With all the attention being given to addictions and lusts, the scrupulous among us can feel neglected. But just as there is an addict within us all, so there is a legalist who feels guilty and never able to measure up. Here is something for the legalist within.
Pound-for-pound, the passage on the unpardonable sin can deliver the most guilt in all Scripture.
Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matt 12:32)
That’s enough to catch the attention of both the libertine and the scrupulous. I wonder how many of us prefer to skip over this one. Like Kennedy’s assassination or 9/11, we can remember the day we first encountered this troubling passage. Most of us were able to move on and focus on other more conscience-soothing Scripture. But there remains a question every time we encounter Matthew 12: “Is it I?”
For others, this passage has become sticky, perhaps haunting. “Is it I?” is no longer a question but a confession: “It is I.” If there is any doubt, merely reading the passage can invite a fleeting thought that says something nasty about the Holy Spirit. There it is: if you didn’t do the unpardonable sin before, you just did it now. Sure, you didn’t mean it—or did you? It seems a bit more like a common response to “Don’t think about pink elephants.” The elephant magically appears. Either way, the blasphemous thought emerged and you feel doomed.
The list of those haunted by this fear is a long one.
The popular consolation offered by well-meaning friends is well-known: if you think you committed the unpardonable sin and feel miserable about it, you didn’t. Since you feel bad about it, you are not guilty of it, so don’t worry. Only those who couldn’t care less about it are the potentially guilty. That response actually makes good sense in the larger context of the passage. The problem is that it is effective for those who are only temporarily tripped up by it and probably would have moved on anyway. For those who are deeply troubled, the advice at least needs more substance.
So what do we do with this rogue passage? Here is some background.
The Immediate Context of the Passage
The Pharisees had just witnessed Jesus healing a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute. Others who witnessed this display of power had an appropriate response. “All the people were astonished and said, ‘Could this be the Son of David?'” (12:23). The Pharisees, however, remained hard-hearted: “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” This was the second time they had said such a thing (cf. Matt 9:34). Without doubt, they were committed in their contempt for Jesus. The unpardonable sin is clear: it is blasphemy or speaking against the Holy Spirit, and blasphemy, in this situation, means to attribute the power of the Holy Spirit to the work of Satan.
So if you want to make a first pass at applying this passage, read the story of Jesus’ miracle. Do you believe that Jesus accomplished this because of an alignment with Satan himself? And don’t give mind to your fleeting doubt. The Pharisees had no doubts. Do you truly, in your heart, believe that Jesus did this miracle with Satan’s power? No, you don’t. Such a person would not read anything on the unpardonable sin.
This is a start, but it is still a hard passage to interpret. In order to draw accurate conclusions from it, I will gather a few general principles that are either obvious in Scripture or clear from the text itself. Then, as we would with any difficult text, to get more help I will consider how the larger context, both in the Gospel of Matthew and Scripture in general, supports and refines these principles.
First, the passage is about the leaders of the people. Scripture clearly holds leaders to a different standard because their sins have greater consequences. Moses was the first example of a leader held to a higher standard, and many examples followed (cf. Ezek 34, Jer 23). James writes, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (3:1). If you aren’t an official leader of a church, the passage is not primarily directed toward you.
Second, the passage is about hard-hearted leaders who are unmoved by what Jesus said and are determined to undermine his ministry. If you have a conscience (and you do), you can easily find episodes of hard-heartedness in your life, which cause you to think again that the passage is speaking about you. But the hard-heartedness of the Pharisees is aggressive. It includes resisting the work of the Spirit (Acts 7:51), speaking blasphemy against the Lord, and influencing others to do the same. You do not have an intentional strategy to tear down the faith of other people. Your condemning thoughts, at most, are temporary. They get stuck in your mind when you would prefer they passed on by.
The passage, then, is not really speaking about you. What Jesus said is true, of course, but there are many passages that are addressed to specific people in Scripture that are not God’s words to you in particular. But the passage can still trip us up. The nagging question is this: Is it possible that some sins cannot be forgiven? That is, indeed, the troubling question. In order to answer it, we need to consider the larger context.
The Overall Context of Matthew’s Gospel
In Matthew’s Gospel, two themes are relevant to this passage: conflict with the Jewish leaders and forgiveness of sins.
When it comes to the leaders, Matthew has nothing good to say. At the outset, John the Baptist confronted the leaders as a “brood of vipers” (3:7). John’s quarrel wasn’t with all the people. He focused on the leaders. Later, Jesus again makes a distinction between the leaders and the people. The people were characterized as lost sheep (9:36), but the leaders—Pharisees and Sadducees—were misleading, oppressive, and selfish shepherds. Throughout Matthew, the battle lines are drawn, and the leaders are resolute in their antagonism toward Jesus. Without exception, every mention of the leaders in Matthew is negative. Matthew’s Gospel comes to a conclusion with Jesus’ seven woes directed against the leaders (23); Jesus’ parables, which are thinly veiled indictments of the leaders (25); and the leaders’ scheme to cover up all evidence of the resurrection (28:11-15).
Given Matthew’s emphasis on this antagonism, you get the impression that an ordinary layperson would not be charged with the unpardonable sin. That fits the tenor of the Gospel. The charge is against leaders who were unwavering in their blasphemy and opposition. They were not wrestling with fleeting pink elephant thoughts. Instead, their blaspheming came with a package that included a wholehearted commitment to lead other people away from Jesus. Wholehearted. And wholehearted antagonists don’t care what Jesus says.
The other relevant theme in Matthew is forgiveness of sins. “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). So begins the Gospel. Instead of telling a paralytic that he is healed, Jesus chose to say, “Your sins are forgiven” (9:2). By this, he proclaimed that he did indeed have authority to forgive sins. Matthew closes his Gospel in a similar way that he began it. Immediately before Gethsemane, Jesus revealed the deeper meaning of Passover when he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:28). Forgiveness of sins is the heart of Matthew’s Gospel, as it is the heart of Scripture. There is nothing stingy about Jesus’ offer of forgiveness.
When you ask forgiveness, God forgives. That is fundamental to the gospel of Christ. So how does that clear truth inform this text?
Jesus said that there could be forgiveness for words said against him. So why would he say that there would be no forgiveness of sins against the Spirit? There seems to be something unique taking place. Jesus typically did not take insults and blasphemous accusations personally (Luke 23:33; 1 Peter 2:23–24). He resolved to live in dependence on his Father and the Spirit’s power (Luke 4:14). When he took a stand, it was on behalf of the Father (John 2:14–17) and, in this case, the Holy Spirit. Jesus was keenly aware that his miracles were a consequence of the Spirit’s power working in him (Luke 5:17). So, to him, the Pharisees were ultimately against the Spirit.
Was Jesus saying, “You can mess with me, at least at this moment in history, but neither the Father nor the Spirit is to be trifled with”? He was saying at least that. Was he talking about persistent blasphemy rather than one blasphemous moment? Yes. Was he saying that as the leaders had no inclination to ask forgiveness, they would receive no forgiveness? Yes.
The larger context of Scripture as a whole confirms these directions, and we discover, as we might expect, that Jesus’ words express well-known Old Testament teaching.
The Context of the Rest of Scripture
The obvious precedent is the pharaoh of the Exodus. Like the Pharisees, he observed the miraculous signs of the Lord and refused to believe.
The LORD said to Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you the power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go. (Ex 4:21)
The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not listen, just as the LORD had said. (Ex 8:19)
And I [the LORD] will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD. (Ex 14:4)
The interplay between Pharaoh hardening his heart and God hardening Pharaoh’s heart has kept interpreters busy, but at least we can say that the process was a mutual decision. Pharaoh was not bursting with desire to listen to the Lord. Instead, he was committed to the glory of Egypt, and God’s purposes did not serve his own.
Now Jesus, the greater Moses and true deliverer, has come with miraculous signs, and history repeats itself. Pharaoh’s hardness of heart anticipated the hearts of the Pharisees. He didn’t want to let the people out of their bondage; the Pharisees didn’t want to release the people to the freedom Jesus provided. The oppressor was first Egypt, then Rome, but both were prefiguring the bondage of sin and death. In spite of opposition, God will deliver his people, and the leader’s resistance to this liberation will only give more glory to God’s rescue. No human power can restrain the final deliverance secured by Jesus. This is the real message within the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees: God hardens the hardhearted leaders and liberates the people. The dry run was in Egypt; with Jesus it’s the real thing. When you locate yourself in the passage, locate yourself among those liberated.
This turns our condemnatory “Is it I?” interpretation on its head. With this larger story in view, when leaders harden their hearts and distance themselves from forgiveness of sins, and when they try to influence others to do the same, something is about to happen. These events take place right before the glory of God is displayed to the world. Deliverance is on its way. The Pharisees’ opposition is a sign that God is going to act decisively.
We are now on the far side of that liberation. Jesus went to the cross and has been raised from the dead. Now there is nothing that can keep you from forgiveness of sins. The Lord’s Supper, which assures forgiveness of sins and full fellowship with God himself, has replaced the Passover meal. Joy, not condemnation, is the order of the day. Yet this liberation has taken place in the middle of history and not the end. At the end, there will be no more sin, but for now, after Jesus went to the cross but before he returns to put an end to injustice, sin, and death, we are all familiar with sin. To be more precise, as we grow in the knowledge of God, we see even more sin in our lives than ever. Sin might not be as apparent in our outward actions, but the Holy Spirit helps us to see that all our good deeds are, indeed, tainted with mixed allegiances. This insight might not feel pleasant at first, but it is not intended to lead us to despair. On the contrary, only sinners can know the beauty of forgiveness. Only sinners can love much (Luke 7:47).
Bundle this material together, and we may draw these conclusions.
- The leaders of the people are clearly in view. Matthew never has a good word to say about the leaders. The severe language of his Gospel is always directed against the leaders, not the people. The common people were never the recipients of such rebukes. For example, Peter, not yet a leader, denied Jesus, which was certainly a form of blasphemy, but he is fully forgiven. In contrast, the Pharisees not only hardened their hearts but also tried to lead the people away from Jesus. It is one thing to turn away from Jesus. It is another to turn others away from him.
- The unpardonable sin is “high-handed.” It is not the result of intrusive or compulsive thoughts that we would prefer to restrain or erase. It comes out of a heart that holds Christ in contempt in both word and deed. High-handed is no passing thought. It is unwavering defiance. If you waver in your faith and are not actively turning people away from Christ, this passage is not speaking to you.
- The Pharisees are a sign. They are the New Testament pharaohs and symbolize the world’s opposition to the work of God. In pharaoh’s case, the narrative says that his hardness was not merely “imposed” on him by the Lord. Pharaoh was more than willing to harden his own heart, and God cooperated in giving pharaoh what he wanted.
- The Pharisees are a warning. It is difficult to identify what the unpardonable sin looks like today. The unique intersection of Jesus’ earthly ministry, miracles, and a recalcitrant Jewish leadership makes personal application challenging. We might apply the passage to church leaders who fall into sin, but most don’t intentionally lead others into the same sin, and many repent. These would not fit the pattern of the unpardonable sin. The clearest case would seem to be theologians and preachers who deny Jesus’ deity, atoning sacrifice, and resurrection and attempt to sway others to do the same. One application is certain. The Pharisees and other leaders are signs and warnings to us. Receive the encouragement of the gospel often, and believe the truth of Scripture.
- God forgives those who come to him. Whenever there is turning to Christ in repentance, there is always forgiveness. There is no account in Scripture of someone who felt godly sorrow and repented, but was not forgiven. None. Not one.
- If you still struggle with the fear that you have committed the unpardonable sin, let your church help. If you have made a public profession of faith, and you remain in good standing with your church, then take the judgments of your church seriously. God works through his people. If your leaders know you and have not disciplined you, take comfort in their oversight and believe them when they say you have not committed this sin. Also, be sure to take the Lord’s Supper. Question 81 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “Who are to come the table of the Lord? Those who are truly displeased with themselves because of their sins.” That applies to you.