On the “Unforgivable Sin”

This is a topic that has stirred up no small amount of controversy and consternation. As a pastor and a counselor I have sat with many heavy-hearted individuals who have feared that they have committed the unforgivable sin and will be condemned by God. Our struggle with this concept, however, may be alleviated if we will take the time to read the relevant text carefully and in context.

There are a couple of texts that speak to this idea, but I want to focus on the specific account of Jesus’ teaching about it. Matthew 12:22-32 reads:

Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. 23 And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?”24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” 25 Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? 27 And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 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.

The language the text, it is important to note, does not say that a sin cannot be forgiven, as in it is impossible to forgive. Rather, it says it will not be forgiven. That’s a big difference. God can forgive any sin, but this text says He won’t forgive the sin in question. But what is the sin in question? The text tells us plainly that the sin in question is blasphemy against the Spirit. The noun is important here, for I often have people who fear they’ve committed this unforgivable, unpardonable, sin and yet not a single one has focused on blasphemy against the Spirit. But Jesus is very specific in His teaching here. The text tells us that every sin and every blasphemy will be forgiven – even the sin of blasphemy against the Son of Man! So the specific issue in mind is blasphemy against the Spirit.

We still have to figure out what that blasphemy is, but we can at least acknowledge what it isn’t: sin in general, blasphemy in general, blasphemy against Jesus specifically. We should also note that this is not speaking of all sin against the Holy Spirit as being unforgivable, but only blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Every sin is against the Spirit in some sense, Jesus has a very narrow idea in mind here. Jesus is talking about blasphemy, which has to do with words (“speaks a word against”), and specifically blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. That’s the target of this discourse. Everything else fails to meet the criteria of this condemnation.

There have been lots of interpretations of this sin throughout church history. People are often trying to pin the label “unpardonable” unto various sins. So some have said murder is the unpardonable sin. But that is not blasphemy. Others have said suicide, but that’s not blasphemy either. We need to let the text of Scripture dictate the answer. So, what in this context is Jesus addressing? What is He responding to? The accusation of the religious leaders that Jesus is casting out demons by the power of Satan. That’s the specific sin to which Jesus is responding. Jesus is warning the religious leaders that they are coming perilously close to a sin that cannot be forgiven.

Here is what I think this text tells us is the sin that won’t be forgiven: to attribute what you know to be the work of Christ to the demonic. How is this a blasphemy against the Spirit? Consider how you come to know who the Christ is: the Spirit of God reveals it to us (Eph. 1:17-18; John 16:8-11; 13-16). When God has revealed the truth to us and we look at the work of Christ and attribute it to the demonic, then we have rejected with specific intentionallity the work of Christ. Note, as well here that this is not simply a rejection of the truth, for Romans 1 makes clear that we all do this (Rom. 1:18). Nor is this simply a rejection of the gospel, which we have all also done until the Spirit reveals the truth to us. It is a specific focus of rejection the revealed work of Christ. The unforgivable sin is not merely a rejection of objective truth, for we all do this and then would all be condemned. It has a subjective/experiential component to it: we are rejecting what we know to be the truth by virtue of the Spirit’s revelation in our hearts/minds about the work of Christ.

This, by the way, is what I think the author of Hebrews means when he writes in chapter 10, verses 26 – 29 about those who “outrage the Spirit.” We read:

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

What is the author talking about? Those who know the truth about Christ but attribute his work to the demonic. They have outraged the spirit, profaned the blood, and trampled the Son of God. They have knowingly rejected the revealed truth of Christ’s work on the Cross.

To summarize, the “unforgivable sin” is a very specific, very narrowly defined sin, in which a person willfully attributes to the demonic what the Spirit has revealed to Him is actually the work of Christ. This may not help to alleviate all the fears and anxieties of a person struggling with the assurance of their salvation, but it should help to limit the focus of this issue. Jesus is being intentionally specific and we want to draw our theological conclusions from what the text actually says. Have you sinned against God? You can be forgiven. Have you sinned against Jesus specifically? You can be forgiven. Have you blasphemed God? You can be forgiven. Have you blasphemed Jesus? You can be forgiven. Have you sinned against God’s Holy Spirit, grieved the Spirit even? Friend, you can be forgiven. Jesus has a very narrow and specific issue in mind and we need to surrender to what the text says. In fact, it’s a sin to call unforgivable what isn’t, but the good news for us is that there’s forgiveness and grace for that sin too.


  1. shepherdatheart says:

    I have dealt with many suicidal persons who have asked me about this one thing.

    I would tell them that God certainly does not want them to end their life this way, and that as He does not want it, it was a sin to demand and to take this decision out of His hand. Their best avenue lie in hope, and hope waits for tomorrow. Sometimes in the darkest of nights, we must hang on to the branch that is in our hands until dawn reveals the good earth to be but inches below us, or that our safety is but one handhold above.

    To those who have lost a loved one to despair, I would prevail that I know our God to be compassionate beyond our comprehension, and that surely He understands the anguish of heart, the pain of outcast, the despair of hope, that some go through, and that I believe that His arms are right there to comfort even, and especially these dear souls. I do not broadcast this view, lest it should be used in confidence that one should go through with their last act to jump into His arms. Thankfully, I never saw any suicide successes amongst those I counseled, although there were a good handful of close calls. God’s Grace intervened.

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