What is the unforgivable sin?
In this excerpt, adapted from Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament, Murray J. Harris explains what it is—and discusses the one thing that shows evidence you have not committed the sin God doesn’t forgive.
Our English word “blaspheme” derives from two Greek words—blaptō (“harm,” “damage”) and phēmē (“reputation”). To blaspheme is to injure the reputation of God by slanderous speech about him or by misusing his name (Exod 20:7; Deut 5:11). Originally blasphemy also involved the repudiation of the political and social order that God commanded and upheld. But today in the Western world, “blasphemy” has been watered down to the offense of religious hatred, and in particular, “hate speech.”
Did Jesus teach about the unforgivable sin more than once?
Jesus’ teaching about the unforgivable sin may well have been given on more than one occasion. In Mark’s Gospel, the setting was the arrival in Galilee of experts in the Jewish law from Jerusalem who were investigating Jesus’ work of exorcism, the expelling of demons from demon-possessed sufferers.
Their bizarre conclusion was that Jesus himself had “an impure spirit” and was under the control of Beelzebul, the prince of demons (Mark 3:22, 30)! After pointing out the absurdity of this conclusion (Mark 3:23–26), Jesus speaks of sins and slanderous utterances that God could forgive, and one sin that was impossible to forgive—the attributing of the works of Jesus to the activity of Satan: “Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness; they are guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28–29).
In reality, it was by the Spirit of God that Jesus was expelling demons (Matt 12:28), but these visitors from headquarters in Jerusalem were so perverted and hardened in their spiritual outlook that they saw only darkness where there was light, and evil where there was only good.
The context of Jesus’ saying is different in Luke. Jesus has been warning his disciples against hypocrisy, reminding them that everything purportedly concealed will ultimately be revealed (Luke 12:1–3). He then admonishes them to fear God, not their adversaries (Luke 12:4–7), before continuing, “Whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the person who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven” (Luke 12:9–10). That is, to deny on earth that one belongs to Jesus, the Son of Man (v. 10a) has eternal consequences before the heavenly tribunal. If verse 10b looks back to verse 9, to disown Jesus—to become apostate—is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.
In recording the words of Jesus about the unpardonable sin, Mark and Luke are complementing, not contradicting, each other. To have an attitude implacably opposed to God (Mark) or to commit apostasy (Luke) are simply two expressions of the permanent and irremediable rejection either of God himself (Mark) or of a faith in God once held (Luke), in spite of the gracious overtures of the Holy Spirit.
Who committed the unpardonable sin in the Bible?
Did Peter commit the unforgivable sin when he disowned Jesus three times (Luke 22:54–62)? No, because he “turned back” and strengthened his brothers (Luke 22:32). What of Ananias and Sapphira, apparently believers, who lied to the Holy Spirit and conspired to test the Spirit of the Lord (Acts 5:3, 9)? All we know for certain is that there was immediate divine judgment on them both for their conspiracy of deceit (Acts 5:5, 10), but we cannot know their eternal destiny.
It is said of Simon the sorcerer that he “believed and was baptized” (Acts 8:13). But when he tried to bribe Peter and John so that he could (magically?) convey the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter responded with the rebuke, “May your money perish with you! . . . your heart is not right before God” (Acts 8:20–2). Simon’s feeble response to Peter’s directive to repent (Acts 8:22, 24) suggests he remained “captive to sin” (Acts 8:23) as a hardened unbeliever who lacked God’s forgiveness.
Finally, was Paul guilty of the “eternal sin” because of his systematic persecution of Christians (Acts 9:1) that even involved efforts to make them blaspheme (Acts 26:11)? No, because he “acted in ignorance and unbelief” (1 Tim 1:13) and embraced the light of the gospel when it confronted him (Acts 9:3–9; 2 Cor 4:6).
The one precondition for God’s forgiveness
In sum, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable, not because God is unwilling to forgive but because the repentance that is the necessary precondition for God’s forgiveness is absent. The heart has become so hardened that no need for repentance is recognized, and so no request for forgiveness is offered.
Strangely, to have a fear that you have committed the unpardonable sin is evidence that you have not done so, for those who have are unaware of their sin or unconcerned about it.
This post is adapted from Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament by Murray J. Harris, available now from Lexham Press.