Is There an Unpardonable Sin?
Bob Burridge ©2011
There are those who fear that they might commit a sin so great that it will not be forgiven. They sincerely love their Savior, but have been taught that they could lose their salvation and no longer be counted as God’s redeemed children.
There are two main passages of Scripture that seem to support that fear if they are taken out of their context to feed the imperfections in our confidence in God’s redeeming love. Matthew 12:31-32 speaks of sin and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. 1 John 5:16-17 speaks particularly about not praying for any one who sins the sin unto death.
Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit
31 Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.
32 And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.
The Bible speaks here of a sin that is never forgiven. It presents a clear word of warning to those who would oppose the work of Jesus Christ and his church. Taken out of context it has caused undue despair and worry for the children of God. So then, what is the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? Can it be committed by a believer? Why is it never forgiven?
The context in Matthew 12:22-37 (also Mark 3:20-30, and Luke 11:14-23; 12:10) shows that Jesus had just cast out a demon (12:22-23). The victim had been blind and deaf as well as possessed. Some Jewish leaders had accused Jesus of doing this by the power of Beelzebub (Satan) (12:24).
Jesus explained that their accusation was not reasonable (12:25-29). A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. If Satan is divided against himself by casting out his own agents, then his kingdom cannot stand. But if Jesus was doing this work by the Spirit of God, then God’s Kingdom has come. It would mean that the strong man of the house has been bound so that his house may be plundered. All three synoptic gospels put that same statement here.
There are several obvious implications:
a) Jesus is working by the Spirit of God, not by Satan.
b) The Kingdom of God had come in greater way than it had been manifested on earth before.
c) The strong man (Satan) has been bound in a particular way.
d) Satan’s household (kingdom) is at that moment being plundered.
e) These blasphemers are of Satan’s kingdom which is being destroyed.
Jesus called those blasphemers a “generation of vipers” (:34)
Jesus had said in 12:30 that those not with him are against him. That is, they who are not of his Kingdom are of Satan’s Kingdom. Also 1 John 5:19 it shows this contrast between these two groups of humans, “we know that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness.”
Jesus gave warnings about blasphemy (12:31-32). First he assured them that all blasphemies shall be forgiven, even speaking wickedly against the Son of God. But speaking against the Holy Spirit is never forgiven. We know who these are by their fruit, just as we identify a tree by what it produces (12:33-37). These unbelievers who were accusing Jesus of working by the power of the Devil were revealing their just condemnation by their own words.
This is a most comforting reassurance of a known promise. All sins and blasphemies shall be forgiven (12:31a). The blood of Jesus is able to satisfy for any sin of those chosen by God to be his adopted children forever.
Romans 8:1 “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.”
Romans 8:33 “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth.”
Romans 8:38-39, “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
No repentant sinner who comes by faith in Christ is ever turned away from being restored to fellowship with God.
John 6:37 “…him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.”
1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
But there is also here a sobering warning. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit “shall not be forgiven” (12:31b). This is not an isolated warning. The same account is recorded in the other Gospels:
Mark 3:28-29, “Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation:”
Luke 12:10 And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven.
Other biblical references also mention sins that are not forgiven.
“For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God: But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing; whose end is to be burned.”
This passage says that it is impossible to restore certain ones to repentance. The ones warned are those who had great privileges. They had a degree of enlightenment to truth God had made known generally to all people. They tasted of the heavenly gift. They were partakers of the Holy Ghost in some particular way, but obviously not redemptively. Also, they had heard something of the word of God and of the power of the age to come. Yet they turned and fell away. These can not be brought back to the point where they can be renewed to repentance. These were like King Saul who was gifted by the Holy Spirit to lead the people as ruler of the covenant nation. He was given the word of God by which to govern. He saw God do wonderful things. He may have grieved over the consequences of some of his evil deeds (repentance in it’s broad sense of the word). However, it is likely that he was never regenerated by grace unto spiritual life.
The writer then adds, “We are persuaded better things of you” (6:9). So this is not a warning to his readers who were born again believers. It is a warning about unbelievers. They were like the Pharisees of Matthew 12 who when confronted with the work of God openly rejected its source. They attributed it to Satan, and thereby revealed their continued lostness and depravity.
Hebrews 10:26-31 contains a warning to those who “go on sinning willingly”. There remains for them, “no sacrifice for sins”. They have rejected God’s commandments, have not received God’s mercy, trampled under foot the Son of God, regarded the blood of the covenant as “unclean”, and insulted the “Spirit of Grace”. This is obviously not a description of the believer, but of the lost.
An unwarranted tension is introduced when these passages are read superficially not considering the larger context in which those statements were found. Our fallen nature and the influence of humanism make us assume that man is in charge of his own eternal future. This is absolutely and repeatedly contradicted in Scripture. God is alone sovereign and the cause of every sinners salvation. If it was our work, then it would not be a salvation by grace. We would have cause to boast in our better choice and judgment. Such apostates look for ways by which God’s salvation is overturned by man’s sin, and the work of Christ is overpowered by the work of Satan. But clearly the Bible teaches that the elect cannot be torn out of the hand of the Savior. It was not their obedience that put them in his hand to begin with.
No believer ever sins the sin against the Holy Spirit. Those addressed here are the enemies of Christ. They had seen the miraculous works of the Holy Spirit by Jesus, they had heard his words and teachings but attributed them to the work of Satan. These had committed the sin against the Holy Spirit. Obviously these are not of God’s chosen people (Ephesians 1:4).
As Jesus told us in John 6:37, “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.”
This passage is not saying that such a person cannot be forgiven, but that he shall not be forgiven. It is not saying that the work of Christ was insufficient to atone for their sin. It says that the death of Christ was never intended to redeem those particular people. They show no real conviction of sin, and no desire to come to God with a sincere repentance asking for forgiveness. Therefore there is no evidence of God’s grace at work in their lives.
Puritan scholar David Dickson describes this sin as:
“… an open willful, deliberate and malicious rejecting and opposing of Jesus Christ totally, and the way of salvation by him. The man that falls into this sin never repents nor gets grace to desire to repent, therefore it is not forgiven.”
Whatever sin is not sorrowed for and repented of is not removed by Christ. God never promised to removed the guilt of those who only sorrow for the personal consequences of their sins. God’s elect may fall into the sin of blasphemy against the Son of God by ignorance, fear, or deception. But they will repent, and find mercy.
Forgiveness of sin comes to the convicted and penitent. True repentance is a primary evidence of the Spirit’s convicting work. We are told in 1 John 1:9, “If we confess (admit) our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
What about those who appear to be Christ’s then turn away? Jesus warned in Matthew 7:21, ” Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven” Of many he will say, ” I never knew you: depart from me” (Matthew 7:23)
This is the consistent teaching of Scripture:
1 John 2:19 “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.”
1 John 2:3 “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.”
Psalm 32:1-5 shows the importance of a credible and honest confession and repentance from sin.
This doctrine should not be a cause of worry among Christians. The presence of concern itself should dismiss their worries. If a person is inclined to be concerned, then it is an evidence of the Spirit’s work in his heart. Those who oppose the Spirit have no convicting work in them. They foolishly dismiss it with no fear or serious concern except for selfishly fearing the consequences their guilt brings to them selves, rather than for the offense it raises before God.
Serious sins in Scripture are forgiven to penitent believers: David’s sins of adultery, deceit and murder, Peter’s triple denial of Jesus and profanity on the night of the arrest, and Saul’s persecution of the church and of Christ.
Christians should be seriously concerned not to grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), not to resist the Holy Spirit (Acts 7:51), and not to quench the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). But, there is no reason for the penitent to despair.
Abraham Kuyper wrote about this unpardonable sin,
“no child of God could or ever can commit this sin” … “such cruel spiritual distress may not be allowed. It is the result of a defective religious training, and still more, of … preaching which (is) culpably ignorant…. He who desecrates, despises and slanders the Spirit, who speaks in Christ, in His Word, and in His work, as tho He were the spirit of Satan, is lost in eternal darkness.”
The “Sin Unto Death”
The Bible also speaks of a “sin unto death.” In the Westminster Confession of Faith 21:4 it says, “Prayer is to be made for things lawful; and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter: but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death.”
We are not to pray for those who have sinned the sin unto death. This is a sometimes confusing statement in the confession. First we must know what the sin unto death is. Then we must know when a person is not to be prayed for regarding that sin.
The “sin unto death” is mentioned in 1 John 5:16-17.
“If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death.”
John is drawing a very clear distinction in this verse. He speaks of sins which are unto death and sins which are not. The obvious context shows that John means spiritual death as opposed to physical death. In physical death the soul and body are separated. In spiritual death the person is separated from the eternal blessings of God due to moral guilt which is not paid for by Jesus Christ. Clearly those who sin resulting in spiritual death are those who are not among the elect. All the sins of the elect are covered by the atonement of the Savior.
Three times in this context John speaks of the sin which is not unto death. When a brother commits this kind of sin we are to ask God to forgive him. We ask this with confidence that life (blessed union with God forever) will continue to be given to him. But in one reference here John mentions the sin which is unto death. We are not to pray for those who commit such a sin. This warning is not the focus of John’s comments though. It is only a qualifying notation. The emphasis is upon the forgiveness for which we ought to pray regarding those who are our brothers in Christ.
We are never to pray for the salvation of the reprobate if we know that someone is in that category. To pray for the redemption of those not elected by grace eternally is to oppose the decree and wisdom of God. It would be to desire a cosmic injustice to be done. Forgiveness is never promised to those Christ did not die to redeem.
The practical side of the question is not as easy to answer. The only way we could know that a person was among the reprobate, that he was of the kingdom of Satan and not to be prayed for regarding salvation, is by observing the evidences cited in Scripture. We must not pray in the same way for those who openly deny the gospel, who show fruits in their lives of hatred of God, of his work, of his moral law, and who make no attempt to truly repent. But we need to keep in mind that even this knowledge is imperfect as to a person’s actual eternal estate. One might have assigned Saul of Tarsus to this category in the time prior to his dramatic conversion to Christ. This is only an instruction about prayer, not one that gives us insight into the true election or reprobation of any individual.
Note: The Bible quotations in this article are from the King James Version unless otherwise noted.