Matthew (Part 17) - The Unpardonable Sin
What is the unpardonable sin? Reading Matthew 12:31 we learn that the unpardonable sin is “blasphemy against the Spirit.” But that may not have helped clear up the issue in our minds. What exactly is blasphemy against the Spirit? As always, to come up with an answer, we have to understand the passage.
Starting with verse 22 in Matthew 12 we find that Jesus heals a person who is possessed by a demon. The possession had impaired the person in speech and sight. That by itself is interesting because it provides a little foreshadowing of the Pharisees’ problem—lack of ability to see and speak truth. When the crowd (the people gathered who were attracted to Jesus based on his message---remember, Jesus tried to avoid those interested only in his miracles (Matthew 8:18)) saw this miracle, several things clicked off in their hearts and minds. First, they recognized that what had been done was a good thing. Second, they recognized that the power to rescue the man from demon possession was of no natural occurrence; it was supernatural. Third, they related the miracle to Christ’s message and his leadership of the kingdom (claiming in subtle terms his Messiahship—Matthew 7:29, 8:21-22, 9:2, 9:27-29, 10:24-25, 10:32, 11:5-6, 12:6, Luke 4:21). Their response, indicating this progression of thought, was to wonder in verse 23 whether Jesus was indeed, as his claims indicated, the Son of David—a title identifying the Messiah.
The Pharisees saw the same event, but their response was different. They concluded that Jesus had performed the miracle by the power of Satan (12:24). They reached that judgment not from logical progression of Jesus’ message and miracle, but rather from rejection of the revelation of God. Based on the Pharisees’ statements recorded so far by Matthew, we notice a progression of rejection. In Matthew 9:11, the Pharisees questioned Christ’s willingness to dine with tax-gatherers and sinners, implying a less than sacred lifestyle. Christ criticized them for their assumptions. In Matthew 12:2, the Pharisees accused the disciples of Jesus of breaking the Sabbath law. Jesus responded with the same charge of Matthew 9—that the Pharisees did not understand God’s purposes (“I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” Hosea 6:6). In Matthew 12:14 we learn that because Jesus pointed out their hypocrisy concerning doing good, the Pharisees sought to destroy him. So the accusation of the Pharisees here in 12:24 clearly is not aimed in logical response to Christ’s message and miracle but rather to their own premeditated plan to destroy him and his influence.
Jesus, of course, recognizes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and their underlying motivation. First, he demonstrates the absurdity of their charge in relation to the miracle. The Pharisees did consider the exorcism of demons a good thing. The Pharisees did have their own followers who exorcised demons and believed that exorcism was based on the power of God. But then they ignore the good result and the understanding that casting out of demons is of God by illogically charging that Christ did so by Satan’s power. Jesus points out that Satan does not work for anti-satanic purposes. That makes no sense. Rather, Jesus claims that the strong man (in this case, Satan) must be bound first (something only God can accomplish) before Satan’s demon servant can be removed (12:29).
Jesus then addresses the serious evil of the Pharisees’ faulty conclusion—although they knew the act to be good and that control over Satan/demons must be from God, they label this power that Jesus wields (the work of the Holy Spirit) as evil. It is in this regard that Jesus makes the strong and damning declaration that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.
How are we to understand this? Should we be fearful of accidentally blaspheming, possibly undoing our own salvation? Does not Jesus forgive all those who come to him? How can God not forgive if a person comes in repentance? Notice that the passage does not mention repentance although we realize it is necessarily involved in the passage. No sin is forgiven unless repentance is involved. And we also generally understand that repentance is but the other side of the coin of faith. To fully appreciate this and move forward in our understanding of this unpardonable sin, we have to break from the flow of the passage for a moment to review how a person comes to Christ.
The understanding of the logical progression for a person’s salvation is an issue of great debate and has been for centuries. Calvinism (especially of the monergistic bent) asserts that regeneration logically precedes faith which itself precedes justification. I believe this idea has some fatal flaws.
- God’s relationship with his creation cannot be a pure love relationship if the creature’s love must be coerced. God’s intent in creation (as we have discussed numerous times previously) is to establish a perfect and everlasting love relationship with humankind. If God were to force the love by his creatures, although their experience and realization would be only that of love, the love would be coerced, thus reducing it from the perfection of God’s goal.
- God’s universal call to faith would be disingenuous if regeneration logically preceded faith. The Calvinistic perspective would be similar to me declaring my philanthropy by announcing to all those in a graveyard that I would give them my entire life’s fortune if they would simply call out “Yes” to me. Of course, they cannot. I know they cannot. Therefore, my declaration could be labeled nothing but insincere. So, too, would God’s call to faith be disingenuous if he knew they simply could not produce faith and did nothing to enable them.
- God’s love characteristic (essence) cannot be infinite if God limits its expression (existence) without necessary reason. While God does temper and administer the expression of who he is (e.g. love, justice, righteousness) in balanced approach, he does so for necessary reasons. His infinite love is balanced against his infinite justice. However, to say that he limits his infinite love without reason (and, based on the Calvinistic perspective, we have no reason shown for limiting the love in regeneration of sinners that can be found in our ultimate authority—the Word of God) is a charge (albeit unrecognized by the Calvinist) against the infinite love characteristic of God.
- God’s justification as being “by faith” makes no sense if regeneration logically precedes faith. Paul tells us more than once in Romans that we are justified by faith. However, if regeneration logically precedes faith, the claim that we are justified by faith makes faith the logical restrictor for justification. This would seem to be against the biblical teaching that God justifies based on our standing in Christ realized through his atoning work applied in our regeneration. If God will not by that give justification, but requires, besides atonement of Christ, the additional element of faith, we may well wonder what it is about faith that justifies. Faith can be an element by which we are justified only if it is that faith that brings about the application of Christ’s atonement, not the other way around.
- God’s regeneration is unjustified if regeneration logically precedes faith. This statement may actually be thought of as a subset of the previous one. If the Calvinist argues against Fatal Flaw #4 that regeneration is merely the making alive of the sinner and that Christ’s atonement is applied (in the logical progression) after faith, then God’s act in making alive (regenerating) without the application of Christ’s atoning work is unjust. That was the purpose for Christ’s death and resurrection—so that we could be made alive. Logically the application of Christ’s atoning work must be prior to or alongside regeneration, not further down the logical progression.
However, these fatal flaws of Calvinism do not compel us to accept an Arminian view. Calvinism rightly points out that all people are sinners which necessarily results in Paul’s description of deadness. We are spiritually dead, and the spiritually dead cannot on their own shift to a spiritually awakened or enlightened condition of faith in Christ. Furthermore, a prevenient grace (Wesley’s idea) generally applied to all people enabling them to have faith in Christ is not even hinted at in all of Scripture. Therefore, the Arminian view provides no acceptable alternative. Calvinists are prone to merely dismiss the logical troubles of their position with the vague idea that God can do what he wants because he is the sovereign God. But this finds no Scriptural support. Nowhere does the Bible hint at God in his sovereignty operating against the purposes of his infinite essence or at odds with his divine purpose for creation. To accept as much is to conclude that the Bible is not our ultimate authority.
The Bible does, however, give us some notable clues to solve this problem. The first is in Romans 1. God tells us in this chapter that all people are given some enlightenment—a general revelation, as it is normally labeled—that informs each soul of his existence. That general revelation is either accepted in faith or rejected by those preferring to maintain faith (trust for authority) in themselves. Paul says that God’s attitude toward those rejecters is to “give them up” to the futility of their selfish faith. So then, we conclude, that God does work in revelation and enlightenment to a degree apart from the complete revelation and enlightenment of making one alive through regeneration. Furthermore, we know that God’s interaction with humankind is often in an approach and reaction format, as in James 4:8 “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” In God’s calling pursuit of sinners, Scripture therefore seems to indicate that revelation and enlightenment may be made—although not on the general scale of Wesley’s “prevenient grace”—on an individual basis with perhaps multiple interactions of revelation and response to the point of that response in faith to Christ in acceptance of his atoning gift.
This understanding has several advantages. It eliminates all the difficulties of the Calvinist position. It eliminates the difficulties of the Arminian position because the salvation process must see God as the one who moves first in revelation. Additionally, Paul makes it quite clear in Romans 4 that faith is not a work; therefore, faith as a condition does not contribute to one’s salvation. (As illustration of this point, another condition for salvation is the very fact of sinfulness. God saves only sinful people. But God does not cause the sin. Sinful people could not claim that they contributed to their salvation because they caused their condition of sinfulness. Neither can a person claim contribution to salvation because of his/her condition of faith.) Salvation, then, is all of God, necessarily engaged first by God through revelation, and based on his sovereign election on the condition of faith.
Faith is no magical element tying God’s hands to a certain course of action. It is God that established the condition. And he established it because it was the lack of faith that caused the first sin. Faith is intrinsically connected to repentance as well as to love. If faith is forced, love is coerced. But God through the use of the faith condition made salvation possible.
This understanding fits in with our discussion of the unpardonable sin—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It is God’s work through the Holy Spirit by which he reveals and enlightens. As mentioned, individuals respond in faith or rejection, and God draws near or away through these responses. There appears to be a point when, mimicking the attitude and declaration of the Pharisees, a person may reject the HS in an attitude of heart, claiming that working of the Spirit as evil. In this rejection, I believe, we see the parallel to the Pharisees’ blasphemy. It is in this rejection, that God seems to indicate he would no longer work with a person in revelation and enlightenment. And without God’s revelation and enlightenment, the spiritually dead person would never shift to a position of faith and repentance. Thus, the sin becomes unpardonable. This may be exactly what the author of Hebrews indicates in the first several verses of Hebrews 6.
Therefore, a Christian, by benefit of the ever present existence of the Holy Spirit in his/her life could not commit this unpardonable since “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).