Editors' note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to firstname.lastname@example.org along with your full name, city, and state. We'll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition's Council members and other friends for an answer we can share. Chris P. from China asks:
I've wrestled with this for a long time: what is the unforgivable sin that Jesus talks about?
We posed the question to Jonathan Pennington, associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary in Louisville, and author of Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew (Baker Academic, 2009) and Reading the Gospels Wisely (Baker Academic, 2012).
I still remember well, as a young Christian, listening to The Bible Answer Man radio show. I don't remember much of what was said, but I distinctly recall the occasional poor troubled souls who'd call in hoping for consolation, despair in their voice, fearful they'd committed the unforgivable sin—blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
Little did I know at the time, those late 2oth-century callers were only the latest in 2,000 years to worry about whether they'd indeed committed the blasphemy of the Spirit. We know this was an issue in the early church, and different branches of the church had different opinions. For many, it was understood that a falling away under persecution, for example, was this kind of unforgivable sin. And we know different portions of the church split over whether a relapsed Christian could re-enter the church.
Fast forwarding, we read in John Bunyan's famous and influential tale his own wrestling with this issue. Indeed, in the last 300 years, probably the largest group of people who'd be anxious about this kind of question came from Puritan stock. We know of many stories including a most tragic one where an English Puritan name John Child actually took his own life, convinced in despair and melancholy he'd committed this unforgivable, unpardonable sin.
Texts and Their Reception
The “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” language comes directly from the Gospels and is found in parallel accounts in Matthew 12:31-32, Mark 3:28-29, and Luke 12:10. Beyond this threefold witness, it also appears in roughly the same form in the Didache (11:7), and it's the 44th saying in the Gospel of Thomas. In all these cases the literary context varies slightly, but there's a consistency in emphasizing the one greatest and unforgivable sin—the “speaking against” or “blaspheming” of the Holy Spirit.
Ambrose and the Didache understand the unforgivable sin to be opposing the Spirit's work—not just in Jesus' day, but continuing through his Spirit-inspired prophets in the contemporary church. Many in the church connected this saying with the “sin unto death” of 1 John 5:16, understood as an unforgivable post-conversion relapse, while others interpreted it more generally as a rejection of the gospel. Augustine, who dedicated at least one whole sermon to this topic, is typical and influential in arguing the blasphemy isn't a specific act but a state of enmity and impenitence lasting unto death. It's a hardness of heart that, if not repented of in this life, will prove to be unforgiven. In this sense, then, the blasphemy is understood simply as unbelief that persists throughout life.
Space doesn't permit a fuller exploration of the nuances of these views nor, more importantly, a thorough examination of each of the Gospel passages in their literary and historical context—something essential for the wisest reading of these texts. This would include a sensitive reading that allows each Gospel writer to make his own nuanced interpretive application of the famous blasphemy saying. (For example, Luke's witness to this saying seems most generic and less contextualized than Matthew's and Mark's.)
Nevertheless, we can highlight here what seems to be the overall meaning as well as note some common misinterpretations. On the latter score, it's important to emphasize that however one interprets the blasphemy saying, it cannot be construed as the same thing as “grieving” or “quenching” the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19). These instructions from Paul aren't warnings of unbelief to Christ's hard-hearted opponents (as in the Gospel accounts) but exhortations to Spirit-imbued believers to continue in Spirit-empowerment, not giving themselves over to bitterness and conflict. Paul makes it clear: Christians must resist prohibiting the mysterious work of God in the assembly of God's people.
Another misinterpretation would be to understand the blasphemy too generically as meaning that anyone who at any point rejects Christ openly can't be a true Christian later. While we may initially read these texts this way (especially in Luke's least-explained version), the New Testament's own retelling of key events belies this interpretation. Specifically, we see contrary evidence in both Peter and Paul. Paul's conversion story wasn't simply one of ignorance and then acceptance of Christ but rather one of hardened opposition to Christ and his followers preceding his conversion (Acts 9:1-19). Such open rejection of Jesus apparently wasn't an unforgivable sin. Even more shocking, Peter himself—after following Jesus for some time—denies him openly (three times!), yet is restored not only to forgiveness but leadership in the early church (John 18:15-27; 21:15-19). Without question, this sin on Peter's part, though equal parts serious and incontrovertible, cannot be construed as an unforgivable blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
So what does the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit really mean, and how does it apply to us today? In short, I suggest it's a specific, active, and final choice to declare the person and work of Jesus as being demonic in origin. The specificity of this charge is clearest in the most detailed version of the event we have, retold by Matthew (12:22-37). There it's clear that, after a contracted series of interactions with Jesus, the Pharisees have made a final, declarative decision that Jesus is not from God and must be killed (12:14 is the turning point of Matthew's narrative on this score). As a result, they have no choice but to openly interpret Jesus' good works of healing and teaching as Satanic in origin. Jesus, in a showing of his incredible wisdom, reveals the terrible inconsistency of their logic (12:25-29). Instead, he argues, these godly works come from God's Spirit. Therefore, to call the Spirit's work through Jesus demonic is the greatest, unforgivable sin (12:31-32).
Augustine's view that the unforgivable sin is a state of unrepentant enmity toward God isn't wrong, but it doesn't deal with the specificity to which the Gospel texts speak. It's certainly a truism and a valid reading/application of these texts to argue that a state of unbelieving enmity toward Christ results in no forgiveness. But the first reading of the blasphemy of the Spirit in the Gospel texts is much more specific: it's a hardened evaluation of Jesus' work as being demonic in origin.
Matthew's additional material in 12:33-37 both makes this reading clear and also shows interpreters have regularly misunderstood how 12:33-37 relates to 12:22-32. Despite our New Testament editions' paragraph break at 12:33, these following verses aren't a new, unrelated section but the culmination of Jesus' conflict with his opponents and the explanation of what this blasphemy is. Continuing in his argument, Jesus forces the Pharisees to face their own position and make a choice—either declare that he's a good tree or a bad one (12:33). It makes no sense to say he's a bad tree (demonic in origin) producing good fruit (healings). This statement, which is regularly conflated with Matthew's other uses of the tree analogy (3:10; 7:15-20), is actually the same argument he's just made about the illogicality of his opponents' position (12:25-29). Again, the blasphemy against the Spirit is saying that Jesus' good works (by the Spirit) are the fruit of a bad (demonic) tree.
This in turn also explains the equally troubling saying in 12:36-37: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Rather than being a general statement indicating all of us will be faced at the pearly gates with an embarrassing video recording of all the stupid things we said in life, these verses directly address and complete the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit argument. Jesus is warning his opponents that these careless words (that Jesus' work is demonic in origin) will result in their condemnation—another way of saying they won't be forgiven for this hardened position of opposition to him.
His Smiling, Welcoming Face
So when troubled souls come to us anxious about having committed the unpardonable sin, what shall we say?
It's important to emphasize in the first instance that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a specific, hardened opposition to Jesus that entails deeming his work as demonic in origin. I doubt many of our parishioners will find themselves in such a position. It is not, again, any failure to obey a perceived leading of the Spirit in our lives.
This isn't to minimize the pinch and pain of these strong words of Jesus. It's a valid extension to warn people of a persistent hardness of heart in opposition to Jesus. But this is a message not for the tender conscience or the stumbling believer, but rather for the pseudo-religious who stands over against Jesus in smugness. The Peters and Pauls and millions of other believers through history have failed and fallen and have yet found Jesus' smiling, welcoming face of forgiveness.