What is the unforgivable sin? Are Christians ever in danger of committing it? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Luke by addressing the sin that Jesus describes as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
We will continue now with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. This morning we will be reading from Luke 12:8–12:
“Also I say to you, whoever confesses Me before men, him the Son of man also will confess before the angels of God. But he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God.
“And anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but to him who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven.
“Now when they bring you to the synagogues and magistrates and authorities, do not worry about how or what you should answer, or what you should say. For the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
In recent weeks, in the passages Luke gives us from the discourse of Jesus, we have encountered some hard sayings. There is probably no harder saying in the New Testament than the one in which our Lord warns against committing a sin that cannot be forgiven in this world or the next. We need to give particular heed to our Lord’s teaching as we look carefully at this text, preserved for us by the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, again we need your help to understand the complexity of these things taught to us by our Savior. We know that you search the deep things of God, and it is your pleasure to illumine them to our understanding and for our redemption. Help us now in this hour to grasp the things that Jesus taught. For we ask it His name. Amen.
Believe and Confess
In the last couple of sections we have looked at in Luke’s gospel, there has been much concern in Jesus’s teaching about the relationship of people’s mouths to their hearts. We see that He gave a vehement denunciation against the Pharisees and scribes for their unparalleled hypocrisy because they said one thing with their lips and did something else with their lives. They confessed one thing with their mouths but believed something else in their hearts. There was a disjunction, a disconnect between what they said and what they did.
Jesus went on to say that we are in danger of judgment on the final day, when all the words that we have said in secret in this world will be made manifest and brought to light. Once again, the relationship between our words and hearts will be brought into God’s purview on the last day. This theme that Jesus has been expounding continues in the text we have just read.
Jesus started by saying: “Also I say to you, whoever confesses Me before men, him the Son of Man also will confess before the angels of God. But he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God.”
When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he made this observation in chapter 10: “‘The word”— that is, the Word of God—“is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith which we preach): that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.’”
Do you see what the Apostle was saying? Two things in combination bring us salvation. We must confess with our mouths our faith in Christ, and we must believe in our hearts in order to be saved. Those are the conditions. If you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth, you will be saved.
What if you neither believe nor confess? Then you perish. What if you do the first one but not the second? What if you confess with your lips that Jesus is the Christ, that Jesus is your Savior, but you do not believe it in your heart?
Justified by Faith, Not Profession
Surely by now you are tired of my repeated emphasis that we are justified by faith and not by a profession of faith. Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the Kingdom of God. This is the scariest warning Jesus ever gave when He said that on the last day there will be many who will come confessing Him with their mouths, saying, “Lord, Lord,” but He will say: “Please leave. I don’t know who you are, you workers of lawlessness.”
To be a member of the church, you must make a profession of faith in Christ. Everyone who is a member of Saint Andrew’s has done that. Otherwise, you could not be received into membership. Everybody who is a member has at least said with their mouths or lips that they are believers.
How likely is it that all those professions of faith are authentic and genuine? I would like to believe that everyone in this church who has professed faith in Christ has given a credible profession, a genuine profession. But when I listen to the teaching of the Bible, read the New Testament, and hear the warnings of Jesus, He tells us that the church is always a mixed body, what Augustine called a corpus permixtum.
There will always be tares growing along with the wheat. The separation between the wheat and the tares will not occur until the last day, when those who have made a false profession of faith will be exposed. There are probably people sitting in this room right now who have said that they have saving faith, claimed to be converted to Christ, testified to their own regeneration and rebirth by the Holy Spirit, who are still unconverted, still unregenerate, still unbelievers in their hearts. If they died tonight, they would go to hell forever. They may protest, saying: “I was a member of Saint Andrew’s. I made a profession of faith.” Being a member of a church does not get anybody into the Kingdom. As I tirelessly remind you, a profession of faith never saved anyone.
Confess the Savior before Men
We are supposed to make a profession of faith, but in and of itself a profession will not guarantee our salvation. This is the first part of the warning Jesus gave in this text, when He talked about confessing Him before men. If you are a believer, there is no such thing as a Secret Service Christian, or what I call a Clairol Christian, where only your hairdresser knows for sure.
If you are a Christian, if you have confessed your sin before God and come to Christ, then it is your solemn, sacred duty to confess your Savior before men. With that duty comes the promise that Jesus gave: “If you confess Me before men, then I will confess you before my Father and before the angels in heaven.”
Can you imagine? Can you imagine, when you die and are brought before the judgment seat of Christ, the Father looks at you and the Son steps up and says: “He’s one of Mine. She’s one of Mine. They have confessed Me before men during their lives. Father, I’m confessing that they are Mine before You and before all the angels.” Would you not love to hear that? I could see the angels standing up and giving a standing ovation for all those who have taken the risk, who have despised the shame of the cross, and who have not hidden their faith, but have confessed Christ openly.
Then there is the other side of the equation, which is frightening. Jesus said, “But he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” You come joyfully across the veil into heaven, expecting a great reward, only to be met by the Son of Man, who says: “No, Father. Not her, not him. They said they believed in Me, but their hearts were far from Me. I must deny that they are members of Our sacred family.” Can you imagine anything worse than to hear Christ’s public denial of you before the angels?
Blasphemy of the Spirit
As the text continues, Jesus went to the next step, which is the scariest one of all: “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but to him who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven.”
This is a puzzling text. Jesus made a distinction between blasphemy against Him, blasphemy against the Father, and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. He said that blasphemy against the Father or the Son can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven.
I thought we were Trinitarian. Do we not believe in the equality of power, glory, and being in the whole Trinity, in the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? The Spirit is no higher in honor and glory than the Father or the Son. So, why would it be an unforgivable sin to blaspheme the Spirit, while you can blaspheme the Father and the Son and still be forgiven? Is that not a poser of the highest magnitude?
In order to answer the question, first we must ask the deeper question: What is the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? What is the unforgivable sin, which Matthew expounds upon? What is the original context in which the warning was given, and what do the rest of the Scriptures say about it? Those are some of the questions we must observe if we will come to any facile understanding of this troublesome text.
Attempts to Identify the Unforgivable Sin
Many people have offered that the unforgivable sin is murder. Why? Because the Old Testament in Genesis requires the death penalty for first-degree murder or homicide. Since the Bible requires the death penalty for first-degree murder, it would indicate, at least on the surface, that this sin is not forgivable. Therefore, murder must be the unforgivable sin.
The problem with identifying murder as the unforgivable sin is that even those who have committed murder in sacred Scripture have been forgiven by God. Exhibit A would be King David himself. I do not think that murder is the unforgivable sin. Why? Because we have evidence that it has been forgiven, and if it has been forgiven, that proves absolutely that it can be forgiven.
Others have suggested that adultery is the unforgivable sin because our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. If you violate the temple of the Holy Spirit through sexual immorality or adultery, you have committed the unpardonable sin. That, of course, involves completely missing the teaching of the New Testament regarding the woman caught in adultery who was forgiven by Jesus. Since she was forgiven, that is proof positive that the particular sin of adultery is not unforgivable.
Sins like murder, abortion, adultery, and stealing are seen in the New Testament as egregious sins against God, carrying an awesome weight of guilt with them, but never so much guilt that they are unforgiven or unforgivable. If any of you have been guilty of these egregious sins against God, do not lose the hope of forgiveness. If you confess those sins to Him, He is faithful and just to forgive those sins and cleanse you from them.
The Sin of Blasphemy
When we talk about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the sin in view is the sin of blasphemy. If every one of us who has blasphemed God has committed an unforgivable sin, I doubt if there are ten people in this room who will be saved. It may be as simple as making the off-the-cuff comment, “Oh my God,” as part of the cultural expression of shock, surprise, or concern. That is enough blasphemy to send you to hell forever. If you have misused the name of God and violated its sanctity, that is enough blasphemy to send you to hell forever.
Thanks be to God that in His mercy and grace, He can, does, and will forgive us when we repent of those terrible transgressions against His hallowed name. In the old covenant, blasphemy is also a capital offense, worthy of the death sentence. Nevertheless, it is still forgivable.
The unforgivable sin that Jesus identifies is a particular form of blasphemy. It is blasphemy against a particular person of the Godhead, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Blasphemy is something you do with words, normally in speech or writing, with the mouth or the pen, but what is it?
The immediate context in which Jesus first gave His warning was when the Pharisees accused Him of casting out demons by the power of Satan. They had given every conceivable insult to Jesus and laid just about every conceivable false charge against Him, which He took in humiliation and sometimes great sadness at the fallenness of the people who attacked Him. However, when they began accusing Him of being in league with Satan, Jesus said: “Wait a minute. Stop right there. You’re this close to committing a sin that can’t be forgiven, now or ever. Be careful what you say.” It is as though He was saying to them: “God is not mocked. I’ll put up with so much and no more.”
Blasphemy against the Spirit’s Testimony
Notice that when the same people who made terrible accusations against Jesus and brought false charges against Him that led to His execution stood cheering at the bottom of the cross, our Lord said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The New Testament later observes that had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
Here is my question: What if they had known and then crucified Him? The knowledge of the person of Christ was crucial to this particular crime. Jesus gave them some slack on the basis that they were ignorant. Their ignorance was not invincible, but rather a vincible ignorance, as was it ignorance that in itself was not excusable. Had they really studied the Scriptures the way they said they did, they should have clearly known the identity of Jesus. However, the heart of fallen man is so depraved and the mind so darkened by sin that, unless God the Holy Spirit opens our minds to the true understanding of Jesus Christ, we will never understand who He is. That is why the link between the Holy Spirit and blasphemy is so crucial.
Let me put it this way: if God the Holy Spirit reveals to you that Jesus is the Christ and then you call Him in league with the devil, you have not just sinned against Jesus, but you have blasphemed the Holy Spirit, who is the One who testifies to the identity of Christ.
The distinction between blaspheming Jesus and blaspheming the Holy Spirit tends to fall away later in the New Testament. We are warned in Hebrews that if, after you have tasted of the Holy Ghost, and after the Spirit has revealed Christ to you, you reject Him, then there is no possible way of being restored. I am defining the sin against the Holy Spirit, the unforgivable sin, as the blaspheming of Christ after the Spirit has revealed to you clearly and assuredly who Jesus is.
God Preserves Us from Sin
Who is capable of committing the unforgivable sin? Are Christians capable of committing such a crime? Let me sound a bit neo-orthodox for a moment by answering that question both “yes” and “no.”
I would say “yes” in this regard: you may be saved and in the process of being sanctified, of being brought by the Holy Spirit into conformity with the righteousness of Christ, but none of us is all the way there yet. We still struggle with sin in our lives. I believe a Christian is capable of virtually any sin that you can name, even blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, if left to himself. That is, if God would let you do any sin that you wanted to do and kept His hands off you, I believe you and I are capable of committing blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. That is the “yes” part.
The “no” part of the answer is the good news. I do not believe any Christian ever does or ever will commit the unforgiven sin. That is not because we are incapable of committing it in and of ourselves, but because the Father preserves those whom He has given His Son and promised that He will not let any of them be snatched away. Our perseverance is based upon His preservation of us, and the sweetness of the Holy Spirit is to keep us from committing such an unforgivable sin.
I frequently have Christians say to me, “I’m afraid I’ve committed the unforgivable sin.” I tell them that, if they really are believers, I do not believe for a moment that they have committed the unforgivable sin, nor ever will they. That is another reason why we need to be so careful in examining our hearts—to know that we are indeed in Christ, to know that this is not just a matter of lip service to Jesus, but that the confession we make is authenticated by the reality of the faith in our hearts.
The Spirit Will Teach You
Finally, Jesus ended today’s text by saying: “Now when they bring you to the synagogues and magistrates and authorities, do not worry about how or what you should answer, or what you should say. For the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.”
Jesus did not mean that we should not do our homework or prepare. Rather, He was saying: “Leave your anxiety behind you. This is why I’m giving you the Spirit, among other things. He will be the One to stand beside you when you’re put on trial, the One who will help you say what you need to say.”
I frequently hear from people who have a friend whose spouse or child has died, and they are going to visit them at the funeral home or service. They will ask me, “What do I say to my friend in a situation like this?” My advice is always the same: “Do not give it another thought. It does not matter what you say. There is no right thing to say. Just be there. Put your arms around them, weep with them, because on that occasion words are not all that significant, but your presence says everything.”
So, beloved, let us think about the relationship between our hearts and our lips, and may they be in holy agreement.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.