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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  • Believe it or not, I came to the same conclusion that you have years ago, as a futurist in the Reformed tradition, to wit, that this threat was limited to the ministry (and, thus, the lifetimes) of Jesus and his apostles.

    However, I never thought to restrict it the way you do, in preteristic fashion, to the period of the Old Covenant. Well done!

  • Believe it or not, I came to the same conclusion that you have years ago, as a futurist in the Reformed tradition, to wit, that this threat was limited to the ministry (and, thus, the lifetimes) of Jesus and his apostles.

    However, I never thought to restrict it the way you do, in preteristic fashion, to the period of the Old Covenant. Well done!

  • As you implied, the understanding of Jesus’ statement as being limited to the time of the apostles is not wholly unique to preterism; the people I first heard this interpretation attributed to are not preterists. But it really makes a lot of sense from a preteristic perspective.

  • As you implied, the understanding of Jesus’ statement as being limited to the time of the apostles is not wholly unique to preterism; the people I first heard this interpretation attributed to are not preterists. But it really makes a lot of sense from a preteristic perspective.

  • Steve,

    This certainly is a great take on the unpardonable sin.

    I find two problems with it, however. Firstly, I feel there is a little achronicity in the fact that you find Jesus referring to the Holy Spirit in a way that isn’t applied until after his death and resurrection. Whilst yes, he is God, and obviously time didn’t present the same barrier to him as it does us, he is nevertheless condemning the pharisees at the time he is speaking, which is before we were given the gift of the holy spirit in baptism. Now, I don’t know much about the holy spirit under the old covenant, but this jars a little for me.

    Secondly, does this suggest that you do not believe that miracles occur after of the apostolic age, does it not?

    I suspect the only other thing I find doesn’t gel lies with your preterist stance and not your stance on the unpardonable sin, but I’ll have to ask it anyway, feel free to point me to another post of yours if you’ve already addressed it. Do you believe that for all sins are forgiven? This seems to follow from what you’ve said here.

  • Steve,

    This certainly is a great take on the unpardonable sin.

    I find two problems with it, however. Firstly, I feel there is a little achronicity in the fact that you find Jesus referring to the Holy Spirit in a way that isn’t applied until after his death and resurrection. Whilst yes, he is God, and obviously time didn’t present the same barrier to him as it does us, he is nevertheless condemning the pharisees at the time he is speaking, which is before we were given the gift of the holy spirit in baptism. Now, I don’t know much about the holy spirit under the old covenant, but this jars a little for me.

    Secondly, does this suggest that you do not believe that miracles occur after of the apostolic age, does it not?

    I suspect the only other thing I find doesn’t gel lies with your preterist stance and not your stance on the unpardonable sin, but I’ll have to ask it anyway, feel free to point me to another post of yours if you’ve already addressed it. Do you believe that for all sins are forgiven? This seems to follow from what you’ve said here.

  • Thanks for weighing in, Damian!

    Firstly, I feel there is a little achronicity in the fact that you find Jesus referring to the Holy Spirit in a way that isn’t applied until after his death and resurrection. Whilst yes, he is God, and obviously time didn’t present the same barrier to him as it does us, he is nevertheless condemning the pharisees at the time he is speaking, which is before we were given the gift of the holy spirit in baptism.

    Honestly, I’m not sure what you’re getting at here: are you saying that Jesus didn’t know anything in advance about the Holy Spirit’s activity after Jesus was gone? There’s quite a bit in the Gospel of John (chs. 14-16) that indicates otherwise. Jesus’ words were prophetic not only of the Holy Spirit’s work, but of the Jews’ rejection. Moreover, we have Jesus before his ascension predicting exactly what the Holy Spirit was going to do (Acts 1.8): “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Here we have Jesus predicting (again) the Holy Spirit’s coming and His works of power that were to accompany the apostles’ witness. My contention is that it was this mission of the apostles that Jesus was warning the Jewish leadership to heed.

    Secondly, does this suggest that you do not believe that miracles occur after of the apostolic age, does it not?

    Apostolic miracles were meant to confirm the message of the Gospel during that pivotal time (cf. Heb 2.1-4). This is not to say that the miraculous need have ceased.

    Do you believe that for all sins are forgiven? This seems to follow from what you’ve said here.

    Do you mean, do I believe that everyone’s sins have been forgiven (à la universalism) due to my conviction that Jesus’ statement referred to events in the past? In answer, let me ask you if you believe that at some point in the future all sins will be forgiven? 😉 (My answer: no)

  • Thanks for weighing in, Damian!

    Firstly, I feel there is a little achronicity in the fact that you find Jesus referring to the Holy Spirit in a way that isn’t applied until after his death and resurrection. Whilst yes, he is God, and obviously time didn’t present the same barrier to him as it does us, he is nevertheless condemning the pharisees at the time he is speaking, which is before we were given the gift of the holy spirit in baptism.

    Honestly, I’m not sure what you’re getting at here: are you saying that Jesus didn’t know anything in advance about the Holy Spirit’s activity after Jesus was gone? There’s quite a bit in the Gospel of John (chs. 14-16) that indicates otherwise. Jesus’ words were prophetic not only of the Holy Spirit’s work, but of the Jews’ rejection. Moreover, we have Jesus before his ascension predicting exactly what the Holy Spirit was going to do (Acts 1.8): “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Here we have Jesus predicting (again) the Holy Spirit’s coming and His works of power that were to accompany the apostles’ witness. My contention is that it was this mission of the apostles that Jesus was warning the Jewish leadership to heed.

    Secondly, does this suggest that you do not believe that miracles occur after of the apostolic age, does it not?

    Apostolic miracles were meant to confirm the message of the Gospel during that pivotal time (cf. Heb 2.1-4). This is not to say that the miraculous need have ceased.

    Do you believe that for all sins are forgiven? This seems to follow from what you’ve said here.

    Do you mean, do I believe that everyone’s sins have been forgiven (à la universalism) due to my conviction that Jesus’ statement referred to events in the past? In answer, let me ask you if you believe that at some point in the future all sins will be forgiven? 😉 (My answer: no)

  • On further thought, my ‘achronicity’ problem doesn’t hold, so the fact that you didn’t understand it is irrelevant ;-).

    Your second answer is pretty straightforward. I think this is a really strong interpretation, Steve. I think there are a few problems from a non-preterist standpoint, so I think I’ll look around for some equivalents. In your version there is a clear delineation where the threat of blasphemy against the holy spirit ends, however I’m not sure what this would be in a non-preterist viewpoint. It seems to me that the ‘apostolic age’ never ended, hence this doesn’t apply, or at least that seems a very intangible barrier.

    I was unclear (very) when I asked if ‘all sins are forgiven’. It was a salvation question. What I meant was, given you believe that all Israel are truly Israel, does this mean that the citizens of Israel throughout eternity are prescribed, that all people are now a member of the nation of Israel through Jesus’ return in 70AD, or that even after Jesus’ return, a decision must be made that Jesus is lord.

  • On further thought, my ‘achronicity’ problem doesn’t hold, so the fact that you didn’t understand it is irrelevant ;-).

    Your second answer is pretty straightforward. I think this is a really strong interpretation, Steve. I think there are a few problems from a non-preterist standpoint, so I think I’ll look around for some equivalents. In your version there is a clear delineation where the threat of blasphemy against the holy spirit ends, however I’m not sure what this would be in a non-preterist viewpoint. It seems to me that the ‘apostolic age’ never ended, hence this doesn’t apply, or at least that seems a very intangible barrier.

    I was unclear (very) when I asked if ‘all sins are forgiven’. It was a salvation question. What I meant was, given you believe that all Israel are truly Israel, does this mean that the citizens of Israel throughout eternity are prescribed, that all people are now a member of the nation of Israel through Jesus’ return in 70AD, or that even after Jesus’ return, a decision must be made that Jesus is lord.

  • In your version there is a clear delineation where the threat of blasphemy against the holy spirit ends, however I’m not sure what this would be in a non-preterist viewpoint. It seems to me that the ‘apostolic age’ never ended, hence this doesn’t apply, or at least that seems a very intangible barrier.

    Even most futurists find that it’s hard to see the apostolic age as continuing: for one, all of those actually called apostles in Scripture are dead, without the promise of any new ones. Another thing is that Hebrews 2 passage which spoke of the apostles’ work in the past tense and as completed – or in the process of completion at least. I understand that this might be problematic to some charismatic doctrine, but in addition to looking for alternatives to my view that are more compatible with your views on the apostolic age, don’t fail to recognize the strength of this interpretation as an argument that the apostolic age proper had a natural expiration date. As I said above, this does not mean that there are no miracles – only no ongoing apostolic ministry.

    In particular, it’s clear that one of Jesus’ most frequent topics, the subject of most of his proverbs in fact, is the warning of the judgment that would fall upon the Jews if they rejected him. It’s not only preterists that recognize that these warnings were rejected and resulted in the events of AD70; it doesn’t require preterism for someone to recognize the significance of the judgment on Jerusalem for Jesus’ message and mission.

    What I meant was, given you believe that all Israel are truly Israel, does this mean that the citizens of Israel throughout eternity are prescribed, that all people are now a member of the nation of Israel through Jesus’ return in 70AD, or that even after Jesus’ return, a decision must be made that Jesus is lord.

    I do not believe that at any point past or future that all humanity will be true Israel. Submission to Christ’s lordship is still required in order to be introduced into the New Covenant. I get this question from time to time and I wonder where it comes from – care to elaborate?

  • In your version there is a clear delineation where the threat of blasphemy against the holy spirit ends, however I’m not sure what this would be in a non-preterist viewpoint. It seems to me that the ‘apostolic age’ never ended, hence this doesn’t apply, or at least that seems a very intangible barrier.

    Even most futurists find that it’s hard to see the apostolic age as continuing: for one, all of those actually called apostles in Scripture are dead, without the promise of any new ones. Another thing is that Hebrews 2 passage which spoke of the apostles’ work in the past tense and as completed – or in the process of completion at least. I understand that this might be problematic to some charismatic doctrine, but in addition to looking for alternatives to my view that are more compatible with your views on the apostolic age, don’t fail to recognize the strength of this interpretation as an argument that the apostolic age proper had a natural expiration date. As I said above, this does not mean that there are no miracles – only no ongoing apostolic ministry.

    In particular, it’s clear that one of Jesus’ most frequent topics, the subject of most of his proverbs in fact, is the warning of the judgment that would fall upon the Jews if they rejected him. It’s not only preterists that recognize that these warnings were rejected and resulted in the events of AD70; it doesn’t require preterism for someone to recognize the significance of the judgment on Jerusalem for Jesus’ message and mission.

    What I meant was, given you believe that all Israel are truly Israel, does this mean that the citizens of Israel throughout eternity are prescribed, that all people are now a member of the nation of Israel through Jesus’ return in 70AD, or that even after Jesus’ return, a decision must be made that Jesus is lord.

    I do not believe that at any point past or future that all humanity will be true Israel. Submission to Christ’s lordship is still required in order to be introduced into the New Covenant. I get this question from time to time and I wonder where it comes from – care to elaborate?

  • Steve, this is why I call your theology cohesive – you really seem to have looked at a lot of things from a lot of angles.

    I think the reason people ask this question is because those of us who haven’t adopted your view are unsure as to what your interpretation indicates, especially for Revelation prophecy such as the New Jerusalem prophecies which seem to suggest a static nation of Israel. Now, I’m not convinced of that, and I doubted that you believed that, but I thought it’d be best to ask – you diverge from a lot of traditional teachings in your preterist interpretation, so I would rather ask and not misinterpret you, than assume and get you wrong.

  • Steve, this is why I call your theology cohesive – you really seem to have looked at a lot of things from a lot of angles.

    I think the reason people ask this question is because those of us who haven’t adopted your view are unsure as to what your interpretation indicates, especially for Revelation prophecy such as the New Jerusalem prophecies which seem to suggest a static nation of Israel. Now, I’m not convinced of that, and I doubted that you believed that, but I thought it’d be best to ask – you diverge from a lot of traditional teachings in your preterist interpretation, so I would rather ask and not misinterpret you, than assume and get you wrong.

  • I do appreciate that, Damian – and your kind words. Only those of true Israel are Israel. Race is no factor in the New Covenant, as Paul explained in Galatians 3-5 (particularly 3.28-29). Although I’m sure that you already knew this, I wanted to make sure you knew I believed it.

  • I do appreciate that, Damian – and your kind words. Only those of true Israel are Israel. Race is no factor in the New Covenant, as Paul explained in Galatians 3-5 (particularly 3.28-29). Although I’m sure that you already knew this, I wanted to make sure you knew I believed it.