Read: Matthew 12:22-32
Have you ever worried about doing something so bad it could not be forgiven? According to Jesus, there is unforgivable sin, but if you’re worried about it, that means you have not committed it.
Have you ever worried about committing an unpardonable sin, about doing something so terrible, so awfully wicked, that you were certain it will automatically damn you to hell, with no hope of escape? Perhaps you read about this in the Bible once, or you heard a sermon on it somewhere, and you’re vaguely uneasy about it. In fact, doesn’t Jesus himself talk about a sin so bad that it can’t and won’t be forgiven—the unpardonable sin? Yes, Jesus does talk about such a sin, in Matthew 12:31-32:
Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
What are we to make of those frightening words?
A House Divided
First of all, let’s look at the context in which Jesus spoke them. Matthew 12 is a chapter of conflict and controversy. The animosity between Jesus and his enemies that we see here began over the issue of the observance of the Sabbath day. When Jesus, in the opinion of the Pharisees at least, broke the Sabbath, they didn’t just criticize him, they wanted to kill him (see verse 14). And shortly after that, Jesus performs an even greater miracle in delivering a demon-oppressed man and restoring both sight and speech to him (v. 22).
All the people were astonished, Matthew reports—as well they might be. And speculation begins to spread rapidly that perhaps Jesus is more than just a prophet of God, as wonderful as that would be. “Could this be the Son of David” [that is, the Messiah], they ask excitedly. That’s too much for the Pharisees who hear about it. So in an effort to discredit Jesus’ miraculous power—they could not deny its reality, the evidence of cured people was everywhere—the Pharisees make the blasphemous suggestion that this power Jesus is demonstrating actually comes from the devil himself. “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons” (v. 24), they say.
Jesus’ response is remarkably mild, considering what the Pharisees were accusing him of. I mean, anyone would object to being accused of being in league with Satan, but to charge Jesus with this is especially offensive. But Jesus doesn’t rant and rave, he doesn’t get angry, or protest how preposterous that suggestion was. Instead, he responds calmly and rationally to the Pharisees’ irrational charge against him. Jesus knew what his enemies were thinking, says Matthew, and so he answers their accusation in two ways.
First, he points out the absurdity of supposing that Satan would have anything to do with healing people or delivering them from demonic oppression. That would be to make war upon himself. The devil’s work is not to deliver, it is to enslave; Satan doesn’t heal, he destroys. “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste,” states Jesus, “and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?” (vv. 25-26). More than 1800 years later Abraham Lincoln borrowed this text for the theme of what became known as his “House Divided” speech, one of his most powerful political arguments for addressing the problem of a country trying to be half slave and half free; “a house divided against itself simply cannot stand.” So it’s impossible that Jesus could be doing the devil’s work. Instead, his ministry is a powerful sign to all that “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (v. 28), as he says.
Jesus’ second argument refuting the Pharisees’ attack was based on the fact that he apparently wasn’t the only person who was casting out demons in first-century Palestine. If he was to be accused of satanic activity for doing this, what about the others who were doing the same thing? “If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out?” (v. 27), he asks.
Now we have no idea who these “sons” of the Pharisees were, or how they did what they were doing. Jesus’ comment is really a complete mystery to us. But his use of it isn’t mysterious at all; in fact, it’s a standard debating technique. It’s called the Tu quoque, the “you, too” argument. And it works like this: “You accuse me of doing such and such? Well, you’re doing it too. So how do you explain that?” The implication is clear. Far from being helped by the devil, Jesus is attacking him. Jesus graphically describes his ministry of deliverance as having bound the strong man, and entered his house, to plunder his goods (v. 29).
The Unpardonable Sin
So this accusation of being inspired by the devil, plus Jesus’ counter-arguments, is the context for Jesus’ statement about the unforgivable sin. Admittedly, his words have still troubled many people, including me. It’s frightening to hear such a hard word from the one who is the Lover of our souls. It’s even more frightening to think I could be guilty of such a thing, perhaps without even realizing it.
But notice that before Jesus describes this sin, he begins with the sins that can and will be forgiven: “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people” (v. 31). Once again Jesus says something surprising. People will (that is, they can) be forgiven for every kind of sin (sin in the sense of offenses against other people) and every kind of blasphemy (that is, offenses against God).
God’s grace is truly amazing! People can even be forgiven for speaking critically about Jesus himself: “And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven” (v. 32). Jesus isn’t touchy. God isn’t thin-skinned. He’s not easily offended. He understands when we act stupidly, or say stupid things out of ignorance. He knows we can behave in ways we don’t really mean to because we are weak or foolish. And he does not hold such things against us. Remember how Jesus himself prayed for forgiveness even for the men who crucified him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
But there is one—and only one—sin that never can or will be forgiven. The sin “against the Holy Spirit” or “blasphemy against the Spirit,” as Jesus calls it, is the eternal, unpardonable sin. But what does it mean? Two things need to be stressed. The first is that Jesus’ warning is clearly directed against what the Pharisees have just been saying. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the so-called unforgivable sin, is to attribute the work of God to the devil. The Spirit’s role is to bear witness to Christ. So more specifically the sin against the Spirit is the final and irrevocable rejection of Jesus himself, and his claim to be the Son of God and the Savior of the world. It is to deny and scoff at the saving work Jesus came to do.
What Jesus condemns here is the moral perversity that insists on calling something its opposite. It’s a willful blindness to the truth of God in the person and work of Jesus. In the case of the Pharisees, they looked at the loving deeds Jesus had done and insisted on calling them wicked. They knew better, but they shut their eyes to the light and called it darkness.
The second thing to observe is that in giving them this solemn warning, Jesus is actually calling the Pharisees to repentance. The unpardonable sin can never be something we do unwittingly, accidentally, or without realizing it. In other words, if you are worried about committing the unforgivable sin, that in itself is good evidence that you haven’t.
Any and every sin can be repented of, even the sin of rejecting or blaspheming Christ. As long as we live, there is always the hope and the opportunity of turning to him and being saved, and being forgiven for whatever we’ve done. Even the Pharisees who said these terrible things could still turn to Christ. And in fact, some of them did, later on. We know from the book of Acts. So it’s obvious that no one who has accepted Christ, no one who has repented can have committed this sin. Even those who are currently rejecting him haven’t committed it yet, at least not finally and forever.
God’s promise of forgiveness to all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ still stands. Whoever you are, whatever you may have done, you can find in Jesus pardon and peace, and full acceptance with God. The only thing that can doom you is your final rejection of God’s gift, your insistence that Christ is a fraud and the gospel is a lie. And even if you’ve been doing that so far throughout your life right up until this moment, grace is still offered to you right now. Everyone who calls on the Lord, says the Bible, that is, everyone who trusts in Jesus, will be saved.
For or Against?
There’s one final thing I’d like to say here, or rather, listen to Jesus as he says it: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (v. 30). Jesus now insists that we make up our minds about him, that we make our choice for him once and for all. To refuse to do that, to claim you just don’t know, that you’re an agnostic, that you want to remain neutral, is actually to choose against him. “This sentence,” writes Dale Bruner,
rings the death knell to neutralism toward Jesus. Those who hedge about devotion to Jesus or about the importance of a clear decision for him, who question Jesus’ exclusivity and who disdain his gathering work of evangelism—they are in trouble. They are not merely neutral or . . . broad-minded; they are “against [Jesus].” (F. Dale Bruner, Matthew, vol. 1, p. 565)
You can’t go on sitting on the fence. You have to decide about Jesus: is he from God, or is he of the devil? Be careful what you say; an awful lot hangs on your answer.