10 Things You Should Know about Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit6
Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is mentioned in three of our four gospels. It is found in Matthew 12:22-32; Mark 3:22-30 and again in Luke 12:10. Many Christians are burdened by the thought that they may have committed this sin, or they live in paralyzing fear that some day they will. It behooves us to examine precisely what Jesus meant.
(1) 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.
In Matthew 12 we are told that a man who was both blind and mute 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.
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.
(2) 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. 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. 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 (Matt. 12:27). 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. 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.
(3) All sins can be forgiven, says Jesus in Mark 3:28. 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). What is this “eternal sin”?
It is not murder. Murder is a heinous sin, but not unforgiveable. Consider Moses, David, and Paul, all of whom were guilty of murder and yet received the forgiveness of God. Neither is it adultery. David committed adultery and yet he was forgiven (Ps. 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?
It is not denying Jesus under pressure or threat of persecution. Consider Peter. One can hardly imagine a more grievous sin in which he three times denied that he knew Jesus. Yet we know that he was gloriously forgiven and restored to God and to ministry.
Some have argued that suicide is the unforgiveable sin. But no text in either the Old or New Testaments ever says any such thing.
(4) 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” (12:32).
Why was their sin against the Holy Spirit and not against Jesus? Their sin was against the Holy Spirit because it was by the power of the Spirit that Jesus performed his healings and miracles. Jesus himself said in Matt. 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.
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 empowered you to do it.
(5) But 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 Matthew 12:30, 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 may have thought he was mentally deranged, but the Pharisees declared him to be morally demonic.
This, then, 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!
(6) Blasphemy of the Holy 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.
(7) Mark makes it plain that sins are forgiven only if a person repents (see Mark 1:4, 14-15; 4:12; 6:12; see also Acts 2:38 and 5:31). In order for anyone to receive forgiveness of sins, they have to repent. They must turn from sin to God and cast themselves on 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.
(8) Why, then, in Mark 3:29 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. John Piper has rightly pointed out that 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 by its very nature it puts you beyond repentance. It is the sort of sin that issues from a heart so incorrigibly calloused that a person simply isn’t 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.
(9) 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.
(10) 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 (assuming that is even a legitimate possibility, which it isn’t). 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, 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? If so, I assure you yet again, you have not committed blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. You have not transgressed in such a way that forgiveness is impossible.