The Unpardonable Sin
What is the unpardonable sin?
There are only three places in the New Testament that refer to the unpardonable sin: Matthew 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-30; Luke 12:10. All three passages of Scripture must be interpreted together in order to arrive at a proper understanding of the unpardonable sin.
In Matthew 12:14 the Pharisees met together to decide how to destroy Jesus. Shortly thereafter, Jesus healed a demon-possessed man who was both blind and dumb (Mat. 12:22). Astounded, people began to wonder aloud if Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah. As soon as the Pharisees heard what people were saying, they launched their attack: “He only casts out devils by Beelzebul, the prince of the devils!”
Jesus responds to their attack by pointing out five things that render the Pharisees’ accusation not only absurd but wicked (Mat. 12:25-30).
- First, Satan would be working against himself if he cast out demons. In other words, he would be destroying his own kingdom (12:25-26).
- Second, since the Pharisees’ own children cast out demons, they of all people should know that it can be done only by the power of God (12:27).
- Third, Jesus asserts that if he cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God had arrived. In other words, he was indeed the Messiah (12:28).
- Fourth, the only way to plunder the devil is to bind him. If he is bound, then he is not loose and active (12:29).
- Fifth, a bad tree does not produce good fruit (12:33). Since all the fruit of his ministry had been good, it should be obvious that He himself was good and not bad.
In between his fourth and fifth points Jesus lowers the boom: “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come” (Mat. 12:31-32).
Mark’s account is even more emphatic: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:29). Luke records Jesus’ saying as “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him” (Luke 12:10).
The unpardonable sin is blaspheming the Holy Spirit. But what is “blaspheming the Holy Spirit?” If we fail to situate the phase “blaspheme the Holy Spirit” in context, we will assuredly misunderstand what Jesus meant.
In context, the Pharisees were not using the Holy Spirit as a curse word. They were not cursing or reviling the Holy Spirit directly. They were certainly not denying the existence of the Holy Spirit. Mark 3:30 gives us a clear explanation of what they were doing: “because they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” Mark’s phrase “were saying” indicates the Pharisees were repeatedly asserting, “He has an unclean spirit.” This then is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit: to deliberately attribute what one knows to be the work of the Holy Spirit to the prince of devils, Satan.
Both John Wesley and Adam Clarke come to this same conclusion. As Clarke says, “… when [a] person obstinately attributed those works to the devil, which he had the fullest evidence could be wrought only by the Spirit of God. That this, and nothing else, is the sin against the Holy Spirit, is evident from the connection in this place, and more particularly from Mark 3:28‑30.”
For a much more comprehensive treatment of the history of interpretation on this subject, I recommend the journal article of Dr. Bill Combs, “The Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” His article is online at http://www.dbts.edu/journals/2004/Combs.pdf.