The unpardonable sin

Note: I regularly break what seems to be an unwritten law for blogging that says that, except for minor editorial fixes, one shouldn’t edit posts that add new information without some kind of notification. I have added a little more material to this post to make my arguments more clear; my position remains the same, whereas my explication of my position has hopefully been augmented.

Ah, the infamous, dreaded, and hitherto confusing “unpardonable sin”. What is it? Well, until this week I didn’t know.

Ironically, I first encountered the interpretation I am about to present when hearing someone dismiss it in favor of the interpretation quite popular in evangelical circles nowadays, which is roughly as follows.

Looking at the immediate context of Jesus’ statement on the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, we see that the Pharisees were attributing the miraculous works of Jesus to Beelzebub (Mat 12.24), charging Jesus with simply carrying out Satan’s orders. But instead of responding with an angry outburst or a pronouncement of doom upon the Pharisees, Jesus first deconstructed their argument logically (vv. 25-29) and then delivered the surprisingly magnanimous statement,

“And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the 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.” (vv. 31-32)

Now, so far I’m in agreement with this interpretation. The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is defined as rejecting the works of the Holy Spirit and condemning them as evil. But the majority of Protestants don’t allow you to believe that Christians can lose their salvation, so the inference is made that this must be something that is done by unbelievers; additionally, the majority of Christians have believed that the sins of unbelievers are not forgiven anyway. So they tie these things together: the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is simply rejecting the call of the Holy Spirit to salvation. Naturally I thought it was strange that the two men I heard advocating this belief last week are Reformed and so ostensibly don’t believe the Holy Spirit “wastes” his calling on the non-elect. However, not being Reformed myself, my own problem with this interpretation has always been that it seems tautological and smacks of having been retrofitted to match evangelical soteriology. In effect, it paraphrases Jesus’ statement as, “God will forgive any sin you commit (grant salvation to you) except for the sin of not asking forgiveness (accepting salvation).” What a convoluted way of saying something so simple! If that’s what it means, Jesus’ words disguise and lend a solemn air to an altogether obvious and trivial message.

But let’s look again at the passage quoted above. What is striking is not the condemnation but who Jesus does not condemn. We can infer from his statements here and from his words on the cross (“Father forgive them, for they not what they do”) that he would not view the rejection of the Pharisees that resulted in his death as the “last straw” as is often understood. In fact, in Peter’s sermon of Acts 3 he lets the Jewish leaders off the hook for the murder of Jesus, all on account of their ignorance (v. 17), and it was upon this basis that they and everyone else were being called to repentance and were hence apparently eligible for forgiveness. This is what happened to Saul of Tarsus. Instead, it would be the ultimate denigration of the acts of the Holy Spirit that would **** utterly and irrevocably. What I think is in view here is the rejection of the confirming miracles of the apostles wrought under the power of the Holy Spirit in the apostolic age:

Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty, how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will. (Heb 2.1-4)

That passage correlates quite well with what had been going on in the church up until the time of that writing (the 60’s). Jesus had preached salvation; the apostles bore witness to the work and words of Jesus by the word of their testimony; the message of the apostles was confirmed by the Holy Spirit performing signs and wonders through them. The author of Hebrews continues the same train of thought, quoting Psalm 95.7-11:

So, as the Holy Spirit says:

“Today, if you hear his voice,

do not harden your hearts

during the time of testing in the desert,

where your fathers tested and tried me

and for forty years saw what I did.

That is why I was angry with that generation,

and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,

So I declared on oath in my anger,

‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God…

Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt [i.e., the people of God, not unbelievers]? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

(Heb 3.7-12, 16-19)

This is important. Who does the author of Hebrews attribute that message to? The Holy Spirit! It was no longer Jesus personally but the Holy Spirit who was calling people to repentance. The result of the rejection of the Holy Spirit’s calling was exclusion from God’s “rest” (a concept developed a little more in Hebrews, but not in this post). Yet how did the Jewish leadership respond to all the proclamations of the apostles? Well, let’s just say that Jesus’ warning to the Jewish leadership that they must not reject the “acts of the apostles” – which were really the “acts of the Holy Spirit” – fell on many deaf ears that day. This is one of the main themes of the book of Acts; reading Acts is like watching the “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” occurring over and over without being able to flip the channel. Also note the bolded comment in the above quotation: the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit was a threat for those already in covenant with the Lord – but they would not be considered God’s covenant people for long! These blasphemers would be cut off from the people of God in the coming New Covenant age.

In the Hebrews 3 passage quoted above, don’t miss the parallel between the events of the Exodus and the first century situation. We see a somewhat explicit correlation of forty years of wandering that resulted from a lack of faith in what God’s servant had shown them. We can recall what happened at the end of the forty years for the Israelites: they either believed and entered the Promised Land or they died. The forty year period between Pentecost and the destruction of Jerusalem was a period of wilderness wanderings, in which the people of God followed a new servant of God prophesied by Moses (Deut 18.15, 18, 19; cf. Acts 3.22-23). To those living in that era, disobedience and dismissal of the message of the Holy Spirit was to have the consequence of severest judgment. Peter’s sermon in Acts 3 elucidated the exact consequences of rejection.

“Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” (vv. 17-21)

At the end of that time, belief was rewarded, unbelief was punished. When Christ appeared in judgment of Israel “after the flesh,” the wicked who blasphemed the Holy Spirit were “cut off” from the people of God, stripped of their robes once and for all, while the meek from the highways and byways were given white robes as they inherited the New Jerusalem: the New Covenant. After centuries of apostasy and judgment, the restoration of Israel to the status it had before God when they first entered the Promised Land was complete. We no longer live under the dread of the apostasy of Hebrews 4 and 5.11-6.12 or the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. Under Hebrews 8.6’s “better covenant enacted on better promises,” all who are Israel now truly are Israel. No blasphemers allowed.

“This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel

after that time, declares the Lord.

I will put my laws in their minds

and write them on their hearts.

I will be their God,

and they will be my people.

No longer will a man teach his neighbor,

or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’

because they will all know me,

from the least of them to the greatest.

For I will forgive their wickedness

and will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8.10-12)

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