The Unforgivable Sin: Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit

HAVE YOU EVER SQUIRMED OUT OF CONCERN that you may have committed the unforgivable sin? I did, when I first read about it in Matthew 12:31. What is “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and why is this sin unforgivable?” Let’s look at the larger context of Mt 12:22–32 to better understand what Jesus meant.

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The passage begins with Jesus healing a demon-possessed man who was both blind and mute. The crowds were amazed at this miracle and asked if He was the Son of David, the promised Messiah. When the Pharisees heard what the people were asking, they declared in 12:24, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.”

Do you notice that the Pharisees didn’t speak up until the people started asking if Jesus was the Messiah? It means that the Pharisees didn’t care that the man was healed. They weren’t impressed that Jesus was performing miracles. Despite His miracles they refused to consider if Jesus might be the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God. They only cared about a challenge to their authority and position among the people. In other words, they only cared about power and politics. Jesus upset both.

But, instead of denying the undeniable power of Jesus displayed before everyone’s eyes, they accuse Him of wielding the power of Satan and, consequently, acting by the authority of Satan. That would be bad. Even worse, their accusation is also a charge of sorcery, which is a capital offence in the Mosaic Law (Exodus 22:18; Lev 20:27). They wanted Him dead.

In 12:25–27, Jesus explains that their argument is ludicrous because Satan isn’t stupid enough to undermine his own power structure. Think about it, will the oppressor of this man want to kick himself out? He also challenges them to explain by what name the Pharisees perform their exorcisms. Without waiting for an answer, He makes the powerful statement in 12:28-29 (NIV):

But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

Someone more powerful than Satan must have performed this miracle. Jesus did by the power of the Spirit of God, not by a spirit of Satan. And not only had the Pharisees failed to recognize the power of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ ministry, they had also failed to recognize the Kingdom of God overpowering the territory of Satan; namely, the man born blind and mute.

Jesus then informs the Pharisees: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters,” (12:30). In other words, either you’re for me, or you’re against me. There is no middle ground.

This brings us back to our original passage:

And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Mt 12:31–32, NIV)

It also brings us back to our original question: “What is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, and why is it unforgivable?” I like how R.T. France1 summarizes the answer. First, Jesus isn’t saying that He is less than divine and therefore can be slandered with impunity. Instead, He means that His divinity, temporarily incognito in the flesh, isn’t as clearly obvious and therefore “failure to recognize Him for what He was might be excusable,” (France, p. 210).

In Acts 3:17, Peter explained to those in Jerusalem, Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.” He then calls them to repent, and 5,000 do. This is the same Peter who denied the Lord three times, yet, he repented and was restored to fellowship with Christ. Repentance is the key.

The Apostle Paul also repented and was forgiven. About this he says, “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” 1 Tim 1:13, NIV.

Like Peter and the Israelites, Paul too had acted in ignorance toward Christ, but repented when Jesus said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Acts 9:4, NIV. They had all acted in ignorance against Christ, yet there is no indication that they had blasphemed the Holy Spirit.

Second, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is “a deliberate refusal to acknowledge God’s power, a totally perverted orientation, like that of Isaiah 5:20 (‘those who call evil good and good evil’). This is what the Pharisees were doing in attributing Jesus’ healings to Satanic power,” (France, p. 210).

In the Law of Moses there was a distinction between sins done deliberately and those done in ignorance. For the former, there was no sacrificial ritual to provide forgiveness, for the latter there was. The sin of the Pharisees in this case was that they were informed. They knew better by their training, their study of the Old Testament, the numerous reports they heard about Jesus, and the first-hand encounters they had with Him. They knew, but they intentionally declared this man’s exorcism and healing to have been done by Satan, not by the power of the Holy Spirit. Their hearts were hard against God. Their words were deliberate. They wanted Jesus dead.

Commenting on this topic, D.A. Carson2 says that the one committing this sin is rejecting the truth “in full awareness that that is exactly what one is doing—thoughtfully, willfully, and self-consciously rejecting the work of the Spirit even though there can be no other explanation of Jesus’ exorcisms than that. For such a sinner there is no forgiveness.”

It’s difficult to commit this sin. Those who commit it don’t repent because they don’t care. They are against Christ. They are anti-Christian just like the Pharisees Jesus addressed that day.

Some sensitive Christians have been made to feel distraught that they have or will blaspheme the Holy Spirit. However, be at peace. All sins against Jesus can be forgiven. He makes that clear. The lives repentance of Peter and Paul also make that clear. If anyone is concerned that they have or will commit this sin, they needn’t be. If you’re concerned about it, then you can’t commit it.

May the peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you!

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Rob Oberto, D.Min., is the award-winning author of “Intimacy With God” available from Amazon. © 2018 Rob Oberto, All Rights Reserved.

[1] R.T. France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. Leon Morris (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), 210–211.

[2] D.A. Carson, Matthew, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1984), 291–292.