What’s the “Unforgivable Sin?” And How Could God Make Such a Person New?
Question: I am confused about a verse in Matthew 12:32. Any help on this would be appreciated. And how do we reconcile both Matthew 12:31-32 & 1 Corinthians 15:22 “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven, and 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.” Matthew 12:31-32 “As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” 1 Corinthians 15:22
Response: Matthew 12:31-32 has given commentators, of every theological variety, fits for two thousand years. Actually, I think Jesus meant it to do just that. For when you chew on it, it opens some pretty fascinating doors. When I preached through Matthew, I addressed it in a sermon titled “The Sign of Jonah”. You can find it on our church website here if you’d like to explore Matthew 12:31-32 more, but for now, how do we reconcile those texts?
Well here are a bunch of thoughts:
Matt. 12:32 is a challenge for anyone, but especially those that hold to an unlimited atonement. Didn’t Jesus die for the sins of the world? “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2).
Even for those who don’t think Jesus died for the sins of the “whole world,” what is so special about the “blasphemy against the Spirit.”?
It’s interesting that Jesus begins by saying, “Every sin… will be forgiven people…except blasphemy against the Spirit.” Blasphemy against the Spirit isn’t listed as one of the sins in Jesus’ story of the Sheep and Goats in Matt. 25, nor is it in the list in Rev. 22:15 where John describes those outside of the New Jerusalem. That would clearly imply that all those sins are forgiven. That’s amazing… but how is this one different?
It occurred to me that there is one other “unforgiveable sin” or maybe it’s the same sin? “…but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” That’s what Jesus says in Mathew 6:15. All of us have refused forgiveness to others at some point. We weren’t forgiven until we also forgave. Perhaps Jesus meant the same thing in Mathew 12: “You’re not forgiven until you stop blaspheming the Spirit.” Just like, “You’re not forgiven until you forgive.”
The word translated “forgive” is the Greek word aphiemi. It means to “let go” or “release.” In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” When you forgive a debt, you release that debt – you tell the debtor that they don’t have to pay. Even if you don’t forgive a debt, it can be canceled through payment. In Christ, we don’t have to pay the debt for our sins… but maybe, in some way, we have to pay for this one.
Every commentator that I’ve read on this verse seems to argue that “blaspheming the Holy Spirit” is rejecting the testimony and work of the Spirit. In the context of Matt. 12, Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees who argue that Jesus casts out Satan with Satan rather than the Holy Spirit. You’ll remember that the Spirit is sent to testify to the work of Christ (John 16:7-15). If we reject the testimony of the Spirit, we also reject the work of the cross; we reject God’s forgiveness; we reject God’s Grace. This was the sin of the Pharisees and the religious leaders.
I don’t think that means that they could never be redeemed, for indeed Scripture is pretty clear that “all Israel will be saved” (Ezekiel 37:11-14, Romans 11:26, etc.). Actually, Paul was one of these Pharisees, or at least one like them, and it seems to me that he blasphemed the Spirit. The Lord said to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard to kick against the goads.” (Acts 26:14) What would those goads be but the promptings of the Holy Spirit? If that’s the case, Saul wasn’t “forgiven” or “released” of his unbelief until he paid with belief.
Commentators will say that it’s “persistent unbelief,” the idea being that at a certain point God’s patience runs out or reaches its limit.
That doesn’t make sense to me.
How could we come to the end of God’s patience, when Scripture is clear that His Mercy NEVER comes to an end?
In Scripture, there are prescribed penalties for all sorts of sins and Jesus pays the penalty for them all. But I can think of no prescribed penalty for a “lack of faith in Grace” other than having “faith in Grace.” In other words, “lack of faith in Grace” will not be “forgiven;” you cannot enter the Kingdom, without “Faith in Grace.” Indeed, “Faith in God’s Grace, in Christ,” is the Kingdom. The Spirit is the one who gives us that faith. I think Jesus is saying, “You can only be saved by faith through Grace in Grace.” Jesus is that Grace—come to us, and the Spirit testifies to His Truth in our hearts. So when the Pharisees looked at Jesus and attributed His work in the Spirit to Satan, perhaps Jesus was saying: “That will have to change; that cannot be released.”
In the same way, I can’t enter the Kingdom of Forgiveness unless I also forgive – unless I have faith in Grace. Lack of faith in forgiveness is unforgiveable… I think that’s what it means. We have all lacked faith in forgiveness.
Lack of faith in Grace is the old man; the flesh and the works of the flesh. The old man must die and is not “forgiven.”
The degree to which we lack faith in forgiveness is the degree to which we’re stuck in Hell. This all fits with what Jesus goes on to say in Matthew 20:1-15, when He tells the parable of the Vineyard. The ones that end up outside are the ones that “begrudge” the master’s generosity; the one’s that don’t like Grace; the ones that aren’t “forgiven” are the ones that hate the master’s “forgiveness.”
That’s the amazing irony in Christ’s words. It’s the people that hang on to the idea of others in Hell that are most likely to spend some time there. “…many will come from east and west and recline at table…while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matt. 8:12-13). But did you notice, they’re still called “sons of the kingdom?” It seems that God uses the “outer darkness” to help people receive the testimony of the Spirit, call out for Grace, have faith in Grace, and forgive as they are forgiven.
In 1 Timothy 1:20, Paul talks about two men that he has “delivered” (paradidomai) to Satan that they may “learn not to blaspheme (same word).” In 1 Corinthians 5:5, Paul talks about “delivering” a man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit might be saved on the day of the Lord. Maybe this “blasphemy” is the “blasphemy against the spirit.” It is not “released,” that is forgiven, it is destroyed and the person guilty of this blasphemy must “learn not to blaspheme.” That is: You can’t pay for blasphemy with something else, the guilty must “learn not to blaspheme.” As Karl Barth puts it, God “burns them right down to faith.” This happens at the “day of the Lord,” the Judgment, the end of the age.
So you cannot be forgiven “blasphemy against the Spirit.” You must “learn not to blaspheme,” and perhaps this is what “delivering” a person to Satan is all about. I think the verses in 1 Cor.5 and in 1 Tim. 1:20 are thoroughly fascinating, for Paul is saying that God uses Satan to destroy the flesh. That’s why Paul gives these guys over. Perhaps that’s the only reason that anyone is given over to Satan.
Some argue that there is a time after “this age and the age to come”… so these folks (“not forgiven in this age or the age to come”) will be forgiven this blasphemy then (at the end of this age and the next). Technically, they have a point about the ages, since Jesus is the “end of the ages,” however this misses the point in my opinion.
Well, that’s a long answer. I hope it helps.
I’m not arguing it’s all right, but it’s my best shot at understanding a really challenging chunk of Scripture.