Over the last 2,000 years, people have wondered what Jesus meant when he said that it was impossible to forgive one particular sin: “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” What does that mean?
I am currently leading a class discussing a book called Head Scratchers (When the Words of Jesus Don’t Make Sense), by Talbot Davis. This week’s subject was the unpardonable or unforgivable sin. I delayed posting this until after I led my class on the same subject. Maybe some additional ideas would emerge. (They didn’t.)
When I was in seminary, we looked at the passage and, as I recall, the result was “wrongly calling something done by the Holy Spirit as being done by the devil” was the extent of it. Of course the context is that religious leaders are saying the miracles of Jesus, particularly casting out evil spirits, have been done by the power of Satan, not God. So if it is this narrow understanding, few of us would ever be guilty of it. Although there are some who believe that the modern-day pentecostal experience, with speaking in “tongues” or glossolalia, is demonic. If that is not so and the Pentecostals are really being filled with the Holy Spirit, their critics may have crossed this line.
Davis begins by looking at the context. One of his maxims is “Context is everything”. He also includes an incident that precedes this event where Jesus’ family has come to take him home, thinking he has “lost his mind”. Davis’ conclusion is that both the family and the religious leaders are moved by envy of Jesus’ success. He also points out that other teachings concerning the fall of the angel Lucifer and the fall of the first couple, Adam and Eve, are inspired by envy. He believes that envy is the basic cause of much sin.
However if envy is unpardonable, most of us are lost. We have all experienced envy somewhere in our lives. If we cannot be forgiven for this sin, we are doomed.
I tend to look at it from a practical standpoint. What sin is impossible to forgive? I know that some of you may have been in a relationship with another person who is continually in need of forgiveness. At some point they may have driven you beyond your breaking point. You may have said, “That is the last straw. You have gone too far. This time what you did is unforgivable.”
But God is not human and does not have the same limits. Jesus tells his disciples to forgive “seventy times seven” or sometimes translated “seventy-seven times.” That is not to say that one more failure does not need of our forgiveness. Quite the opposite. He is setting the bar so high as a way of saying, “don’t even try to keep score. Just be open to keep on forgiving.”
So what is impossible for God to forgive? Is there some magic set of words or deeds that God is not powerful enough to forgive? I don’t believe there is anything we can do that the forgiveness of God cannot cover. God’s power is greater than anything we human beings can think or say or do. Even though we may not be able to forgive murder and other heinous crimes, God can.
But there is something God is unable to forgive. That is failure by us to ask for forgiveness. If we stubbornly cling to our sin and refuse to give it up, God will honor our decision and will not force us to kneel before him. It may break God’s heart to see us remain obstinate. His forgiveness could easily wash away the stain and shame, but God allows us to come to that choice ourselves.
So my take on the “unpardonable sin” is any sin that we refuse to allow God to forgive. It is only unpardonable as long as we refuse to allow God to pardon it.
A very good similar argument is made by George MacDonald in Creation in Christ. It is much too long to print here, but I would encourage you to find it if you are curious.
So the answer, as many teachers have taught over many years, to my title question is, if you are concerned about having committed the unpardonable sin, you haven’t. The only ones who have, do not have the sensitivity to realize their failure. And even then, there is always hope. As long as there is life, there is a chance for forgiveness.