There’s one thing that always used to bother me as an evangelical. Well, there are several things, but this one in particular. Jesus came to earth to die on the cross so that sins might be forgiven, but he also stated that there was an unforgivable sin. You could be forgiven all manners of transgression except this one. To the one who committed the unforgivable sin, the doors of heaven were forever shut.
The reason this bothered me was that I wanted to be completely sure of what this sin was so that I could make sure that I wouldn’t commit it. It scared me that there was a sin that I could commit that would mean hell no matter what, no second chances, no nothing. One thing that brought me a lot of comfort as an evangelical was knowing that no matter what I did I could repent and come to Jesus and my sins would be forgiven – except this one, of course. And that seemed odd. And important.
22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.”
23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”
30 He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”
The unforgivable sin is blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. And the million dollar question, of course, is what exactly this means. It’s rather vague and scholars have debated for centuries over the exact meaning of the “unforgivable sin.”
One interpretation I heard growing up was that the unforgivable sin was deliberately rejecting Christ, and that if you stopped rejecting Christ you were no longer sinning the unforgivable sin and were therefore forgiven. In other words, if you have heard the gospel, and understand it, and yet reject it, you are sinning the unforgivable sin; if you change your ways, however, and accept the gospel, then you will be saved. The unforgivable sin, then, is only unforgivable as long as you continue doing it.
In my own reading of the above passage, it looked to me like Jesus was saying that the teachers of the law were unforgivable because they said Jesus was actually acting on the devil’s power rather than in the power of the holy spirit, which constituted “blaspheming the holy spirit.” Thus, speaking ill of the holy spirit, or accusing the holy spirit of being satanic, is unforgivable.
I was also taught, though, that a Christian could not commit the unforgivable sin. This didn’t end my concern, though, because I was also told that if a Christian fell away from the gospel he was probably never saved in the first place. This made me nervous, as I’ve explained in my post about salvation anxiety, because it was often the case that a fallen away Christian had previously been indistinguishable from a “true” Christian. And besides that, the passage above does not specify that a Christian can’t commit the unforgivable sin.
I suppose some might say that by leaving Christianity after being raised in the truth I have myself committed the unforgivable sin. Of course, these same individuals would likely say I was never saved in the first place, and if I somehow “returned” to Christianity they would likely accept me with open arms rather than explaining to me that I had committed the unforgivable sin and therefore could not be saved.
In retrospect, it’s amazing how much emotional concern and how much scholarly ink has been spilled slicing and dicing the problem of “the unforgivable sin,” which is only mentioned above and in an identical passage in Matthew 12. And personally, I’m glad I don’t have to worry about all that anymore.