I suppose I cannot be the only pastor who has often been asked by his parishioners what the unforgivable sin is that Christ mentioned in the Gospel. Admittedly it can sound a bit alarming, especially to tender consciences. Christ said that “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matthew 12:31) and naturally given the terrifying eternal consequences, devout Christians want to know what the sin is so that they can avoid it. Some are afraid that they may have committed it, and are appropriately distressed. So, what is this terrible sin for which there can be no forgiveness, either in this age or in the age to come?
To understand Christian ideas of sin and forgiveness it is important to locate these concepts in the Judaism of the first century. Sin against God brought guilt, and with it, divine judgment. Accordingly sin was often thought to underlie catastrophe, so that if a person experienced the catastrophe of being born blind, for example, it was assumed that someone’s sin must caused it. Hence the disciples’ question upon seeing a man born blind: “Who sinned—this man or his parents, that he was born blind? (John 9:2). Or when the tower of Siloam fell upon eighteen men and killed them, it was popularly assumed that those upon whom this catastrophe fell must have been worse sinners than others for them to have endured such a fate (Luke 13:4). Sometimes sin and judgment were indeed intertwined, so that Christ said to the paralytic whom He had healed that he must “sin no more, that nothing worse befall you” (Jn. 5:14), but such intertwining of cause and effect could not be assumed every time. Life is filled with mysteries beyond our comprehension, and divine cause and effect is one of them.
Nonetheless, because sin and judgment were often thought to go together, the devout were careful to repent of their sins and pray for God’s forgiveness. One received such forgiveness through the offering of sacrifices in the Temple, and through the giving alms to the poor, and through praying long and fervently for pardon. But assurance of forgiveness could not be assumed in advance. One did one’s best, and hoped that God would be merciful, but there were no guarantees. And God sometimes went on record as saying that He would never forgive a sin, no matter what. Take for example the sinful negligence of Eli the high priest, who refused to restrain his sons as they abused their priestly office: God said, “I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever” (1 Samuel 3:14). Ouch. Like I said: no guarantees.
It is against this background that we need to view Christ’s assurance of divine pardon for sinners. Now there were guarantees. Indeed, if anyone became His disciple, they were guaranteed of freedom, and forgiveness, and eternal life. Even Christ’s foes got His message: They said to Him, “You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste death’” (John 8:52). They didn’t believe it themselves, but they understood what He was promising clearly enough. Now, through Christ, God was offering amnesty and pardon and life to anyone who would come, regardless of their sin, regardless of their record, regardless of their past. It was as if a flood of forgiveness, a tsunami of grace, was coming upon the world.
The universal generosity was the point of many of His parables. “The Kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind” (Matthew 13:47). The net in the parable is a drag-net—a net which collected everything going in the sea, even the bad fish. The net took everything, and excluded nothing. That did not mean that everyone would finally make it into the Kingdom—that is why Christ went on to speak of the fish caught in the net being sorted into good and bad once the net was drawn ashore and of the bad fish being thrown away (v. 49-50). But every fish in the sea was caught in the net of God’s offer. Prostitutes and tax-collectors, war criminals and child abusers—all could be forgiven and enter the Kingdom if they repented and followed Christ in new righteous life. None were excluded if they would respond with repentance. This was indeed “joy to the world.” The good news was that every single person could come home, regardless of what they had done.
So then, why was one sin declared unforgivable? And what is this sin? The context of Christ’s declaration reveals it: the sin against the Holy Spirit is the sin of rejecting Christ as a blaspheming deceiver. The Pharisees saw Christ’s miracles and His spectacular exorcisms. They could not deny the reality of the exorcisms; they just said that He could only do such things because He was in league with Satan. “It is only by Beel-zebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (Matthew 12:24). (Note in passing their malevolence and hatred of Jesus: they cannot even bring themselves to say His Name. He is “this man”.) This is not just slander against Jesus, but against the Spirit of God Himself, for it declares the Holy Spirit through which Jesus cast out demons (Matthew 12:28) was an unclean spirit. Our Lord’s foes were in fact setting themselves against all that God was doing, rejecting His coming Kingdom as a deception and a fraud. That Kingdom was the only place where grace and forgiveness flowed into the world, so that by continuing to reject the Kingdom, they rejected with it the only source of forgiveness. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit was not unforgiveable in the sense that God refused to forgive those who repented of it, but because in persisting in this sin they cut themselves off from the possibility of forgiveness. Jesus was not simply another Jewish teacher. He was the everlasting Son of the Father, so that to see Him was to see the Father (John 14:9), and to reject Him was to reject the Father. That what why rejecting Jesus as demonic cut one off from forgiveness, for it involved rejecting God Himself.
The pastoral irony of all this, of course, is that any Christian who asks a priest with trembling whether or not he has committed the unforgivable sin cannot possibly have committed it, for the question proves that the one asking it loves Jesus and fears being separate from Him. Let such devout souls fear nothing. They have clearly been caught in the fishermen’s net, along with other fish. Let them persevere in their devotion, and rest assured of final forgiveness.