What is “Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit”?

(Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the CSB).

This coming Sunday is Pentecost, the day on which Christians celebrate the pouring-out of the Holy Spirit into Christ’s followers and the birth of the church (you can read about it in Acts 1-2).

In honor of the occasion, I wanted to talk about a Spirit-related subject that frequently throws people for a loop: What exactly is “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” and why does Jesus describe it as an unforgivable sin?

“Therefore, I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the one to come.” – Matthew 12:31-32

When I led our young adult group through a study of Matthew last year, this was a subject everyone was curious about. What is this sin, and how do you know if you’ve committed it? Will you be instantly damned forever just for cracking a joke about the Holy Spirit? Or is this something more complicated?

Given how frequently I’ve seen people agonizing because they thought they’d committed this unpardonable blasphemy, it’s a question worth wrestling with.

And as with any tough biblical question, we need to look first at the context.

A Confrontation with the Pharisees

The issue of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is discussed in three of the Gospels (Matthew 12:22-37; Mark 3:22-30; Luke 12:8-10). Jesus brings it up after a group of Pharisees (a sect of Jewish religious leaders) tries to discredit his miracles.

The scene: Jesus has just cast a demon out of someone. The man, who was formerly blind and mute, is miraculously healed. Seeing this, the crowds are beginning to wonder if Jesus could in fact be the promised Messiah.

Hearing all the hubbub, the Pharisees shoot back some cynicism: “This man drives out demons only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons” (Matthew 12:22-24). In their minds, Jesus is just another religious charlatan misleading the people. They accuse him of being in league with the devil, hoping their verdict will prevent people from believing in him.

What the Pharisees should have realized, however, was that their thinking was woefully misguided – and perilous to their souls! Jesus responds by dismantling the faulty logic of their claim that his power came from demons (“Why would Satan undermine his own handiwork?”; Matthew 12:25-26), before he turns to the deeper issue: If God’s Holy Spirit really is the agent empowering Jesus’ miracles, then there are some serious consequences for rejecting Jesus!

The Spirit Authenticates Jesus as the Messiah

Jesus himself made it clear from the very start of his ministry that the Holy Spirit was empowering him and working through him. In his earliest recorded sermon, he preaches from Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming Messiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18-19

And then he makes the remarkable claim, “Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled” (Luke 4:21).

During Jesus’ earthly ministry, the Holy Spirit worked miracles through him to authenticate him as the Messiah. The miracles were meant to lead people to put their faith in him as their Savior (see John 14:10-11). This is why, when the Pharisees denied the validity of his miracles, Jesus responded by warning them never to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. To “blaspheme” is to defiantly slander God. It’s to malign his character and reject his purposes. Jesus says that any other form of blasphemy can be forgiven, but this particular one will not (Mark 3:28-29).

Why is that? Most likely it’s because the Pharisees’ words revealed a terrible hardness of heart that would never want forgiveness. They had had the privilege of witnessing firsthand the Holy Spirit’s testimony about Jesus and still they called it a lie. By attributing Jesus’ power to Satan, the Pharisees were denying the Spirit’s direct witness to them that Jesus is the Savior.

That means that blaspheming the Holy Spirit is more than mere careless speaking about him. It goes deeper; it’s a defiant rejection of what the Holy Spirit testifies about Jesus, even when he has made it abundantly clear to you personally.

When the Spirit has spoken to someone’s heart and given them every chance to see Jesus for who he is, and they still reject him and call him a liar and stubbornly persist in unbelief – that’s the sin which, by definition, is unforgivable.

This is probably why Luke, in his Gospel, actually moves the statement about blaspheming the Holy Spirit into a slightly different context than Matthew and Mark. Luke connects it specifically with a warning against denying Jesus before people (Luke 12:8-10), perhaps to help make it clear to his readers that this “blasphemy” is referring to a particularly defiant form of unbelief.

Be sure to note that last phrase – we’re talking about a particular category of unbelieving behavior.

Is “Blasphemy Against the Spirit” the Same Thing as Unbelief?

Some interpreters have viewed the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as merely another way of describing the sin of unbelief in general. After all, if someone doesn’t receive God’s offer of forgiveness by believing in Jesus, then that is by definition something that that person won’t be forgiven for (unless they repent and believe). As the Bible elsewhere says, “Anyone who believes in [Jesus] is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God” (John 3:18).

Even so, it’s difficult to simply equate blaspheming the Spirit with mere unbelief, because unbelief is forgivable if one repents and believes. How then could Jesus refer to unbelief as an act that will never be forgiven in this age or the next? It would have to be a very persistent and particularly defiant form of unbelief (which does fit what we’ve just discussed about the context of Jesus’ teaching).

Some folks try to avoid the question altogether by arguing that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit was a sin that cannot be repeated today. They assert that the Pharisees could commit this sin because Jesus was physically with them, working miracles by the power of the Spirit – but since such circumstances are not repeatable in our day, then neither is the sin.

Such may be the case. But one weakness I see with this view is that there are other passages in the New Testament that seem to describe the “unforgivable sin” as something that did indeed continue to be possible after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. These are, most notably, Hebrews 6:4-6 and 1 John 5:16. They speak of a kind of sin that put one beyond repentance and that would lead to death.

Hebrews 6, in particular, describes apostasy (denying and abandoning one’s faith) as the sin that cannot be forgiven (or more accurately, cannot be repented of). As Paul Jewett writes, “The man who does this is one who says that the witness that the Spirit bears in his own soul is a lie, and he will not live by his original confession, and by his life declares that he does not believe what the Spirit says. Such a person cannot be renewed to repentance.”[1]

And yet, if apostasy is the unforgivable sin, then why was Peter forgiven and restored even after he denied Christ three times? Is there a form of apostasy that is more final based on the level of exposure to the Holy Spirit’s conviction?

Perhaps. This is a question theologians still debate, and I personally would lean toward saying yes. Judas Iscariot comes to mind as a notable example of one who defiantly and irrevocably rejected Jesus in a way that was different than Peter’s fear-fueled – and forgivable – denials.

Some Practical Considerations for Us Today

For my part, I would humbly offer the following propositions as worthy of consideration when it comes to understanding the unforgivable sin:

1) The only explicit and authoritative explanation Scripture gives of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is that it was tied to the Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus’ power was satanic (Mark 3:29-30). As I discussed above, this means (in context) that it is a particularly defiant and willful denial of the Spirit’s clear testimony to Jesus. It is to call God’s clear offer of salvation in Christ, as personally attested-to by the Spirit, a lie and an evil.

2) It is entirely possible that God has intentionally left the nature of this sin a bit vague for us in order to discourage people from committing it and to encourage them to seek obedience to God. We should note that when John talks about a “sin that leads to death,” he doesn’t go into detail about it, and in fact he even discourages his readers from getting too hung up on the matter since they have other things to focus on (1 John 5:16).

3) It should not escape our notice that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit has important Trinitarian implications. That is, only a personal Being can be “blasphemed”; an impersonal force cannot. Thus, the very notion that one can blaspheme the Holy Spirit means that the Holy Spirit is just as much a Person in the Trinity as the Father and the Son are![2]

4) If you’re worried that that you may have committed this sin, you haven’t. As Wayne Grudem rightly points out:

“The fact that the unpardonable sin involves such extreme hardness of heart and lack of repentance indicates that those who fear they have committed it, yet still have sorrow for sin in their heart and desire to seek after God, certainly do not fall into the category of those who are guilty of it.”[3]

If you are at all sensitive to your need for God’s forgiveness and are at all concerned about acknowledging the value of Christ and his Holy Spirit, then you have reason to be confident that you have not blasphemed him. Like me, you can find comfort from the promise in 1 John 1:8-9 (NLT) – “If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.

I hope that this post helps you in thinking about this challenging topic. If it still seems puzzling, don’t worry – you’re in good company! I don’t claim to have the only possible or final interpretation of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” so if you still have questions or areas of disagreement please, by all means, share in the comments! I’d love to dialogue on the subject.

Have a great Pentecost Sunday! See you down the path.

 


[1] P. K. Jewett, “Holy Spirit,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. by Merrill C. Tenney, vol. 3: H-L, pp. 183-96 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 1976), 190.

[2] “One cannot sin against an influence; sin is meaningful only in the personal dimension, in the sphere of personal relationships. Since the sin against the Holy Spirit is the most aggravated form of sin, the conclusion is obvious, that it is a sin against a most sacred, holy, and divine person” (Jewett, “Holy Spirit,” 190).

[3] Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, ed. by Jeff Purswell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 224.



Categories: Bible study, Theology

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