I was asked to preach about the unforgivable sin. This is from the question box that is still in the lobby (or feel free to drop a comment on the contact page of our website).
I chose for us to read Luke 12 together, where Jesus and His disciples are in a huge, rowdy crowd. Jesus begins to preach: first about the Pharisees and their hypocrisy, promising that the time will come that all that has so far remained hidden will be revealed, and all hypocrisy will be revealed, laid bare for all to see. Do not do the same, He seems to imply.
And then Jesus begins to speak of persecutions: human authorities may be able to injure and kill your bodies, but they cannot defeat you, for God is at your side. God, who knows every sparrow, knows your suffering as well, sees it and knows when you are faithful. And so do not be hypocritical. If you truly believe in me, Jesus says, then witness to it in public, even if it brings persecution. Disown Jesus, and you will be disowned. Tell lies about the Holy Spirit, and there will be no reward for you.
These are harsh words. These are uncomfortable words. These are words that no one wants to hear.
It’s important to remember the context of early Christianity. After Jesus’ resurrection, once the disciples began preaching the good news of forgiveness and new life through Jesus, the authorities began to take notice. They began to throw people in prison, or order them beaten. Eventually it escalated to deaths, and wide-scale deaths and persecutions. Families would banish family members who became Christian. It was no easy time to be a Christian. The church argued vehemently about what to do is just such situations, where a church member panicked under public pressure and recanted their faith, but then wanted to return to the church. Was their sin forgivable?
That is, this saying is in some ways specific to a time and a place, one where there was enormous pressure to give up the faith, and some did. Some did, and then repented. It was a time when the people needed both tremendous encouragement and reassurance to stay the course.
But this particular saying, about blaspheming the Holy Spirit, is in other gospels. In Mark (3:20-35), Jesus and His disciples are again surrounded by a crowd, but this time the crowd has been noticing Jesus’ activities, especially his exorcisms. There’s been a rumor going around, Mark says started by teachers from Jerusalem, that Jesus is able to perform exorcisms because He’s in league with the devil. Jesus totally scoffs, pointing out how ridiculous this is: what kind of kingdom is it that sends out its own people to destroy that kingdom? It would be falling apart at the seams, totally un-unified! What would be the point of that? And then He says the same saying: “Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” In this context, then, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit seems to mean something else entirely. It’s like what the Jerusalemites are doing: that is, they’re trying to say that the good work that Jesus is doing, the teaching and the healing and the exorcisms and the miracles–in other words, the new life, the joy, the healings, the fruit of God’s love–are not from God at all, but are works of the devil. The men from Jerusalem are so blind to what God is doing that they refuse to see it, that they perversely attribute it to the devil. Being so willfully blind–that is a blaspheming of the Holy Spirit, a stubborn refusal to recognize that only God can bring true joy and healing and new life. And how can such a person receive the truest of God’s gifts for themselves? How can they recognize Jesus as who He is–that is, as the Lamb, the way to forgiveness and new life–when they are so willfully blind? And so they cannot be forgiven.
Matthew’s version (12:22-37) is quite similar, similar enough that I’m going to leave it at that.
And so we have the same saying in two radically different contexts. Luke uses it to talk about the persecution of Christians, and the importance of keeping the faith even under persecution; Mark and Matthew use it to talk about the sin of those who speak stubborn, blind lies against Jesus, those who refuse to see the fruits of God even when they are right in front of them. But actually there’s more, a few more New Testament references: 1 John 5:16 says that, “If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death.” Now, this is fantastically unhelpful: what sins lead to death? John doesn’t say; this is pretty much the end of the letter. So, really not helpful. And Hebrews talks a few times about sins that are unforgivable: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift […] and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance.” (Hebrews 6:4-6), and later: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (10:26-27)
Now, in Greek the words of Hebrews is a bit more specific: the author isn’t talking about that time you cut someone off in traffic. No, this is someone who has experienced God’s abundance in their own life, someone who has felt and accepted God’s grace who has then made a conscious choice to step away from all of that. This is someone who has utterly rejected God, consciously and willingly and knowingly. This is fairly in line with how the gospels interpret Jesus’ saying, whether that conscious sin is denying God publicly or refusing to see God’s works.
So, that was a lot of information that I just threw at you, and I still haven’t reached the important part: So what? What does that have to do with us, today?
As we look at the different contexts that the gospel writers have put Jesus’ words into, it is important to remember how the gospels were written: the writers, who by then were decades removed from Jesus’ ministry, combined the sayings and sermons and stories that had been passed down orally through churches. They each combined them in different orders or different combinations, often to make a certain point or to let them expand on one another. That is, they have this weird, uncomfortable saying of Jesus, and each of them gave it a context that they thought helped it to make sense to their readers.
And, frankly, when we start talking about unforgivable sins, I don’t entirely care. It really is not my responsibility to decide who is and isn’t forgiven, hallelujah. That is God’s job and I am eternally grateful for that.
But I do know two things: First, that these passages are not meant to fill people with worry or fear of doing the least little thing wrong. So often people seem to hear them and worry that they are somehow committing this unforgivable sin without knowing it, but every time it’s mentioned in Scripture it’s about huge actions, related to denying who God is in a big, big way. This isn’t about accidentally saying that the Holy Spirit is the Creator when theology has assigned that role to the Father, or messing up the Apostle’s Creed one Sunday. Nor is it about asking questions or having doubts. No, this is about making a conscious decision to step away from God. But you know what? I also think Hebrews is wrong. Who is the author to tell God who to forgive? That is God’s role. God is the redeemer, the one who knows who is forgiven and who is not, the one who took Saul the persecutor and spoke to him on the road and then sent out Paul the missionary and writer. God is the one who accepts us back, even when we question, even when we fall away, even when we turn away out of hurt or anger or fear. Do we sometimes turn away? Do we refuse to see God in the people or situations around us? Absolutely! And yet I believe that God is the father in the story of the prodigal son, always ready to welcome us home. I believe in the Holy Spirit, always nudging us to see the God’s work in the world more clearly. I believe in Jesus Christ, who sometimes comes to us in a blinding flash of light to point out that we’re totally wrong about everything we believed.
Alleluia for that, and amen.