`Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’ (Mark 3:28-29)
`And every one who speaks a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven’ (Luke 12:10)
The person who has committed the unpardonable sin figures powerfully in literature. There is, for example, Bunyan’s man in the iron cage. There is the Welsh preacher Peter Williams, breaking the silence of night in George Borrow’s Lavengro with his anguished cry: `Pechod Ysprydd Glan! 0 pechod Ysprydd Glan!’ (‘Oh, the sin against the Holy Spirit!’) – which he was persuaded he had committed. Or there is Mr. Paget, in Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, who
had thrown up his cure of souls because he became convinced that he had committed the Sin against the Holy Ghost. … Mr. Paget was fond of talking, in private and in public, of his dreadful spiritual condition, and he would drop his voice while he spoke of having committed the Unpardonable Sin, with a sort of shuddering exultation, such as people sometimes feel in the possession of a very unusual disease. … Everybody longed to know what the exact nature had been of that sin against the Holy Ghost which had deprived Mr. Paget of every glimmer of hope for time or for eternity. It was whispered that even my Father himself was not precisely acquainted with the character of it.
Of course not, because the `sin’ existed only in Mr. Paget’s imagination.
In real life there are few more distressing conditions calling for treatment by physicians of the soul than that of people who believe they have committed this sin. When they are offered the gospel assurance of forgiveness for every sin, when they are reminded that `the blood of Jesus … cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7), they have a ready answer: there is one sin which forms an exception to this rule, and they have committed that sin; for it, in distinction from all other kinds of sin, there is no forgiveness. Did not our Lord himself say so? And they tend to become impatient when it is pointed out to them (quite truly) that the very fact of their concern over having committed it proves that they have not committed it.
What then did Jesus mean when he spoke in this way? His saying has been preserved in two forms. Luke records it as one of a series of sayings dealing with the Son of man or the Holy Spirit, but Mark gives it a narrative context. (The Marcan and Lucan forms are combined in Matthew 12:31-32.)
According to Mark, scribes or experts in the Jewish law came down from Jerusalem to Galilee to assess the work which, as they heard, Jesus was doing there, and especially his ministry of exorcism – expelling demons from the lives of those who suffered under their domination. (This language indicates a real and sad condition, even if it would commonly be described in different terms today.) The scribes came to a strange conclusion:
`He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons’ (Mark 3:22). (Beelzebul had once been the name of a Canaanite divinity, `the lord of the high place’, but by this time it was used by Jews to denote the ruler of the abyss, the abode of demons.) When Jesus knew of this, he exposed the absurdity of supposing that Satan’s power could be overthrown by Satan’s aid. Then he went on to charge those who had voiced this absurd conclusion with blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. Why? Because they deliberately ascribed the Holy Spirit’s activity to demonic agency.
For every kind of sin, then, for every form of blasphemy or slander, it is implied that forgiveness is available – presumably when the sin is repented of. But what if one were to repent of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Is there no forgiveness for the person who repents of-this-sin?
The answer seems to be that the nature of this sin is such that one does not repent of it, because those who commit it and persist in it do not know that they are sinning. Mark tells his readers why Jesus charged those scribes with blaspheming against the Holy Spirit: it was because `they had said, “He has an unclean spirit”‘ (Mark 3:30). Jesus was proclaiming the kingly rule of God, and his bringing relief to soul-sick, demonpossessed mortals was a token that the kingly rule of God was present and active in his ministry. `
If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons,’ he said, `then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Luke 11:20; in Matthew 12:28, where these words also appear, `finger of God’ is replaced by `Spirit of God’). If some people looked at the relief which he was bringing to the bodies and minds of men and women and maintained that he was doing so with the help of their great spiritual oppressor, the prince of the demons, then their eyes were so tightly closed to the light that for them light had become darkness and good had become evil. The light is there for those who will accept it, but if some refuse the light, where else can they hope to receive illumination?
Was Paul sinning against the Holy Spirit in the days when he persecuted Christians and even (according to Acts 26:11) `tried to make them blaspheme’? Evidently not, because (as it is put in I Timothy 1:13) he `acted ignorantly in unbelief and therefore received mercy. But if, when he had seen the light on the Damascus road and heard the call of the risen Lord, he had closed his eyes and ears and persevered on his persecuting course, that would have been the `eternal sin’. But he would not have recognised it as a sin, and so would not have thought of seeking forgiveness for it; he would have gone on thinking that he was doing the work of God, and his conscience would have remained as unperturbed as ever.
Luke, as has been said, gives his form of the saying a different context. He does record the charge that Jesus cast out demons with Beelzebul’s aid, but does so in the preceding chapter (Luke 11:14-26) and says nothing there about the sin against the Spirit. His report on Jesus’s words about this sin comes in Luke 12:10, immediately after the statement: `I tell you, every one who acknowledges me before men, the Son of man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but he who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God’ (Luke 12:8-9). (The second half of this statement is paralleled in Mark 8:38, where it is located in the aftermath to Peter’s confession near Caesarea Philippi.) Then, after the words about the sin against the Spirit, Luke quotes the injunction: `And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say’ (Luke 12:11-12). This injunction has a parallel in Mark in his version of the Olivet discourse (Mark 13:11); the parallel is taken over in Luke’s version of the discourse, where however it is not the Spirit but Jesus who will give his disciples `a mouth and wisdom’ to reply to their inquisitors (Luke 21:15). Matthew has a parallel in his account of the sending out of the twelve apostles: `What you are to say will be given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you’ (Matt. 10:20).
Luke, then, places the saying about blaspheming the Holy Spirit between a saying about the Spirit’s heavenly role as counsel for the defence of those who confess the Son of man (that is, Jesus) and a saying about the Spirit’s enabling confessors of Jesus before an earthly tribunal to say the right word at the right time. In this context a different emphasis is given to the matter of blasphemy against the Spirit from that given to it by Mark. It is suggested by Luke that the blaspheming of the Spirit involves a refusal of his powerful help when it is available to save the disciples of Jesus from denying him and so committing apostasy. If so, blasphemy against the Spirit in this context is tantamount to apostasy, the deliberate and decisive repudiation of Jesus as Lord. This is not the only New Testament passage which warns against the irremediable evil of apostasy: another well-known example is Hebrews 6:4-6, where it is said to be impossible to renew apostates to repentance, since they have repudiated the only way of salvation.
But Luke couples with the warning against the unpardonable sin of blasphemy against the Spirit the affirmation of Jesus that there is forgiveness for everyone who speaks a word against the Son of man. On this there are two things to be said.
First, in Jesus’s language (Aramaic), the phrase `the son of man’ normally meant `the man’; only the context could indicate when he intended the phrase to have the special sense which is conveyed by the fuller translation `the Son of man’. Moreover, in the phrase `the man’ the definite article could, on occasion, have generic force, referring not to a particular human being but to man in general (in English this generic force is best conveyed by using the noun without any article, as in `Man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward’). So Jesus may have meant, `To speak against (a) man is pardonable, but to speak against the Spirit is not.’
Secondly, if that is what Jesus meant, he included himself as a man, if not indeed as the representative man. Luke understands him to refer to himself in particular; otherwise he would have said `everyone who speaks a word against a man’ and not (as he does) `every one who speaks a word against the Son of man’. Why would it be so much more serious to slander the Holy Spirit than to slander the Son of man? Perhaps because the identity of the Son of man was veiled in his humility; people might easily fail to recognise him for who he was. There was nothing in the designation `the Son of man’ in itself to express a claim to authority. The Son of man, at present operating in lowliness and liable to be rejected and ill-treated, might indeed be despised. But if those who had begun to follow him were afraid that, under stress, they might deny him, they were assured that the Spirit’s aid was available. If, however, they resisted the Spirit and rejected his aid, then indeed their case would be desperate.
Peter, through fear, denied the Son of man, but he found forgiveness and restoration: his lips had momentarily turned traitor but his heart did not apostatise. His repentance left him wide open to the Spirit’s healing grace, and when he was restored, he was able to strengthen others (Luke 22:31-32). Why then, it might be asked, did he not strengthen Ananias and Sapphira when they came to him with part of the proceeds of the sale of their property, pretending that it was the whole amount ? Presumably because, as he said, they had consented to the satanic suggestion that they should `lie to the Holy Spirit’, because they had `agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord’ (Acts 5:3, 9). Thus, in Peter’s reckoning, they had sinned beyond the point of no return. How Jesus would have regarded their offence is another question.
In Mark’s context, then, the sin against the Holy Spirit involves deliberately shutting one’s eyes to the light and consequently calling good evil; in Lukeit is irretrievable apostasy. Probably these are not really two conditions but one – not unlike the condition which Plato described as having the lie in the sou1.2