unpardonable

The Unforgivable Sin: Is It Really Unforgivable?

(This is the second installment of two posts on the “unforgivable sin.” The first post answers the question, “what is it?” This second post answers the question, “Can I repent of the unforgivable sin?”)

This post is going to be less interesting to most people, and that’s okay with me. It’s going to answer a question that you could phrase several ways:

  • Can I repent of the unforgivable sin?
  • If I think I’ve committed the unforgivable sin, can I ask for God’s forgiveness?
  • Is there any way to “take back” blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?

A few people are at least a little bit curious about what the unforgivable sin is. Fewer still are convinced that they’ve done it, and now need to deal with the consequences. That smaller group of people is, I assume, the kind of people whose consciences are sensitive to their state before God. And for that reason there’s no way I can make light of this question. For some, even if it is a select few, the question is real: “How can I repent of the unforgivable sin if I think I’ve committed it?”

So, Can You Be Forgiven?

Here’s my answer: As long as you want to be forgiven, you can be assured that you haven’t even committed the “unforgivable sin.”

I come to that conclusion based on these things:

  1. The context (before and after material) of the passage
  2. A definition of the “unforgivable sin” based on that context
  3. A basic theological framework

1. The Context

It’s really unfair, you might even say irresponsible, to try and lift the passage up and out of it’s context. So remember the conclusions drawn from the the previous post: The situation is the Jewish Religious Leadership’s repeated, repeated, repeated, dismissal and denunciation of Jesus’ work. They saw what Jesus did on a regular basis and persisted, to the very end, to denounce his work as coming from Satan and not God. The four Gospels give us no reason to believe that they ever turned away from their unbelief and toward Christ in faith. We’re dealing with people who are Jesus’ enemies. They are not crawling at his feet for mercy. They are attacking him every chance they get.

2. A Definition Based on the Context

If you want a definition that’s both nuanced and sensitive to the context, then you can’t do much better than Craig Blomberg’s from Jesus and the Gospels (pg 280), which I referred to last time.

“In context, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit means the persistent equation of Christ’s power with the demonic by those who refuse to believe him.”

3. A Basic Theological Framework

“Theology” is a word that means “the study of God.” So a theological framework is a way of viewing the Bible that’s based on the rest of the Bible. If you see one verse that seems to say something different than the rest, you try to interpret it in light of the other truths you know about God.

So what does the whole Bible have to say about repentance? As long as a person wants to repent, they can. Sometimes (and this is getting into some deeper waters) God will, in his sovereign justice, let a person experience the results of their sin. As a result, they won’t want to. But God also, in his sovereign mercy, can show a person how they have sinned against him, and keep them faithful to him through repentance. Often, like David in Psalm 51, this will lead to an honest plea for forgiveness. As long as this person wants to (that is, God has sustained them in his mercy), they can ask for forgiveness and receive it freely.

Once again, Craig Blomberg’s comments are really helpful, “There is no evidence anywhere in Scripture that an individual who genuinely desired to repent and turn back to God is denied the opportunity. Indeed, the very consternation that causes some believers to wonder if they have committed the unforgivable sin by definition demonstrates that they have not.” Jesus and the Gospels, pg 281. John, the writer of the 4th Gospel, says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9 ESV)

A Conclusion

The right question is not so much, “Can I be forgiven of the unforgivable sin?” so much as “Did I ever really actually commit it?” And unless, 1) you’re dead, and really did persist in it, or 2) God has sovereignly allowed you to experience the consequences of you sin, (unless one of those is true) you can still ask for forgiveness.

If either one of those things is true, you won’t want forgiveness.

Blomberg’s point (in the above quote), and mine (in these 2 short posts), is that as long as there is godly sorrow and grief over “the persistent equation of Christ’s power with the demonic by those who refuse to believe him…” then there will be forgiveness. As long as you want forgiveness for misunderstanding Jesus’ message, mission, and identity, you can have it.

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The Unforgiveable Sin: What is it?

Mark recalls Jesus speaking about the “unpardonable sin” this way:

28 “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” [Mark 3:28-29 ESV]

Is it possible for a person to commit this sin? Is there really an action terrible enough to merit this kind of condemnation? How do I know if I’ve committed this sin?

Questions swirl around this teaching of Jesus. And it’s not likely that Christians will stop wondering anytime soon. For one thing, it shows up in Matthew, and Mark, and Luke. You can’t simply pick you favorite Gospel (unless, I suppose, yours is John), and avoid it. It’s going to come up if you read your Bible. And secondly, because eternity is a long time. I know that “eternal condemnation” is a laughable (and even pitiable) idea for people who don’t follow Jesus — but to those who have seen and believed, this teaching of Jesus is sobering. Forever is forever.

So, what is it?

Context Is Key

If you don’t read this passage with the before-and-after material in mind, you’re going to misunderstand what Jesus is saying. Here’s what happens before:

    [14] Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled. [15] But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” [16] while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven.
(Luke 11:14-16 ESV)

Here’s what just happened: A group of people watch Jesus heal a man who was possessed by a demon. This group of people respond in two different ways. One group “marvels” because they’re sure that Jesus did this with God’s power and authority. The other group scoffs. They’re sure that Jesus did this with the demon’s power and authority. We see this in the next verse:

[15] But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,”
(Luke 11:15 ESV)

One group says: Jesus heals with God’s power. The other says: Jesus heals with Beelzebul’s (Satan) power. Jesus’ ability to heal is understood in two different ways. One says it’s from God. The other says it’s from Satan.

Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit – In Context

Jesus answers this evaluation of his ministry by saying that 1) it’s illogical, and 2) it’s inconsistent. It’s illogical because no ruling authority attacks it’s own members. How and why would Satan cast out his own demons? And it’s inconsistent because there were many other Jewish rabbis who had done similar acts of exorcism and never experienced this kind of criticism.

It’s in this context that our “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit,” or unforgivable sin, shows up. And if you’ve followed along so far, I think you’ll begin to see why this context of healing->evaluation->differing conclusions, is so helpful.

Jesus goes on to say:

28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

If you want to understand what the unpardonable sin is, then you have to understand this verse. This verse is what we might call “the interpretive key.” Put this verse in the lock, turn it, and things begin to open up. If Jesus really is doing things with God’s power and authority, then the observer (us, and the original audience) must be very careful about how we evaluate what we see in Jesus. If God really is in fact empowering Jesus to do these incredible things, then to say, “he’s doing this by Satan’s power” is to misjudge him, and call God’s acts through him, “evil.”

Craig Blomberg sums it all up brilliantly in his book Jesus and the Gospels (pg 280) by saying,

“In context, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit means the persistent equation of Christ’s power with the demonic by those who refuse to believe him.”

When you take a few minutes to read the before-and-after material, this unforgivable sin becomes much clearer.

But there are still one issue I want to address: What if, at one point, you decide in a fury to yell out, “I deny the work of the Holy Spirit in Jesus”? Is there any way to repent, or have you crossed a “point of no return”?

(This is the first installment of two posts on the “unforgivable sin.” The first post answers the question, “what is it?” The second post will answer the question, “Can I repent of the unforgivable sin?”)