Related Verses: Mark 3:28-29; Eph. 4:30-32; Acts 7:51; 1 Thess. 5:16-24
Leading Question: Why is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit worse than any other sin?
A number of New Testament passages warn against offending or sinning against the Holy Spirit. The most dire-sounding are those (from the Gospels) that warn against committing “blasphemy” against the Holy Spirit: Mark 3:28, 29; Luke 12:10; Matthew 12:31. The Contemporary English Version, because it avoids stain-glassed words, does not use the word “blasphemy,” but still ends up with strong words:
Mark 3:28-29: 28 I promise you that any of the sinful things you say or do can be forgiven, no matter how terrible those things are. 29 But if you speak against the Holy Spirit, you can never be forgiven. That sin will be held against you forever. (CEV)
Question: Are these strong words the equivalent of Paul’s “stick”? “What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?” (1 Cor. 4:21, NRSV). Given all the passages that assure the sinner of God’s eagerness to forgive, can these dire warnings be seen as “emergency” overkill intended to jar some hard-hearted souls back to spiritual reality?
In addition to the strong “blasphemy” passage, let’s review the various words the New Testament uses to formulate this “warning”:
Grieve (Eph. 4:30-32, NIV): 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Resist (Acts 7:51, NIV – Steven to those about to stone him): 51 “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!”
Quench (1 Thess. 5:16 -24, NIV): 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil. 23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.
Note: The Acts 7 passage (stoning of Steven), comes closest to an act of open rebellion; The Ephesians 4 passage surveys a broad range of traits that define the Christian way positively against the backdrop of negative traits; the 1 Thessalonians 5 passage comes close to the same focus as the one in Ephesians, but is linked closely with the warning not to treat prophecies in contempt. Is that a warning against denying the supernatural?
In short, since none of these seem to be unforgiveable sins – even Steven’s strong words are words of appeal – would we be justified to turning our attention to the explicit and implicit offer of grace and forgiveness to those who turn to God?
Two of the best-known NT passages seem to offer forgiveness freely: John 3:16 – “whosoever believes” – and 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (KJV).
Two of Jesus’ most unusual parables focus on the importance of persistent prayer as the means for restoring one’s relationship with God, the parables of the midnight friend and the unjust judge:
Midnight friend (Luke 11:5-8, NIV): Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ 7 And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.
9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
Unjust judge (Luke 18:1-5, NIV): 1 Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
In his dialogue with the sophisticated British conversation partner, C. S. Lewis relates this narrative about forgiveness, a tonic for those who have feared committing the unpardonable sin:
I really must digress to tell you a bit of good news. Last week, while at prayer, I suddenly discovered – or felt as if I did – that I had really forgiven someone I have been trying to forgive for over thirty years. Trying, and praying that I might. When the thing actually happened – sudden as the longed-for cessation of one’s neighbour’s radio – my feeling was “But it’s so easy. Why didn’t you do it ages ago?” So many things are done easily the moment you can do them at all. But till then, sheerly impossible, like learning to swim.
There are months during which no efforts will keep you uop; then comes the day and hour and minute after which, and ever after, it becomes almost impossible to sink. It also seemed to me that forgiving (that man’s cruelty) and being [106/107] forgiven (my resentment) were the very same thing. “Forgive and you shall be forgiven” sounds like a bargain. But perhaps it is something much more. By heavenly standards, that is, for pure intelligence, it is perhaps a tautology – forgiving and being forgiven are two names for the same thing. The important thing is that a discord has been resolved, and it is certainly the great Resolver who has done it. Finally, and perhaps best of all, I believed anew what is taught us in the parable of the Unjust Judge. No evil habit is so ingrained nor so long prayed against (as it seemed) in vain, that it cannot, even in dry old age, be whisked away. – C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, XX.1 (pp. 106-107)
To sum up, the unpardonable sin is simply the sin of failing to come to God for forgiveness. It will not be forgiven because it was not requested. It is possible for us to grieve, resist, and even quench the Spirit. But God through the Spirit is seeking every possible way to nudge us into his kingdom.