What is the Unforgivable Sin?
What kind of sins can God forgive? Is there any sin that God will not forgive? What is the “unforgivable sin” we read about in the Bible? Is this the same as the sin against the Holy Spirit, or the eternal sin that Jesus warned us about? Many people wonder about these questions, and they all have fairly simple answers.
But before we answer them, let’s review some relevant facts about people and about God.
God is merciful
As humans, we must admit that there are some sins we simply would not forgive. If it were up to us, we wouldn’t forgive some of the heinous crimes and atrocities we read about in the news, or in historical accounts. If the truth were known, many of us have a hard time forgiving others for even small offenses.
But God is different than us—he is gracious and merciful, even to the wretched sinner. King David should know. God forgave him of adultery and murdering the woman’s husband to cover it up. He wrote:
“The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:8-10)
“The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.” (Psalm 145:8-9)
God is merciful and forgiving because he is a good God, and delights in giving good gifts to us. He doesn’t enjoy condemning us, but wants to forgive us of our sins. And he provided us a way for this to happen, through Christ’s sacrifice. God’s grace is abundant—there is plenty to go around, but we must accept it to enjoy it. And we do so through repentance and faith in Christ.
So, any answers to our original questions must conform to these truths about God.
What kind of sins can God forgive?
On one occasion, Jesus taught:
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. (Matthew 12:31-32)
Jesus says here that any kind of sin can be forgiven (except for one). These include sins of omission (failing to do what is right), as well as sins of commission (doing what is wrong). From the smallest sin, to the largest, God can forgive. This passage also says that God can even forgive people when they malign his Son Jesus Christ. We will explain this later on in our discussion about the Apostle Paul.
But it’s important to note that Jesus didn’t say God forgives everyone of every sin. That’s another question. Jesus is not saying every sin will be forgiven. Forgiveness is not automatic. He is saying any sin can be forgiven, assuming the conditions are right. As I have written in other blog posts, the right conditions are repentance and faith.
God can forgive even the most heinous crimes
Within the last half century, the following people have committed the most heinous of crimes:
- Chris Watts, who murdered his wife and two daughters.
- David Berkowitz, who under Satanic influence murdered 6 people and wounded 7 in a random shooting spree.
- Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered, raped, and dismembered more than 17 young men. He also practiced cannibalism.
- Karla Faye Tucker, who murdered two people with a pickax.
In the minds of many, these people committed unforgivable sins. But history records that while in prison these same people repented and turned to God for forgiveness. So the obvious question is: Did God actually forgive them? We don’t know the sincerity of their faith. But according to Jesus’ promise, if their repentance was sincere, God did forgive them. And if God can forgive these sins, he can certainly forgive lesser sins.
Jesus warns the religious leaders of eternal sin
If it is true that God is that forgiving, then is there any sin that he can’t forgive? Or won’t forgive? What is the unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit Jesus refers to? Let’s read the other Bible passages that refer to this.
And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. (Mark 3:22-25)
In this scene, the teachers of the law accused Jesus of being possessed by the devil. Out of jealousy and hatred, they claimed that the devil empowered the miracles he performed. So, they had clearly seen the power of God at work in Christ. But in an effort to discredit him, they attributed his miracles to Satan.
This is when Jesus made his frightening statement:
“Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3:28-29)
What is the unforgivable sin?
These people that Jesus warned saw his compassion for the people. They also heard his teaching, which was more truthful and convicting than any other they had heard. But they still had a pronounced hardness of heart against him. And after they had seen with their own eyes Jesus performing miracles, they maligned him for this as well. This was the sin against God’s Spirit, since Jesus actually performed these miracles by the power of the Spirit.
So, they also had an obvious hardness against God’s Spirit. After all they had seen and heard, they still rejected the Lord. And because of this, they may no longer have been capable of repentance. Since God could cut off from them any further opportunity for repentance and forgiveness, they were spiritually in a very dangerous place.
Thus, the unforgivable sin is not a random sin or fleeting act of passion or anger, but a conscious and hardened opposition to God. A person shows this opposition by maligning clear and obvious works of God.
More required from those who hear more
On another occasion Jesus taught about the kingdom of God, using an allegory of servants in a household:
The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:47-48)
This means that people are responsible for what they see of God’s work and hear of God’s message. Those who see and hear much are responsible for much, while those who don’t hear as much are responsible for less. Regarding the gospel message, people can only respond to what they have heard. But from everyone, God requires repentance and faith based on what they do hear.
Some have seen the acts of God and clearly heard the good news of God’s grace many times. They have been given much to respond to and have had ample time to respond—great opportunities. But if they continue to reject God, like those Jesus warned, they are guilty of great sin. As the following Hebrews passage explains, if they continue to refuse God’s revelations and “fall away,” at some point they become incapable of repentance.
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. (Hebrews 6:4-6)
This passage is describing unbelievers, not believers. To have tasted God’s gift doesn’t mean to have accepted it for oneself. Tasting means only enjoying the flavor, but not actually drinking. And to have “shared in the Holy Spirit” doesn’t mean being indwelt by or filled with the Spirit. It only means they experienced the blessings of God’s presence—through the working of God’s power and by truth from God’s Word.
The Israelites’ rebellion in the wilderness
The Israelites who wandered in the desert wilderness fit this description well. They saw the miracles God performed as he protected and provided for them in the harsh desert. God enlightened them with his word and they shared in the blessings of his Spirit. And God gave them great opportunities to enter a love relationship with him as they experienced all these great blessings. But as the Psalmist Asaph observed about them:
In spite of all this, they kept on sinning; in spite of his wonders, they did not believe. (Psalm 78:32)
Most of them still defied God and refused to believe the words he gave through Moses. They rebelled against him and never repented. As a result God denied them access to the promised land.
Defiance and rebellion against God
Those who sin against the Holy Spirit are those who have clearly seen God’s power at work and heard his offer of forgiveness, but are still defiant against him. They never repent of their unbelief—up to their death. Hebrews clarifies this:
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:26-29)
God doesn’t provide another way of salvation for those who defy God—they are utterly lost and without hope unless they repent of their defiance. God does not make them repent if it’s not in their heart to do so.
The blasphemy of the Apostle Paul
In the book of Acts we read that Saul of Tarsus (later the Apostle Paul) persecuted the church of God, putting the believers in prison. He even helped murder a church leader. But then Christ revealed himself to him on the road to Damascus. And Saul saw who he was—the risen Christ and Lord of the universe. He fell at his feet, and repented of unbelief and stopped persecuting the church. In his letter to Timothy, he described his conversion:
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. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (1 Tim. 1:13-14)
Before coming to faith, he blasphemed Jesus Christ (spoke against him in an irreverent way). Did Paul commit the unforgivable sin? No, because his knowledge of Christ was based on false information he heard from others. He didn’t really know who Jesus was, so his persecution of Christians was based on ignorance. Because of this, God gave him a chance to turn from his sin.
But after Christ appeared to him and he saw the risen Christ, he knew that Jesus is the Lord. Now he had absolutely no excuse to continue persecuting Christ and his church. Based on his new knowledge, he repented and followed Jesus. So God obviously did forgive him. The Lord later made him an apostle and messenger of the gospel to the whole gentile world. But if Saul had defied Christ and steadfastly resisted him up until his death, then he would be guilty of eternal sin.
Can Christians commit the unforgivable sin?
Many years ago, a woman who attended a Bible study we held in our home was concerned that she had sinned against the Holy Spirit. She cited the fact that she had continued to fall into a certain sin, in spite of knowing it was wrong. But the unforgivable sin is not something we do one day and then regret the next day. Many Christians have wondered if they have sinned against the Spirit. But the fact that they worry about it shows that they have not committed it.
Sins of uncontrolled anger, passion, negative emotions and violence are not eternal sins. God can forgive them if we repent. Repentance in the Bible doesn’t mean that we become perfect and never sin again. It first means we renounce our defiance and our rejection of God and accept his grace. Above all, we embrace our Creator in a love relationship, accept his forgiveness, and then accept the new path he has before us.
So, the unforgivable sin is one that the true believer by definition does not have. If you are a believer in Christ, by God’s grace you are in a right love relationship with him through faith. His promise to you is:
“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:11-12)
God’s call to reconciliation
So, the only sin that God does not forgive is the sin of continued defiance against him. People can even be defiant, but if they repent before they die, God will forgive them. But defiance and rebellion can become imbedded in our souls. As the story in Mark 3 shows, there are some people who have gone far enough to reach a point of no return. They cannot admit they’re wrong, and continue to put on a bold face against God, up until death.
If you need forgiveness, God can indeed forgive anything you have done. God has forgiven adulterers, the sexually immoral, thieves, prostitutes, kidnappers, murderers, and even those who have committed atrocities. If you have failed as a husband or wife, as an employee, or as a human being, God can forgive and restore you and set you on the right path. Only come to God in humility, repent of your sins, and ask him for his mercy in the name of Jesus Christ. He will forgive you. That’s his promise.
But if you are defiant toward God, you are in great danger. At some time, you may reach a point of no return. God is still patient and kind, and takes no pleasure in punishing anyone. He will wait for your response up until the time of your passing from this life. But none of us can count on indefinite opportunities to respond to God. At some time, all opportunities will end and the door will close.
If this describes you, my prayer is that you will take the opportunity you have now and respond to God in faith and love. If you do, you will find that it wasn’t any too soon.
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