Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology: Chapter 24

What Is the Unpardonable Sin? Several passages of Scripture speak about a sin that will not be forgiven.

Jesus says:

Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says 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. (Matt. 12:31–32)

A similar statement occurs in Mark 3:29–30, where Jesus says that “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness” (Mark 3:29; cf. Luke 12:10). Similarly, Hebrews 6 says:

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt. (Heb. 6:4–6; cf. 10:26–27; also the discussion of the sin “that leads to death” [NIV] in 1 John 5:16–17).

These passages could be talking about the same or different sins; a decision about this will have to be made from an examination of the passages in context.

Several different views of this sin have been taken.

[See Berkhof, Systematic Theology pp. 252–53, for representatives of each position.]

1. Some have thought that it was a sin that could only be committed while Christ was on earth.  But Jesus’ statement that “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men” (Matt. 12:31) is so general that it seems unwarranted to say it is only referring to something that could only happen during his lifetime—the texts in question do not specify such a restriction. Moreover, Hebrews 6:4–6 is speaking of apostasy that has occurred a number of years after Jesus returned to heaven.

2. Some have held that the sin is unbelief that continues until the time of death; therefore, everyone who dies in unbelief (or at least everyone who has heard of Christ and then dies in unbelief ) has committed this sin. It is true, of course, that those who persist in unbelief until death will not be forgiven, but the question is whether that fact is what is being discussed in these verses. On close reading of the verses, that explanation does not seem to fit the language of the texts cited, for they do not talk of unbelief in general but specifically of someone who “speaks against the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 12:32), “blasphemes against the Holy Spirit” (Mark 3:29) or commits “apostasy” (Heb. 6:6). They have in view a specific sin—willful rejection of the work of the Holy Spirit and speaking evil about it, or willful rejection of the truth of Christ and holding Christ up to “contempt” (Heb. 6:6). Moreover, the idea that this sin is unbelief that persists until death does not fit well with the context of a rebuke to the Pharisees for what they were saying in both Matthew and Mark (see discussion of context below).

3. Some hold that this sin is serious apostasy by genuine believers, and that only those who are truly born again could commit this sin. They base their view on their understanding of the nature of the “apostasy” that is mentioned in Hebrews 6:4–6 (that it is a rejection of Christ and loss of salvation by a true Christian). But that does not seem to be the best understanding of Hebrews 4–6.29 Moreover, though this view could perhaps be sustained with respect to Hebrews 6, it does not explain blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in the gospel passages, in which Jesus is responding to the Pharisees’ hard-hearted denial of the work of the Holy Spirit through him.

4. A fourth possibility is that this sin consists of unusually malicious, willful rejection and slander against the Holy Spirit’s work attesting to Christ, and attributing that work to Satan. A closer look at the context of Jesus’ statement in Matthew and Mark shows that Jesus was speaking in response to the accusation of the Pharisees that “it is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (Matt. 12:24). The Pharisees had seen Jesus’ works repeatedly. He had just healed a blind and dumb demoniac so that he could see and speak (Matt. 12:22). The people were amazed and were following Jesus in large numbers, and the Pharisees themselves had repeatedly seen clear demonstrations of the amazing power of the Holy Spirit working through Jesus to bring life and health to many people. But the Pharisees, in spite of clear demonstrations of the work of the Holy Spirit in front of their eyes, willfully rejected Jesus’ authority and his teaching and attributed it to the devil. Jesus then told them clearly that “no city or house divided against itself will stand; and if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?” (Matt. 12:25–26). So it was irrational and foolish for the Pharisees
to attribute Jesus’ exorcisms to the power of Satan—it was a classic, willful, malicious lie.

After explaining, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28), Jesus declares this warning: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters” (Matt. 12:30). He warns that there is no neutrality, and certainly those who, like the Pharisees, oppose his message are against him. Then he immediately adds, “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matt. 12:31). The willful, malicious slander of the work of the Holy Spirit through Jesus, in which the Pharisees attributed it to Satan, would not be forgiven.

The context indicates that Jesus is speaking about a sin that is not simply unbelief or rejection of Christ, but one that includes (1) a clear knowledge of who Christ is and of the power of the Holy Spirit working through him, (2) a willful rejection of the facts about Christ that his opponents knew to be true, and (3) slanderously attributing the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ to the power of Satan. In such a case the hardness of heart would be so great that any ordinary means of bringing a sinner to repentance would already have been rejected. Persuasion of the truth will not work, for these people have already known the truth and have willfully rejected it. 

Demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit to heal and bring life will not work, for they have seen it and rejected it. In this case it is not that the sin itself is so horrible that it could not be covered by Christ’s redemptive work, but rather that the sinner’s hardened heart puts him or her beyond the reach of God’s ordinary means of bringing forgiveness through repentance and trusting Christ for salvation. The sin is unpardonable because it cuts off the sinner from repentance and saving faith through belief in the truth.

Berkhof wisely defines this sin in the following way:

This sin consists in the conscious, malicious, and wilful rejection and slander, against evidence and conviction, of the testimony of the Holy Spirit respecting the grace of God in Christ, attributing it out of hatred and enmity to the Prince of Darkness....in committing that sin man wilfully, maliciously, and intentionally attributes what is clearly recognized as the work of God to the influence and operation of Satan.

Berkhof explains that the sin itself consists “not in doubting the truth, nor in a sinful denial of it but in a contradiction of it that goes contrary to the conviction of the mind, to the illumination of the conscience, and even to the verdict of the heart.”

The fact that the unpardonable sin involves such extreme hardness of heart and lack of repentance indicates that those who fear they have committed it, yet still have sorrow for sin in their heart and desire to seek after God, certainly do not fall in the category of those who are guilty of it. Berkhof says that “we may be reasonably sure that those who fear that they have committed it and worry about this, and desire the prayers of others for them, have not committed it.”

This understanding of the unpardonable sin also fits well with Hebrews 6:4–6.  There the persons who “commit apostasy” have had all sorts of knowledge and conviction of the truth: they have “been enlightened” and have “tasted the heavenly gift”; they have participated in some ways in the work of the Holy Spirit and “have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,” yet they then willfully turn away from Christ and “hold him up to contempt” (Heb. 6:6). They too have put themselves beyond the reach of God’s ordinary means of bringing people to repentance and faith. Knowing and being convinced of the truth, they willfully reject it.

1 John 5:16–17, however, seems to fall in another category. That passage does not speak of a sin that can never be forgiven, but rather about a sin that, if persisted in, will lead to death. This sin seems to involve the teaching of serious doctrinal error about Christ. In the context of asking in faith according to God’s will (1 John 5:14–15) John simply tells us that he does not say that we can pray in faith for God simply to forgive that sin unless the person repents—but he certainly does not prohibit praying that the heretical teachers would turn from their heresy and repent and thereby find forgiveness. Many people who teach serious doctrinal error have still not gone so far as to commit the unpardonable sin and bring on themselves the impossibility of repentance and faith by their own hardness of heart.

The Punishment of Sin

Although God’s punishment of sin does serve as a deterrent against further sinning and as a warning to those who observe it, this is not the primary reason why God punishes sin. The primary reason is that God’s righteousness demands it so that he might be glorified in the universe that he has created.

MY THOUGHTS: If hardness of heart is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit why did Jesus who stressed clarity not just say that?  Why call it blasphemy?  And Jesus told the Pharisees and scribes they committed the sin by dismissing his miracle as the work of Satan that day.  If hardness of heart was the problem they would have been hardened long before that.  Jesus is plainly trying to scare anybody off seeing that there is another side to him and it's not a good side.  Notice how punishment is linked to God being true to himself.  If so then rejecting him can lead to eternal exclusion from him for he does not attach enough value to reforming you.

Jesus said that his generation was evil and nobody was good for God alone.  So he meant it when he said that the road to the loss of life with God forever in Heaven is wide.  He told a man who said, "Jesus I will follow you but I want to bury my father first" to let the dead bury their own dead.  This is usually taken to mean either just leave him unburied or that the burial should be left to those who are spiritually dead or closed off from God.  It does not give you much hope that there were many truly spiritual people about.  Jesus does not expect them to change later for when they bury the man they will still be dead.  Jesus spoke of religious people who walk with him and do wonders in his name who he does not know and will not let into his kingdom.  All these things show that the unpardonable sin is easy if it means the failure to turn to God.  I take the view that Jesus in these texts is saying human nature is already stubborn and anti-God. Thus we cannot say the scribes and Pharisees were anything out of the ordinary if that was all they were guilty of.  The blasphemy against the Spirit that will never be forgiven is simply saying something against the Holy Spirit.  Jesus is saying God will not pardon it even if you do repent.

Jesus did not invite anybody to make sure that the persons he was about to cast demons out of really had demons.  He even said if an outsider cast out demons in his name then that was okay for it meant the person would be unlikely to speak ill of him.  It was about the ego.  So for somebody to encourage reckless credulity and then to be so defensive that he tried to silence doubters by calling them sinners who would never be pardoned is a very bad disturbing look.


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