We have all heard the phrase “the unpardonable sin.” Some people worry a great deal about committing such a sin. Others simply ignore this passage, hoping it will go away. When I was a college professor, I was surprised at how many students were plagued by the fear that they had committed the unpardonable sin and were in danger of burning in hell forever.
We should first notice that our passage does not use the words “unpardonable sin.” That’s a term we have used based on questionable interpretations. So, what does this passage say about such a terrible sin? As we seek to define and understand the sin Jesus referred to, let us first say what it is not.
- It is not suicide. For years people have claimed that suicide is unforgiveable because once we have killed ourselves, we have no opportunity to ask for forgiveness. This passage in no way hints that the particular sin Jesus was referring to was suicide. I’ve often been asked (sometimes by grieving family members whose loved one has committed suicide) what God will do with those who kill themselves. My response has always been, “I believe God will take them into God’s arms and say something like, ‘You found life too difficult to bear. I understand. Let me love you into your healing.’”
- It’s definitely not some sexual activity done alone or with another person other than one’s marriage partner. (Most of the college students who approached me anxious over whether they had committed “the unpardonable sin” understood that sin to be sexual in nature.) Our passage in no way even hints at sex being involved with that particular sin. I suggest that those who understand this Scripture in that light need a boatload of counseling to deal with their own sexual neuroses.
- Others suggest that the “unpardonable sin” is anything said disrespectful about the Holy Spirit. I heard one preacher say that if you even think anything disrespectful about the Holy Spirit, you are condemned to hell. How can anyone believe that God can be so petty! You can say “G D” and be forgiven or curse Christ, but if you disrespect the Holy Spirit, you’re toast! Such an insane interpretation is beneath the dignity of humans who are supposed to have reason.
- “We don’t know what it is, but if you do it, you’re going to fry.” So, we are kept on pins and needles. Did we do it, or did we not? This approach to the unpardonable sin reminds me of the “secret word” on the old Groucho Marx Show in which there was a secret word and if those being interviewed by Marx said that word, they received $100—except in this case, instead of $100, we get hell fire! How could a God who is love possibly set such a cruel trap for unsuspecting humans whom Jesus called “children of God”? Here’s a bit of wisdom we should all bear in mind regardless of the theological question or issue. If you know of someone (especially if that someone is you) whose goodness, love, compassion, forgiveness, grace, and joy are greater than that of your God, you need to jettison that god and discover the God of unconditional love Jesus came to proclaim and incarnate.
One basic rule in interpreting Scripture is to look carefully at the context of a passage. I remember one seminary professor, so exasperated with the distorted interpretations of Scripture he found in his students’ sermons, saying, “Boys, when all else fails, look at the context.”
We should first note that a healing has taken place–a blind and mute man was restored whole so that he could see and speak. This miracle of healing aroused faith in some people as they wondered if this Jesus might be the Messiah. But the religious leaders replied that Jesus was not even from God–he was from Satan. He was in league with the devil who empowered him so to act.
Jesus’ first response to such a charge is to point out the ludicrous nature of such a statement. Satan is a power working for and rejoicing in evil, suffering, brokenness, division, sickness, death, and hatred while Jesus by word and deed–by his presence and his actions worked for and rejoiced in goodness, wholeness, healing, reconciliation, life, and love. Evil would not share its power with such a person. And the very suggestion that Satan would do so was an indictment not of Jesus but of those who would even think of such a thing.
Then Jesus makes that statement which had been the source of so much speculation and anxiety for Christians throughout the ages.
“Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
We must first ask what the function of the Spirit of God is in Scripture. I suggest that the functions of the Holy Spirit relevant to this passage are the following:
- To point us to God
- To reveal our sin
- To guide and empower us on the right paths in life
The Spirit is that involvement of God which shows us what is good and what is evil–what is of God and what is of sin–what is of eternal value and what is ultimately destructive. The Spirit is not our consciences, but the Spirit can speak to our consciences, to our hearts through others, through events, and through the Word. And the Spirit of God is supremely at work in Jesus: “If by the Spirit of God I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you.”
But how did the religious leaders respond to Jesus’ presence and his miracles of healing? They looked at a work of mercy and called it a deed of evil. They saw an act of love and labeled it wickedness from the pits of hell. What we see in this passage is a determined, habitual, and willful rejection of the presence and works of God–a negative attitude toward God, goodness, and love that is nurtured until it grows and becomes firmly and irremovably rooted in a person’s mind and heart.
What Jesus is talking about is not a matter of ignorance, for the ignorant can be informed.
It is not a matter of weakness, for the weak can be strengthened.
It is not a matter of being mistaken once or occasionally or accidentally, for those mistaken can be corrected.
What Jesus is talking about is a set, willful rejection of God, God’s work, and God’s ways in our world–a willful blindness that is determined not to see.
If this is a correct reading of our passage, we should understand that the “unpardonable sin” is not a mistake God is unwilling to forgive. It is a sin by which people render themselves unforgivable. They refuse to see until they can no longer see. They refuse to love until they can no longer love. They refuse to listen to the voice of God until they can no longer hear that Word which alone can redeem them. They call God Satan, good evil, love hate, right wrong, and the truth a lie until they can no longer tell the difference.
It is not that God won’t forgive. God is always waiting in love to forgive and redeem. But is it possible that through a willful blindness we can make ourselves incapable of asking for and receiving forgiveness? If you go outside in the sunlight and close your eyes, you have not put out the light. It still shines. But you have put out your sight. And in the same way, if we close ourselves to God, goodness, and love, that doesn’t mean they are not there–it’s just we have rendered ourselves incapable of recognizing and receiving them.
And that is the awful warning behind Jesus’ words. We can perhaps so mar our hearts and consciences through willful, perpetual, stubborn blindness to the point that we make ourselves unredeemable.
So what does all this say to us? First, an enlightened understanding of this text should relieve those who worry so much about whether they have committed the “unpardonable sin.” Surely God is not so capricious as to punish someone forever for one mistake, especially if the error was made from ignorance or out of a moment of weakness. Besides, if someone is always asking if he has committed such a sin, he can be pretty sure he hasn’t since he is so concerned about obeying God. No willful blindness or deliberate deafness is involved here–maybe some pathological, sick religion but no damning sin.
Second, we should note that Jesus himself does not say that the religious leaders had committed this sin. He warned them of what willful blindness can do, but not even Jesus will accuse another of that of which only God can be sure. Humility requires that we apply this warning only to ourselves.
And thirdly, it would be easy for us to leave here today confident that we need no such warning. Certainly we are not guilty of such a willful blindness, deliberate deafness, and hardened heart as described in this passage. Surely we do not habitually call good evil, right wrong, truth lie, and love hate.
Perhaps we do not, but it is a sobering thought to realize that this–Jesus’ sternest warning–was given to religious leaders who were probably also pretty sure of their devotion to God and to what is right in the world.
We should not stay awake at night worrying about whether we have committed the “unpardonable sin,” for worry is essentially a distrust of God. But it wouldn’t hurt for us from time to time to ask the Great Physician to check our vision, test our hearing, and tenderize our hearts so that we can see, hear, and feel the Spirit of God in our midst.
On that last night Jesus took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Jeremiah first spoke of this new covenant over five centuries before Christ. And in this covenant Jeremiah represents God saying, “I will forgive your iniquity and remember your sin no more.” Contrary to the images many have of the Almighty, the God of Jesus Christ has no desire to dwell on our sins.
When Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” he was announcing the Good News that God desires to forgive and forget and to move us on into the New Creation made possible through divine love and mercy.
At this Table God allows life to begin again on a higher plane of joy. So come and eat from the bread of life and drink from the new covenant in which your sins are forgiven and forgotten forever.
The writer of I John begins his letter by celebrating “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.”
If we have shared in that sacramental mystery at this Table, then we have no excuse for willful blindness, deliberate deafness, and intentional insensitivity. We who have seen the Light, heard the Word, and been embraced by Love Incarnate know the Spirit of God. So, as we go into the world, may we heed the Spirit’s bidding.
Depart now in the fellowship of the Spirit.
In that intimate communion, may your eyes be opened to God’s movement of grace,
May your ears listen for the Word breaking forth all around you,
And may your heart beat with the pulse of God’s New Creation as you walk in the way of Jesus. Amen.