The Sin against the Holy Spirit
There are a number of sins spoken of in the NT but none so grave as that of which the Lord said “it shall not be forgiven” (Luke 12: 10)—the sin against the Holy Spirit. Now we also read of a “sin to death” (1 John 5: 16) and both Peter and Paul exercised apostolic power (see Acts 5: 1–10; 1 Cor. 5: 1–5) against sin of that character. Again, Paul also delivered two individuals to Satan that “they may be taught by discipline not to blaspheme” (1 Tim. 1: 20). Interestingly, the Greek word used there for blaspheme (blasfhmew) is the same verb that is used in relation to the unforgivable sin (where it is translated speak injuriously). This word is used not only of God (see Rom. 2: 24), but also of man (see Acts 18: 6). Paul himself confesses that in his unconverted days he “was a blasphemer” (1 Tim. 1: 13) and that he compelled others to blaspheme (see Acts 26: 11) but mercy was shown him because he “did it ignorantly, in unbelief” (1 Tim. 1: 13). Now all these sins were extremely serious but they were not the sin “against the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 12: 32) which “has no forgiveness” (Mark 3: 29). Sadly, down the ages, many believers have agonised over whether they have committed this unforgivable sin. Certainly, Christians can “grieve” (Eph. 4: 30) and even “quench” (1 Thess. 5: 19) the Holy Spirit—such is the lowliness of His service—but, as I hope to show, to commit the sin against the Holy Spirit now is simply just not possible.
To the Jew
Much of the genuine heartache and depth of anguish felt by many true believers in this solemn matter could be avoided if, instead of isolating particular verses, the relevant Scriptures were considered in the context in which they are set. The sections of Scripture involved are Matt. 12: 22–37; Mark 3: 20–30; and Luke 11: 14–26; 12: 10, to which some would add Heb. 6: 1–8; 10: 26–31. Now the first point to grasp very firmly is that in all these Scriptures all those involved and addressed were Jews. In the Gospel passages, the Jews involved were those who, in the light of irrefutable evidence, refused the testimony to Jesus as the Messiah; in the Hebrew epistle, the Jews involved were those who had outwardly accepted that testimony but appeared to be in danger of giving it up and going back to the Judaism they professed to have left. I shall look at the Gospel passages first.
The Age to Come and its Powers
The synoptic Gospels give the history of the presentation of the millennial Kingdom to Israel and the features that would mark it. When that Kingdom is established in the “age to come” (Heb. 6: 5), Satan will be “bound” for “a thousand years” (Rev. 20: 2) and Christ will reign supreme (see v4). John says “To this end the Son of God has been manifested, that he might undo the works of the devil” (1 John 3: 8). So when the Lord was here and was casting out demons—Satan’s emissaries—He was exercising “[the] works of power of [the] age to come” (Heb. 6 5). It was thus a foretaste of that age. Many of the maladies that inflicted men were identified with demon possession. The incident that gave rise to the Lord’s pronouncement of this unforgivable sin was His deliverance of a man “possessed by a demon, blind and dumb” (Matt. 12: 22). In response, the crowds asked “Is this [man] the son of David?” (v23), rightly linking the incident with the advent of the Messiah. This infuriated the Pharisees (see v24). There was no challenge from them as to what the Lord did, rather the challenge was to how He did it. They said “This [man] does not cast out demons, but by Beelzebub, prince of demons” (v24)—they attributed the exorcism to Satan. Before pronouncing this sin unforgivable, the Lord presented an irrefutable argument to them supplemented by “parables” (Mark 3: 23).
The Lord’s Response to the Accusations
Each of the synoptic writers orders events suited to their presentation of Christ. As Matthew writes with the Jew in mind and the matter before us only involved Jews, I will largely follow his order. No one doubted that demons were under Satan’s authority and thus identified with him. This is expressed by the Lord saying “If Satan casts out Satan” with the logical conclusion “he is divided against himself; how then shall his kingdom subsist?” (Matt. 12: 26). The Pharisees claimed their sons cast out demons. Whether or not the claim was justified is immaterial. The Lord tellingly asks “by whom do they cast [them] out?” knowing they would not dare to answer, and so follows this up by saying that “they shall be your judges” (v27). He then gives a parable “Or how can any one enter into the house of the strong [man] and plunder his goods, unless first he bind the strong [man]? and then he will plunder his house” (v29). The strong man is Satan. The “goods” were those bound by him such as the woman having a spirit of infirmity “whom Satan has bound … [these] eighteen years” (Luke 13: 16) and the man that occasioned the confrontation here, who was “possessed by a demon, blind and dumb” (Matt. 12: 22). Limiting Satan’s power by casting out demons was binding the strong man and curbing his power—a foretaste of the Kingdom when he will be bound in the abyss for a thousand years and rendered completely powerless. The Lord was plundering Satan’s house.
In keeping with this the Lord had said “But if I by [the] Spirit of God cast out demons, then indeed the kingdom of God is come upon you” (v28). Now the expanded expression for the Kingdom throughout Matthew is the kingdom of the heavens. However on just five occasions it is changed to the kingdom of God (Matt. 6: 33; 12: 28; 19: 24; 21: 31, 43), each time by the Lord Himself. The term kingdom of the heavens is the outward aspect of the Kingdom that has a moral dimension to it—darnel and good seed, wicked and just (see Matt. 13: 38, 49). The term kingdom of God expresses the spiritual aspect of the Kingdom which the kingdom of the heavens does not. Thus new birth is essential even to “see” the kingdom of God (John 3: 3). Casting out unclean spirits demanded the exercise of spiritual power and was thus a singular proof that the spiritual authority of the Kingdom was then present—“But if I by the Spirit of God cast out demons, then indeed the kingdom of God is come upon you” (Matt. 12: 28).
The Eternal Character of the Sin and its Enormity
The sin against the Holy Spirit is only spoken of by the Lord Himself. Furthermore, though it is recorded by each of the synoptic writers, it is not spoken of elsewhere. In Matthew we have “whosoever shall have spoken a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him; but whosoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this age nor in the coming one” (Matt. 12: 32). Now Matthew wrote with the Jew in mind, and they knew of only two ages encompassing the whole of time: the present one of law, and the coming one when Messiah would reign. Mark’s record is “whosoever shall speak injuriously against the Holy Spirit, to eternity has no forgiveness; but lies under the guilt of an everlasting sin;—because they said, He has an unclean spirit” (Mark 3: 29, 30). The words “to eternity” encompass the whole of time, and sins not forgiven in time are “everlasting”. Luke’s account is briefest of all: “whoever shall say a word against the Son of man it shall be forgiven him; but to him that speaks injuriously against the Holy Spirit it shall not be forgiven” (Luke 12: 10). The overall testimony is clear: this sin has no forgiveness.
Now as the Son of Man, (which is the Lord’s universal title—that is, as a man among men), the Lord would endure “every sin and injurious speaking” (Matt. 12: 31)—He was attacked as an eater and a wine drinker, and called a friend of tax–gatherers and sinners (see Matt. 11: 19; Luke 7: 34). All this was what could be observed outwardly and could be forgiven. What could not be forgiven involved what was inward, namely calling the Holy Spirit within the Lord (see Luke 4: 1), an unclean spirit. The enormity of the sin was identifying the Holy Spirit in the Lord with Satan himself. This was unique and could never be repeated. But had not others cast out demons? What about the Twelve? Could not ascribing the works of power carried out through them to the Devil also be a case of sinning against the Holy Spirit?
The Sending out of the Twelve
Previously the Lord had sent out the Twelve and “gave them power and authority over all demons, and to heal diseases” (Luke 9: 1; see also Matt. 10: 8; Mark 3: 15) with the warning “[It is] sufficient for the disciple that he should become as his teacher, and the bondman as his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more those of his household?” (Matt. 10: 25). The result of their service was that “they cast out many demons” (Mark 6: 13). Furthermore, unless the Lord’s prophetic word failed, Beelzebub would be credited with their service. They thus did what the Lord did and suffered the same accusations that the Lord experienced. Yet there is no record that the unforgivable sin is identified with their service—it is only recorded in connection with what the Lord Himself did. We must ask why?
While John the Baptist and Zacharias his father were filled with the Holy Spirit (see Luke 1: 15; 67), no such statement is ever made concerning the Twelve. Indeed the Lord told them that while the Holy Spirit at that time was “with you”, in future He “shall be in you” (John 14: 17). Indeed Scripture testifies clearly that they had not yet received the Holy Spirit (see John 7: 39; 20: 22). The disciples were in the position of the OT saints through whom the Holy Spirit spoke (see Matt. 10: 20; Mark 13: 11; Luke 12: 12). The power they had was not by the Holy Spirit within them but directly from the Lord Himself—“he gave them power over unclean spirits” (Matt. 10: 1, my emphasis). The Lord was not only indwelt by, but was full of the Holy Spirit (see Luke 4: 1); the Twelve were not. Hence while the charge of acting through Beelzebub could be levelled against them, the sin against the Holy Spirit could only be identified with what the Lord Himself did. It was “because they said, He has an unclean spirit” (Mark 3: 30, my emphasis). However, this was not the first time that the Lord had faced this accusation. Why then did the Lord not speak about the unforgivable sin previously?
The Lord’s Previous Service
An almost identical occasion to that recorded in Matt. 12: 22–32 occurred earlier when the Lord had cast a demon out of a dumb man (see Matt. 9: 32, 33). On that occasion the Pharisees also said “He casts out the demons through the prince of the demons” (Matt. 9: 34). Yet only the later incident in Matthew 12 brought out the warning concerning the unforgivable sin. Why? What had changed between the two incidents?
The cities of Israel “in which most of his works of power had taken place” (Matt. 11: 20) had not repented at Christ’s preaching. For the first time the Lord spoke of “this generation” (Matt. 11: 16) which He would later describe as wicked, adulterous, unbelieving, perverted, and sinful. But the most telling incident is when we read “But the Pharisees, having gone out, took counsel against him, how they might destroy him” Matt. (12: 14, see also Mark 3: 6). Notice the wording. It was how they might destroy him—they had already determined His fate. The ecclesiastical elite in the nation met together with only one item on their evil agenda and that was how to do it. They had witnessed “his works of power” (Matt. 11: 20, 21, 23), unmistakable testimony to His Messiahship and to the fact that “God was in Christ” (2 Cor. 5: 19), and the result was only to bring out their inveterate hatred. The die was cast. Accordingly, the Lord continued to heal (see Matt. 12: 15) but now charged the crowds “that they should not make him publicly known” (v16). His public service to Israel was effectively over. Thus the very next time a demon was cast out and the charge of the Pharisees was repeated, the Lord pronounced the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit.
But there are four Gospels. What has John to say about this sin? As I shall show in a moment his testimony is indisputable proof that such a sin could not be committed today.
Scan this Gospel from beginning to end and you will find no mention of the sin against the Holy Spirit. This omission is given even more weight when we discover that John records the Lord being accused of having a demon several times (see John 7: 20; 8: 48, 52; 10: 20)—but with no mention of the unforgivable sin. Again, not one of John’s eight recorded miracles, always described as signs, involved casting out a demon. Why? Because such “works of power” (Matt. 11: 20, 21, 23) belong to the Kingdom—spoken of over 100 times in the Synoptics but only twice in John and then only in its spiritual aspect (see John 3: 3–12; 18: 36). All hope of the Kingdom being established in power on earth had gone when John wrote. While the Synoptics trace the gradual rejection of the Kingdom and Israel’s Messiah, John begins with it saying “He came to his own, and his own received him not” (John 1: 11). All else in John hinges on this one simple fact. The word Jews occurs 16 times in the Synoptics but is never once identified with hostility; in John it is employed over 60 times and is always identified with antagonism towards the Lord. In the Synoptics the sphere of testimony is largely Israel (see Matt. 10: 6; 15: 24), but in John it is the world with the Jew being viewed as just a part of it. As mentioned already, the Lord often speaks of “this generation” in the Synoptics describing it as wicked, adulterous, unbelieving, perverted, and sinful, particularly in connection with the matter we are considering (see Matt. 12: 41, 42; Luke 11: 29, 30 etc.). But the phrase this generation is absent from John’s pages. Why? Because John wrote late, at a time when that generation—the generation that rejected their Messiah and had committed the unforgivable sin—had passed away. But what about the Scriptures in the Hebrew epistle?
The Scriptures in Hebrews
While the Scriptures in Hebrews (Heb. 6: 1–8; 10: 26–31) form a serious parallel with those in the Synoptics, the parallel is not exact. In both cases the people involved were Jews—an important fact in itself. Certainly, we have solemn words: “For it is impossible to renew again to repentance …” (Heb. 6: 4) and “has insulted the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10: 29)—although the word used for insulted is not blasfhmew but enubrizw, albeit of similar meaning. But there the parallel ends. The Jews in Hebrews were professed believers, while those in the Synoptics were decidedly not, and were wilfully blind to the most powerful testimony that God could give. Now the crucifixion of Christ was put on the basis of a sin of ignorance—“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23: 34) so that Peter could offer repentance and exhort the Jews to “Be saved from this perverse generation” (Acts 2: 40). It was on this ground that Paul, even though a blasphemer, was saved (see 1 Tim. 1: 13). Now those addressed in Hebrews had accepted Peter’s offer. They had received the five external blessings the apostle lists in Heb. 6: 4–6: They had been “enlightened”—divine light had shone upon them, not necessarily in them; they had tasted both the “heavenly gift” and “the good word of God”, but taste is not consumption; they had been made “partakers of [the] Holy Spirit”—that is beneficiaries of His outward service; finally, they had experienced “[the] works of power of [the] age to come”—powers that belonged to the establishment of the Kingdom upon the earth. Furthermore they now had the ministry of the writer of Hebrews regarding the present position of the Lord and the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. After all this, to apostatise and return to Judaism would be to “sin wilfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth” so that “there no longer remains any sacrifice for sins” (Heb. 10: 26). There could only be certain judgment ahead as they would have “trodden under foot the Son of God, and esteemed the blood of the covenant, whereby” they have “been sanctified, common” and “insulted the Spirit of grace” (v29). As it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance (see Rom. 2: 4) and as God had expended everything for their blessing they would have put themselves in a position where it was impossible to “renew again to repentance” (Heb. 6: 4). Such is apostasy! While the dreadful end result would be the same, this was not the sin in the Synoptics—for you can only apostatize if you have first claimed to believe.
The fact that there is no mention of the sin against the Holy Spirit in the Gospel by John, and that it is likewise absent from the Epistles, should erase all such disturbing thoughts about the sin against the Holy Spirit from the mind of Christians. However, while unbelieving men today cannot commit this sin, they can still put themselves in the position of no forgiveness. Man has always had a testimony from God to which he is responsible to respond in faith, even if that testimony is no more than just creation itself (see Rom. 1: 20). But God is sovereign. If man hardens his heart, there comes a time in the ways of God when God will harden the heart of man so that he cannot repent and believe. He is then beyond forgiveness. Terrible state! Reader, it is a solemn thing to wake up in time in the realisation that one is lost, but it is a far worse thing to realise that awful truth in eternity. “Behold, now [is the] well–accepted time; behold, now [the] day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6: 2).