Jan 22, 2006

The Unpardonable Sin

Mark 3:20–30

After the scribes accused Jesus of being in league with the devil, Christ warned them that they were in danger of committing the unforgivable sin. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul defines this sin and considers whether Christians are capable of committing it.


We will continue with our study of the gospel according to Saint Mark. This morning we will be in Mark 3:20–30, and I ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

Then the multitude came together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, “He is out of His mind.”

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebub,” and, “By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons.”

So He called them to Himself and said to them in parables: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end. No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. And then he will plunder his house.

“Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation”— because they said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

He who has ears to hear this sober warning from the lips of our Lord, let him hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.

O Lord, we attend to the hearing of Your Word, to this inspired record of the teaching and ministry of Jesus. We pray that we might hear the full import of what He said so many centuries ago to those who heard Him that day. Give us understanding of the difficult portions of this text. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Out of His Mind

Before we move to Mark’s treatment of the unpardonable or unforgivable sin, we notice that between the calling of the twelve disciples and the discussion about the unpardonable sin, Mark inserts a brief interlude about the visitation of some of Jesus’ closest friends and probably members of His family. Let us look at this before we move on to the unpardonable sin.

We read in verse 20 that the multitude again surrounded Jesus, and when “His own people”—that is, the text says, “but those who were of Him, of His own”—which is an expression usually used in the Scriptures to refer to one’s immediate family or, at least, to their closest friends. If we look at the end of the chapter, we will see that those mentioned here are probably members of Jesus’ family.

We are told, “They went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, ‘He is out of His mind.’” Notice, this criticism of Jesus did not come from the scribes and Pharisees but from those closest to Him, presumably His own family. It appears as an attempt at a family intervention in which one member of the family had stirred up so much controversy and hostility that they believed He had taken leave of His senses.

This event is a precursor of when Paul the Apostle stood before Agrippa and his hearing before the king was interrupted by the king’s assistant, Festus, who said: “Paul, much learning doth make thee mad. You’re beside yourself” (Acts 26:24). So, Jesus was not the first to be considered crazy for the positions He took, and by no means was He considered the last.

What happened to Christ in this text is something that has happened again and again throughout church history. Any time somebody takes seriously the Word of God, stands on it, and speaks from it, they will sooner or later be considered out of their mind.

A Religious Fanatic

Let me ask you: Has anybody ever called you a religious fanatic? If you answer that question by saying to yourself, “No, that’s never happened to me,” my next question is, “Why not?” Anybody who takes their faith seriously and speaks on behalf of Christ and His kingdom will at some point, and often at many points, be accused of fanaticism.

I have noticed that several people in our congregation wear ties around their neck, or scarves in the case of the women, promoting their favorite football team. The team they promote is the one, of course, that is elect of God, and it is a sign of their sanctification that they promote this particular team. However, nobody calls them fanatics. If you wear apparel promoting your favorite athletic team, you are considered a fan. But if you were to wear a tie or a scarf depicting Christian symbols, you would be subjected to the slanderous accusation of being a fanatic.

I once read that the definition of a fanatic is someone who, having lost sight of his purpose and goal, doubles his effort to get there. It is a person who has no idea where they are going or why they are going there, but they are going there with all their might. If that is a proper definition of a fanatic, then that certainly does not fit the Christian. However, if the definition of a fanatic is somebody zealous for their faith, then I would be proud to be called a fanatic. If I am a religious fanatic in that sense, please pray for me that I get worse.

But why does this happen? Why did people close to Jesus object to Him? Because He was apparently calling down the wrath of the Jewish religious leaders upon Himself and everybody around Him. When the wrath started coming down on Jesus, everybody close to Him wanted to get out of the way.

Is this not what the Apostle Paul experienced when he was delivered into prison in Rome? All his closest friends scattered and fled from him because they did not want to be there when the bombs started to fall. Take heed to this, dear Christian, that you are not one who flees from the kingdom when the going gets rough and when the crowds begin to scream against you and your Lord.

By Whose Power?

We read in Mark that Jesus’ own friends accused Him of being mad. But the more serious accusation comes in the following passages from the authorities: “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebub,’ and, ‘By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons.’” This, beloved, was the most vicious charge leveled against Jesus up to this point—and perhaps in His whole life. It was an accusation that He was with Beelzebub.

Who is Beelzebub? In antiquity, Beelzebub was seen as a demigod, a lesser deity who ruled over filth, carrion, and flies. He was called the “Lord of the Dunghill.” You might know a popular literary piece of American literature titled Lord of the Flies, which is a takeoff on this title Beelzebub.

Some manuscripts indicate that the word used by the scribes was not “Beelzebub,” but “Beelzebul,” which refers not so much to this particular demonic one who reigns over flies and carrion and dung heaps, but rather the god considered the lord of all the demonic realm, which would be a title for Satan himself.

The scribes were saying that Jesus was with Beelzebub and that by the ruler of the demons, He cast out demons. The charge was this: “Jesus, You’re in league with the devil. We don’t challenge the reality of Your power. We grant that You’re performing miracles, that You’re healing the sick, that You’re casting out demons. We’re not questioning the facts, but we’re asking this question: By what power are You able to do these marvelous works?” The scribes concluded that Christ was working through the power of Satan.

The first thing that I want to say is, contrary to the widespread view that pervades the evangelical Christian world today, I do not believe Satan has ever performed a bona fide miracle. Satan does not have divine power. Satan is a creature. He may be stronger than we are, but he cannot do the things that only God can do.

Satan’s works are called lying signs and wonders in Scripture—that is, they are counterfeits. They are frauds. But notice that the scribes were not saying Jesus’ miracles were counterfeit. They were granting that His miracles were real, and the first mistake they made was assuming that Satan can do such things.

But far more serious than the scribes’ theological error was their charge that the power by which Jesus worked was the power of Satan. If we have been listening closely to the unfolding of the gospel record of the life and work of Christ given to us by Mark, we recall that at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, He was anointed and endowed for this ministry not by the power of Satan but by the power of the Holy Ghost.

The biblical portrait of Christ is that the power by which He cast out demons and healed people afflicted with various diseases was the power of the Holy Ghost. But His enemies were saying: “No. It’s not the power of God. It’s the power of the devil. You are with the devil. You’re with Beelzebub.”

A Kingdom Divided

Notice how Jesus responded to the scribes’ charge. First, we read that He called them to Himself and spoke to them in parables. He raised a question: “How can Satan cast out Satan?” In other words, He was saying: “Come on, scribes, you aren’t thinking. You know the oldest stratagem that military leaders use: divide and conquer. Satan’s no fool. He’s not going to give Me power to cast out his own minions and defeat his own army. That doesn’t make any sense at all.”

So, Jesus first rebuked them for the foolishness of their thinking. He said: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.” Whether it is the kingdom of Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, or hell, if that kingdom is divided, it cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand, and if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand.

Then Jesus tacked on another mini parable when He said, “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. And then he will plunder his house.”

Think of a burglar who breaks into a home. If the owner of the home is massively strong, far stronger than the thief that breaks in, the thief knows that to clean out the possessions of the strong man, he first must subdue the strong man. He must render him ineffective. He must point a gun at him, bind his wrists and feet, and make him incapable of interrupting the thief.

Jesus, of course, was alluding to His own ministry, where He had broken into the very domain of Satan and bound him, rendering him impotent against Jesus’ power: “Why am I casting out demons? Because I’m binding the strong man so that I can make ruin of his house and dominion.” That was Jesus’ defense of the ridiculous charge that He was in league with Satan. But most significant for us is this sober, severe warning He issued to those making the charge.

What Is the Unpardonable Sin?

Before we get to Jesus’ warning, I want to say that I do not know how many times in my teaching career I have had distraught Christians come to me and ask, first, “What is the unpardonable sin?” and second, with more pathos, “Is it possible that I have actually committed this unpardonable sin?” That question has troubled many people’s consciences, and I suspect that many have asked themselves: “Have I committed a sin so heinous and so serious that it is unforgivable?”

In attempts to define the nature of the so-called unforgivable sin, many theories have been set forth throughout church history. Some people have argued that the unpardonable sin is murder. Others have argued that the unpardonable sin is adultery because they see the serious consequences that those two sins wreak upon the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage.

I can speak with full assurance that neither of those sins is unpardonable for two reasons at least, the first of which we have seen in sacred Scripture itself: those who have committed those sins and been forgiven. Exhibit A is David in the Old Testament, who was guilty both of adultery and murder, and yet after his confession and repentance was restored fully to his state of grace. Even more important than the biblical examples is that when Jesus defined the unforgivable sin, He did not say anything about murder or adultery. He gave specific content to define what sin is unpardonable, so let us see what He said.

“Assuredly . . .” Jesus began this statement in a radical way. If you agree with something I say on Sunday morning, what could be your verbal and audible response to some truth that I declare? What would you say? “Amen.”

When the congregation says, “Amen,” that expression means, “It is true.” It comes from the Aramaic and the Hebrew term ʾāmēn, which means “truth,” or, “it is true.” Jesus did something quite unusual. He did not give His teaching then wait for His Apostles and disciples to say, “Amen.” Rather, He prefaced His teaching with this word. He said, “Amen, I’m saying to you.” That was like, “Now hear this.” There was great emphasis in His announcement.

Jesus said, “‘Assuredly,’” or, “‘Amen, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation’— because they said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’”

We must understand that the New Testament in this case and repeated in Luke and Matthew’s gospels says the unpardonable sin, that sin which will not be forgiven in this world or the world to come, is the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. I think that much is clear, that the unforgivable sin is the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

Blasphemy against the Son

You might be thinking: “Oh, thanks a lot, preacher. I still don’t know what I have to worry about. What constitutes blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?” You may scratch your head and say: “I don’t understand this. How could you blaspheme against the Father and be forgiven? You can blaspheme against the Son and be forgiven, but if you blaspheme against the Holy Ghost, you’re you can’t be forgiven. This doesn’t seem to make much sense.”

If you look at the report of this discussion in Luke and Matthew’s gospels, you have Jesus giving this qualifier that adds even more difficulty to the subject: “Any sin against the Son of Man can be forgiven.” We know that He regards Himself as the Son of Man. He said, “You can blaspheme Me,” and presumably the Father, “but don’t even think about blaspheming the Holy Ghost.”

The first thing you must understand if we are going to unpack the meaning of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is that the warning came in the context we have just examined. Jesus gave this warning when His opponents charged Him with doing His work by the power of the devil. They accused Jesus of being in league with Satan rather than performing His work by the power of the Holy Ghost, yet the statements they were making were directed against Jesus. He said: “You can blaspheme Me and be forgiven. But be careful, you’re coming perilously close to the unforgivable sin. You’re right at the line. You’re looking down into the abyss of hell. One more step, and there will be no hope for you.”

Notice the difference between this warning and Jesus’ statement from the cross. When He looked at those who delivered Him into the hands of the Romans—the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sanhedrin—He looked out against this group who blasphemed and mocked Him, and He said, “Father, forgive them.”

Here is what Jesus did not say: “Father, forgive them, because they know perfectly well what they’re doing.” No. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” Even at the point of opposing Christ to execute Him, there was still hope of forgiveness. Elsewhere, Scripture says, “Had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”

So, on at least two occasions after this discussion Jesus had with His opponents, the New Testament makes it clear that forgiveness could be had for those who despised Christ so much that they killed Him. It verifies Jesus’ statement that any sin against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but not if you blaspheme the Holy Ghost.

A Verbal Sin

We are still left with two questions. Why is the Holy Ghost singled out, and what is this particular blasphemy?

Let’s start with the question of blasphemy. What is blasphemy? Blasphemy is not unbelief. Blasphemy is not murder. Blasphemy is not adultery. Blasphemy is a verbal sin. It is a sin you commit with your mouth or your pen. It is an action by which you desecrate the holy character of God.

If you use the name of God in vain, if you as casually use the common parlance of American people and walk out the door, see something happening, and say, “Oh my God,” you have just blasphemed. You need to understand that and not take your cue from the culture that uses the name of God in a flippant manner all the time. Do not do it ever. You should rather be found dead than to desecrate the sacred name of God. Remember the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Hallowed be Thy name.”

So, when you use the name of God in an unholy fashion, you commit blasphemy. You can breathe a deep sigh of relief that the unpardonable sin is not just any kind of blasphemy. If it were any kind of blasphemy, none of us would have any hope of ever escaping the damnation of hell, because every one of us has blasphemed the name of God. Again, blasphemy is verbal, and most of the time it is with the mouth. Some of the time, it is with the pen.

Knowledge from the Holy Spirit

Why is the unforgivable sin only blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? That remains the real conundrum here, does it not? Jesus said: “You can blaspheme the Father, you can blaspheme Me, but don’t blaspheme the Holy Ghost. If you do that, there is no forgiveness. It is a sin with eternal consequences.”

In order to understand this text, we must look carefully at the broader context of the New Testament and the warnings that follow the resurrection in Hebrews 6 and, particularly, Hebrews 10. I would invite you to examine them on your own but let me just briefly read the portion I have in mind. Hebrews 10:26–29 says:

For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?

Notice that in this warning in the epistle to the Hebrews, there is no distinction between sinning against Christ and committing that insult of the Holy Ghost. The separation that was true before the cross and resurrection disappears later.

The key we find in Hebrews is this: if after you have come to a knowledge of the truth and the Holy Ghost has made it clear to you who Jesus is, knowing that He does His work at the behest of the Father and through the power of the Spirit, you then say that Jesus is the devil when you know perfectly well that He is not the devil, you have committed the unforgivable sin.

God’s People Will Not

This was not a warning against people who come to faith in Christ and then go through the dark night of the soul and have doubts assail them. It is one thing to struggle with doubt after coming to faith. It is another thing, after really coming to a true regeneration and illumination of the mind, knowing full well who Jesus is, to say He’s Satan. Of that, a Christian cannot be forgiven. I think that is what the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is.

Here is the bad news first: everybody in this room who is a Christian, on the one hand, humanly speaking, is capable of committing the unforgivable sin. That is the bad news. The good news is that the Lord of glory who has saved and sealed you in the Holy Ghost will never, ever let you commit that sin.

I do not believe that any Christian in the history of the church has ever committed that sin. Even if you are sitting there saying, “I’m not sure I am a Christian, and I think maybe I have committed this sin,” if you are worried about it, that is one of the clearest evidences you can have that you have not done it.

I think the only ones who commit this sin are the demons themselves who come straight from hell. They know the identity of Christ. They know He is anointed by the Holy Ghost and is not in league with the devil, but at this point the scribes accusing Jesus of being in league with the devil were themselves in league with the devil. Jesus said, “This far and no further.” Thanks be to God that this unpardonable sin is not a sin He allows His people to commit.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.