Unpardonable sin is a frightening prospect. But that seems to be what Jesus is calling the blaspheming of the Holy Spirit. How does one do that--or avoid doing it? And can a Christian be guilty of doing it?
Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus' discussion of this particular offense (Matt. 12:31- 32; Mk. 3:28-30), and the incident which precipitated the Lord's teaching is also recounted by Luke (Lk. 11:15-23). Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit has been called "the unpardonable sin" as well, on the basis of Jesus' words (Matt. 12:32).
Much has been written on the subject of the unpardonable sin because it raises a number of critical issues. What is the sin? And can it be committed today? Can a born again Christian commit this sin? And how does its "unpardonable" nature square with verses such as First John 1:7 and 9 which assure us that the blood of Christ cleanses from all sin?
"Blasphemy" is a transliteration of the Greek word blasphemia, meaning: to slander, to speak contemptuously--in particular about God.
So, what is the context in which Jesus' startling teaching occurs? The Lord had just delivered a demon possessed man, to the amazement of the watching crowd. Many had begun to wonder, "Could this be the Son of David [in other words, the promised Messiah]?" (Matt. 12:22-23). At that the Pharisees saw the possibility of their hold on the people slipping away, and they said sarcastically, "This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub [Satan], the ruler of the demons" (vs. 24). Mark tells us they also said, "He has Beelzebub" (Mk. 3:22)--in other words, that Jesus Himself was demon possessed; the spirit at work in Him was the devil.
It is that particular allegation which Christ refers to as blasphemy (slander) against the Holy Spirit. Jesus declares, "'He who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation'--because [explains Mark] they said, ‘He [Christ] has an unclean spirit'" (Mk. 3:29-30).
The power of the Holy Spirit was repeatedly evident in Christ's life and ministry (Lk. 3:21-22; 4:1, 14). And Jesus specifically declared this to be in fulfilment of a messianic prophecy of Isaiah's (Lk. 4:16- 21; cf. Isa. 61:1-2). So, in making their slanderous accusation, the Pharisees were rejecting the words of the prophet, and the evidence before them, in effect calling the Holy Spirit of God a demon!
Matthew shows how this incident comes at a decisive point when official rejection of Christ had crystalized. The Jewish leaders have, in fact, begun plotting to destroy Him (Matt. 12:14). Following their open expression of contempt, Jesus begins teaching more in parables. And a new element is introduced: if He is rejected He will depart.
Matthew 13 presents one parable after another, designed to show the nature of the kingdom during the absence of the King--what theologians sometimes call the "mystery" form of the kingdom (cf. Matt. 13:11). We are specifically told that the Lord switched to this parabolic method to conceal the truth from those who had hardened their hearts against Him (Matt. 13:10-16).
Two key statements recorded in Matthew provide further insight. Jesus says, "If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you [as indicated by the presence of the King]" (Matt. 12:28). That was the real issue, and His enemies knew it--the identity of Jesus. He had come in the power of the Spirit of God, fulfilled one Old Testament prophecy after another, and fully demonstrated to anyone open to consider the evidence that He was (and is) the Christ, the Messiah-King of Israel. But in their rebel unbelief, the rulers of the Jews rejected Him and His authority over them.
The only alternative, if they denied the truth, seemed to be to claim that Jesus' power was evil and satanic. And the Greek verb tense in Mark 3:30 is continuous--literally, they kept on saying He has an unclean spirit. They did so over and over. However, "whoever blasphemes" (Mk. 3:29) uses a Greek verb describing a one time completed action, not something that is repeated. It would seem that vs. 29 is speaking of the inward conclusion, a firm conviction that is established in the heart, while vs. 30 represents the ongoing and outward fruit of such a commitment.
The other key statement regarding this sin is found in Matthew 12:32. Amazingly, "Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come."
What is remarkable about that is it seems to exalt one Person of the Trinity above another. So is it all right to slander Jesus, but not to slander the Holy Spirit? And does this mean one Person of the Godhead is worthy of greater honour than another? Or that the Holy Spirit is more important than God the Father, or the Lord Jesus? If so, what do we do with John 5:23, "All should honour the Son just as they honour the Father"? Or what about Colossians 2:9, "In Him [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily"?
The most logical way to resolve these questions is to see the sin as being unique to the days of Christ's humiliation. To many He was the lowly carpenter's son, probably born of an illicit pre-marital relationship between Joseph and Mary (Matt. 13:55; Jn. 8:41). As far as His physical appearance is concerned, there was apparently nothing unusual or remarkable about Him (cf. Isa. 53:2). No halo hovered above His head, as in Mediaeval paintings.
So how could this peasant from despised Nazareth (cf. Jn. 1:46) be the Son of God? Remember, those who watched Him during His years of public ministry did not have the empty tomb to consider. Nor did they have all the inspired revelation in the epistles that explains so much. To misjudge Jesus was understandable. But the working of the Holy Spirit in the through Christ was a clear matter of Old Testament prophecy being fulfilled before their eyes (Isa. 11:1-2; 61:1-2; and see Isa. 35:5-6; cf. Matt. 11:2-6).
With that background, let us consider whether this particular sin can be committed today. The sin is not simply a matter of using the name of Jesus as a swear word (which is frequently done in our time), or of speaking disrespectfully of the Holy Spirit. The latter is much more rare, but I have heard His name profaned as well. However, the precise nature of the sin is this: It involved witnesses of Jesus' earthly ministry ascribing His works to the devil, and thus slandering the Holy Spirit who worked through Him. That was unique to the days of Christ's time on earth.
It certainly cannot be that a born again Christian can commit any unpardonable sin. Otherwise, First John 1:7 and 9 are not speaking the truth. And the "eternal" life which is God's gift is not eternal at all! No Christian has ever or can ever commit an unpardonable sin.
And, if the nature of the sin is as described above, it simply cannot be committed today by anyone. Sinners do not see Christ in His humiliation. Nor are they able to pass judgment on the observable works of a Man. Rather, they have before them God's completed revelation, the Bible, describing exactly who Christ is and what He has done. It is for their refusal to believe God's Word concerning His Son that they will face eternal judgment (I Jn. 5:11-12).