Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit: Reflecting on the Unforgivable Sin
Written by Al Maxey on October 6, 2012
The inimitable Emma Goldman (1869-1940), in her essay titled “Minorities versus Majorities,” made the following very insightful observation:
“The most unpardonable sin in society is independence of thought” (Anarchism and Other Essays). Although her statement regarding the nature of an unforgivable sin is hardly biblical in nature, it is certainly true that independence of thought is a pathway that has led many a bold thinker to his or her martyrdom (both literal and figurative).
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) wrote, “Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth — more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless to the well-tried wisdom of the ages” (Principles of Social Reconstruction). Little wonder, then, that some regard thought, and especially independence of thought, as “the most unpardonable sin in society.” Sadly, this is especially perceived within the parameters of religion. Some of the great purges of history have been little more than efforts by the lords of prevailing orthodoxy to rid the earth of those who dared to think independently of the prescribed patterns of approved perception with regard to declared dogma. Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) defined dogma as “a hard substance which forms in a soft brain.” Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) characterized it: “the anti-Christ of learning.” Perhaps the infamous Chinese ruler Mao Tse-Tung (1893-1976) summed it up best — “Dogma is more useless than cow dung!” If independence of thought is the unpardonable sin, then sectarian dogma may well be the sword-wielding executioner.
Our focus in this current issue of my weekly Reflections, however, is not on what some of the great secular thinkers perceive to be an unpardonable (unforgiveable) sin, even though they may well be quite correct in their surmising when viewed from societal and cultural perspectives, but instead we want to focus our thoughts upon what Jesus Christ characterized as the sin for which there would never be forgiveness, either in this age or the next. There are basically three passages in which our Lord speaks directly to this topic. They are:
Matthew 12:31-32 — “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come.”
Mark 3:28-29 — “Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
Luke 12:10 — “And everyone who will speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him.” See also: Luke 11:14f.
There are several questions that immediately cry out for attention. First, what exactly is meant by the term “blasphemy,” and is it equivalent to, or in some way distinct from, the charge of “speaking a word against” someone or something? Is the latter merely a clarification of the former, or is it something else entirely? And just why the vast difference in consequence between all other blasphemies (including blasphemy against Jesus) and blasphemy against the Spirit? What makes this one particular sin so grave that one who commits it can never, ever be forgiven, either here or hereafter? Perhaps most importantly, at least as it impacts each of us individually: have we committed this sin, perhaps unawares, and are thus eternally lost … and don’t even know it?! We shall attempt to address each of these concerns in the course of this reflective study.
The word “blasphemy” is simply a transliteration of the Greek word blasphemia, which is derived from two different Greek words: (1) blapto = “to injure, harm; hinder,” and (2) pheme = “to speak; a saying; a rumor.” Thus, the concept of blasphemy is simply to engage in any kind of “injurious speaking.” When one says something with the intent to hurt, harm or hinder another; when one defames and slanders another; when one spreads destructive rumors and malicious whisperings, and speaks in such a way as to bring great, perhaps irreversible, injury to another — that is “blasphemy.” In addition to the noun form above, it also appears in Scripture as a verb (blasphemeo = “blaspheme”) and an adjective (blasphemos = “blasphemous”). Therefore, to answer yet another question posed above, when the Lord talks of “speaking against” or “speaking a word against,” He is really declaring essentially the very same thing, just in somewhat different language. Both are depicting one whose intent is to injure others with what is declared against them. Such intent is blasphemous, by definition of the Greek term.
By way of example, look at the attitudes and actions of Saul of Tarsus. Prior to coming to a relationship with Jesus Christ, Paul describes himself this way: “I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor” (1 Tim. 1:13). Had Paul committed the unforgivable sin? No. But he had engaged in the practice of blasphemy. Against whom? Primarily against the disciples of Christ. He hated these people with a passion. He spoke against them whenever and wherever he could, and his statements and declarations were designed to inflict the maximum amount of injury upon them. “Being furiously enraged at them, I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities” (Acts 26:11). In fact, Paul told King Agrippa, “I tried to force them to blaspheme” (vs. 11). Why? Because if Paul could bring these men and women before the Jewish Council with a charge of blasphemy against God, the Law, or the Temple, the consequences against these harried Christians would be severe indeed. The apostle Paul admitted, “when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them” (vs. 10). Yes, Paul, by his own admission, was a blasphemer — his statements against others were designed to destroy them; to inflict the greatest injury possible.
Are there individuals guilty of blasphemy today? Absolutely! The world abounds with them. Sadly, so also does the church! Paul told Timothy that he had delivered a couple of men “over to Satan, so that they may be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1:20). One of these men, Alexander, he later said, “did me much harm” (2 Tim. 4:14).
Undoubtedly, the great harm or injury done unto the apostle Paul, at least in part, was through the wicked declarations made against him by this individual. How many brethren in Christ today are similarly harmed or hindered by the many godless statements made against them? Paul instructed the Colossian brethren, “But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him” (Col. 3:8-10). Speaking so as to injure another is unfitting for those who profess to be Christ-like. “Let your speech always be with grace” (Col. 4:6). Good advice!!
“But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!” (2 Tim. 3:1-5, NKJV). Even more good advice! Yes, there are blasphemers of the brethren lurking about in the church. From such godless wretches we should turn away; they are not worthy of the sweet fellowship and blessed association of godly men and women!
There are a great many things revealed to us within the pages of the inspired writings of both old and new covenants that men have typically blasphemed throughout the centuries. Indeed, one might very well ask, “What hasn’t been spoken against by godless men?” “For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:24). In 1 Kings 21:10 a plot is formed to have some worthless men bear false testimony that Naboth the Jezreelite “blasphemed God and the king.” One of the beasts of Revelation “opened his mouth in blasphemies against God, to blaspheme His name and His tabernacle” (Rev. 13:6). “Let as many bondservants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor; so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed” (1 Tim. 6:1). As Jesus hung on the cross, “those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads” (Matt. 27:39). In Titus 2:5 Paul speaks of the Word of God being blasphemed. James speaks of some who “blaspheme the fair name” by which they have been called (James 2:7). As Paul and Silas preached Jesus to the Jews, some of them “resisted and blasphemed” (Acts 18:6). On another occasion, the Jews “began contradicting the things spoken by Paul, and were blaspheming” (Acts 13:45). And on and on we could go.
ALL of these many blasphemies can be pardoned, however. None of them are beyond the scope of God’s divine forgiveness if one truly repents of them. Jesus Himself stated, “any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men” (Matt. 12:31), and “all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter” (Mark 3:28). All, that is, except the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Those who speak against the Spirit never have forgiveness, either in this age or the next; it is an eternal sin. Why?! What is it that makes this act of blasphemy so much worse than all the others? Why is blasphemy against God and His Son Jesus subject to pardon, but NOT blasphemy against the Spirit? Why the distinction? This is a question that has puzzled and perplexed students of the Word for centuries! The answer is largely to be found in determining exactly what someone does in blaspheming the Spirit. In other words, what IS blasphemy of the Holy Spirit? How specifically is this evidenced in a person’s attitudes and actions?
A clue to understanding this distinction is also to be found, in the view of many scholars (and I would concur), in the level of spiritual enlightenment one has been given and the degree of personal perception of and active, willing participation in these revealed eternal realities. Thus, the doctrine of “available light,” and one’s reception or rejection of such, plays a significant role, in my view (I would refer the reader to Issue #158 — Grace and the Caveman). For example, one may question or even “speak against” both God and Jesus as one encounters and considers their claims without committing the unpardonable sin. Jesus even says so! However, “in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance” (Heb. 6:4-6). The Spirit enlightens. Those who blaspheme the Spirit who has enlightened them, therefore, are beyond any hope of redemption. But, more about this later.
From the time of the early church “Fathers” there has been great diversity of opinion as to the exact nature of this sin and the identity of those who commit it. Some feel it can only be committed by non-believers, others that it can only be committed by believers, while some say both may commit it. Then there is argument as to exactly how one commits this sin. Even in the church today one will find very little agreement on this matter. Therefore, I am certainly not presumptuous enough to think that my meager contribution in this issue of Reflections is going to clarify the matter once and for all. I will simply attempt to present a few of the better known theories, and then suggest to the reader what seems to make the most sense to me. In the final analysis, it will only be my opinion, and should certainly be regarded as such, and nothing more.
One of the primary views one will encounter is that blasphemy of the Spirit is entirely a verbal sin, much like profanity. In other words, one does not commit “blasphemy” of the Holy Spirit until one actually speaks out loud some injurious statement against the Spirit of God. I actually heard a man state once that those persons who were mute were blessed, for they could never actually commit blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Why? Because they were incapable of speaking. This is somewhat similar to the view held by a few extremists that the deaf/mute do commit sin by signing rather than singing in worship. They contend that the Lord said “sing,” thus rendering “signing” with the hands an “unauthorized innovation of worship.” This, of course, is just one of the many absurdities of legalistic patternism. Jesus, contrary to such thinking, indicates that what we say, and what we do, has its origin in our heart (Matt. 15:18-19). It seems to me His focus was more on the heart than the lips, although the latter would certainly tend to bring to the light of day the contents of the former. Therefore, those who are mute would be just as prone to blasphemous thoughts as those capable of verbalizing them, even as they can sing within the heart (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). I find it very difficult to believe Jesus is suggesting only those who actually speak what is settled in the heart are culpable! Indeed, if both murder and adultery can be attributed to a person simply by the musing of one’s heart and mind (1 John 3:15; Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28), why not blasphemy against the Spirit as well?
Nevertheless, there are those who will declare this view with great vigor. Bro. Kyle Butt, in his study of this matter that appeared on the web site of Apologetics Press, stated, “Using the working definition of blasphemy as ‘speaking evil of,’ it becomes clear that the sin described by Jesus was a ‘tongue sin’ that the Pharisees had committed, or at least were dangerously close to committing.” Others, however, believe this is much too limiting a view, regarding this specific sin to be far more a matter of the heart. Dr. James Hastings, in his Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, writes, “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit may find expression and come to its culmination in some specific way, but essentially it is a settled attitude of mind and heart” (vol. 2, p. 788); “the expression of a settled attitude of mind” (ibid, p. 787). “This oral blasphemy involves not merely careless words but the expression of an incorrigibly evil heart” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 960). Thus, the blasphemy of the Spirit is perceived as far more than just “uttered words,” but rather a visible or audible manifestation of the condition of one’s inner being. “Surely what Jesus is speaking of here is not an isolated act but a settled condition of the soul” (ibid, p. 645).
It is declared by some biblical scholars that the sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is linked inseparably with the earthly ministry of Jesus, thus the only persons who could commit this sin were those who had personally witnessed the miraculous power of Jesus and attributed that power to Satan. This sin, according to this theory, forever ceased to exist when the Lord Jesus ascended from earth into heaven. “This specific sin against the Holy Spirit cannot be committed today since the Lord is not personally present on the earth” (Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 807). “In order to commit this unpardonable sin, a special situation is required. The committing of this sin presupposes the personal presence of Christ in manifestation of divine power” (ibid). This view is also presented by Chafer in his Systematic Theology (vol. 7, p. 47-48). Therefore, there is no actual danger of anyone committing this sin today, for when Jesus left this earth so also did the possibility of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit — a sin perceived to be the attributing of the power of Jesus’ miracles to Satan rather than the Spirit.
Again referring to the article by Kyle Butt on the Apologetics Press web site, this author states, “It is clear that blasphemy against the Spirit was a definite, singular sin, which could be committed by the Pharisees during the life of Jesus.” He later notes, “The evidence seems to point toward the idea that this sin cannot be committed today.” This writer is not alone in this view. Some well-known leaders in the Churches of Christ (as well as leading scholars from a good many other groups within Christendom) agree. Bro. Gus Nichols wrote, “It seems that all sins committed today are pardonable, and that all can be saved, if they will” (Lectures on the Holy Spirit, p. 239). Bro. V.E. Howard declared, “There is no unpardonable sin today” (The Holy Spirit, p. 156).
There are other disciples, equally scholarly in focus, who will agree that the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is attributing the displayed power of Jesus Christ to Satan, but who will declare this can happen today just as assuredly as it did when the Lord walked the earth. The Lord, through His Holy Spirit, is still displaying His power on earth today, and to attribute that to an unholy source is to blaspheme the Spirit, according to this view. Bro. H. Leo Boles, for example, sees the power of the Spirit at work in the inspired writings of the New Testament, and believes that any injurious speaking against these writings constitutes blasphemy of the Holy Spirit today. He wrote, “The Holy Spirit came and perfected the testimony by guiding the apostles into all truth, and inspiring those who wrote the New Testament. If one finally rejects the Holy Spirit and the teaching that He gave in the New Testament, there is no hope for that one. If one blasphemes the Holy Spirit by rejecting the words of the New Testament, there is no chance for forgiveness because no other agency from heaven will be given” (A Commentary on the Gospel According to Luke, p. 250). Thus, according to Bro. Boles, rejecting the NT documents is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit who inspired them. Bro. C.E.W. Dorris takes the same view — “But when the Spirit shall have come and given His testimonies and revelations, the testimony will be complete, and he who rejects that will have nothing more to move him to repentance” (A Commentary on the Gospel According to Mark, p. 88). On the other hand, Bro. T. Pierce Brown totally rejects this position, writing, “Many have erroneously supposed that rejecting or criticizing the Word of God is blaspheming the Holy Spirit” (Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit, The Old Paths Archives). Others, of course, see it as much less specific in nature, and simply believe it is the attributing of that which is good and holy to evil sources. “The sin described here is a perversion of spirit which, in defiance of moral values, elects to call light darkness. To call what is good evil (Isaiah 5:20) when you know well that it is good, because prejudice and ill will hold you in bondage, that is the worst sin of all” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 645). W.E. Vine, in his Expository Dictionary of NT Words, defines blasphemy of the Spirit as being “anyone, with the evidence of the Lord’s power before his eyes, who should declare it to be Satanic.” He says this is “a condition of heart beyond Divine illumination and therefore hopeless.” Some believe God’s power today is manifested not so much in actual miracles, but in the power of the Gospel to save and the Spirit to transform lives. Bro. Wayne Jackson wrote, “To harden oneself against the gospel plan is, therefore, blasphemy against the Spirit of God, and those who continue in such a disposition have no means of obtaining forgiveness” (Christian Courier, March 16, 2000).
There are a great many other aspects of this teaching by Jesus that have generated considerable debate throughout the centuries. For example, when He said this was a sin that shall not be forgiven “either in this age, or in the age to come,” some have taken that to mean the Mosaic age and the Christian age, rather than the latter being a reference to the day of judgment and beyond. Bro. Wendell Winkler, for example, wrote, “Thus, since our Lord was speaking while the Jewish age was in existence, He was affirming that the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost would not be forgiven in (a) the Jewish age, nor in (b) the Christian age, the age that followed” (What Do You Know About The Holy Spirit?, p. 21). Bro. Gus Nichols affirms the same: “It follows that this sin, therefore, could be committed during the personal ministry of Christ, and was then committed, and could also be committed under the gospel age or dispensation. They could have attributed the works of the Spirit to Satan after Pentecost, the same as before” (Lectures on the Holy Spirit, p. 234).
The far more accepted view among most scholars, however, is that “this age” refers to the temporal realm, whereas the “age to come” refers to the eternal realm. Therefore, this would have Jesus declaring forgiveness will not be experienced either in this life or the next. Still others feel the expression is just a proverbial statement signifying: never ever! “Thus, the blasphemy against the Spirit is unpardoned forever” (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, p. 485). Dr. Paul Kretzmann writes, “The phrase ‘neither in this world nor in the world to come’ emphatically declares that the peculiar nature of this sin precludes all forgiveness; there is absolutely no hope” (Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 69). William Hendriksen wrote, “The expression simply means that the indicated sin will never be forgiven” (The Gospel According to Matthew, p. 528).
Well, as one can quickly see, there is tremendous diversity of opinion as to exactly what is being taught by Jesus Christ in the passages dealing with blasphemy of the Spirit. One of the most difficult doctrines in all of Scripture is easily this one dealing with the unpardonable sin. Therefore, it would be extremely presumptuous for any disciple of Christ to declare himself to be in possession of perfect insight into these passages. Like everyone else, however, I do have an opinion, and will be happy to share it, for whatever it may be worth. It is my conviction that “blasphemy of the Spirit” is far more than any one specific sin committed at any one specific time. Rather, it is an extreme, and at the same time settled, condition of the heart and mind that may well manifest itself in various attitudes and actions in one’s daily life in willful and knowing opposition to God’s Spirit of grace. It is “a state of hardness in which one consciously and willfully resists God’s saving power and grace” (Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 198). To again quote the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Jesus is “not speaking of an isolated act, but a settled condition of the soul” (vol. 8, p. 645). Dr. Gerhard Kittel, in his classic Theological Dictionary of the NT, said, “It denotes the conscious and wicked rejection of the saving power and grace of God towards man. Only the man who sets himself against forgiveness is excluded from it” (vol. 1, p. 624).
Dr. James Hastings agrees! “There is no specific act of blasphemy in word or deed, standing by itself, that we are entitled to think of as ‘the unpardonable sin.’ The phrase, in fact, is as erroneous as it is unscriptural. There is no mysterious transgression which is sufficient of itself to put a man beyond the power of repentance, and so outside the pale of forgiveness. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit may find expression and come to its culmination in some specific way, but essentially it is a settled attitude of mind and heart. No one can stumble suddenly into irremediable sin; but men may drift into it after the fashion of the Pharisees. Selfishness and pride, and not least religious selfishness and pride, may slowly harden the heart and sear the conscience and seal the eyes, until men come to call good evil and light darkness” (Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol. 2, p. 788). Acts 7:51 speaks of those who “are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears,” who are “always resisting the Holy Spirit.” Such continual resisting of the Spirit’s efforts to impact one’s life will in time lead one to become so hardened that the Spirit will no longer be able to enter and transform the life of such a person. Such a one is said to have reached “the point of no return” — they cannot be brought to repentance, and thus are lost. Hebrews 6:4-8 speaks of those who have been enlightened spiritually, and who “have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit,” but who then have fallen away. Of these it is said, “it is impossible to renew them again to repentance.” Why? Because they have partaken of God’s best … and have rejected it (this would also be a good time to read and reflect upon the chilling words found in 2 Peter 2:20-22). Those persons “who go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth” have placed themselves in a position where “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment, and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27). Such people have “insulted the Spirit of grace” (vs. 29). It is a hardness of heart and mind that insults the Holy Spirit, and leaves one with absolutely no hope of forgiveness. There is a harsh reality proclaimed repeatedly in Scripture — men may resist and grieve and insult God’s Spirit only for so long; then the Lord abandons them to themselves. Whenever this happens, they are beyond recovery! I would certainly agree with Bro. T. Pierce Brown, who, in his above referenced article, wrote, “My conclusion, therefore, is that it cannot be forgiven because when one does it he must be so depraved and deliberately hardened that it is impossible for him to repent. The Spirit ceases to strive with him (Gen. 6:3), and when God thus gives up on man, he is without hope!” (The Old Paths).
Why is this state characterized as being forever beyond forgiveness? In my view, it is NOT because God would not be willing to extend forgiveness to them if it were truly sought, but because when one has become this hardened in heart and mind that forgiveness will never be sought. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Confession of sin by these people will never be made, however; repentance will never occur; thus, they exclude themselves forever from His Spirit of grace. They are so irreversibly hardened by lives given over to sin that even when the end comes they are beyond repentance, and continue to blaspheme — “And men were scorched with fierce heat; and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues; and they did not repent, so as to give Him glory” (Rev. 16:9). “And they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores; and they did not repent of their deeds” (vs. 11). It is such a settled state of opposition to the Spirit of God that even when being destroyed they are beyond even the thought of seeking repentance, but instead persist in their blasphemy of deity!
“The person living in this sin will continue in his stubborn resistance, with blasphemous, outspoken mockery of the work of the Holy Ghost, until the end. The sin is not unpardonable on account of its greatness, but on account of its nature of rejecting all pardon. A confession of sin and a desire for forgiveness is excluded by its nature” (Dr. Paul Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 180). “The reason why it cannot be forgiven is not to be found in this: that the fountain of mercy in God’s heart is stopped up, but rather in this: that the opening for repentance and faith in the heart of the sinner is stopped up” (ibid, p. 334). “It is not so much that God refuses to forgive as it is the sinner refuses to allow Him!” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 645).
Many disciples have worried themselves sick over whether they may have inadvertently committed this sin against the Spirit of God. In my opinion, one cannot commit this sin inadvertently. If you have committed it, you know … and couldn’t care less. “Those who are troubled about it are most unlikely to have committed it” (ibid). “We may say that whoever fears that he has committed the unpardonable sin thereby furnishes evidence that he has not done so. Nor can any man commit it inadvertently or unconsciously” (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, p. 485). If you seek forgiveness from your God, and your repentance is genuine, you shall be forgiven. It is the person that has become so hardened to the Spirit of grace that he refuses to repent who will experience the eternal consequences of sin that will never be forgiven. Brethren, let us never become so hardened in our resistance to God’s Spirit that we reach this point of no return. Soften your hearts and open them to His indwelling! Therein lies the pathway to enlightenment, transformation, and eternal life.