Blaspheming God and Becoming the Devil: Jesus and the Unpardonable Sin
Anyone who is not with Me is against Me, and anyone who does not gather with Me scatters. Because of this, 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 12:30–32)
God takes the sins of slander and false witness very seriously. In fact, Scripture assures us that God “hates” them. This is strong language, and not used for many things, but God is deadly serious about it.
For example, notice how many forms of lying and slander (complete with their motives and consequences) are listed in Proverbs 6:16–19:
The LORD hates six things;
in fact, seven are detestable to Him:
arrogant eyes, a lying tongue,
hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that plots wicked schemes,
feet eager to run to evil,
a lying witness who gives false testimony,
and one who stirs up trouble among brothers.
In the Old Testament, blasphemy against God was a capital offense. Blasphemy, in both the Old Testament and even more so in the New, means essentially the same thing as slander: it is to willfully and knowingly speak contemptuously and/or falsely about someone, usually with the intent of bringing harm either to them or to the hearer. The difference is that blasphemy is specifically spoken against God, whereas slander is more often used of human beings.
Jesus’s strong and frightening words end his warning to the Pharisees who accused him of driving out demons (and working other miracles) by the power of the devil. And for us to really grasp what he was saying, we need to keep that context in mind.
The “unpardonable sin,” as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is often called, is not just an accidental slip of the tongue or an ill-advised moment of foolishness. The Pharisees were in danger of committing it as they leaned further and further into a protracted campaign of opposition to Jesus, even as his divine authority, power, and character became more and more clearly evident.
And Jesus didn’t begin with judgment, but with a beautiful assurance: “People will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy.” Jesus’s starting point was not the certainty of judgment but the wide expanse of God’s mercy toward human beings: every sin, no matter how heinous; every blasphemy — that is, cursing and slander toward God — could and would be forgiven.
Then he went on, even extending this forgiveness to those who blasphemed and slandered him. “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him.”
Jesus’s favorite title for himself, “Son of Man,” had a double meaning. We’ve explored this elsewhere already, but it was both Jesus’s most openly messianic title (with powerful overtones of divinity) and a label that could mean “just an ordinary guy.”
Knowing that, we can see a progression in Jesus’s promises of forgiveness:
Those who are engaged in all the usual business of human sin and error, even the worst forms of it, could be forgiven.
And those who saw Jesus going about his day-to-day work on earth and failed to recognize clearly who he was, staying caught in the confusion between Jesus-the-Divine-Incarnation or Jesus-the-Ordinary-Schmuck, were also forgivable.
This is a very good thing for all of us, both because so many of us have and do fail to recognize the reality of who Jesus is, and also because the church was built on the backs of people who did precisely this. Witness Peter, openly opposing Jesus’s intention to die and rebuking him for it, or Paul, who not only failed to see God in Jesus, but actively persecuted him by trying to stamp out his fledgling church. When Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, he called out to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).
Paul had in fact been “breathing out threats and murder” as he persecuted the church. Yet God forgave him completely when he repented. Considering that Paul gave us nearly a third of the New Testament and profoundly shaped not only the first generation of the church but every generation that was to come, it’s a good thing for all of us that his blasphemous words and actions were able to be forgiven.
So What Is the Unpardonable Sin?
So what about the third tier, what has been called “the unforgivable sin”? What is it, and why does Jesus warn the Pharisees against it?
Look again at the context: Jesus had just driven a demon out of a blind and mute man, restoring his faculties and setting him free. This group of Pharisees, who had been increasingly opposing Jesus, saw this miracle for themselves and declared it to be a work of the devil.
With every successive rejection of Jesus, they grew harder and more extreme in their judgments of him. By this time it’s almost hard for us, reading the story thousands of years later, to wrap our minds around just how opposed to him they could be.
So Jesus’s warning to them was sharp: it was one thing to speak against the Son of Man, who could be an admittedly confusing figure. It was another entirely to see God working, to know that you were seeing God working, and to oppose him anyway.
Jesus’s wording here, contrasting “the Son of Man” who was visible and human before them with “the Spirit” who was the invisible yet undeniable power working through him, and who was in fact the same Spirit who had inspired Moses and all the prophets (whom the Pharisees claimed to follow faithfully), underscores the seriousness of the sin with which they dabbled.
As one commentator put it: “The conclusion of the whole is — you are on Satan’s side, and knowingly on Satan’s side, in this decisive struggle between the two kingdoms, and this is blasphemy against the Holy Ghost” (from the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, commenting on Matthew 12:31).
To really blaspheme or slander the Spirit, you have to know you are witnessing the Spirit at work. You have to know what you’re doing and choose to do it anyway. You have to knowingly, deliberately, set yourself up in opposition to God. You have to stay there, refusing to repent.
And then you have to mislead others in regard to who God is and what he’s doing. You have to see God “drawing all men to himself,” and you have to stand in the middle and drive them away.
The great tragedy of the Pharisees is that this was where they ended up. It’s John’s gospel that makes this particularly clear. When Nicodemus, a Pharisee, came to Jesus in the night to privately ask him questions, he gave the game away: “Rabbi,” he said to Jesus, “we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him” (John 3:2, NKJV).
This incredibly damning admission was insider testimony: Nicodemus was privy to the Pharisees’ conversations and private deliberations. To some degree, as a group, they knew that Jesus really was doing God’s work. That means that when they continued to oppose him, they increasingly knew they were opposing God — but in their pride, they continued to do it anyway.
Jesus himself, during a particularly painful confrontation with the Pharisees, also told them that they had passed this point of no return — or at least, that they were getting very close: “If you were blind, you would have no sin,” he told them. “But now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains” (John 9:41, NKJV)
The Only Final Opposition
There’s a very real sense in which the “unpardonable sin” is only unpardonable because it’s the sin that doesn’t seek pardon.
In his Homily on the Gospel of Matthew, St. John Chrysostom pointed out in AD 407 that some of Jesus’s contemporaries were guilty of blaspheming the Holy Spirit in Jesus, did repent, and were forgiven and made new. (He might have had Paul in mind, and likely Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea — both Pharisees — too.)
In that sense it’s not so much that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable as that it’s final in a way other sins are not. The one who is really committed to it cannot seek forgiveness, because he’s rejected the only one with the power to forgive.
Like the Pharisees, we can become so opposed to God that we finally throw away any pretense of openness to him and simply entrench ourselves in rebellion — not because we’re confused, or ignorant, or deceived, or misled, or too broken to know what we’re doing, or kicking against the Holy Spirit in a last-ditch effort to resist his irresistible call on our hearts, but because we truly do see God and have chosen not just to reject but to hate and malign him. (Paul again — “It is hard for you to kick against the goads” [Acts 26:14]).
When this happens we become devils in a real sense: children of Satan whose only real goal is to slander and destroy. (The Greek word translated “devil” literally means “malicious talker” or “slanderer.”) And we can become so hardened in this stance that there truly is no way back. We would not take the opportunity to repent even if it was handed to us — as it is, and has been, every day of our lives.
The Humble and Contrite in Heart
Perhaps unfortunately, for many sensitive hearts, this passage in Matthew 12 has sometimes been a weight and even a torment. After all, we’re all conscious of ways in which we haven’t fully honored or recognized God at work; we’ve all said and done foolish things. And frankly, we all feel “unsaved” sometimes. It’s easy to think we might have committed the unpardonable sin.
But the truth is, any sin that can be repented of is not unpardonable. If you can feel sorrow and turn from your ways, you have no reason to fear that God won’t receive you. His entire desire is to bring you home.
The seventeenth-century English preacher Matthew Henry said it well in his Concise Commentary:
But humble and conscientious believers, at times are tempted to think they have committed the unpardonable sin, while those who have come the nearest to it, seldom have any fear about it. We may be sure that those who indeed repent and believe the gospel, have not committed this sin, or any other of the same kind; for repentance and faith are the special gifts of God, which he would not bestow on any man, if he were determined never to pardon him; and those who fear they have committed this sin, give a good sign that they have not. The trembling, contrite sinner, has the witness in himself that this is not his case.
The Awful Consequences of Opposing God
Jesus’s entire life made it clear that repentance and forgiveness were available to all, that God’s heart was to bring everyone home. But he was also clear that not everyone would respond. That some would see God and choose against him. And that this would have awful consequences.
Jesus, in the middle of waging war with the devil himself, declared that anyone who wasn’t with him was against him; that anyone who didn’t gather with him would scatter.
In the end, it’s not only the sin of rejecting God that must be judged, but the sin of willfully scattering God’s lost sheep — of attacking, wounding, and driving away those God loves and is calling home. To oppose God is to take the devil’s side, and to take the devil’s side is to engage in the knowing destruction of our fellow human beings.
Jesus’s promise to judge this sin, then, is not just a warning to those in danger of falling away forever. It’s also a promise to his people that he will defend them — that in his eyes, they are worth defending, and that although the opposition may be fierce, he will bring them home.
To echo Matthew Henry, if you are reading this post, it’s unlikely that you’ve committed the only final sin. The very fact that you care about it at all is strong evidence that you are not hardened beyond repair.
But you are one Jesus values, one Jesus is calling home, and one Jesus will defend.
The whole goal of the enemy is to keep you from Jesus, to twist your heart against him until you’d rather die than let him save you.
You don’t have to go along with it.
Don’t let the enemy win.
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This is Part 214 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.
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