A Word Against the Holy Spirit: The First Unpardonable Sin
The unpardonable sin–a synoptic tradition of Jesus Christ–has long puzzled Christian theologians. The statement in the gospel according to Matthew seems to reflect the most extreme reading of it.
“Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:32 NRSV)
For starters, the idea of an unpardonable sin seems to stand in direct contrast to a gospel predicated on the forgiveness of sins. Could there be a sin that God could not forgive? Does not that seem to destroy the basis of the gospel for anyone who commits such a sin?
Of course, it could be argued that a truly unpardonable sin does not destroy the thrust of the gospel. Yes, it can be argued that although there is one sin that God cannot forgive, almost no one will commit that sin anyway, and the ones who will are the sorts of people that we should not want to have forgiveness. The unpardonable sin is the sort of sin committed by the Hitlers of the world, and the Pharisees and the serial killers. We don’t want those people to be reconciled to God, anyhow; it does not undermine the gospel just because there is a sin that cannot be forgiven. In this post, I will challenge such a response.
Failing to Forgive: The Second Unpardonable Sin
One of the most challenging ideas that I learned from George MacDonald was that the New Testament does not teach only one unpardonable sin. Jesus Christ appears to have taught not one, but two unpardonable sins. In the gospel of Matthew, the same gospel that to me seems to most emphasize the seriousness of the unpardonable sin, Jesus twice alludes to another sin that apparently cannot be forgiven: the sin of failing to forgive (Matt. 6:15, 18:23-35).
“…but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matt. 6:15 NRSV)
Wait a minute. In Matt. 12:32, Jesus says that there is a sin that God cannot forgive: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But earlier in Matt. 6:15 and later in Matt. 18:23-35, Jesus talks about another sin that God cannot forgive: failing to forgive! God cannot forgive the failure to forgive. So then, there are two unpardonable sins.
There’s more. If God cannot forgive someone for not forgiving someone else, is God Himself committing the second unpardonable sin? By failing to forgive the first unpardonable sin, is God guilty of the second?
What is going on here?
At any rate, I would say that the issues of the two unpardonable sins are not immediately straightforward. There is a sin that God cannot forgive; but God says that refusing to forgive is also a sin that he cannot forgive. At first, it seems as though God is committing one of his own unpardonable sins. Forgive me if I point out that on its face, this seems at best inconsistent. However, if properly understood, I believe that we can make sense of these apparent difficulties.
The Real Point of the Unpardonable Sins
N. T. Wright, easily my favorite interpreter of the Bible, points out that it is exceedingly dangerous to base entire theological positions off of any one of the brief stories, statements, and parables of Jesus. Some of the parables end with their characters getting thrown into outer darkness, or cut into pieces. These parables are intended to tell brief stories and offer simple glimpses at God, but to say that God is a judge who cuts the wicked into pieces would be to offer too shallow a glimpse at God’s character.
In the same way, to latch on to one of Jesus arguably most archaic sayings ever and to develop a whole theology of forgiveness based on it would be in my opinion to commit a category mistake. And the alternative is not to submit to relativism, but to understand the point that Jesus was trying to make.
In this way, I think the unpardonable sin tradition is like the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31). The point of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is probably not to offer a total theology of post-mortem damnation, but to make the more pertinent and immediate suggestion that a person who ignores the Prophets is the kind of person who will ignore just about everything that God says and does even if it includes someone rising from the dead, someone like Jesus.
Likewise, I submit that the point of the unpardonable sin tradition is not that if you say or do something against the Holy Spirit (or commit suicide, as the older churches teach), it’s over for you and you’re screwed for eternity. If that was what Jesus was teaching, I think we would have even bigger theological problems to deal with.
I suggest that the meaning of the first unpardonable sin (Matt. 12:32), like the second unpardonable sin (Matt. 6:15, 18:35), is not that if you commit these sins, you are screwed forever. It is to say that if you are committing these sins now, then stop it–stop committing these sins, because until you do stop, you will never experience the reality of God’s healing presence and forgiveness in the Holy Spirit, “either in this age or in the age to come” (Matt. 12:32).
Applying the Unpardonable Sins
If you are blaspheming against the Holy Spirit in persistent unbelief, then stop it, because whoever is not for Christ is against him. If you are failing to forgive your sister or brother, then stop it, because if you fail to forgive your sisters and brothers, neither can God forgive you.
A person who stands against the Holy Spirit can never come to forgiveness, since the Holy Spirit is himself the means of forgiveness.
Back to N. T. Wright again. One of my favorite of his many illustrations is that of breathing. Wright thinks that forgiveness is like breathing. In order to continue inhaling God’s forgiveness, you’ve got to keep exhaling God’s forgiveness to others. I would like to apply this image to the other unpardonable sin, that of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. In order for the forgiveness and the oxygenating life of the Holy Spirit to indwell you, you’ve got to stop blaspheming him with your words and in your heart and start submitting to him with your words and in your heart. (Words and heart matter a lot in Christianity, as Romans 10:9 demonstrates.)
A Hypothetical Interpretative Story
Suppose that there was a rich man named Cliff. Cliff was a bitter man. He frequently held grudges, and rarely extended forgiveness to any of those who vexed him. Cliff also had the unique opportunity to meet C. S. Lewis. Lewis offered the most convincing arguments in favor of Christianity that Cliff had ever heard. But, despite the almost certain conviction that struck Cliff of Christianity’s truthfulness, Cliff rejected it. In his mid-forties, he even committed suicide, dwelling in his unwillingness to forgive and believe in Christ to the very end of his life.
In our short story here, Cliff has committed both unpardonable sins. He has failed to forgive others, and he has also blasphemed against the Holy Spirit in unbelief (as the Protestant churches teach) and committed suicide (as the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches teach).
Now suppose that in hell, Cliff has an experience of faith. He remembers in his god-forsaken post-mortem existence the story that Lewis told him, of a God who is with us even should we make our bed in hell (Psalm 139:8).
Suddenly, Cliff begins to cry. He remembers all of the faces in his life that he loved in his own sort of egotistical way. He remembers the many opportunities he had had to forgive others. He remembers the gospel of Christ that he heard from C. S. Lewis.
In my short story, Cliff has repented of both unpardonable sins. In his misery, he has ceased to speak a word against the Holy Spirit. In his pain, he has remembered the pain that he caused others through his grudges, and offers forgiveness in his heart of hearts to those he had once never forgiven.
God now receives Cliff. God did not “forgive” Cliff for blaspheming the Holy Spirit or for failing to forgive others. As long as Cliff was blaspheming and holding grudges, God did not–could not–forgive him, but surrendered him to destruction in order that he might be saved (1 Corinthians 5:5). But now that Cliff has been made new, God receives him and welcomes him.
In this way, then, I would say that the unpardonable sins are not pardonable in that while one commits them, one cannot in an ontological fashion experience God’s forgiveness. But, suppose that a person who did not forgive his brother comes to forgive him. Suppose that someone who once spoke a word against the Holy Spirit now confesses with her mouth that Jesus is Lord and believes in her heart that God raised him from the dead. These, I contend, though they have technically committed the unpardonable sins, will be saved.
We have visited one of the most intense sayings of Jesus ever: that of the “word against the Holy Spirit.” We have compared this to another challenge of Jesus’s, that of forgiving others from the heart. We have considered N. T. Wright’s analogy of breathing and applied it to both of these sins. Using a brief hypothetical narrative, I suggested how committing the unpardonable sins might play out in a person’s life, what it means that those sins cannot be forgiven (as long as the person is the sort of person that commits these sins, he or she cannot experience forgiveness), and how we may still proclaim hope to those who are now committing these sins. I hope that we also consider how even today we might be committing these sins, and how we might by the power of God be forever rid of them.