Recently I received a phone call and a long letter from a reader worried that he had committed the unpardonable sin during a period of time in his life when he was away from the Lord.
The expression “the unpardonable sin” doesn’t occur in Scripture. This is a label which people have put on what Jesus called, “the blasphemy against the Spirit” (Matt 12:31). Jesus said that “he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness” (Mark 3:29).
At the outset we need to challenge the designation “the unpardonable sin.” Jesus didn’t say that “he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven.” That would make the sin “unpardonable.” Rather, He said that “he…never has forgiveness.” That would better be described as “the unpardoned sin.” The death of Christ covers all sins without exception (John 1:29). The distinction may seem unimportant. It isn’t.
If a person blasphemed against the Holy Spirit and then later came to faith in Christ, he would be forgiven and regenerated. Thus what Jesus is saying is that a person who commits this sin will never come to faith in Him. More about the significance of this later.
It is difficult to be precise about this sin because Scripture gives only sketchy details about it (Matt 12:22-32; Mark 3:22-30; Luke 11:14-23; 12:10). All we have is a general description of what this sin is.
This sin is set against the backdrop of Jesus casting out demons. Some who observed Jesus do this said, “‘He has Beelzebub,’ and ‘By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons'” (Mark 3:22).
Mark 3:28-30 gives the best explanation of this sin:
“Assuredly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation”-because they said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Let’s see what we know about the unpardoned sin.
I. What Is the Unpardoned Sin?
After the words “he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation,” Mark comments “because they said, ‘He has an unclean spirit'” (Mark 3:29-30). This shows that the sin in question is related to saying that Jesus has an unclean spirit.
The people in question had seen the miraculous works of Jesus with their own eyes. Any reasonable person would have concluded that God had to be working through Jesus. Nicodemus, one of the religious leaders of Israel, affirmed that very point in John 3:2, “No one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him.” The evidence was unmistakable. This suggests that to commit the blasphemy against the Spirit a person must do four things: 1) be aware of the miraculous works of Jesus, 2) consciously reject the logical conclusion that those works are from God, 3) believe those works are actually from the devil, and 4) tell others that Jesus’ works are from the devil.
There is no clear indication by the Lord Jesus in any of the passages that anyone in His day had already committed this sin which would never be forgiven. Jesus didn’t say, “You are eternally condemned because you have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit.” Jesus may well have been giving a warning and not a pronouncement of sentence.
It is quite possible, therefore, that this sin is not a one-time act. Jesus could be referring to those who reject him their entire lives and die in unbelief. Wessel comments, “Surely what Jesus is speaking of here [Mark 3:22-30] is not an isolated act but a settled condition of the soul-the result of a long history of repeated and willful acts of sin through hardness of heart (cf. 3:5)” (NIV Bible Commentary, Mark, p. 151). While I am inclined to agree that this likely refers to “a settled condition of the soul,” there is no Scripture which makes that certain. Wessel goes too far in saying “surely.” In addition, Wessel’s reference to “willful acts of sin” is too general. Jesus is talking about a specific type of sin, saying that He did His works under the power of the devil and not the power of the Holy Spirit.
It must be admitted that it is possible that the unpardoned sin is a one-time act. After all, for a person to see the works of Jesus and have the audacity to say that these miraculous works are the works of the devil suggests a hardness of heart of amazing proportions. Is it not possible that Jesus is saying that a person can become so hardened of heart that he or she will never come to faith and be forgiven? He would not be warning against saying some magical incantation that guarantees damnation. Rather, He would be warning against so hardening one’s heart against Jesus that he or she crosses the point of no return.
II. Can This Sin Be Committed Today?
The fact that this sin is not mentioned in the NT epistles might suggest that it couldn’t have been committed after Jesus left the earth. Maybe a person had to actually see His miracles and then attribute them to Satan to commit this sin. Of course, this can’t be proved. This is merely a possible conclusion.
I am inclined to the view that the unpardoned sin is cosmic unbelief, calculated wholehearted rejection of Jesus and His message, culminating in a vitriolic declaration that Jesus is from the devil. I don’t know whether this sin only occurs over the course of a life or if it could be committed at a point in time.
III. Can Christians Commit This Sin?
Finally a question we can answer with absolute certainty! The answer is No. No Christian can commit a sin for which there will never be forgiveness. Other Scriptures make this crystal clear. For instance, Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24, italics added). If a believer ever came into the judgment of eternal condemnation, Jesus would be proved a liar. Of course, He never lies. Thus no Christian could commit a sin which would result in loss of his salvation. That is impossible.
I told the man who wrote me that he needed to reprogram his mind (Rom 12:2). He was concerned he had committed an unpardonable sin and lost his salvation. If that were possible, then Jesus is a liar and the Gospel is a sham!
Unfortunately, it is possible for a believer to stop looking to Christ alone for eternal life. When that happens, assurance evaporates like steam escaping from a boiling teapot. Irrational beliefs need to be vigorously rejected. It is irrational to think that Jesus would lie. He guarantees eternal life to all who simply believe in Him. No strings are attached.
The man who wrote me claims that for a time he was out of his head and wanted to damn himself forever. At one point he specifically attributed the works of Jesus to the devil, shouting this out loud to God Himself.
Three things must be born in mind here. First, that example is not anything like the sin spoken of in the Gospels. The people there were emotionally stable and rational. The man who wrote me was, in contrast, emotionally unstable and not rational at the time.
Second, this man says that before and after this time he believed that Jesus freely gives eternal life to all who simply believe in Him for it. That proves he didn’t commit this sin. No matter what words he said, he couldn’t commit the sin because that would violate Scripture which says that whoever believes in Christ has everlasting life and shall not come into judgment (John 5:24; 6:47).
Third, the fact that the man is now concerned about it proves that he didn’t commit it. Anyone who committed this sin would be hardened to the point where he would never be concerned about Jesus and His salvation.
IV. Can Unbelievers Commit This Sin and Later Desire to be Saved?
No. Once again, if anyone committed this sin he would forever be hardened in unbelief. There never would be a time later in life when this person would have any interest in Christ or any desire for salvation or forgiveness. Thus if any unbeliever wants to be saved, he can be. He must only believe in Christ for eternal life (Acts 16:31).
Here’s what we know about this sin:
- Anyone who commits it will never be pardoned later.
- It is a sane, rational, deliberate attributing of the works of Jesus to the devil. It is not merely saying certain words.
- No Christian can commit this sin.
- No one who is worried that he may have committed it has committed it.
- Anyone who has committed this sin is totally hardened against Christ and His salvation.
Here’s what we don’t know about this sin:
- Is this sin a one-time act or repeated or lifelong rejection of Christ?
- Can this sin be committed today?
- Was Jesus telling people that they had already committed this sin, or was He warning them that they might be in danger of committing it?
I know that no one likes uncertainty, especially perfectionists. And guess who is most likely to be worried about the unpardoned sin? While I don’t worry about this sin, I do sympathize with the people who do. However, God’s Word promises that whoever believes in Christ has everlasting life and shall never come into judgment.
So, if you’re afraid you’ve committed the unpardoned sin, stop worrying. Jesus is not a liar! If you believe in Him for eternal life, then you’ve got it. It’s that simple. He guarantees it.