The Unpardonable Sin
R. V. Court, Bristol, England
Since receiving this article and preparing it for the magazine we have learned of the homecall of our brother. He will be greatly missed by many, but his godly life of steadfast obedience to the word of God has set an example for others who knew him to follow.
The passage of scripture in Matthew 12. 24-32, particularly verses 31-32, is admittedly difficult to explain, and any writer would be rash to claim that he could explain it to satisfy everybody, or even himself. This article is an attempt to examine difficulties that have come to some because of failure to grasp the solemn teaching of the passage. The reader may well still be left saying, 'What does it mean?', and 'How does it affect me?' but it is also possible that some may have a clearer view than before, and some may be relieved of a terrible fear.
Before dealing with the passage in Matthew 12 it would be wise to consider the position of the believer who is depressed and concerned because of the fear that he or she has committed the unpardonable sin. With some this fear is very real, especially where the life has been marred by some outstanding sin - can God really forgive me for this? The existence of this fear is almost a certainty that this special sin has not been committed. It is clear that the Holy Spirit has not turned away from the person finally, for it is safe to say that had He done so there would be no sense of spiritual loss or concern - the soul would be beyond all activity of the Spirit.
1 Is this Sin continued refusal to trust Christ?
Sometimes the unpardonable sin has been equated with persistent refusal to trust Christ, rejecting the repeated work of the Holy Spirit. One must admit that the final result is the same, but in the case of persistent refusal there is a time of grace allowed. In the case of the action of men spoken of in Matthew 12, the implication is that the result operates immediately, see Mark 3. 29, 'hath never forgiveness'.
This divine patience in relation to long rejection is illustrated by what happened in Noah's day, Gen. 6. 3, 'My Spirit shall not always strive with man'. There is a time limit beyond which the Holy Spirit would not go, but at the time He continued striving for 120 years. There is little doubt that, on an individual basis today there comes a time when God ceases to speak to someone to whom He has spoken many times, but has been persistently rejected. The period involved may be many years, and this places the matter in a very different category from that in Matthew 12.
2 What is the 'Sin unto Death', 1 John 5. 16?
This is not an easy question to answer today, though clearly John expected those to whom he was writing to understand, and it may well be that in the early days of the church, when it was essential that its purity should be preserved, there was a deeper understanding that there was 'sin unto death', i.e. sin which was followed by death. The apostle Paul wrote solemnly in 1 Corinthians 11. 30 of some who 'fell asleep' because of sin. Acts 5. 1-11 describes the occasion of the death of Ananias and Sapphira who 'lied to God'.
There is another possibility to be considered, that we are here dealing with deliberate apostasy. Not necessarily one specific sin, but an attitude. Hebrews 6. 4-6 speaks of those who, in the early days of the church, were influenced by the preaching of the gospel, and were touched by the Holy Spirit, but were not really saved, turning back again to Judaism, with its inevitable rejection of Christ. Concerning these the writer says it was 'impossible to renew them again to repentance', Heb. 6. 6.
E. H. Bickersteth writes (The Spirit of Life, p. 117), 'How far this unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost is to be identified with the sin unto death of which John speaks, is a question which can never be absolutely determined by man. From the context in the epistle we should gather that open, deliberate, persistent denial of Christ by one, who was once a professed believer, is the sin unto death. For death in verse 16 is evidently contrasted with the spiritual and eternal life spoken of, and although we are immediately afterward assured that no one really born of God sins unto death, yet the sinner here condemned is professedly a brother. For all other sins the children of God are encouraged hopefully and confidently to pray; but such an apostate puts himself beyond the reach of their prayers. Such an one must be cast out of the church and left in the hands of God'.
As we look closer at the passage in 1 John 5 we have the plain statement in verse 18 that 'whosoever is born of God sinneth not' (i.e. does not practise sin), but, and here the R.V. rendering is preferable, 'He that was begotten of God (the Son) keepeth him and the evil one toucheth him not'. Possibly all Christians would readily admit that the rendering in the A.V., 'he keepeth himself, is not true in experience - he cannot! But the Only Begotten of God can and does.
Kenneth Wuest in his expanded translation makes it perfectly clear, verse 18, 'We know absolutely that everyone who has been born of God and as a result is a regenerated individual does not keep on habitually sinning. But He who was born of God maintains a watchful guardianship over him, and the pernicious one does not lay hold of him'. This should make it clear to us that the 'sin unto death' of verse 16 cannot be the unpardonable sin committed by a believer, but very likely something which called for drastic action in the physical realm.
3 It is possible to commit this Sin today?
Let us look closely at the much discussed passage in Matthew 12. 22-32 to see the background to our question. In verse 22 we read of a man specifically stated to be 'possessed with a demon', and he was also blind and dumb. The Lord's power and love were clearly demonstrated when 'He healed him, insomuch that the blind and dumb both spake and saw'. The effect on those beholding this dramatic work of power was twofold. The people said, 'Is not this the Son of David' (the Messiah)? But the Pharisees, the inveterate enemies of the Lord, were not prepared to accept this as a demonstration of divine power but claimed that the Lord was collaborating with Satan. As later, in verse 28, the Lord claimed to cast out demons by 'the Spirit of God' He charges his opponents with linking and identifying the Spirit of God with Satan. It is this sin concerning which the Lord said in Mark 3. 29, 'hath never forgiveness'.
The conditions were unique and cannot be repeated today. The Lord was personally present with them, the onlookers saw for themselves the mighty work He did. There is little doubt that the exclamation of the Pharisees was not because they had suddenly come to the decision; they were expressing what they had already decided, and their implacable hatred of the Lord made it impossible for forgiveness ever to be considered. The Lord spake gravely against the sin of blasphemy which can only be against a divine person.
In speaking of blasphemy, W.E. Vine in his Dictionary of New Testament Words says, 'As to Christ's teaching concerning blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, e.g. Matt. 12. 32, that anyone with the evidence of the Lord's power before his eyes, should declare it to be Satanic, exhibited a condition of heart beyond divine illumination and therefore hopeless. Divine forgiveness would be inconsistent with the moral nature of God. As to the Son of Man, in His state of humiliation, there might be misunderstanding, but not so with the Holy Spirit's power demonstrated'.
Kenneth Wuest's expanded translation of Matthew 12. 31-32 is significant, 'On this account I am saying to you, every sin and malicious slander shall be forgiven men, but the aforementioned impious and reproachful speech injurious to the divine majesty of the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him neither in this age and in the one about to come'.
About both of these comments there is a solemn note of finality.
The personal view of the writer, with which probably many wiser scholars will not agree, is that the unpardonable sin of which the Lord spoke cannot be committed today. The conditions are not there!