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.

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