What is the Unforgiveable Sin?
“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity” (Ps. 32:1-2a). I seriously doubt if David, King of Israel, ever spoke more comforting and encouraging words than those. There is perhaps no greater joy than knowing that one’s sins have been forgiven. Continue reading . . .
“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity” (Ps. 32:1-2a). I seriously doubt if David, King of Israel, ever spoke more comforting and encouraging words than those. There is perhaps no greater joy than knowing that one’s sins have been forgiven.
There is in the reality of divine forgiveness a healing for the human soul that passes comprehension. There is a refreshing, a renewing power that can be found nowhere else. A prominent psychiatrist was once quoted as saying: “Half of my patients could go home in a week if they knew they were forgiven.”
That is why it is so comforting to know that our God is a forgiving God: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? . . . He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18-19; see Exodus 34:6-7a; Ps. 86:5; Ps. 103:2-3).
It is into the brilliant and blessed light of this truth concerning forgiveness that Mark 3:22-30 casts such a dark and depressing shadow. Here is Jesus declaring that “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (v. 29). On the one hand, Jesus says in John 6 that whoever comes to him he will by no means ever cast out. Yet, on the other hand, here in Mark 3 he says that whoever blasphemes the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, neither now nor in the age to come. Both statements must be true. What, then, do they mean?
This ominous declaration by Jesus doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Something happened to provoke it. So let’s look at the context.
The religious leaders had just witnessed Jesus cast out a demon from someone and they concluded from it that Jesus was himself possessed by Beelzebul or Satan and that it was in fact Satan himself who enabled Jesus to do this.
Mark doesn’t give us any more information about this incident, but Matthew does. In Matthew 12 we are told that a man who was both blind and mute, he couldn’t see or speak, was brought to Jesus. Jesus proceeded to cast out the demon and heal the man. Instantly he could see and speak. The miracle was incontestable and beyond dispute. No one doubted that he was truly blind and mute. And the scribes didn’t doubt that he was also demonized.
Matthew says that “all the people were amazed” (12:23): they were astounded, knocked back on their heels; they were left breathless. This was an unusually overwhelming miracle. It was so undeniably supernatural that the people begin to wonder whether or not Jesus might in fact be the Son of David, the Messiah.
Their options are limited. There are only two possible explanations for what happened. This was no magical sleight of hand. This wasn’t a case of some slick magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat or doing amazing things with a deck of cards. This man was blind and mute and everyone knew it. Either his healing was the work of God or of the Devil. Since they refused to acknowledge that it was God, they had no other options than to conclude Jesus did it by the power of Satan himself.
Our Lord’s response is profound. In essence he says, “Satan may be evil, but he’s not stupid!” That is to say, any kingdom or house or city that develops internal strife will ultimately self-destruct. Satan’s domain is no different. Aside from God himself, Satan is probably the most intelligent being in the universe. He is not so insane as to permit internal division or civil war among his demons. Satan is, above all else, committed to self-preservation. He will do nothing that might threaten or reduce his power. In other words, Satan would never be guilty of spiritual suicide.
Jesus isn’t saying that there is harmony or trust or loyalty in Satan’s kingdom. Undoubtedly every demon in existence is selfish and perverted. But Satan would never allow any demon to undermine his efforts. Quite simply, Satan does not cast out Satan.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. In Mark 3:27 he says that Satan is the “strong man.” His “house” or palace is this present world and his “goods” or property are the men and women whom he holds in darkness and spiritual bondage. But with the coming of Jesus, someone stronger has appeared and has assailed and conquered him. Jesus has come to plunder Satan’s kingdom by rescuing the men and women who have been held captive to do his will. With the coming of Jesus, the devil’s power has been broken. His kingdom has been conquered. His captives have been set free.
Jesus “binds” Satan, the “strong man,” by virtue of his sinless life, his resistance to the temptation in the wilderness, his authoritative teaching in which truth prevails over falsehood, and ultimately by virtue of his death, resurrection, and exaltation to the right hand of the Father. This, then, is the setting or context in which Jesus utters these ominous words about a sin that is beyond forgiveness.
All sins can be forgiven, says Jesus in Mark 3:27. Whatever blasphemies you utter, they too can be forgiven. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says that even sins committed against him, the Son of Man, can be forgiven. But “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (v. 29).
People have often said that the unforgiveable sin is murder. If you kill an innocent human being, God will never forgive you. But consider Moses, David, and Paul!
Others have argued that adultery is the unforgiveable sin. But again, David committed adultery and yet it was he who wrote the words about forgiveness in Psalm 32:1-2! And what about the woman taken in adultery in John 8 whom Jesus forgave and told her to go and sin no more? And what about the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4?
Maybe the unpardonable sin is denying Jesus under pressure or threat of persecution. But consider Peter.
Some have argued that suicide is the unforgiveable sin. But no text in either the Old or New Testaments ever says any such thing.
There are probably quite a few of you who have lived in fear that you committed the unforgiveable sin when you took the Lord’s name in vain. Perhaps in a moment of rage or bitterness or disappointment you cursed the Lord or strung together a bunch of expletives or used the ‘f’ word repeatedly or some such thing. Or perhaps in your frustration and confusion you angrily declared that God doesn’t exist or that he has miserably failed you. As serious as these sins are, they are not beyond forgiveness!
Jesus is very specific in identifying the nature of this sin: it is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit! The religious leaders were not being accused of blaspheming against Jesus himself. In fact, in Matthew’s gospel Jesus says that “whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man [i.e., against Jesus] will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matt. 12:32).
Why was their sin against the Holy Spirit and not against Jesus? Their sin was against the Spirit because it was by the power of the Spirit that Jesus performed his healings and miracles. Jesus himself said in Matthew 12:28 that it was “by the Spirit of God” that he “cast out demons.” Once again we see that the life Jesus lived, he lived in the power of the Spirit. The miracles he performed, he performed in the power of the Spirit.
What the religious leaders were saying is: “Jesus, we don’t deny that a great healing miracle has occurred. We don’t deny that you cast out a demon from that man. But the power by which you did it was the power of Satan.”
Thus their sin was attributing to the Devil what the Spirit did. They didn’t deny the existence of the supernatural. They didn’t deny the reality of the miracle. They simply said, in a remarkable display of hardness of heart and spiritual blindness: the Devil enabled and empowered you to do it.
But we still don’t know why this was regarded by Jesus as so heinous of a sin that it was beyond forgiveness. Why was this blasphemy of the Holy Spirit and his work so horrible, so reprehensible, so utterly outrageous that forgiveness becomes impossible?
The answer is found in the relationship between Jesus and the religious leaders and how they responded to him. Their repudiation of Jesus was not the result of ignorance or lack of evidence or because they believed the negative report of someone else who didn’t like Jesus.
Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is willful, wide-eyed slandering of the work of the Spirit, attributing to the devil what was undeniably divine. These people had seen as clearly as anyone could see and understood as lucidly as anyone could understand that Jesus performed his miracles by the power of the Spirit. Yet they defiantly insisted, contrary to what they knew to be true, that it was Satan who empowered him.
The miracles Jesus performed were credentials of heaven. The religious leaders declared them to be the credentials of hell. According to v. 30, they actually charged Jesus himself with being demonized! They didn’t merely deny Jesus’ deity. They, in effect, declared him to be a demon! His family thought may have thought he was mentally deranged, but the Pharisees declared him to be morally demonic.
This was not a one-time, momentary slip or inadvertent mistake in judgment. This was a persistent, life-long rebellion in the face of inescapable and undeniable truth.
Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is not a careless act committed only once in a moment of rage or rebellion, but a calloused attitude over time; a persistent defiance that hardens and calcifies the heart.
The Pharisees had been present when Jesus healed the sick. They saw him perform miracles up close and personal. They witnessed him raise the dead. They watched with their very eyes as skin infected with leprosy suddenly and decisively became clean and smooth and whole. They had heard him teach with power and authority. They had watched as demons fled his presence as he set free those in bondage. They watched with their own eyes as he gave sight to the blind. Notwithstanding all this, they openly and persistently and angrily and arrogantly declared that he did it all by the power of the Devil!
Blasphemy of the Spirit, therefore, is not just unbelief; the sort of unbelief or rejection or doubt that is so typical in our world. This is defiance of what one knows beyond any shadow of doubt to be true. It is not mere denial, but determined denial; not mere rejection but wanton, willful, wicked, wide-eyed rejection.
This sin, therefore, isn’t unforgiveable because there is a defect in the atoning death of Jesus. It isn’t unforgiveable because there is a limit to God’s grace and mercy or because of some other shortcoming in the character of God.
Mark makes it plain that sins are forgiven only if a person repents. Mark 1:4, "John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Mark 1:14, 15, "Jesus came into Galilee preaching the gospel and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.'" (See also 4:12; 6:12, and Acts 2:38 and 5:31.) In order for anyone to receive forgiveness of sins, they have to repent—that is, to turn from sin to God and trust his grace and follow him. So when Jesus says in Mark 3:28, "All sins will be forgiven the children of man and whatever blasphemies they utter," he means, all sins and blasphemies from which you genuinely repent.
Why, then, in verse 29 does Jesus seem to exclude one sin and one blasphemy from this promise: the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? I think the reason is that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit puts you beyond repentance, and therefore beyond forgiveness. Verse 29 is not an exception to verse 28. Jesus is not saying, All blasphemies that you repent of will be forgiven except blasphemy against the Spirit. He is saying, all blasphemies that you repent of will be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven because it puts you beyond repentance—you won't be able to repent of it. If a sin makes it impossible for you to repent, then that is an unforgivable sin, because forgiveness is promised only to those sins from which we genuinely repent (cf. 4:12).
This sin precludes pardon because by its very nature it precludes repentance. A sin of which one may repent is not the unpardonable sin. Therefore, those who are most worried that they may have committed the unpardonable sin have not. This is a sin for which there is no concern, no conviction, no anxiety, and thus no repentance. It is a sin that is so hard-hearted and willful and persistent and defiant that the one committing it couldn’t care less that he or she is committing it.
So, yes, it is possible to put yourself beyond the possibility of forgiveness. But that is not God’s fault. It is not for lack of mercy in him. It is not because he is limited in compassion or power or grace. It is because a man or woman who has seen the truth and heard the truth and even tasted the truth has chosen to harden their heart to the point that they have rendered themselves impervious to repentance and conviction.
Let me speak to those of you who are convinced you have committed the unforgiveable sin, or at least are fearful that you may have. A particular sin in your life has caused you massive internal anguish, indescribable emotional pain, piercing guilt, and a shame so heavy and paralyzing that you feel as if every breath of spiritual life is being squeezed out of you.
Trust me, I know about this because dozens and dozens of you have come to talk to me over the years. I can’t begin to count the number of people who are broken and shaking and weep endlessly and lose sleep and when they do sleep experience horrid nightmares because they are convinced they have committed a sin that God cannot or will not forgive.
Trust me: if I’ve just described you, I tell you on the authority of the Word of God, I tell you with absolute confidence and joy, you have not committed the unforgiveable sin!
• People who are ashamed of their sin have not committed the unforgiveable sin.
• People who feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, who sense the piercing presence of guilt for having violated God’s Word, have not committed the unforgiveable sin.
• People who are in fear they have committed the unforgiveable sin have not committed the unforgiveable sin!
• People who are broken by their sin, who are grieved by their sin, have not committed the unforgiveable sin.
The bottom line is that I know with complete confidence when you have not committed the unforgiveable sin. But I don’t know when, if at all, a person has committed a sin in such a way that they have put themselves beyond the forgiveness of God.
In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter if other people don’t or won’t forgive you. It doesn’t matter if you can or can’t forgive yourself. The only thing that ultimately matters is whether or not God has or has not forgiven you. That’s easy to find out: have you trusted Jesus Christ as your only hope for heaven? When you think about the cross (about communion), do you see in what Jesus did there, dying for sinners, satisfying the wrath of God for sinners, do you see there your only hope for forgiveness and reconciliation with God?
Our final question is: How should we live in view of this possibility?
The fact that there is an unforgivable sin—that there comes a point in a life of sin after which the Holy Spirit will no longer grant repentance—that fact should drive us from sin with fear and trembling. None of us knows when our toying with sin will pass over into irrevocable hardness of heart. Very few people feel how serious sin is.
You have heard the warning. Now hear the offer of grace. "All sins will be forgiven the sons of men and whatever blasphemies they utter." I urge you in the name of Christ: if by God's grace you can repent today of your sin, do it now, because you may not be able to tomorrow.