One of the most difficult passages in all the New Testament, a passage that certainly qualifies for the category of hard sayings, is where Jesus speaks about an unforgivable sin, the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Let’s take a look at Matthew’s account of it:
Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 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. (Matt. 12:31–32)
It’s obvious why this passage has become such a problem to so many people. It describes and discusses a sin that is unforgivable. Many people wonder whether they have committed that sin. They labor painfully under the fear that they have in fact sinned in such a way that it has excluded them from any possibility of forgiveness, either here or at the judgment seat of Christ. There are Christians who live in mortal fear that they might at some point commit that sin that would cause them to lose their salvation and to lose the hope of heaven.
Our Lord is teaching something that is hard. He clearly states that there is a sin that is unforgivable, and He clearly identifies that unforgivable sin as “blasphemy against the [Holy] Spirit.” We don’t have to wrestle with ambiguity in that regard. But as soon as we ask the next question, we plunge into a sea of ambiguity and of great difficulty. The question is this: What is this unforgivable sin that Jesus identifies as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?
There have been many attempts in church history to answer this question. Some have identified it with murder because murderers are to be put to death. Others have identified it with adultery because the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and to commit adultery, Paul tells us, is to sin against Him. We have an immediate problem with these options, though. David was guilty of murder, and he was able to receive forgiveness. He was also guilty of adultery and likewise was able to receive forgiveness. Therefore, we must rule those two theories out.
Jesus is talking about blasphemy, something that is done verbally, either in writing or through the spoken word. Even someone as brilliant as Augustine argued that the unforgivable sin is total and final unbelief—that is, if a person persists to the end of his life in rejecting Christ, he will not receive a second chance in heaven. Such unbelief is ultimately and permanently unforgivable. Augustine was right about the results of permanent unbelief, for there is no reason to hope for a second chance after the grave. If you have rejected Him up to a certain point in your life, however, even if it’s very late in life, you may still be forgiven if you turn and trust in Him.
Jesus in this passage makes a distinction between a sin committed against Him and a sin committed against the Holy Spirit. I think that’s what makes the problem all the more difficult. Let’s look again at verse 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.” This suggests that one can blaspheme Christ or blaspheme the Father, and that as long as you don’t blaspheme the Holy Spirit, you still have an opportunity to be forgiven. You can feel the weight of that difficulty. What difference does it make whether we blaspheme the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit? Surely it’s just as heinous to blaspheme against the Father or against the Son as it is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.
Blasphemy is something that we say that denigrates the character of God. If every form of blasphemy against God were unforgivable, none of us would have a prayer because we have all blasphemed. If every sin against the Holy Spirit were unforgivable, we would not have a chance because all of us at some point have grieved the Holy Spirit in one way or another.
This is what makes this passage excruciatingly difficult. The Bible seems to give us provision for forgiveness of all kinds of blasphemies, but there is one particular kind of blasphemy that is unforgivable. Jesus particularly applies this blasphemy to the Holy Spirit when He says that a word against the Son of Man, obviously referring to Himself, is forgivable. Not only does Jesus preach that it is forgivable, but He practices what he preaches when He’s on the cross as the Son of Man, as the Lord of glory, in the midst of His own crucifixion. When people are mocking Him and ridiculing Him and blaspheming Him, He utters a prayer for those people by saying to the Father, “Father, forgive them.” Why? “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34, emphasis added). This doesn’t mean that they were ignorant; just because they were ignorant of what they were doing does not automatically excuse them.
In the Old Testament sacrificial system, special provisions were given for sins done in ignorance. This is part of the reason, incidentally, that the Roman Catholic Church has historically made an important distinction in its moral theology between two kinds of ignorance: vincible ignorance and invincible ignorance. Something that is invincible is unbeatable; you can’t conquer it and you can’t defeat it. Something that is vincible can be conquered, can be overcome; it is something that can be beaten. What does Rome mean when it gives us this distinction between vincible and invincible ignorance? Let me explain with an illustration.
I live in the state of Florida. Suppose I drive my car into the state of Georgia, and I enter a little village there, and I come to an intersection where there’s a traffic light. The traffic light is red, but I don’t want to stop for the light, and I just go through the red light. The next thing I see is another red light, only this time it’s on the roof of a car behind me. It’s flashing, and here come the police. They pull me over and say, “Did you see that red light back there?” I reply, “Yes, I did.” “Well, then, why didn’t you stop?” “ I didn’t know you were supposed to stop. I plead ignorance. I had no idea that I was supposed to stop.” The officer says, “Let me see your driver’s license.” I show him my driver’s license. He asks, “Don’t you have red traffic lights in Florida?” “Yes.” “What do you have to do there?” “Well, sir, in Florida I know I’m supposed to stop at a red light at an intersection, and I stop at red lights in Florida. But I’m not in Florida now; I’m driving here in Georgia. How was I supposed to know that Georgia law requires me to stop at a red light?” Think about that. How far do you think that argument would go before the magistrate if I tried to dodge the ticket by pleading ignorance? It’s tacitly understood that if I presume to drive my car in any state of this union, I assume responsibility to know what the traffic laws and the motor vehicle regulations are in that state, and I am held accountable. Why? Those laws are published, they’re public, they’re easily accessible, and I am responsible to know what the rules are before I drive my car in that state. Even if I didn’t know that the traffic light meant “stop” in Georgia, I had the opportunity to know it, my ignorance could have been easily overcome, and I can’t plead ignorance as an excuse.
We do lots of things out of ignorance. We disobey God out of ignorance in lots of ways, and we’re going to plead ignorance on the final day. Those arguments are not going to work because the Word has been given to us and we should know what the Word of God is. Sometimes we sin in ignorance. We sin in ignorance because we have neglected a sober, diligent study of the things of God, things that God has made perfectly clear and readily accessible to us. We must be careful of trying to hide behind the cloak of ignorance as an excuse.
Yet there is such a thing as invincible ignorance, as the Roman Catholic Church teaches. Now let’s change the scenario. Suppose that the city fathers of Orlando are facing a budget squeeze and need to raise money in a hurry, so the city council gets together this evening and concludes: “Tomorrow morning at seven o’clock, we’re going to have a new law in the city that everybody who drives into the city has to stop on green and go on red. If you drive through a green light, it’s going to be a $100 fine. We’ll post police at every traffic intersection, and we’ll make a fortune because we’re not going to tell anybody that we’ve changed the law.” The next morning, we drive into the city. We see a green light; we go through the green light. The next thing you know, we’re pulled over and we’re arrested for driving through this green light. If we plead ignorance before the magistrate, do we have a just defense? Yes, of course we do, because that ignorance was invincible. There was no possible way we could have known that the rules had been changed in the middle of the game.
The ignorance that the people had when they brought Jesus to the cross and crucified Him did not excuse them. They were guilty of crucifying Christ, and they should have known better. Had they searched the Scriptures, they would have seen that Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures and was not the villain that they declared Him to be. Even though their ignorance was vincible ignorance and not invincible ignorance, Jesus interceded for them on the cross, saying, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing.” You see the same kind of thing when the Apostles are rehearsing to the Jewish community the travesty of the crucifixion of Christ. Paul states, “For if they had [understood], they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8). A certain forbearance is given in the Scriptures to those who were responsible for the death of Christ, an acknowledgment of a certain level of ignorance.
For us to understand the passage in Matthew 12, I think it’s critical that we look at what precedes this warning that Jesus gives. If we go back to verses 22–24, we read this account: “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. And all the people were amazed, and said, ‘Can this be the Son of David?’ But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.’” People recognized in the miracles of Christ the manifestation of the Messiah, the Son of David. But the archenemies of Jesus wouldn’t acknowledge His identity even then, and they accused Jesus of performing His works by the power of Satan. That is blasphemy. It is blasphemy to accuse Jesus Christ of being satanic, of being in league with the devil.
It’s on this occasion that Jesus, knowing their thoughts, according to the gospel, takes the opportunity to give this very severe warning to the Pharisees. It’s as if Jesus is saying: “You’ve been plotting and conspiring, and you haven’t listened to Me. You have rejected Me. You’ve done all these things, and I’ve patiently taken it, but you are coming now to a line in the sand, and if you cross that line, you’re going to forfeit any possibility of forgiveness either now or in the future.” He couches that in terms of this distinction between speaking against Him and speaking against the Holy Spirit.
Hebrews 6 and 10 indicate a falling away of the distinction between blaspheming against Christ and blaspheming against the Holy Spirit once a person has been illuminated and has received from the Holy Spirit the clear revelation that Jesus is the Christ. If the Holy Spirit has opened your eyes and caused you to see that Jesus is the Christ, and then, after knowing by the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus is the Son of God, you accuse Jesus of being satanic, you have now committed the unforgivable sin.
On the one hand, the only kind of person who could theoretically commit the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit would be a Christian because Christians are the only people who have received this revelation and have a clear understanding, by virtue of the power of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus is the Son of God. They’re the only ones who know full well that Jesus is not satanic. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it is theoretical. All of us are capable of that kind of sin and evil, but none of us has committed or will commit that sin because this is the very thing for which Jesus intercedes on our behalf at the throne of grace, that we will be preserved from falling and from losing the salvation that He has purchased for us. Though the warning to the Pharisees is a real warning, this is not something that needs to concern us in terms of the possibility of losing our salvation. It’s not that we shouldn’t be concerned about our speech and our actions and so on, but no one who is in Christ, who has been made alive by the Holy Spirit, who has known the illumination of His knowledge of the identity of Christ, would ever sink so far as to accuse Jesus of being satanic.
It’s not that we’re incapable of committing such a heinous sin in and of ourselves, but our Lord is gracious enough to hold our tongues from it and to preserve us from this ghastly crime. There is still a call to be vigilant, however. One of the Ten Commandments demands the safeguarding of the sanctity of the name of God. Christians need to be exceedingly careful with their tongues—about how they speak of Christ, how they speak of God, and how they speak of the Holy Spirit. It is extremely offensive to God to have His name used in vain, and I doubt that anything is more offensive to the Father than to hear the name of His beloved Son used as a common, ordinary curse word.
For those of you who are not believers, using the name of Christ frequently and casually may be part of your practice. I plead with you to think about what you’re doing, that you are heaping abuse on the One whom God has appointed to be your Judge and our Redeemer.