Is there a sin so terrible it can’t be forgiven? If so, what is the unforgivable sin?
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) all record Jesus’s teaching that the unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
|Matthew 12:31–32||Mark 3:28–29||Luke 12:10|
|Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will |
not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
|Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin …|
And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.
But these verses invite more questions:
- What is blasphemy? Why won’t blasphemy against the Holy Spirit be forgiven?
- Did anyone in the Bible commit the unforgivable sin?
- What do I do if I think I’ve committed the unforgivable sin?
Those are a few of the questions we’ll answer in this article. Before we get started, a spoiler alert: “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,”1 says Murray J. Harris, author of Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament. But we’ll get there shortly.
What is blasphemy? More specifically, what is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?
Murray J. Harris writes,
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.”2
Did you catch that? It’s important enough to repeat: “To blaspheme is to injure the reputation of God by slanderous speech about him or misusing his name.” Notice, though, that Matthew 12:31–32 says that blasphemy against the Son of Man (Jesus) “will be forgiven”—including flippant or manipulative uses of God’s name.
The difference between the general sin of blasphemy and specific blasphemy against the Spirit is something we can understand better by looking at the context where these passages appear, particularly the setting of Matthew and Mark. Let’s read Matthew 12:22–37 (NIV) together:
Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”
But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”
Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
“Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.
“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 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.
“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
There are a few important things to note here:
- Jesus had just healed a man possessed by demons—and the people watching marveled and wondered (correctly!) whether Jesus was the promised Son of David who would restore their relationship with God.
- The Pharisees are attributing this healing to the power of Satan. Yikes.
- Jesus is responding directly to the Pharisees. Yes, he’s warning them about committing the unforgivable sin, but he’s also showing their words are exposing what’s in their hearts.
The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible helps us make sense of what Jesus is talking about:
The religious leaders to whom Jesus spoke had seen clear, public, and compelling evidence of the good hand of God. Jesus’ healing was not a hidden God-in-flesh or God-in-his-Word, but an open demonstration of his power. By calling that power evil or demonic they were wickedly and consciously rejecting God, his power, and his saving grace. That was willful and high-handed sin by those who had seen the truth but rejected it and slandered it to others. Hebrews 6:4–6 points out that no argument or evidence will help such a person; the problem is willful rejection, not blindness. It is called “a sin that ends in death” (1 Jn 5:16). The Pharisees proved their unwillingness to repent by trying to destroy Christ and later his church.
The “unforgivable sin” is not some serious moral failure nor persistence in a particular sin nor even insulting or rejecting Jesus in blindness or a fit of rebellion. It is conscious rejection of the “good power of God.” It represents a perversion of the mind in which God and Satan are willfully confused, a free choice of evil rather than good.3
Did you catch that? The sin that the Pharisees committed was choosing to reject God by intentionally confusing God with Satan.
So, then, we can see that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is attributing Jesus’s power to Satan, and it’s unforgivable because “that type of slander reveals a hardened heart that has ultimately and finally rejected the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, work which should lead to repentance.”4
Did anyone commit the unpardonable sin in the Bible?
After reading the Matthew 12 passage above, you might be thinking, Duh, yes—the Pharisees who attributed Jesus’s miracles to Satan committed the unpardonable sin!
But let’s think about it: Is there anyone else who committed blasphemy by willfully rejecting God? Murray J. Harris suggests a few Bible characters we might wonder about:
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).5
What do I do if I think I’ve committed the unforgivable sin?
Some Christians are gripped by the fear that God cannot or will not save them, and they may be unable to escape the thought that they’ve committed an unpardonable sin or that difficult passages in Hebrews (6:4–6, 10:26–29) condemn them.
If that describes you, David Instone-Brewer, author of Church Doctrine and the Bible, offers these words of hope:
These passages [referring to Matt 12:31–32; Mark 3:28–29; Luke 12:8–10; Heb 6:4–6, 10:26–29] are particularly difficult for individuals who have irrational feelings of guilt, because, to explain this feeling, they believe they must have committed some kind of sin that cannot be forgiven. But they are completely different from the people described in Hebrews. These people have rejected God consciously and intentionally—the verb “fall away” that is used in Hebrews 6:6 stands out as the first active verb after a series of passive ones to emphasize that this was their deliberate decision.
If someone wants to repent to God, then this is proof that they aren’t one of those being described in Hebrews. Unfortunately, for some people, even when this is pointed out to them, their overwhelming feeling of guilt continues. However often they repent of their sin to Jesus, their Lord and Savior, it is impossible to convince them that their sin is forgiven. This shows that the feeling of guilt isn’t due to conviction by the Holy Spirit, because in that case it would disappear when they repent. The promise to us all is that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). So the Holy Spirit will not continue to prompt us with feelings of guilt after we have confessed our sin. Therefore, if we continue to feel guilt, this is likely to be due to depression or some other cause of general low self-esteem—it is not from the Holy Spirit.
Repentance is the infallible path to forgiveness. If you want to repent of your sin to God, then you can be sure that you have not committed the terrible sin referred to in Hebrews, because the person who has committed this sin does not want to repent. And when we repent, we can be sure that God’s arms, like the arms of the prodigal’s father, are always open to welcome us, even if we are repenting of something we have tried to stop many times before. God is always willing to forgive the repentant sinner who wants to follow him.6
What more is there to say? Simply this: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9).
Study the unforgivable sin more in these works
Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament
Regular price: $16.99
Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (2 vols.)
Regular price: $149.99
Mobile Ed: NT314 Book Study: The Gospel of Matthew in Its Jewish Context (10 hour course)
Regular price: $369.99
Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin
Regular price: $17.99
Sin: A Guide for the Perplexed
Regular price: $20.99
Saints and Scoundrels in the Story of Jesus
Regular price: $11.99
Lexham Context Commentary: New Testament (3 vols.)
Regular price: $99.99
- Murray J. Harris, Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 27.
- Murray J. Harris, Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 25.
- Peter H. Davids, “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 364.
- Donald W. Mills, “Blasphemy,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
- Murray J. Harris, Navigating Tough Texts: A Guide to Problem Passages in the New Testament (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 26–27.
- David Instone-Brewer, Church Doctrine and the Bible: Theology in Ancient Context, Scripture in Context Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 136–37.