The Only Unforgivable Sin
June 13, 2021 / No. 4093
We have been moving rather quickly through the account of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Mark, which records His ministry and life in a rather fast-paced kind of way. In this message we will consider these verses from Mark 3:28-30:
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: Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit.
There are reasons for us to stop and spend time on this. First, it is a repeated and important topic in Scripture found in all three of the synoptic gospels. And Jesus calls attention to the importance of this statement when He says, “Verily,” or “Truly.” He means by that to stop and to listen to what He is going to say because it is obviously important.
This statement has perplexed many: “All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men…but he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness.” What does it mean that there is a sin that can never be forgiven? That statement has been more than perplexing. It can sometimes be disturbing and even terrifying to some, to think that there is a sin that is unforgivable. And in times of doubt, a child of God who is under a deep sense of guilt might fear and ask himself, “Have I committed this sin?” And we want in this message to dispel that fear from the heart of every true believer who is listening.
We have in these verses, first, a statement of comprehensive forgiveness. “Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men.” We need to marvel at and bask in the wonder and the good news of this statement of Jesus Christ. This was such good news for those who followed Him. You remember the incident in John 8 of a woman caught in adultery. The scribes and Pharisees brought her to Jesus because they saw her sin as unforgivable. They said, “She needs to be stoned.” What happens? Jesus said, “Whoever is without this sin, let him cast the first stone.” And, after all the woman’s accusers had gone, Jesus said, “Woman, where are your accusers? Neither do I condemn thee.” He is saying to her, “As repulsive and public as your sin might be, and as much shame as it has brought to yourself, in the name of Christ, that sin is forgiven.”
And then there is the parable of the prodigal son, who took and wasted his father’s substance. It is not just the story of a wayward teenager, but it is the story of a wayward child of God, a lost sheep, one of the elect who has wandered. The father looks for this son to return. And when he comes, he restores him. Jesus said, “So there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents.”
Those are illustrations of the truth here: All sin shall be forgiven unto the sons of men. You find it all through Jesus’ ministry. He affirms the forgiveness of sin, He eats with publicans and sinners, He calls a tax collector to be His follower, He heals the demoniac, He forgives all manner of sins. Truly, all sins shall be forgiven to the children of men.
And that is the good news of the gospel to you who believe, to you who are guilty but sorry, to you who are a sinner but repentant, to you who have been wayward but have come back to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls—”all sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men and blasphemies wherewith they shall blaspheme.”
That does not mean what the universalists teach, that there is no hell and that every last sin of every last sinner is forgiven, that God wipes away all the guilt of every last person and brings them to heaven. It cannot mean that, because the Bible is clear enough that there is a Judgment Day and a hell to pay. And, in fact, right here, Jesus speaks of a sin that is never forgiven and that brings eternal damnation.
Now what Jesus means here is that, with one exception, every kind of sin is forgiven by God in Jesus Christ, and that, when it comes to the elect, there is no sin so bad that Jesus cannot and did not pay the price for it. To forgive is to send far away. It is God, with all His divine authority, saying, “I do not see the sin, it is gone.” In the book of Numbers, “I have not beheld iniquity in Jacob.” Or in Leviticus 16, on the Great Day of Atonement, the high priest would lay his hands on the head of the goat and speak on it the sins of the people and then lead it away into the wilderness uninhabited, to be lost and forgotten. This is what Jesus Christ has accomplished on the cross. He has paid the price. He has covered our transgressions. He has removed from God’s sight all our guilt and all the shame of our sins.
Child of God, do you hear that good news today? Your sins in the past, your sins of youth, your sins committed before you were converted, your sins committed as a Christian, your sins committed with your hands, your sins committed with your mouth, your sins committed in your mind, your sins against each of the commandments, your sins of commission, your sins of omission, your secret sins, your unknown sins, your willful and presumptuous sins, your sins of hatred toward God and the neighbor, your relationship sins, your sins of indifference and apathy toward spiritual things—with repentance, there is forgiveness. That is the good news here. “All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men.” So Paul proclaimed in his preaching (Acts 13:38, 39): “Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sin: and by him all that believe are justified from all things.” So, first, as we begin to answer this question concerning the unforgivable sin, we must see that Jesus affirmed the comprehensiveness of His forgiveness, the power of His blood and cross. He does that as a background and qualifier for His next statement. The question about what is the unforgivable sin is mostly answered by this statement: “All sins shall be forgiven.”
The unforgivable sin is not one particular gross sin, such as murder or adultery or suicide. Some think of those sins as unforgivable. But Jesus says, “Every kind of sin is forgiven.” The murderer, the abortionist, the adulterer, the child-molester can be forgiven by God. These are not unforgivable sins. You can see that in Scripture. Just look at the life of David. A murderer and an adulterer. He was forgiven. Read Psalm 32 and Psalm 51.
We also see that this is not the denial of Christ before others or the blasphemy of Jesus and the gospel. When Jesus says, “All sins shall be forgiven,” He has in mind the sin of Peter who later denied his Lord, and of Paul who was a blasphemer of the gospel. You may have such sins in your past, but today you love God and you have repented of your sins and you have put your faith in Christ alone for salvation, which means that you have not committed the unforgivable sin. In fact, the unforgivable sin is not a sin that can be committed by a true Christian. Jesus says of all those whom He has given eternal life, “They shall never perish, and no one shall pluck them out of my hand.” So, the true believer cannot commit this unforgivable sin.
So, what is this sin? That brings us to the perplexing statement of verse 29: “But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.”
We must consider this statement in its context, especially in the context of what the scribes and Pharisees have just said about Jesus. And then we come to a pretty clear understanding of what this sin is. Jesus identifies this sin very specifically as blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. When we look at the context, and verse 30 calls us to do that, we see what this sin is. Verse 30 says, “Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit.” “They” refers back to verse 22 and the scribes. This is the second year of Jesus’ ministry, and these Jewish religious leaders have been following Jesus closely from the beginning. They had heard His claims that He was the Messiah and God’s Son; they had seen His miracles; more recently they have seen His popularity; they had also felt His rebukes and they were challenged by His teaching. When Jesus speaks of the Holy Ghost here, we have to understand that He did all His work only by the power of the Holy Ghost. These scribes and Jewish leaders were witnesses of that also. Think of His baptism and the Holy Spirit descending and the voice of God coming from heaven and saying, “This is my beloved Son, hear him.” Or think of the divine authority of Jesus’ teaching as He understood and explained the Scriptures in a way beyond any one of these Jewish leaders. Or think of the power of His miracles that demonstrated that God Himself was at work now in the ministry of Jesus. Or, you can think of Jesus’ own words at the beginning of His ministry in Luke 4 in the synagogue in Nazareth, when He read from Isaiah 61, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me.”
The public ministry of Jesus Christ was a clear demonstration of the power of God’s Holy Spirit. God was working through Jesus Christ. That was clear from the response to Jesus’ ministry in the repentance of so many who followed Him. But now, what had the Jewish leaders said about Jesus’ ministry? They could not deny the miracles, they could not deny His authority, so this is what they had said: “He has a devil, and by the prince of devils he casts out devils.” You see, what they are doing is attributing the work of the Holy Spirit in the ministry of Jesus Christ, especially the clear teaching and convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit through Jesus’ work and teaching and the witness of the Holy Spirit to the truth that this was indeed God’s Son in the flesh, they are saying about all of that, that it is the devil’s work. They tried to discredit Jesus by saying that what He was doing had its source in hell.
But then, this, too. Their rejection of the work of the Holy Spirit was on-going and deliberate. This was a sin into which they grew. As they followed Jesus in His ministry, it became more and more clear who He was, and the more clearly they saw who He was, the more hardened they became against Him and the more they blasphemed Him and worked against Him.
So, with that context in view, we can say this, that the unforgivable sin, the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, is the willful, on-going rejection of the Spirit’s clear witness regarding the truth of Jesus Christ, of who He is and of why He has come.
Another passage that we should look at to help us understand this idea of the unforgivable sin is Hebrews 6:4-6. “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.” The situation that is addressed by the epistle to the Hebrews was similar to what Jesus addresses in the gospel. The people to whom this book was written were Jewish people who had become Christian, who had joined themselves to the New Testament church, who had acknowledged that Jesus Christ was the Messiah and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. They saw Him as the only remedy for their sin, but now, on account of persecution, they are tempted to depart from the Christian faith. So the writer to the Hebrews gives this warning and describes the hardening work of God. Notice how these are described. In verses 4 and 5: They are enlightened. That refers to the preaching. They have understood and seen the truth very clearly. They have tasted the good word of God. That means that they understood the necessity and the blessing and the good news of the gospel and, at least intellectually, had embraced it. They were made partakers of the Holy Ghost. That cannot mean that they were regenerated, but it means that, like the scribes, they had been witnesses to the unmistakable truth of the gospel because of the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. We would say that these verses describe one who is within the sphere of the church and the covenant. He has made profession, he has shown commitment to the gospel for a period of time. These verses describe someone who sits in the church, who hears the Word, who understands heaven and hell and time and eternity, who has seen sin and been convicted of his own sin, who sees the cross of Jesus Christ as the only atonement and way of forgiveness and deliverance from hell, and has become convinced of this.
But then there is verse 6, and here we have just to let God’s Word speak: it is impossible, “if they 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.” The meaning is this. Having seen the cross and the gospel, they stand against it, they want to be rid of Jesus Christ, they stop their ears at the good news of the gospel and of spiritual and eternal realities.
Now look down to verse 9 in Hebrews 6. The writer says, “Beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation.” In your departure, he is saying, you have not gone this far. But you catch the solemn warning here. You see how serious it is to be exposed to the truth. How dangerous it is, in a sense, to hear the preaching of the gospel. Today, the one who commits this sin is a churchgoer, perhaps at one point a very committed person in the Christian circles, maybe even a preacher or a teacher, but he has turned his back on the gospel, he denies Jesus Christ. He says the gospel is a joke, that the Word of God is not God’s Word. Perhaps he even joins himself to the world of atheism and blames Christianity for all the moral and social troubles of our time. And blasphemy is to speak so with pen and words. This one, who had once known and had been very close to the gospel, speaks maliciously against Christ. The truth is clear, but he says, No, I will not believe it.
And the impossibility here of his being restored again is a hardening judgment of God. That is an aspect of God’s purpose also with the clarity of the gospel and the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. He convicts of sin. Romans 1 says He gives them over to sin. He stops their ears so they cannot hear and understand the gospel (Rom. 11). He blinds their eyes so that they cannot see the truth (John 12). God hardens their hearts so that their conscience does not feel the conviction of sin, they are abandoned to their reprobate mind, and they give themselves over to sin (Rom. 1). God does this because, when they knew the truth, they did not honor Him as God and worship Him but became vain in their own imagination. This is the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—the willful, ongoing rejection of the Spirit’s clear witness regarding the truth of Jesus Christ, of who He is, and of why He has come.
John Calvin describes this sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit this way: “Those who with evil intention resist God’s truth, although by its brightness they have so been touched that they cannot claim ignorance.”
So, there is in these words of Jesus a solemn warning. And that is the solemn warning for us to take heed to. Jesus does not speak these words to the world of unbelievers. He does not speak these words in a general way so that we can run through our minds the names of people who we think may have committed this sin against the Holy Spirit. We might be able to do that as we think of a Judas Iscariot or a King Saul, or perhaps others who have left the Christian faith for unbelief. But that is not the point here in Mark. Rather, this is given by Jesus as a warning to all who outwardly profess faith and to all who hear and know the truth of the gospel. For us, each one, to consider. Yes, we must affirm, as we look at this warning, that no true believer can commit this sin and be lost or fall away from the true faith. Not one of God’s children has ever or will ever commit this sin. It has been wisely said that if you are anxious that you have committed this sin, that very fear is itself an evidence that you have not committed this sin, because such blasphemy is always accompanied by a complete indifference towards losing your soul. It is the believer who is troubled in conscience, who longs for heaven, who seeks God’s fellowship. Whereas the blasphemer of the Holy Spirit says something like this: “If God wants to send me to hell, He can do that because I don’t want God anyway.”
But there is another, stronger reason why we must say that the child of God can never commit this sin, and that is the preserving grace of God. Humanly speaking, and left to myself, I am certainly capable of this sin. But this is not a sin into which God will allow His people to fall. He keeps them from this sin. He may sometimes allow us to fall into sin and to backslide, but we will never fall from His grace. That is because of God’s eternal choice in election of His own and His giving them to Christ, and because of the death of Jesus Christ for them, which has secured their salvation for them. And so they will be preserved and they will persevere.
It is important for us to keep in our minds other passages of Scripture for the times when the doubts come into our minds. Of course, the devil wants every one of us to think that we have committed this unforgivable sin. He wants to lie to our consciences and steal our assurance. So these passages of Scripture are important for us to know and even to write down and memorize so that when times of doubt come, we may stand strong.
Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
I Peter 1:5: “Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
Romans 8:35, 38, 39: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? …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.”
John 10:27-29: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.”
But, at the same time, there is a warning here. Can I commit this sin? Humanly speaking and left to myself, of course I can. That is why we need the warning. And that is how it comes here in the passage to the scribes as well—as a warning. You notice that Jesus does not say here directly to these, “You have committed this sin.” And we know that there were yet a number of the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees, the priests, the scribes who were later converted, who never committed this sin. Think, for example, of the apostle Paul. So the warning is something not to think of as a warning for others but as a warning for us to take personally. To all who have some knowledge of the true gospel and who have tasted something of the heavenly gifts, who know the reality of their own sin, and to whom it is very clear that Jesus is the only way of salvation, the warning comes to take those things to heart, not to harden yourself against them, not to trust, as the Pharisees did, in your religion or your practice, but to mortify sin and to walk in the Spirit, to walk with godliness and humility especially when the Spirit makes plain the truth of Jesus Christ.
That is the way the warning in Hebrews 6 ends as well. In verses 9-12: “But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak.” And then this: “For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that every one of you do shew the same diligence to the full assurance of hope unto the end: That ye be not slothful, but followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”
May God grant us such perseverance in the faith. Amen.