The Unforgivable Sin
by James Akin
"[A] blind and dumb demoniac was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the dumb man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, 'Can this be the Son of David?' But when the Pharisees heard it they said, 'It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.'
"Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, 'Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand; and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?
"'And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the
"'Or how can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.
"'He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says 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" (Matthew 12:22-32).
The unforgivable sin is a scary thing. It is so scary that in the Summa Theologiae Aquinas devoted a special question with four articles to this form of blasphemy alone. Today virtually every Christian counseling manual contains a chapter on the sin to help counselors deal with patients who are terrified that they have already or might sometime commit this sin.
Unfortunately, much of the things one reads in Protestant literature on this subject is way off base. My favorite idiotic reading of Jesus' discussion of the unforgivable sin is one which says that no one today can commit the unforgivable sin because this sin was to attribute the work of Jesus to demons and no Christian can do this since Jesus is no longer on earth. Aside from the fact that Jesus explicitly says in the very same verse that every blasphemy against him will be forgiven (Matt. 12:32a). However, it is more obviously false because Jesus does not have to be on earth to attribute his work to demons.
While most interpretations of the passage do not go to the extreme of saying that nobody today can commit the sin, many American Protestant readings (at least those written by Calvinists and Baptists) make the mistake of assuming that no Christian can commit the sin. This is because the authors of these interpretations are theologically boxed in to saying that no true Christian can lose his salvation. This is, of course, a grotesquely unbiblical view. However, this need not detain us because even though they have mistakenly assumed no Christian can commit the unforgivable sin, they have correctly identified its nature -- final impenitence.
The identification of the unforgivable sin as final impenitence -- dying in a state of unrepentance -- can be shown to go back at least to the time of Augustine. In fact, in the Summa Aquinas gives a nice little catalogue of Augustine's passages dealing with the subject:
"Augustine says . . . (Enchiridion lxxxiii) that 'he who dies in a state of obstinacy is guilty of the sin against the Holy Ghost,' and (De Verb. Dom., Serm. lxxi) that 'impenitence is a sin against the Holy Ghost,' and (De Serm. Dom. in Monte xxii), that 'to resist fraternal goodness with the brands of envy is to sin against the Holy Ghost,' and in his book De unico Baptismo (De Bap. contra Donat. vi, 35) he says that 'a man who spurns the truth, is either envious of his brethren to whom the truth is revealed, or ungrateful to God, by Whose inspiration the Church is taught,' and therefore, seemingly, sins against the Holy Ghost" (ST 2b:14:2, Sed Contra).
This interpretation of the text is shown by an exegesis of the text in question. Matthew's account of the saying is the longest and most detailed and, consequently, the one which elaborates this scary doctrine the most and the one which should be used as the basis for interpretation.
In Matthew 12, Jesus' opponents among the Pharisees try to refute the people's speculation that Jesus might be the Messiah (v 23) by suggesting he is casting out demons with Satan's permission--that he is doing pretend exorcisms in order to play a demonic hoax on the people and lead them to falsely believe he is the Messiah. Jesus refutes this charge in vv 25-29.
Beelzebul is another form of the name Baal-Zebul ("Prince Baal"), one of the names of the ancient pagan god Baal. Earlier, Jews had mocked Baal-Zebul by referring to him as Baal-Zebub ("Baal Fly" or, less literally, "Lord of the flies"). He is referred to in the Old Testament as the God of the city of
In response, Jesus makes a series of statements, of which only one deals with the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. First he says:
"Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand; and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?" (12:25-26).
Jesus' first argument for why he is not casting out demons by Satan is that it would pit Satan's own forces against himself and tear apart his kingdom of darkness. Satan and his demons are psychologically incapable of voluntarily letting go a person they have possessed. Only God's grace will deliver such a person. If Satan were to order a demon to strategically remove from a person, his kingdom would be torn apart by civil war. Jesus' critics are therefore ignorant of the psychology of demons.
For his second statement, Jesus says:
"And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (12:27-28).
Here Jesus acknowledges that some Jews in his day had the power to exorcise demons, however Jesus' own exorcisms were greater since he was able to cast out spirits of dumbness, which Jews were not able to do (9:32-33) since part of the Jewish exorcism involved getting the demon's name and using it to drive him out, and of course a spirit of dumbness would not/could not give its name. Jesus, however, could do this surprising feat, as this passage indicates (12:22). Thus if Jesus' miracles are greater than those of the Jews and his opponents reject the greater miracles, they will have to reject the lesser ones also (a fortiori). Jesus' opponents are thus in the dilemma of either having to deny the validity of their sons' exorcisms or acknowledging that in Jesus and his exorcisms the kingdom of God has arrived. Thus the members of their own group will condemn them on judgment day for not recognizing the godly exorcisms performed in their midst.
For Jesus' third argument, Jesus states:
"Or how can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house" (12:29)
Jesus presents himself as plundering the house of "the strong man" (Satan) be delivering those who are in the power of the devil. But in order to plunder Satan's house, it is first necessary to bind Satan in such a way that he cannot stop people from being delivered from his clutches. Thus, while Satan may still be active in some ways, he is bound in such a way that he cannot stop Jesus' ministry of exorcism.
Jesus thus shows he cannot be driving out demons by Satan's permission, because Satan would never permit his captives to be stolen from him if he were able to stop it. He regards them as his property and would use force to keep them from being taken from him, just as any homeowner would protect his belongings, but Jesus is too strong for him and is able to powerfully deliver them from satanic oppression.
The parable of the strong man is also applicable to evangelism, and this is the theme brought out by Jesus' next statement:
"He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says 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." (12:30-32)
Much of the confusion over the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is caused by the fact that people do not recognize that this statement is only one in a series that Jesus makes and because they do not recognize that it begins with the word "therefore," which connects it to the preceding statement. In fact, the connective force between 12:30 and 12:31 is stronger than "therefore." In Greek, Jesus says, dia touto or "through this." This is even more forceful in relating v. 30 to v. 31. He gives the general statement about the necessity to ally oneself with him or else be decisively separated from him and then says, "through this I tell you that you won't be forgiven . . . "
In the preceding verse, Jesus asserts (v 30) that one must ally with him or be opposed to him and "through this" he tells us (v 31) that the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Blaspheming the Spirit is thus a failure to repent and ally oneself with Jesus. Since this can always be done during one's life (cf. 20:1-15), blasphemy against the Holy Spirit must be a final refusal to repent, or final impenitence.
Thus the official stand of the Catholic Church's, following Augustine and a whole host of subsequent moral theologians, is that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is final impenitence. Pope John Paul II writes:
"Against the background of what has been said so far, certain other words of Jesus, shocking and disturbing ones, become easier to understand. . . . They are reported for us by the Synoptics in connection with a particular sin which is called 'blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.' . . . Why is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit unforgivable? How should this blasphemy be understood? Saint Thomas Aquinas replies that it is a question of a sin that is 'unforgivable by its very nature, insofar as it excludes the elements through which the forgiveness of sin takes place' (ST 2b:14:3). According to such an exegesis, 'blasphemy' does not properly consist in offending against the Holy Spirit in words; it consists rather in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit, working through the power of the Cross. If man rejects the 'convincing concerning sin' which comes from the Holy Spirit and which has the power to save, he also rejects the 'coming' of the Counsellor . . . If Jesus says that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven either in this life or in the next, it is because this 'non-forgiveness' is linked, as to its cause, to 'non-repentance', in other words to the radical refusal to be converted. . . . Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then, is the sin committed by the person who claims to have a 'right' to persist in evil--in any sin at all . . . [T]he Church constantly implores with the greatest fervor that there will be no increase in the world of the sin that the Gospel calls 'blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.' Rather, she prays that it will decrease in human souls" (Encyclical Letter Dominum et Vivificantem ["The Lord and Giver of Life"] 46-47).
With this in mind, let us look at a couple of verses in Hebrews that are often thought (wrongly) to pertain to the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit -- Hebrews 6:4-6 and 10:26-29.
Hebrews 10:26-27 is often translated like this: "For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there remains no sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries."
As is often pointed out, the sin being spoken of in this context is apostasy back to Judaism, and so long as one continues to sin by remaining in Judaism after having once accepted the Messiah, there is no sacrifice for one's sins besides the one Messiah offered. (Though there is also a more general truth here about apostasy from Christianity in general, such as going back to secularism, Buddhism, etc., as well as a more general truth about a continuous failure to repent, a continuous practice of mortal sin.)
However, if this is all the work done with the verse, it leaves the impression that those who go back to Judaism (or whatever) cannot be saved. This is of course false.
The verb "sin" in this verse is present tense (as are the verbs "remains" and "will consume"). Since present tense in Greek typically indicates an ongoing, continuous action, the passage can better be translated as: "For if we continuously sin deliberately, after having once received the knowledge of the truth, there continuously remains no further sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will continuously consume the adversaries."
So if one ceases to continuously sin by remaining apart from the Messiah, then Messiah's sacrifice for one's sins becomes operative again. It is now available for one since one has stopped the continuous sin of apostasy and can now be united with Christ. (Note the parallelism of the continuous sinning with the continuous remaining of no further sacrifice; when the former vanishes, the latter does as well--and the same is true of a person who continuously fails to repent of sin in general.) Thus if an apostate (to Judaism or whatever else) ceases to be an apostate, he can be saved. There is no unforgivable sin taught in this text.
Hebrews 6:1-6 reads like this:
"1 Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, 2 instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. 3 And God permitting, we will do so.
"4 It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6 if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace."
The first two verses tell us about "the elementary teachings of Christ"--that is, the basic truths of the Christian faith. This is important because it will set us up for the discussion of apostasy.
Note that they walk us through an ordo salutis--the stages of the Christian life: repentance, faith, baptism, laying on of hands (i.e., confirmation), resurrection, and judgment. Two truths preceding Christian initiation (repentance and faith), two truths at initiation (baptism and confirmation), and two truths at the end of the Christian life (resurrection and judgment).
The author says he won't go over the basic teachings of Christ again because it is impossible to renew to repentance those who have fallen away. This is often a very problematic verse (especially for those who believe it is impossible to lose one's salvation), and is often thought to pertain to the unforgivable sin. However, this is not the case.
To see why, we must first eliminate a dodge that is often used to render this verse a counterfactual hypothetical. As it appears in many English translations, v. 6 is often opened with the clause "if they fall away." However, this is not an accurate rendering of the Greek text, as even eternal securitists (such as
"It is impossible for those who (a) have once been enlightened, (b) have tasted the heavenly gift, (c) and have been made partakers in the Holy Spirit, (d) and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, (e) and have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are re-crucifying the Son of God and subjecting him to public disgrace."
Or more shortly:
"It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened . . . and have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are re-crucifying the Son of God and subjecting him to public disgrace."
The Greek of the passage presents the falling away as an accomplished fact, not a hypothetical possibility. (Thus an eternal securitist would have to say that they were never inwardly a Christian to begin with, only outwardly.)
Nevertheless, the passage does not pertain to the unforgivable sin. Many have misread the passage, being misled by the hypothetical ("if . . .") translation of v 6, and have argued: "If a person did fall away thenthey could not come back because they would have to re-crucify Christ, and that is impossible since he died only once!"
But this is simply not what the passage says. It does not say that if one tried to come back one would have to re-crucify Christ. It does not present the re-crucifixion as something that would need to happen if someone came back. It presents the re-crucifixion as a present reality. Just read the text: "because to their loss they are re-crucifying [present tense, active voice in both Greek and English] the Son of God and subjecting him to public disgrace." The text says that the apostates are re-crucifying Christ now, not that they would need to if they came back.
This is where understanding the Jewish context (and content) of the letter is so important. By returning to Judaism, the apostates are declaring that Jesus was a false Messiah (else they would not leave faith in him as the true Messiah). But by declaring Jesus to be a false Messiah, they are declaring that he deserved what he got when he was crucified--because it is axiomatic that every false Messiah deserves death and public humiliation. They, like the fox in Aesop's fable "The fox and the grapes," are having an attack of sour grapes and were running around saying: "Well, he wasn't the real Messiah. He deserved what he got. He deserved to be crucified and put to public humiliation. As it says in the Torah, 'Cursed is every man who is hung upon a tree!'"
Thus the re-crucifixion and humiliation of Christ was something the apostates were doing while they were maintaining their rebellion against the Messiah they had once accepted. This indicates an enormous hardness of heart, which is why the author tells us, "It is impossible for those . . . to be brought back to repentance." The hardness of their hearts prevents it.
This is, of course, a practical rule rather than a dogmatic (absolute) rule. Because of the hardness of heart the Jewish apostates are displaying by publicly denouncing Jesus, declaring that he deserved crucifixion and humiliation, it is as a practical matter impossible to renew them to repentance and faith in Christ. This does not in any way mean it is an absolute impossibility to renew them to repentance, for "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God" (Mark. 10:27).
One must be aware in Scripture of the difference between practical and dogmatic statements. Failure to recognize this is often what generates cults. A cult will pick a statement and absolutize it, when in reality it may only be expressing a practical truth. For example, some absolutize Jesus' statements in Matthew 6 about not doing one's righteous acts in front of men, and ignore his statements in Matthew 5 about the need to let our light shine before men so they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father in heaven. The fact is that neither the Matthew 5 or the Matthew 6 statements are absolute rules, but practical rules to be observed on different occasions (i.e., bearing in mind whether doing a good deed publicly would lead people to glorify or curse God or whether I would be doing it just to gain praise for myself).
In the same way, the statement "It is impossible for those . . . to be renewed to repentance" is simply a practical rule. It is only because of their hardness of their hearts that it is a waste of time to argue with them. It is more prudent, as a matter of evangelism, to talk to people who aren't that hostile toward Christ and who are more likely to give you a hearing.
This special animus against the person of Christ would not be present in those who were not Jews and who thus would not resent him as much as a false Messiah upon returning to their former religions. Thus a person today who went back to secularism, for example, would not hate Jesus as a Messianic pretender and would not say, "He deserved what he got!" the way a first century Jew would. In fact, an apostate to secularism might still even admire Jesus in a kind of nebulous way as a good and wise teacher.
Thus modern apostates are much easier to reclaim from there repudiation of the faith than first century Jewish apostates were. In fact, this has been the case throughout history. For example, those who had denied the faith during the persecutions of the early centuries often came back to the Church and were received back into membership (after a period of penance) once the persecution stopped. The practical rule that it is impossible to renew an apostate to repentance is thus a general rule only for the early Jewish apostates the book of Hebrews was discussing, not later ones (though of course an individual later apostate may be so hard of heart he will never come back, but this does not apply to later apostates as a group).
Apostasy, contrary to some interpretations, is not the unforgivable sin. Like the parallel sins against faith -- infidelity, schism, and heresy -- it only becomes an unforgivable sin if one dies in it. Until death it is always possible, God willing, for an infidel to convert, for a schismatic to return from his schism, for a heretic to renounce his heresy, and for an apostate to re-embrace the faith of Christ.