What Is the “Unpardonable Sin?”

From time to time I am asked about what is commonly known as the “Unpardonable Sin.” Last Sunday night, I preached from Mark 3:20-30 which contains Jesus’ teaching about the Unpardonable Sin. I was surprised at the response afterward. Numerous people thanked me for speaking about the subject.  Some had never heard any teaching on the issue and others recounted a great deal of errant sermons and lessons.  Therefore, I thought it might be helpful for some if I put a few comments about the Unpardonable Sin on the blog.

The Unpardonable Sin is mentioned in Matt 12 and Mark 3.  Mark’s account reads, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (3:28-29).  Jesus clearly indicates that a person can commit a sin that is unforgiveable.  But what exactly is this sin?

It may be best to begin with what the Unpardonable Sin is not.  I have heard numerous people claim this sin is a variety of possible things: cursing the Holy Spirit, using the Lord’s name in vain, adultery, sexual perversion, murder, and genocide.  However, none of these meet the biblical description of the Unpardonable Sin.  It seems clear that an accurate definition of the sin based on the biblical text is that it is an ongoing, continual rejection of the witness of the Holy Spirit that Jesus is the Son of God who has come to save the world from its sins.

The Unpardonable Sin is the blatant, ongoing refusal of a person to acknowledge and embrace the identity and saving work of Jesus.  Consider the context of the passage in Mark.  The scribes accuse Jesus of performing exorcisms under the power of Beelzebul and by the prince of demons (3:22).  In essence, the scribes were saying, “This man claims to be the Son of God.  In reality, he is the son of the devil.”  The scribes had a blatant disregard for Jesus and the gospel.  They were calling light darkness and darkness light.  According to the scribes, the work of Jesus was actually the work of Satan.

Notice in this passage that Jesus warns them.  They are on the brink of crossing a line where their hearts are so hard there is no going back.  The scribes have already exhibited an unusual level of hardness of heart in their prior encounter with Jesus in regard to the observance of the Sabbath (3:1-6).  This grieves and angers Jesus.  Their perpetual attitude of rejecting God’s truth is in peril of becoming a permanent blight.

A key question is: Have people committed this sin?  The answer is yes. From the most vile sinner to even “good” people, those who continuously reject the claims of Christ can commit this sin.  Kent Hughes recounts the story of pastor Ben Haden visiting a friend in the hospital who was dying.  The pastor asked about the friend’s relationship with God.  The man replied, “I’ve always believed in God.  I know everything with Him is shipshape.” The pastor then asked, “What do you believe about Jesus?”  The man replied, “I’ve known God all my life.  I’ve tried to observe godly standards, work hard, and be honest.”  However, the pastor was persistent.  “But what about you and Jesus?”  The friend responded, “I’ve never made a place in my life for Jesus. I don’t believe in Jesus. If I did, it would upset the control I have over my life. I would have to rethink everything about me.”  The pastor said, “By God’s grace, you have time now. Rethink it!”  “No, I will die without Jesus.”  “Why do you think Jesus died?” said the pastor. “For sins” was the friend’s response.  “Your sins,” said the pastor.  “Perhaps, but it’s too late for me to rethink the place of Jesus in my life.”  And with those words the man died.

On the other hand, there are people who have rejected Jesus’ claim most of their lives and embraced Jesus toward the end.  I have known multiple people of whom this was true.  The problem is that we don’t know how long a person has to continually reject Jesus until their attitude of disbelief becomes permanent.  Thus, we are never qualified to determine whether or not someone has committed the Unpardonable Sin.  Our duty is to extend the love of Christ and share His gospel with all people.

That said, I think we can determine a few characteristics associated with the Unpardonable Sin.

First, as mentioned earlier, the Unpardonable Sin is characterized by the blatant reversal of Gods truth, i.e. calling light darkness and darkness light.

Second, the presence of knowledge is apparent.  Notice in the passage in Mark that the scribes, those learned in religious thought, are the ones in danger of committing the Unpardonable Sin. The person completely ignorant of the gospel is not necessarily the one in danger of committing this sin, it is the person in church, the one who has much exposure to the Word, who has searched the depths of theology and still calls it all darkness.

Third, is the absence of any kind of concern.  The person in danger of committing this sin could care less about their stance of calling the work of God darkness.  In my ministry, I have had a number of people come to me concerned whether or not they have committed the Unpardonable Sin.  I always share with them that the very fact they are concerned about possibly grieving the Holy Spirit is most likely evidence they have not committed the sin yet.

There has been much misunderstanding about the Unpardonable Sin.  Sadly, it has been used by some to mislead, browbeat, and intimidate people through guilt.  We need to rightly understand the words of Jesus about this issue.  Our goal is to personally be vigilant to accept the claims of Christ.  If He is indeed the Son of God and Lord of all, which He is, then it means He is the Lord of us.  We must live our daily lives in light of this revelation.  In regard to those we know who have yet to respond to Jesus and His lordship, we must not judge them as “lost causes,” but be hopeful and prayerful in loving them and sharing with them the truth of who Jesus is and what He did to secure salvation for all who will believe.

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