Doctrine Ch.18 - Unforgivable Sin

Jews believed that the sin of blasphemy was unforgivable, and although Jesus took this belief seriously, he also offered a solution. But what does Hebrews mean when it refers to a sinner who cannot be brought to repent?

I’m sure I’m not the only church leader to experience a very particular kind of sinking feeling when someone approaches and says: “I think I’ve committed the unforgivable sin.” Their terrible burden of guilt may come from something they’ve done, perhaps long in the past. Often, no amount of reassurance of God’s forgiveness will remove it.

       For the Jews listening to Jesus’ words recorded in Matt 12:31-32; Mark 3:28-29; and Luke 12:8-10, his mention of an unforgiveable sin wouldn’t have prompted any surprise, because they knew all about this. They already believed that the sin of using God’s name in a derogatory way was unforgivable. They concluded this from the unique and terrible warning in the Ten Commandments: “The LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name” (Exod 20:7 = Deut 5:11). These words didn’t occur with regard to any other command, so presumably the others could be forgiven if you repented.

5-minute summary

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Reviling God

This “misuse” of God’s name wasn’t simply speaking the name—you had to use it in a derisory or reviling way—that is, in what we now call a “blasphemous” way. The text is a little confusing to us because the Greek verb blasphemeĊ means “to revile/slander,” so it can refer to humans as well as God. For example, it is used when Paul was “reviled” (Acts 13:45; 18:6). This explains the strange phrase “All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven” (Matt 12:31 KJV), which is much more helpfully translated in the NIV: “every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven.”

       When Jesus told his hearers that reviling the Holy Spirit was unforgivable, the Jews listening to him realized he was referring to the sin of reviling God, because they knew that this was the only sin that was unforgivable. Jesus said (paraphrasing Mark 3:28-29): “You can revile anyone and it will be forgiven, but you’ll not be forgiven if you revile …” Now, at this point, his Jewish audience would have expected him to say “God,” but he said something shocking instead: “You’ll not be forgiven if you revile the Holy Spirit.” By saying this, Jesus was declaring that the Holy Spirit is God. Only God is so great that reviling him could not be forgiven, so if the same is true about the Holy Spirit, then he, too, must be God. This concept was something completely new and difficult for the Jews. They knew about the Holy Spirit (he is mentioned in Ps 51 and Isaiah, as well as in rabbinic writings), but they regarded him as separate from God.

Forgiving the unforgivable

Some Jewish rabbis were puzzled that the Ten Commandments could include a sin that God didn’t forgive even when someone repented. The problem was “solved” by Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha in the second century by concluding it was forgiven at their death. All other repented sins were forgiven at the Day of Atonement, but you remained guilty of this terrible sin throughout your life until the day you died. This solution meant that it was still true that “the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless” for this sin, though a repentant person could be forgiven at their death. However, Christians didn’t need to resort to this kind of reasoning, because they knew there was a better solution to all sin.

       Christians don’t rely on the Day of Atonement or other sacrifices to deal with their sins. For Christians, all repented sins are now covered by Jesus’ sacrifice, so they are all forgivable—even the sin of blasphemy. So for Christians, there is no unforgivable sin.

       One curiosity in this passage is that Jesus didn’t include himself and even denied that those who reviled “the Son of Man” were committing this unforgivable sin (Matt 12:32). My guess is that he didn’t expect anyone to recognize his divinity until after his resurrection, so at that point he didn’t class this as the same kind of sin. After Jesus had conquered death, such doubt was no longer an excuse. Jesus’ divinity became plain even to Thomas, who declared: “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

Refusing to repent

There is another passage in Hebrews that could possibly be interpreted to refer to an unforgivable sin, because it says that some people can’t be persuaded to repent of their sin: “It is impossible for those who ... have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance” (Heb 6:4, 6). Later the author points out how serious it is to reject Jesus now that he has died and risen: “No sacrifice for sins is left” for those who “deliberately keep on sinning” because, in effect, they have “trampled the Son of God underfoot” (Heb 10:26, 29). The individuals described in this passage knew about Jesus, and knew that he died for their sins, yet they still choose to deliberately keep committing those sins while relying on Jesus’ willingness to forgive them. This is like someone who keeps stealing, knowing that his brother will willingly take the blame each time and bear the punishment for it. The writer to the Hebrews says that such people are “crucifying the Son of God all over again” (6:6).

       Such people, as Hebrews says, can’t “be brought back to repentance.” You can’t explain the truth to them because they already know it, and you can’t persuade them because they have firmly decided to reject it. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they can’t “come back” by themselves, but it does mean that there is no way that we will be able to persuade them. However, we can still pray for them, because the Holy Spirit can work in their hearts in a way that we can’t, though God is not going to force them to love him against their will.

       These passages are particularly difficult for individuals who have irrational feelings of guilt, because, to explain this feeling, they believe they must have committed some kind of sin that cannot be forgiven. But they are completely different from the people described in Hebrews. These people have rejected God consciously and intentionally—the verb “fall away” that is used in Hebrews 6:6 stands out as the first active verb after a series of passive ones to emphasize that this was their deliberate decision.

       If someone wants to repent to God, then this is proof that they aren’t one of those being described in Hebrews. Unfortunately, for some people, even when this is pointed out to them, their overwhelming feeling of guilt continues. However often they repent of their sin to Jesus, their Lord and Savior, it is impossible to convince them that their sin is forgiven. This shows that the feeling of guilt isn’t due to conviction by the Holy Spirit, because in that case it would disappear when they repent. The promise to us all is that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). So the Holy Spirit will not continue to prompt us with feelings of guilt after we have confessed our sin. Therefore, if we continue to feel guilt, this is likely to be due to depression or some other cause of general low self-esteem—it is not from the Holy Spirit.

       Repentance is the infallible path to forgiveness. If you want to repent of your sin to God, then you can be sure that you have not committed the terrible sin referred to in Hebrews, because the person who has committed this sin does not want to repent. And when we repent, we can be sure that God’s arms, like the arms of the prodigal’s father, are always open to welcome us, even if we are repenting of something we have tried to stop many times before. God is always willing to forgive the repentant sinner who wants to follow him.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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