The Unforgivable Sin
Topic: Gospels Passage: Matthew 12:22–12:32
This morning I would like to begin by reading three passages of Scripture. The first is found in Matthew 12, verses 22 through 32, and this will be our main text of the morning:
22 Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 And 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.
Now let’s look at Mark 3, verses 22 through 30:
22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” 23 And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.
28 “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”-- 30 for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”
And finally, Luke 12:10:
10 “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”
The element that holds these three passages together is their mention of what we have come to call “the unpardonable or unforgivable sin.” There are other biblical allusions to this subject that could be added to the list, but these are the three that speak most directly to the topic. In your journey to faith, perhaps you have stumbled over these texts and may have even wondered at one time or another if you have been guilty of committing the sin from which there is no forgiveness. Some of you may be wondering about that even now, and perhaps that is why—by sovereign grace—you are in this service this morning.
What I hope to do with you today is to look with you at the most lengthy of those passages—namely Matthew 12:22-32—and see if we might be able to gain some clarity into a sometimes confusing and, what is for many, a frightening subject.
We continue along in our series on “The Hard Sayings of Jesus.” As our Lord’s public ministry expanded and the size of the crowds that followed Him increased, so did the opposition of the Jewish religious leaders. Whenever their paths crossed, verbal conflict ensued. With each occasion the division between them grew wider and their animosity toward Him increased. The words that He spoke bore the authenticity of divinely-inspired truth. They confirmed the Old Testament Scriptures. And the deeds that He did—from the daily obedience to God’s truth to the miracles He performed—testified that He was who He said He was…the promised and long-awaited Messiah, sent by God to redeem His people.
But four hundred “silent years,” from the last of the Old Testament prophetic writings to the strange and sudden appearance of John the Baptist, had resulted in a reinterpretation of God’s message to the point that when His Son entered the world bringing salvation to all who would believe, relatively few recognized Him. The least cognizant of all were the religious authorities, the scribes and the Pharisees…those who should have identified Him first. Instead, their own spiritual senses were so dulled that they believed that they were listening to and observing but another religious charlatan under the control of Satan himself.
How bad-off was their spiritual condition? As we shall see, it was so bad that Jesus told them straight-up that their sin was “unforgivable.”
Matthew’s account of this episode begins with Jesus miraculously healing a “demon-oppressed man,” such an astonishing event that when the people saw what had happened they were “amazed.” The hard-hearted Pharisees, however, were not so enthralled. In fact, they responded with…
An unreasonable assumption (verses 22-27).
Jesus is still ministering in His home region of Galilee at the time. If we were to backtrack through Matthew’s Gospel, we would discover that the conflict with these religious leaders had been building. Both His miracles and His messages had inevitably drawn crowds. People were curious to see and hear Him first-hand, but He did not come merely to arouse curiosity. There was divine intent in everything He did…no wasted movement, we might say. After all He had but little more than three years to proclaim the “gospel of the kingdom” (cf. Matthew 24:14) before laying down His life to seal it. Amazingly, He continues to impact the lives of those who understand the reason for His coming, as well as confirm the hardness of the hearts of those who do not.
We are not given a lot of detail about the healing of the “demon-oppressed man,” other than that he was both “blind and mute.” Matthew bypasses that in order to focus on the outcome. All we are told is that “he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw.” Those who witnessed what had taken place asked the right question: “Can this be the Son of David?” That was a messianic title, and the people had made the connection. “Could this possibly be the Messiah we have longed for?”
This question enraged the Pharisees, however, causing them to make the outlandish accusation that Jesus was performing miracles by the power of “Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” This wasn’t the first time they had charged Him with conspiring with Satan (cf. Matthew 9:32-34). What an unreasonable assumption! Evidence to the contrary was standing before them. Jesus had restored the demoniac. There was no denying that. But the conclusion they drew—an ipso facto motivated by jealousy and feelings that they were being upstaged by Him—led them to attribute His miracles to the power of Satan and not to God.
Jesus responded on two levels. First, He pointed out that their assumption was illogical. After all, why would the devil want demons cast out? That would be like casting himself out and destroying his own work. His response in verse 25 has become a proverbial statement applied to any number of contexts throughout the years, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.”
The second flaw in the Pharisees’ rationale pointed out by Jesus is that they were being inconsistent. There is some historical evidence that suggests the Pharisees and others were able to practice exorcisms (cf. Matthew 7:22), but their method would have differed significantly from that of Jesus. Whereas Jesus merely placed a hand or spoke a word, the Jewish exorcists reportedly made wide use of exotic herbs and mysterious potions. What’s more, the outcomes were dubious at best. Perhaps Jesus was merely speaking hypothetically. Either way, if casting out demons was a demonic activity, then why didn’t the Pharisees level the same charge at their own practitioners who boasted of similar acts of healing?
Having pointed out the illogical and inconsistent nature of the Pharisees’ unreasonable assumptions, Jesus next addresses…
Three undeniable conclusions (verses 28-30)
…in verses 28 through 30. In the first place, if Jesus was not casting out demons by the power of Satan, then He must be doing so by the power of God. Or to say it another way, if Jesus was not performing supernatural miracles by the power of the devil—which would have been both illogical and inconsistent—then there was only one other possibility. And very clearly in verse 28, He tells them that “it is by the Spirit of God.” And the statement that follows is of monumental importance: “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then (the logical conclusion is that) the kingdom of God has come upon you.” It was clear to the Pharisees that a kingdom had come, but Jesus was forcing them to ask whose kingdom it was…God’s or Satan’s. Their answer—as well as ours—determines the extent of guilt.
As they pondered that, Jesus’ words would have led them to a second conclusion, which is: one who was stronger than Satan was standing before them. In verse 29, Jesus asks in the form of a mini-parable, “How can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man?” The implied answer, of course, is that he can’t. The “strong man” here is Satan, and his “house” is the world over which he has been granted limited authority by God for a time. Satan is known by many names in Scripture. In John’s Gospel, Jesus calls him “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11). That is the picture of him being portrayed in the verse before us. Because Jesus is stronger than Satan, He is plundering his “house,”—the domain where he exercises temporary rule—and rescuing or setting free those who are being held captive by him. We see this repeatedly in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus is healing people of diseases, delivering people from demons, raising people from the dead, and forgiving people of sins. All of these mighty acts bear witness to one glorious fact: “One stronger than the devil is here!”
As King Jesus manifests the power of the Kingdom, we see a third undeniable conclusion, and that is: neutrality toward Jesus is impossible. That is because, in the realm of the Spirit, “neutrality” is a synonym for “opposition.” Notice what Jesus says in verse 30: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does gather with me scatters.” What Jesus told the Pharisees then applies equally to us now. We cannot simply take a neutral position toward Him. Each one of us must decide whether Jesus is who He says He is because, if He is not, then millions of people have been hoodwinked by Him through the centuries. But, praise the Lord, Church history has borne witness that many have willingly died for Him rather than deny Him.
I suppose that it is possible for us to find legitimate fault with the Pharisees’ response to Jesus while letting ourselves off the hook. After all—we may say—they were there that day, they saw Jesus face-to-face, and they witnessed first-hand the miracles He performed. All we have is a written record to go by. What Jesus says next seems to anticipate such a response. You see, it matters not in what generation we live, each of us is forced take a stance. Either Jesus is evil—which leads to prideful opposition, or He is good—which means that we follow Him wholeheartedly and serve Him unreservedly. Our Lord draws a line in the sand. One either “gathers” fruit for the Kingdom with Him or works to “scatter” against Him. There is no middle ground when it comes to Jesus Christ.
The position we take with regard to Jesus leads directly into His discussion of…
The unforgivable sin (verse 31-32)
…in verses 31 and 32. What we find here is one of the most emotionally-charged portions of the New Testament. It takes its rightful place among “the hard sayings of Jesus.” Many people—Christian and non-Christian alike—have been haunted by these words ever since Jesus spoke them. John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, confessed to being deeply troubled by them is his lesser known book, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Perhaps, like him and countless others, you too have lost sleep pondering them.
It is critical that they be seen within the context of the passage we have been looking at. Jesus’ authority was being challenged by those who had witnessed His mighty deeds and heard Him speak life-altering words with great authority. In response, He had been accused of aligning with Satan. Jesus then replied to that charge by challenging their unreasonable assumptions and stating three undeniable conclusions. None of that has assuaged the animosity the Pharisees had toward Him. So now He warns them in the strongest terms possible that they were in grave danger of committing sin that was unforgivable.
This is surely one of the most misinterpreted and misunderstood passages in the whole Bible, and given the seriousness of Jesus’ words, it is imperative that we understand them correctly. For example, we know from the entire tenor of Scripture—both Old and New Testaments—that God is merciful and forgiving. How then are we to square that aspect of God’s character with what we read in verses 31 and 32? Let’s begin by keeping in mind that Jesus is speaking directly to those—namely, the religious leaders—who are showing themselves to be diametrically opposed to Him. So great was their opposition that they were willing to attribute His works not to the power of God’s Spirit, but to Satan. This alone helps us to understand why Jesus uses the term “blasphemy” in describing them. To “blaspheme” is to “defame,” “revile,” or to “slander,” and that is precisely what the Pharisees were doing. But what was it that they were “blaspheming?” Jesus answers by making two bold pronouncements:
First, Jesus says that blasphemy against the Son is forgivable, and the way to forgiveness is repentance. The consistent testimony of the New Testament reveals that our Lord will graciously pardon those who deny and mock Him. Peter, for example, denied Christ three times and was mercifully forgiven (cf. Matthew 26:69-75). And Paul admits that he was “formerly…a blasphemer,” but that “the grace of (the) Lord overflowed” for him (cf. 1 Timothy 1:13-14). There is a sense in which all of us are guilty of blasphemy against Christ: we have profaned His name, we have denied Him through our silence and cowardice, and we have defamed Him by questioning His goodness toward us. Thankfully, these sins are forgivable by God’s grace. He will forgive blasphemy against the Son for those who repent of their sins. But we must not divorce that from the ministry of the Holy Spirit…
…which is why Jesus adds that blasphemy against the Spirit of God is unforgivable, because the way to forgiveness is rejected. These two pronouncements are not meant to serve as a comparison between the members of the Godhead. Rather they are intended to show their connection. We do well to remember that our Lord is speaking to people who were in serious danger—if not already guilty—of irrevocably hardening their hearts against Him. By attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan, they were setting themselves in total opposition to the Spirit of God, the only One who was able to draw them to salvation through faith and repentance. In fact, they had closed themselves off to the fact that even needed to repent. Such sin involves willful unbelief, persistent rebellion, and final denial.
Let’s look at those three outcomes individually. The Pharisees were guilty, first of all, of willful unbelief. They had seen Jesus heal every kind of disease, cast out every kind of demon, forgive every kind of sin, and yet they chose to charge Him with deceit and demonism. In the face of undeniable evidence of Jesus’ Deity and Messiahship, they rejected Him. Someone has called it “the conscious disputing of the indisputable.” In addition, their rejection of Christ was evidence of persistent rebellion, an ongoing pattern of sin, not a spur-of-the-moment reaction. They proudly and stubbornly refused to submit to Jesus, no matter what He said or did. Because their unbelief was willful and their rebellion was persistent, the inevitable outcome was their final denial of Him. The ultimate sin of the Pharisees was a conscious, ongoing, persistent, and permanent refutation of the work of the Spirit of God in the Son of Man. The Spirit’s role, according to John 16(:12-15), is to reveal Christ and to “glorify” Him, and when His witness is refused, there is no possibility of forgiveness. Such sin, said Jesus, “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
There is much opinion and many definitions of “the unforgivable sin.” Most are unclear. Let me simply repeat, with as much clarity as I can, that “the unforgivable sin” is a conscious, deliberate, persistent, and permanent rejection of the Holy Spirit’s testimony to the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. John Calvin describes such a person as one who “…sins against the Holy Spirit who, while so constrained by the power of divine truth that he cannot plead ignorance, yet deliberately resists, and that merely for the sake of resisting.” There is no possible forgiveness when the witness of the Spirit is refused. The writer of Hebrews describes it as “sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth” (Hebrews 10:26). Such individuals have “turned out the light,” so to speak, and remain in “spiritual darkness.” It is the ultimate unbelief. It is to declare oneself firmly and finally against God.
Commenting on this “hard saying,” William Hendriksen has written, “Their sin is unpardonable because they are unwilling to tread the path that leads to pardon. For a thief, an adulterer, and a murderer there is hope. The message of the gospel may cause him to cry out, ‘O God be merciful to me, the sinner.’ But when a man has become hardened, so that he has made up his mind not to pay any attention to the promptings of the Spirit…he has placed himself on the road that leads to perdition.” In other words, such a person confirms that he is a citizen of Satan’s kingdom and does not belong to the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the end, no one can be saved if they pridefully and permanently reject the Spirit of God. That is because it is the Spirit who draws us to Christ by first making us aware of God’s righteousness, our sinfulness, and the immense chasm that separates us from Him (cf. John 16:7-11). No one comes to Christ of their own volition. God Himself must do the compelling (cf. John 6:44), and the means He employs is the convicting ministry and witness of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, to reject the Spirit is to reject the Son, and to do so to our own eternal peril.
These sobering verses should leave with us…
Two unforgettable reminders.
In the first place, we have no right to charge anyone as guilty of having committed the unforgivable sin. The reality is that all of us have spurned the work of the Spirit on numerous occasions. All of us were at one time opposed to Christ, but the Spirit of God patiently pursued us. We commit a grave error when we believe that someone is “too far gone” because of their willful unbelief and persistent denial of the Spirit’s invitation to repent. God alone knows the condition of the heart…you and I cannot see it perfectly. Therefore, our role is to pray and testify with a constant hope that He will soften even the hardest heart and bring that person with whom we share to faith and repentance.
Let me add a footnote to that point. You may wonder if “the unforgivable sin” can still be committed today. On this the commentators differ. Perhaps you have worried that you may have personally committed “the unforgivable sin.” Given what we have seen in this passage, I believe it is safe to conclude—and nearly all the commentators I have studied agree with me on this—that if you are worried that you have sinned beyond forgiveness then you have not yet fully and finally rejected the Spirit’s testimony. J.C. Ryle put it this way: “There is such a sin which is never forgiven. But those who are most troubled about it are most unlikely to have committed it.” In other words, your concern that you may have committed it is testimony that God is still in pursuit of you. Someone has appropriately said, “Only the person who has set himself against the path to forgiveness is excluded from it.”
To that I would add, based upon this passage and the record of Jesus’ ministry recorded by the four Gospel writers, I do not believe that what we call “the unforgivable sin” refers to a particular act or type of sin, such as murder or adultery. It speaks rather of the character of one’s life…a pattern of stubborn resistance, if you will, to the work of the Holy Spirit is bearing witness to the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
Therefore, a second reminder follows. We are compelled to keep in mind that the unforgivable sin is first and foremost a matter of the heart. As it was demonstrated by the words the Pharisees spoke on that day, so our words tend to reveal the condition of our hearts. The unforgivable sin, therefore, is not ultimately about what is spoken but rather about what lies beneath what is said. A heart that rejects humble repentance speaks as loudly as the Pharisee’s self-righteousness boasts and exposes a very dangerous condition.
That being said, our words will inevitably expose our true identity. It is a sobering reality to think that what we say—as well as what we don’t say—is a reflection of our hearts. Were we to read further in Matthew 12(:35-37), we would find Jesus saying, “The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give an account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Perhaps with that in mind, Paul wrote in Romans 10:9 through 11, “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” Such is the faith of the genuine disciple of Jesus Christ. It is what provides the victory over the fear of being unforgiven…both now and forever.