The Unforgivable Sin
The kingdom of Jesus is a kingdom of wonderful and free grace. Though all people are sinners who deserve God’s eternal punishment, the gospel of Christ is offered to all sinners and his gospel can atone for and wash away every sin. In the Bible we see murderers, adulterers, homosexuals, drug addicts, money lovers; we see all types of sinners come to Christ and have their sins washed clean. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was so perfect and sufficient that no matter what you have done, you can be forgiven and made right with God.
There is no sin that God will not forgive, except one. In our passage we see that there is one sin that is unforgivable. If you are worried that you may have committed this sin, rest at ease, you have not. As theologian Louis Berkhof wrote, “we may be reasonably sure that those who fear that they have committed the unforgivable sin have not committed it.” In other words, if you had committed the unforgivable sin, you would not be worrying about it.
To understand our Lord’s words on this matter you must give attention to the context. Jesus performs a wonderful miracle in the presence of many Israelites; he heals a demon-possessed man who was also blind and mute. Christ cast out the demon(s) from this man and healed his blindness and muteness so he could see and speak. No one watching could deny a real miracle had occurred, the man was blind, now he could see; the man was mute, now he was speaking.
Matthew records two responses to this miracle. The first response is from the people in general. They began to ask one another, “Could this be the Son of David?” This is not a response of faith or rejection. It is a response of confusion.
The people had not yet decided about Jesus. On the one hand Jesus did not seem like David’s greater son who was supposed to deliver Israel from her enemies. He did not look like a mighty king, nor was he using his powers to defeat Israel’s human enemies like Rome. On the other hand, no one could deny that Christ was performing mighty miracles by the hand of God. The Old Testament did say the Messiah would perform miracles. The crowds were wavering; they weren’t quite sure what to think about Jesus yet.
The second reaction to this miracle comes from the Pharisees. This miracle did nothing to make them second-guess their rejection of Christ. Because the blind man had been demon-possessed, the Pharisees mumbled to each other, “he casts out demons by Beelzebub.”
In other words, okay, we admit that miracle was not a trick; Jesus does possess supernatural power. But he must be using Satan’s power to perform these miracles. The moment these Pharisees attributed Christ’s power to Satan, they crossed a line. According to the Lord, they had committed the unforgivable sin.
The Lord knew their thoughts. In vv. 25-27 Jesus confronts the Pharisees about the depths of their depravity. These Pharisees were so dead-set against the gospel that they were willing to deny all logic and evidence so as not to believe.
Christ points out how absurd their words were. If I am casting out demons by Satan’s power, then Satan is casting himself out; he is defeating his own kingdom. Why would Satan weaken his own power and destroy himself? That’s absurd! Also, the Pharisees were willing to accept the fact that the Jews practiced exorcisms. “If I am casting demons out by Satan’s power, then why not say that about your own who try to cast out demons?” The point is; these men knew the truth, yet they would say anything to deny what they knew.
What should the Pharisees have concluded from this miracle? V. 27 – if Christ casts out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has arrived. Satan is the great enemy who holds all sinners under his authority. Jesus the Son of David came to liberate people from their greatest enemy, Satan. But a king must first bind the enemy before he can free those under the enemy’s dominion.
These miracles demonstrate that Jesus has come to bind Satan and set people free through the gospel. This healed man tasted of the power of the gospel, the power to open blind eyes and reverse the curse. It was as if this man was already in heaven as his eyes and speech were restored. If Christ can overcome blindness, then he can overcome sin and death.
Christ is the great king. Satan is a king. Man is either under Christ or under Satan. There are only two kings. V. 30; “he who is not with me is against me.” This is a warning to the crowds who were undecided. While it is okay to struggle and question spiritual truth, and God is very patient with those seeking truth, there is no neutrality with Christ; you either follow Christ or you follow Satan. These people cannot stay on the fence forever.
The Pharisees though were not wavering. They rejected the evidence of a clear miracle before their eyes. There was no more evidence Jesus could offer that would change their minds. Their hearts were so hardened that even when confronted with the power of God’s Spirit, they refused to believe. These Pharisees had now committed the unforgivable sin.
The Lord defines this sin in v. 31 as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and in v. 32 as speaking against the Holy Spirit. “If you speak a word or blasphemy the Son of Man; that may be forgiven, but if you speak against the Spirit, that cannot be forgiven.”
There are two important ideas to note here. First, Christ makes a distinction between rejecting the testimony of himself and the testimony of the Holy Spirit. Second, the element of speaking comes into play – those who commit the unforgivable sin speak against this testimony of the Spirit.
In one sense all unbelievers who reject the evidence of God in creation reject the Father. And all who hear the gospel and do not believe reject the testimony of the Son. Yet those who do such things can still be saved. The Apostle Paul spent years blaspheming Christ, yet he found mercy. Unlike the Pharisees, Paul never saw the miracles of Christ. Unbelievers can be forgiven because they speak against the Father and the Son in ignorance.
But there are some that have been given clear evidence by the Holy Spirit that Christ is who he says he is. Those who reject this clear evidence cannot be forgiven. They reject the testimony of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Now, there are two possible understandings of who can commit this sin. One is that only those who actually were alive to witness the power of the Spirit in the ministry of Christ could commit this sin. They then were in a unique redemptive-historical situation to reject the testimony of the Spirit seen in the miracles of Christ, and like the Pharisees in our passage, speak against Christ after such testimony.
The second view, and the one I prefer, is that this sin can be committed by anyone who professes Christ, takes on his name, sees the reality of the Spirit’s work in the people of God, and then apostatizes from the faith speaking against Christ and his church. This sin then would be the same sin John speaks of in I John 5:16, a sin leading to death. Thus those who commit the unforgiveable sin have seen the reality of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives, they have spent time in the church and have seen the Spirit change people, they know deep down that Christ is real, but refuse him and speak against him. For them there is no possibility of forgiveness. There is nothing else to show them to change their minds, and they have hardened their hearts beyond repair.
That means that an unbeliever that has never professed Christ cannot commit the unforgivable sin. But the Pharisees knew. They saw the power of the Holy Spirit first hand, yet still they rejected Christ. For them God’s patience had run out. The author of Hebrews defines this unforgivable sin as apostasy, which means though you have once professed Christ you have fallen away.
This raises a question. Those who have once professed Christ but have been excommunicated, have they all committed the unforgivable sin? Not necessarily. In I Corinthians a man is excommunicated for sleeping with his father’s wife, but by the time II Corinthians was written that man had repented and returned to the church.
Some people may leave the church because they are confused, or they are unsure what to believe, they may be reacting to bad experiences, they may be choosing to walk in disobedience for a time. They may have grown up in the church but need time to figure out what they really believe. These people can all be forgiven.
But for those who have seen the power of the Spirit in people’s lives; for those who know deep down that Christ is who he says he is, but then deny what they know, and speak against Christ publicly, for them there is no hope. They have crossed the line. Ultimately only God knows who has committed the unforgivable sin, but be assured there are some walking this earth who have committed it.
The Lord ends this passage by condemning the Pharisees for these words they have whispered. The reason they say these things about Jesus is because they have evil hearts. In vv. 36&37 Jesus warns that people will be held accountable for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified or condemned.
Now, this is not speaking of careless words in general, as if when you say something lighthearted you will be condemned for it. Peter even denied Christ out of fear, yet he repented and was restored. Remember the context. The careless words that will condemn you are the words you say that reveal whether you are for or against Christ. The Pharisees in their whispers condemned Christ, and by those words they will be condemned.
Now you see why we warn people who want to become members of the church to think seriously about the membership vows before taking them. The church gathers in the presence of God. When you say those vows, you are bowing before the Lord, pledging before his throne that you believe his Word is true, that you are a sinner worthy of judgment, that you rely on his gospel for salvation, that you desire to obey him, that you will remain in his church and listen to those he has placed over you.
If you say these words but deny them later on, you have taken the Lord’s name in vain. Many wrongly assume that the commandment “You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain” refers to swearing using “God” or “Jesus.” While swearing like that is certainly wrong, that is not what that commandment is addressing.
This commandment was given to Israel. Someone outside the covenant community cannot take the Lord’s name in vain because he has never taken the Lord’s name upon himself. To take on the Lord’s name is to declare faith in him; it is to declare fidelity to him. Israel took on the Lord’s name as God’s people. To take God’s name in vain is to profess loyalty to God without meaning it. Only a person who has professed his faith and joined the church can take God’s name in vain.
The reality of the unforgivable sin should cause us to fear God. God is very patient with sinners; all types of sinners. But God will only reveal himself so many times. If a man continues hardening his heart after hearing the gospel over and over and seeing the evidence of the Holy Spirit in people, God will say, that is the last straw. Their hearts are so hard they are beyond redemption.
The good news is, if you have any concern about a sin you have committed, it is forgivable. If you have any desire to come to Christ for mercy, you are invited to come; his blood that he shed for sinners can wash away any sin you have committed, no matter how awful. If your heart is not so hard as to refuse to come, he is always ready to forgive. No one who comes to Christ will walk away disappointed. Amen