Here is an email response given to someone who asked me this question awhile ago – it is a question I am asked fairly frequently, so I figured it would be helpful to just put it into a post. If you are unfamiliar with the “Unforgivable Sin”, it is found in Mark 3:22-30, Luke 12:8-10, and Matt. 12:22-32. The Gospel of Matthew provides the most extensive report of the account, so it is usually the most commonly used source to address the issue.
In short, the sin Jesus is addressing here is the sin of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. So, what does that actually mean? Does that mean taking God’s name in vain (the 3rd commandment)? How do I know if I have or haven’t committed that, and if I have, am I really lost?
That’s a great question! Working as a youth pastor, I get asked that quite a bit – many kids are often afraid that they at some point have muttered something blasphemous under their breath and are now damned. Here is my short response: No, you are not unforgivable because you have said God’s name in vain. It helps some to look at the whole context of the story to get some perspective. In Matthew 12 we see the narrative repeatedly emphasizing the Pharisee’s refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah, regardless of His miraculous power or heavenly wisdom. It might be helpful for you to open up to that chapter now and take a look at it.
In verses 1-8, the Pharisees get angry that His disciples are picking grain on the Sabbath, and Jesus rebukes them.
In verses 9-14, the Pharisees get angry and begin to plot Jesus’ murder because He heals a sick man on the Sabbath, which broke their rules.
Then, in verses 22-24, Jesus casts a demon out of a man, and the people begin to marvel that He may really be the promised Messiah (vs. 23). The Pharisees, who have been slowly getting more and more frustrated with Jesus, now make the ludicrous claim that Jesus casts demons out by the power of demons (vs. 24).
Then, in verses 25-30, Jesus responds and essentially says, “You guys are dumb. If demons are casting out other demons, then they aren’t the most effective army, are they?” Jesus then claims that He is exorcising demons by the power of the Holy Spirit, and this is therefore evident that “kingdom of God has come upon you” (vs. 28). The Old Testament is loaded with prophesies of the Messiah who would come and bring with Him the new “Kingdom of God”. Jesus’ miraculous healings and casting out of demons were not done “just cuz” – they were performed to authenticate Jesus’ identity as the prophesied Messiah (see Luke 4:18-19), and Jesus is saying that this (the arrival of the “kingdom of God”) is obvious.
Out of that obvious-ness, He then says that anyone who sees all this and isn’t with Him, is against Him (vs. 30) – but remember the context – if the Pharisees (who have spent their whole life studying the Old Testament, memorizing it, and familiarizing themselves with the prophecies of the messiah) encounter the One who is fulfilling all of the prophecies and still aren’t “with” Him, then that can only be because they have already set themselves “against” Him.
Then Jesus gives the bombshell – If you blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, you will not be forgiven. Now, remember, He is talking to a group of people who just saw Jesus, by the power of the Spirit, rescue a man from the bondage of Satan – and they claimed that Jesus’ power came from demons. Jesus is saying that if you can look at the obvious, clear, and known work of the Spirit testifying to the Messianic nature of Christ, and attribute it to Satan, then you will not be forgiven.
But the real question is this – is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit something that the Pharisees did that made them unforgivable, OR is it something that revealed that they already were unforgivable? I would argue the latter, namely because of what Jesus says immediately afterwards.
In verses 33-37, Jesus then (still addressing the same group of Pharisees) begins talking about trees and fruit. He says that a tree is made known by the particular type of fruit that it bears. So, we know an apple tree is an apple tree because…it makes apples! Now, when an apple tree produces an apple, it doesn’t then, suddenly, become an apple tree. It always was an apple tree, we just finally were clued in to its identity by the fruit it produced. Jesus then draws the parallel between that illustration, and the Pharisees words, “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil.” (vs. 34-35).
The Pharisee’s words (including their blasphemy of the Spirit) are revealing the evidence that they are already, in fact, evil. Their words reveal what their hearts believe: that Christ is not the messiah, and that He is a sham. They are so blinded by their pride and arrogance that they can witness prophesied, Messianic miracles, and find it more plausible that demons are doing it, than Jesus be who He claims to be. Their refusal to believe what is so plainly obvious reveals that they have hardened their hearts, and no amount of miracles (even Jesus rising from the dead) will change their minds. This manifests itself even after Jesus resurrects from the dead, and the Sanhedrin pay off the guards to start telling everyone that they fell asleep and Jesus’ disciples stole His body (Matt. 28:11-15). Isn’t that crazy? The guards come and explicitly tell them, “The dude who was dead, isn’t dead anymore, what should we do?” and instead of admitting that they were wrong and accepting Jesus as the Christ, they continued to reject Him – even though He just resurrected! Their hard hearts simply wouldn’t accept the truth.
Let me be very clear: No one will go to Hell because they said particular words in a particular order, like, “I blaspheme the Holy Spirit”, or something like that. People will, however, go to Hell if they do not trust in Christ as their savior. Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6) and there is salvation in no other name (Acts 4:12). People don’t go to Hell for being sinners; they go to hell for being unforgiven sinners. People don’t get into Heaven for being perfect; they get into Heaven for being forgiven – and forgiveness is only found in Christ.
So, in short, the sin of blaspheming the Spirit is “unforgivable” because it reveals a heart that doesn’t desire to go to the only place where forgiveness is found: Christ. Now, if someone is concerned that they have committed this sin (which seems to explicitly, and literally mean attributing the power of God to demons) then they most likely have not. If I am worried about being obedient, then that probably is the evidence that my heart is not hardened to the Lord. Does that help?