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Unpardonable Sin

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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UNPARDONABLE SIN.—The expression is not a Scriptural one, but rests partly upon a saying of Jesus reported in different forms by all the Synoptists, and partly upon two analogous passages in Hebrews and one in 1 John. It is only with the saying in the Gospels that we are directly concerned, but the passages in the Epistles must be glanced at as bearing upon our interpretation of Christ’s words, and something must be said also as to the place of the subject in Christian experience.

1. In the Gospels.—It is the solemn declaration of Jesus that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit shall never be forgiven which forms our fundamental authority. In an examination of these words, several points have to be considered.

(1) The occasion of the utterance.—Both Mt. and Mk. connect the saying with calumnious charges of the scribes and Pharisees, based upon our Lord’s action in curing demoniacs (Matthew 12:22 ff., Mark 3:11; Mark 3:22 ff.). Lk. gives it a different setting (Luke 12:8 ff.; cf. Luke 11:14 ff.); but while it is possible that Jesus used the words on separate occasions, there can be little question that, if He spoke them only once, it is from Mt. and Mk. that we get the proper historical connexions. His work in delivering demoniacs from the power of evil spirits had deeply impressed the multitude, who, according to Mt. (Matthew 12:23), began to ask, ‘Is this the Son of David?’ But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, ‘This man doth not cast out devils but by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils’ (Matthew 12:24, Mark 3:22; cf. Luke 11:15). Jesus showed the absurdity of such a charge, considered from the point of view of mere reason and common sense (Matthew 12:25 ff., Mark 3:23 ff., Luke 11:17 ff.). And then, suddenly changing His tone as He passed from the logical weakness of His adversaries to lay His finger on their moral and spiritual fault, He uttered those memorable words in which He declared that while all other sins and blasphemies, even blasphemy against Himself, shall be forgiven, whosoever shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit shall never be forgiven (Matthew 12:31-32, Mark 3:28-29; cf. Luke 12:10).

(2) The nature of the sin.—In seeking for this, the occasion of the utterance serves as a guide. A study of the context in Mt. and Mk. at once disposes of some of the views that have been entertained as to the nature of the sin against the Holy Spirit—all those, e.g., that are associated with the idea that only Christians can be guilty of it. Jesus was speaking to Pharisees, and it is by thinking, in the first place, of the Pharisees and their attitude to Him and His teaching that we get on the right line for arriving at the meaning of His words. He had cast out demons; and the Pharisees said that He did this by the help of Beelzebub. He had delivered men and women from unclean spirits (Mark 1:23 ff., Matthew 10:1, Luke 4:33 ff. and passim); and they said of Himself, ‘He hath an unclean spirit’ (Mark 3:30). Now, such language regarding Jesus strikes us, first of all, as blasphemy against the Son of Man Himself—and this it undoubtedly was. But this was not the aspect of the sin upon which Jesus fastened. On the contrary, He declared that all blasphemy against the Son of Man shall be forgiven. It was possible for men to insult Him personally, through want of thought or ignorance as to His real character. Of all such offenders He was ready to say, as He said at last of those who nailed Him to the cross or reviled Him hanging there, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). But apart from all questions of His personal dignity, Jesus came revealing in His words and deeds the Divine spirit of holiness and love. The works He did testified to the manner of spirit He was of. But in the presence of the Divine goodness that shone from His beneficent activities, the Pharisees only gnashed their teeth and declared that the spirit of Jesus was the spirit of Satan. This was blasphemy, not against Jesus only, but against the Divine Spirit that was manifested in Him. And such blasphemy, we must remember, the Pharisees were guilty of, not once, but constantly. Jesus might have affirmed of them, as Stephen afterwards affirmed in the face of the Sanhedrin, ‘Ye do always resist the Holy Ghost’ (Acts 7:51). John the Baptist had come ‘in the way of righteousness’ (Matthew 21:32); and they said of him, ‘He hath a devil’ (Matthew 11:18, Luke 7:33). Jesus came in the way, not only of righteousness, but of love; and of this incarnation of the Divine grace they said again and again, ‘He hath a devil’ (Matthew 9:34, Matthew 12:24, Mark 3:22, Luke 11:15, John 7:20; John 8:48; John 8:52; John 10:20). They said this, moreover, not rashly or carelessly, but deliberately and malignantly; not because they were blind to the tokens of God’s presence with Jesus, but because they hated Him for having crossed them in their, paths of selfishness and pride, and revealed both to themselves and others the utter emptiness of their religious life. Their blasphemy thus was not the hasty utterance of a moment, but a vice of their indwelling thoughts and character (Matthew 12:25); not a single act, but a habitual attitude. The light that came into the world shone round about them; but they loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. And at last they came not only to prefer the darkness, but to hate the light so bitterly that nothing would serve them but to declare to others and try to persuade themselves that it came not from God, but from the devil.

(3) Its unpardonable character.—The unpardonableness of such blasphemy as this, Jesus affirms in language that can hardly be mistaken. In Lk. once (Luke 12:10) and in Mt. twice (Matthew 12:31-32) He declares, ‘It shall not be forgiven’—adding in Mt. (Matthew 12:32) the ominous words, ‘neither in this age (αἰών), nor in that which is to come.’ The attempt is sometimes made to soften down the force of the last expression. The present age, it is said, was simply the Mosaic age or dispensation under which the Jews were living; while ‘the age to come’ was the Messianic age or Christian dispensation Our Lord’s words thus mean only that, whether men live under the Law or the Gospel, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unpardonable. They have no reference to the future life; they tell us nothing about a state of doom after death; they do not carry us on to any final issues (so Cox, Expositor, ii. iii. [1882] 322). But while it is true that the Jews of our Lord’s time used the phrases ‘this age’ and ‘the coming age’ to denote the period before and the period after the advent of the expected Messiah (cf., however, Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. ii. 177), it is clear from the Gospels that Jesus Himself habitually employed them to indicate the age before and the age after His own Parousia (see Matthew 13:39-40; Matthew 13:49; Matthew 24:3; Matthew 28:20, Mark 10:30, Luke 18:30; Luke 20:35), thereby throwing ‘the age to come’ into that future world which lies beyond His Second Advent and the resurrection of the dead (see Salmond, Chr. Doct. of Immort. 381). And if Mt.’s language left us in any doubt as to the absoluteness of His meaning, the doubt would disappear when we turn to Mk. For there we find Him saying of the man who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit that he ‘hath never forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’ (Mark 3:29 Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ). Even if it stood by itself, ‘hath never forgiveness’ would carry a sound of finality with it. And when there is added, ἀλλὰ ἔνοχός ἐστιν αἰωνίου ἀμαρτήματος, it seems hardly possible to escape from the conclusion that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is here described as a sin for which there is no remedy. The words in the original are exceedingly striking. ἔνοχος (= ἐνεχόμενος, fr. ἐν and ἔχω) means ‘held in the grip of’ (see Morison, Matthew, in loc.). And if we give to αἰώνιος the meaning it regularly has on the lips of Jesus, ‘an eternal sin’ appears to mean a sin that eternally persists, a sin that has so engrained itself in the character as to become fixed in the form of destiny. See, further, Eternal Sin.

(4) The reason for its unpardonableness.—This does not lie in any limitation of the grace of Christ or of the forgiving mercy of God. It lies in the very nature of the sin as just described. The sin is unpardonable because the sinner has no desire for pardon; it ‘hath never forgiveness’ because it is not repented of. For when men for selfish reasons hate the light, and persistently shut their eyes against it and blaspheme it, they gradually put their eyes out. God’s ‘sov’reign vital lamp’ still shines about them, but they can no more see it, since they have extinguished their own power of seeing. Eternal darkness is the necessary consequence of eternal sin. It is quite true that ἁμάρτημα generally stands for an act, not a state. But from the point of view of exegesis, little can be built upon this. For an act may be the revelation of a state; and when the Pharisees said of Jesus, ‘He hath an unclean spirit,’ this particular piece of blasphemy, as we have seen, was really the expression of a settled attitude of mind.

2. In the Epistles.—There are two passages in Hebrews that bear upon the subject. In Hebrews 6:4-8 the writer describes the impossibility of a renewal unto repentance for Christians who have fallen away from Christ after having once ‘tasted of the heavenly gift’ and become ‘partakers of the Holy Ghost.’ In Hebrews 10:26-31 he declares that there is no more sacrifice for sins in the case of those who sin wilfully and persistently after they have received the knowledge of the truth. It is impossible to suppose that he means that a Christian cannot be forgiven if he falls into sin, however grievous, or that Jesus is unable to save men to the uttermost (cf. Hebrews 2:17, Hebrews 4:16, Hebrews 10:19 ff.). In the second passage certainly, and presumably in the first also, he is speaking of a deliberate repudiation of Christ on the part of those who have tasted His blessings. Once they were enlightened, but they too loved the darkness rather than the light, and so shut the light out of their hearts, and trampled under foot the Son of God, and did despite unto the Spirit of grace. Thus we have here again, though now in the case, not of Pharisees, but of members of the Christian Church, a manifestation of the same kind of sin as before.* [Note: The case of Esau (Hebrews 12:16-17), though often quoted in connexion with this sin, has no real bearing upon it. The repentance which he sought was a change of mind on his father’s part, not on his own. But Isaac had already bestowed the blessing, and the past could not be undone.] In 1 John 5:16 the writer distinguishes between ‘a sin unto death’ and ‘a sin that is not unto death’; and while urging Christians to pray for one another with respect to the latter, says that he does not bid them make request to God concerning the former. It seems evident that there is a reference here to our Lord’s language in Matthew 12:31 f. ||, but in itself the passage adds nothing to our knowledge of unpardonable sin.

3. In Christian experience.—The subject is of importance, not only exegetically and theologically, but because of its practical bearings, and that in two different directions. (1) Bunyan at a certain period of his religious history (see Grace Abounding, §§ 96–230) is a type of multitudes who have suffered agonies of spiritual torture through the fear that they have committed a sin for which there is no forgiveness. But if the view taken above is the right one, there is no specific act of blasphemy in word or deed, standing by itself, that we are entitled to think of as ‘the unpardonable sin.’ The phrase, in fact, is as erroneous as it is unscriptural, though the common use of it has helped to load thousands of sensitive souls with a burden of intolerable pain. There is no mysterious transgression which is sufficient of itself to put a man beyond the power of repentance, and so outside the pale of forgiveness. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit may find expression and come to its culmination in some specific way; but essentially it is a settled attitude of mind and heart. It is a deliberate extinguishing of that inner light which God Himself has kindled within us, and which ought to respond to His clear shining from without. Such compunctions as Bunyan had are the very best proof that a man has not committed any unpardonable sin, for they are the experiences of one who, though he has not yet realized the all sufficiency of Christ’s grace, is possessed at least of that contrite spirit which trembles at God’s word, and so may rest upon the prophet’s assurance that unto him the Lord will look (Is 66:2). ‘Sell Him! sell Him! sell Him!’ was the urgent persuasion of the Tempter in Bunyan’s ear. But though at last in his distraction he felt the thought, ‘Let Him go if He will,’ pass through his mind, the true intention of his heart was always, ‘No, no! not for thousands, thousands, thousands!’ (op. cit. § 139).

(2) But if anxious and fearful souls need to be reminded that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not some mysterious sin into which a man may fall against all the promptings of his better nature, the case of the Pharisees and Jesus conveys to all a message of serious warning. No one can stumble suddenly into irremediable sin; but men may drift into it after the fashion of the Pharisees. Selfishness and pride, and not least religious selfishness and pride, may slowly harden the heart and sear the conscience and seal the eyes, until men come to call good evil and light darkness, and are ready at last to say, even of one who manifests the Spirit of God and of Christ, ‘He hath a devil.’ The special monition of the incident in the Gospels is against that loss of vision which comes from the hardening power of sin, that continual resistance of the Spirit which leads at last to hatred of the Spirit. Poor Francis Spiera, whose case seemed to Bunyan so like his own (op. cit. § 163), may not himself have been guilty of unpardonable sin (cf. Martensen, Chr. Ethiopic ii. 128); but there is deep significance for all in his solemn sentence, ‘Man knows the beginning of sin, but who bounds the issues thereof?’ See, further, artt. Blasphemy, Forgiveness.

Literature.—Schaff, Die Sünde wider d. heil Geist; Müller, Chr. Doct. of Sin, ii. 418; Gloag, Exeget. Stud. i.; Salmond, Chr. Doct. of Immort. 379; Stevens, Theol. of NT, 102; Butler, Serm. x. ‘Upon Self-Deceit’; Mozley, Univ. Serm. ii. ‘The Pharisees’; Bunyan, Grace Abounding; ExpT [Note: xpT Expository Times.] iii. [1891–1892] 49, 215, 240, 555, xi. [1899] 1, 49; Expositor, ii. iii. [1882] 321.

J. C. Lambert.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Unpardonable Sin'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​u/unpardonable-sin.html. 1906-1918.
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