be expected. At the same time, Kreeft’s reflections should give us pause in this day of rethinking church and hopefully point us toward more meaningful engagement with who we are in Christ and what it means to be His people.


Music: Aretha Franklin, “Respect.”

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]