First Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15; Psalm 130; Second Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35
Have you ever wondered what this passage (Mark 3:20-35) means when Jesus Himself told a whole crowd of people, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin?” Or when in the same passage Jesus seems to dismiss His own family in favor of those who are doing the will of God? Here we have two of the most difficult sayings of Jesus almost back-to-back. What should we make of them?
I will confess that the first one has given me a great deal of trouble throughout my life. If there is such a thing as what we call the “unpardonable sin,” how will I know whether I’ve committed it? And is there truly no possibility of repentance from having committed this particular sin? On the other hand is it even a sin that is possible for us to commit, or was it limited to the time that Jesus was on this earth, as some believe? That would be encouraging. Yet there might be the nagging question, why would Matthew and Mark both include this statement of Jesus if it has no significance for our time?
How might I blaspheme the Holy Spirit? How is it that the Gospel, the good news of our forgiveness from sin, should include an admittedly ambiguous warning from Jesus about a sin for which there’s no forgiveness? Perhaps this never has worried you. But if we’re to dismiss it outright, does that leave us in even greater danger of committing it?
Have you ever heard a sermon on this before? If so, do you actually remember how it ended? Were you challenged or comforted? Or did you just forget about it? I think it’s fairly certain that I have heard at least one sermon sometime or other on this subject; yet I readily will confess that I have no recollection of how it ended or of how it affected me.
Let me give you one example of a time when I became concerned that the unpardonable sin had been committed by persons very close to me. It was when they claimed that certain persons of a charismatic persuasion, misled by the spirit of Satan, were in fact displaying counterfeit gifts of the Holy Spirit. I thought, “Could this be exactly the same thing as people accusing Jesus of casting out demons by the spirit of Beelzebul? And if so, what now can I think about their eternal fate?”
The first thing I want to say to you this morning is that we need to exercise the greatest possible caution not to dismiss what may be the authentic working of the Holy Spirit. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament epistles tell us that in the last day, the end times, there will be a revival of Holy Spirit power and a recurrence of those signs and wonders that we often think belonged only to Biblical times. When we see such things that are outside our normal experience, just as the casting out of demons by Jesus was outside the experience of His contemporaries, should we take a chance on dismissing them by attributing them to Satanic power? What if they’re authentic? What if they’re evidences or signs given to us by God so that we will be preparing ourselves better for the soon return of Jesus the Christ, our Messiah?
What is my responsibility as a priest in God’s one holy catholic and apostolic Church to say to you this morning? Should I say, “Be not afraid?” Or should I say, “I’m warning you to be quaking in your boots?” This does not seem to be unimportant stuff that we’re pondering from two out of the three Synoptic Gospels. We need to know what the Holy Scriptures are saying to us personally.
Some of you know the clever aphorism that “a text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.” And so the first thing we need to do this morning is to examine carefully the context in which Jesus made His statement about a person whose sin “never has forgiveness.” Mark tells us that those who were accusing Jesus of being in league with the devil were “scribes who came down from Jerusalem.” Matthew identifies them as Pharisees, doubtless the same persons who, in last week’s Gospel reading, had just attacked Jesus for healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath.
What is significant here is that these were persons who were the spiritual leaders of their day and teachers of the Scriptures. We’re inclined to say that they should have known better, but that now sounds like letting them off the hook too easily. We saw last week, that when they witnessed the healing ministry of Jesus, they went away plotting how they could destroy Him. Already they had moved far away from recognizing the power by which Jesus was able to do such things.
And now they take a further step by accusing Jesus of operating through the power of “Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” Jesus responds by saying that what He does is in the power of “the Spirit of God,” and that anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit is guilty of an eternal sin. Matthew has Jesus saying that the blasphemer will not be forgiven “in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32). There is no remediation or purgation for this sin.
There is one other passage in the New Testament that seems to suggest a similar sin that cannot be forgiven. The author of Hebrews writes, “It is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding Him up to contempt” (6:4-6).
Have you known such a person? Have you ever tried to witness to such a person? If you have, then you know exactly what the author of Hebrews is saying. The fierce resistance of those who, having once responded to the Gospel, have then turned their backs on it, seemingly renders them impervious to being “restored to repentance.”
Is this the same thing Jesus was addressing in his encounter with the scribes and Pharisees? They were first-hand witnesses of the Person, the teaching and the acts of Jesus. They saw “the powers of the age to come,” Holy Spirit powers. They were persons immersed in the Scriptures. They had every opportunity to accept Jesus as their Messiah. Their refusal to do so was culpable enough, but there still was the possibility that they, like Nicodemus, might repent and confess Jesus as Lord and Christ.
But now, having been witnesses to the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the life of Jesus, they were writing Him off as One Whose actions were demonically inspired. Decades later the Apostle John wrote, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (3:8). Yet these persons were prepared to dismiss the works of Jesus as “Satan casting out Satan.”
Listen to what one commentator wrote about this heinous exhibition of unbelief, applying it to his own time: Here we see a sufficient explanation of the widespread unbelief of the age in which we live. It is because the heart of this generation is so far estranged from God, so wedded to the earthly and material, so taken up with selfish aggrandizement and the multiplication of the luxuries of life. In many cases of unbelief the individual is not so much to blame as the spirit of the age of which he is the representative (J. Monro Gibson, The Expositor’s Bible).
Doesn’t that sound like a perceptively scathing indictment of our 21st-century society where faith in God has been replaced by the inflated sense of self-worth that drives our unbridled materialism and consumerism? But the author who wrote that commentary published it in 1898! Some things never change. And that is precisely why I think it’s spiritually dangerous for anyone to suggest that this unpardonable sin of which Jesus was speaking only could have been committed during His life on earth. In fact today it’s being committed every time the work of the Holy Spirit in the Person of Jesus Christ is dismissed as fake news, as overblown hagiography, as unverifiable religious mythology. This may be our modern-day version of what the contemporaries of Jesus were doing.
How can there be a sin for which there is no forgiveness? How can anyone crucify afresh the Lord of Glory? Simply because the person who steadfastly refuses to accept Jesus as the Son of God despite repeated opportunities to do so deliberately places himself beyond the reach of divine forgiveness. It is a choice. And as the great preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote well over 100 years ago, “He that perishes chooses to perish.”
Earlier this week in Morning Prayer I once again encountered a passage from the final chapter of the Book of Joshua. It records Joshua’s last words to the Israelites before his death at the age of 110. He had lived through the years of the wilderness wanderings and was one of only two persons from his generation that God had permitted to enter the Promised Land. He’d witnessed the repeated occasions on which the Israelites had turned away from God after He had led them out of bondage in Egypt, fed them daily with manna, the bread of heaven, and with quail, something only found today on the menus of gourmet restaurants.
Now, drawing from those experiences, here is what Joshua said to the people: “You cannot serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” Joshua knew that there were some people in his hearing who once again would forsake their God and worship instead the false gods of their new neighbors. And he knew that God would judge them accordingly.
Does that sound harsh to us? Perhaps, but it’s borne out again and again. Think of someone to whom you may have witnessed faithfully with no observable result. Perhaps the unpardonable sin is indeed a person’s willfully removing himself or herself from the saving grace of God, refusing ever to stop spurning every witness to the truth of the Gospel message. That’s clearly what the scribes and Pharisees were doing when they saw the power of God at work first-hand and attributed it to the prince of demons. That’s what a person does today when, confronted repeatedly with the Holy Spirit’s conviction regarding salvation in Christ Jesus, turns away unbelieving and unrepenting. The choice is made, and the consequences are eternal.
There is some comfort in this understanding of the unpardonable sin. It’s that one cannot commit it unwillingly, unwittingly or casually. It amounts to a conscious decision to reject Jesus Christ and to refuse to accept the evidence of His work in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is precisely why Jesus told some of those persons gathered around Him that “The works that I do in My Father’s name testify on My behalf. But you refuse to believe because you are not of My sheep.” (John 10:25, 26).
It’s one thing to be somewhat skeptical, or to confess that there are things about the life and work and Person of Jesus that we cannot fully understand. It’s quite another thing to refuse to accept Him as the God/Man, the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the world, as our personal Savior. Those who hold steadfastly to their rejection of Jesus the Christ and fail to acknowledge Him for all that He is are committing a sin that is unpardonable, for which there is no forgiveness, not “in this age or in the age to come.” It’s blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, Who continually bears witness to Who Jesus is.
But if this morning you are prepared to say, “Jesus, I’ve been like those scribes and Pharisees of old, refusing to recognize all that You are and have ever been and ever will be as my own Savior and Redeemer,” please know that He’s ready and waiting to accept you now if you come to Him in repentance and faith. Just say in your heart, “Jesus, I come. I surrender my doubts and my challenges to You. I accept You as the One sent by the Father to do His will in the power of the Holy Spirit so that I might have eternal life in Him. I repent of my stubborn refusal to take this step until now. But this morning I understand that to escape that which never can be forgiven, I must come to You while there still is time. Jesus, I yield the rest of my life to You.”
Do that this morning, and you will discover a peace, joy and confident assurance you never have known before. It’s God’s promise to you. Claim it today.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen