A young man came to my office and expressed his concern that he had committed the “unpardonable sin” and there was nothing he could do to be saved from eternal condemnation and judgment. Many believers have been troubled by the question, “Have I committed the unpardonable sin?” A proper understanding of the historical circumstances can help clarify this issue and provide much needed relief for troubled saints.
In Matthew 12:22-23, Jesus miraculously liberated a man from demon possession. The evidence of His miracles pointed to the fact that Jesus was the Messiah and that the kingdom was at hand (12:28). The Pharisees could not deny the fact of the miracle. In a desperate attempt to turn the multitudes from following Jesus, the religious leaders declared that He did the miracle by the power of Beelzebul, an expression used in biblical times to refer to Satan (cf. 2 Kings 1:1-6). They were saying, “These credentials are of hell, not of heaven!”
After refuting the Pharisaic interpretation of His miracles (Matt. 12:25-30), Jesus warned these religious leaders of blasphemy which “shall not be forgiven” (12:31). “Blasphemy” (blasphemia) may be defined as “slander” or “defamation.” To “blaspheme” (blasphemo) is “to speak lightly or profanely of sacred things.” Blasphemy may be defined as impious and irreverent speech against God. Speaking in an impious and irreverent manner against Christ may be forgiven. But speaking in an impious and irreverent manner against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven (Matt. 12:32). This is designated an “eternal sin” (Mark 3:29).
What the Pharisees had done was to attribute Christ’s miracles to the work of Satan (Matt. 12:24). They were saying that Jesus was in league with the devil, doing Messiah’s work by Satan’s power.
- The Sin of Unbelief. Some have identified this sin as the sin of unbelief which cannot be repented of after death. In this sense, to die in unbelief is “eternal sin.” No one would disagree with the fact that unbelief at death has eternal consequences. But is this what the Pharisees were doing?
- Sin Unto Death. Some have linked this sin with 1 Jn. 5:16 where the Apostle writes of a “sin unto death.” But this cannot refer to a sin punishable by death (Acts 5, 1 Cor. 11), since the life with which it is contrasted is clearly spiritual or eternal life. Those who were committing “sin unto death” were the false teachers who had rejected the Son and thus forfeited spiritual life.
- Incorrigible Unbelief. Others have linked this sin with that of pharaoh’s, whose heart was hardened by his deliberate, open-eyed rejection of the known truth. The key question is whether there is scriptural evidence for the view that an unbeliever can come to a point or “cross the line” after which forgiveness is impossible. Note that the unpardonable sin makes forgiveness impossible–not repentance. Can an unbeliever come to a point where repentance is possible, but forgiveness is not? This would certainly limit the “whosoever” of the gospel.
- Attributing Modern Miracles to Satan. It has been said that those who call the “sign and wonders” movement a work of Satan are committing the unpardonable sin. The problem with this analysis is that the unpardonable sin, as described in the biblical text, involves more than calling miracles the work of Satan. The sin involves the rejection of Christ and his proclamation of the kingdom.
- A Unique, 1st Century Sin. Following the lead of L. S. Chafer, many hold the view that the historical circumstances of the unpardonable sin cannot be reproduced today. Jesus was in Israel offering the kingdom and doing miracles to authenticate that offer. The Pharisees saw the evidence of Jesus’ miracles but attributed this to the work of Satan. They spoke in an irreverent and impious way regarding the ministry of the Holy Spirit. This sin could not be forgiven them. It was in light of these unique circumstances that the teaching on the unpardonable sin is given. The sin of these Jewish leaders is seen to have serious consequences for the nation (cf. Matt. 23:37-38,45, Lk. 19:11-27).This view that limits the “unpardonable sin” to the first century appears to be most consistent with the historical context and the textual information. The admonition should not to be divorced from this historical context and applied generally.
Many believers have wondered if they have committed the unpardonable sin. If someone is worried that they have committed this sin, their very spiritual concern would reflect the fact that they have not. Further, the circumstances necessary to reproduce this sin are not possible today.
About J. Carl Laney
J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Loving Your Enemy: A Biblical Alternative to Revenge” (Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, July 2011).