One pastor told the following true story: “When I served as pastor of a church in North Alabama during the early 1980s, there was an usher in our church named John. He was a sweet man who was always present in his regular spot to greet people and hand out bulletins, but John was a very troubled man. On several occasions, I met with him, and he began to weep as he told me that during World War II he had done something he thought was so evil that he was certain he had committed the unforgivable sin.
“I tried to help him by telling him God could forgive every sin except the sin of unbelief, but that didn’t change his mind. John never told me what he had done, but he was convinced he never would go to heaven. He attended church and served the Lord faithfully. His family was active in the church, and his children were talented singers; but he was tormented with the belief that he had committed the unpardonable sin and never would make it to heaven.”1
That man is not alone. Many people have the same fear and live in dread that they might have committed such a sin and that there’s no hope for them to be saved. Perhaps you have wondered if somewhere along the line you blasphemed the Holy Spirit, and it lingers in your thinking that you may never be forgiven for it.
There are a lot of ideas as to what the unpardonable sin is. Some think it is murder, suicide, adultery, or other forms of sexual immorality. Others believe it has to do with thinking or saying horrible, blasphemous things against God, that it’s something like hating God or shaking your fist at God and cursing Him.
What is the unpardonable sin? To that question we ask, what does the Bible say? That should always be our first question, because God’s Word is our first and final authority in all matters of faith and practice. And when we rightly divide the Word of truth, the answer to the question of the unpardonable sin becomes clear.
“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. 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” (Matt. 12:31,32).
What is often called the unpardonable sin is based on this portion of Scripture and its parallel passages in the other Gospels (Mark 3:28-29; Luke 12:10). To understand what the Lord meant, His words need to be interpreted by both their immediate context and their dispensational context.
In the immediate context, we learn about a miracle that Christ performed, which prompted opposition from the Pharisees who were present that day. Matthew 12:22-24 records that a demon-possessed man who was “blind, and dumb” was brought to the Lord. Being the Son of God and Israel’s Messiah, the Lord had authority over both the supernatural realm and the physical realm. Therefore, He very simply cast out the demon and healed the man so that he could see and speak. This amazed the people who saw the miracle, and they wondered out loud, “Is not this the son of David?” (v. 23), meaning Israel’s long-promised Messiah and King. Hearing the crowd say this, Christ’s enemies reacted:
“But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils” (v. 24).
This should have been a moment of rejoicing over the healing of the man who had just been freed from the demon and could speak and see. Instead, the unbelieving Pharisees were infuriated. They could not deny the miracle, so they tried to explain it away by calling it evil. They would not allow themselves to believe the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth was the King, the Son of David, so they attributed the miracle to another ruler, claiming that the Lord did it by the power of Beelzebub the prince of the devils, which is Satan. The Lord, in turn, addressed their unbelief and this accusation, telling them,
“And if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand?” (v. 26).
Their accusation of Christ casting out demons by the power of Satan made no sense, because Satan would be working against himself by relinquishing control of someone in his clutches and repairing the damage he had done to the man. The Lord advanced His wise argument a step further when he asked,
“Or else, how can one enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil his house” (v. 29).
In this verse, the “strong man” is Satan. His “house” is the sphere in which he holds sway, which is the world, because Satan is “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4). “His goods” are his demons and their evil works. Christ is the One who came from heaven and entered the world, the strong man’s house, and bound the strong man, and plundered his goods and cast out a demon.
Right before their eyes, Christ had just freed this man from the grip and bondage of Satan. Christ did not perform this miracle in the power of Satan. Christ is not subject to him. Therefore, the logical conclusion is that Christ is greater and more powerful than the strong man, Satan, because Christ is God, and He demonstrated it by casting out one of Satan’s demons.
Then the Lord issued the stern warning of the unforgivable sin to these Pharisees who did not believe in Him and were opposed to Him: “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.”
We need to note to whom the Lord is speaking. First, He is specifically addressing Israel’s unbelieving religious leaders. Accusing Christ of being in league with Satan and casting out a demon in the power of Satan was sin and blasphemy by these religious leaders. Blasphemy is something that is done or said against God. By declaring that what they had just accused Him of was blasphemy, Christ affirmed His Deity, that He
is God Almighty.
Second, in the overall sense, in the Gospel records, Christ is speaking to Israel. This is made obvious a few chapters later where the Lord said, “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). In Romans 15:8, Paul wrote, “Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision [the Jews] for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers.” Christ was sent to and ministered to Israel. In the Gospels, during the Lord’s earthly ministry, you find Him ministering the truth of God and confirming the promises made to the fathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—according to the law, Israel’s covenants, and prophecy.
That’s important to keep in mind whenever you read and study Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, because we are Gentiles under grace, not Israel under the law. In the Gospels, there are promises of blessing and punishment made to Israel that are not for us today under grace, such as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and the unpardonable sin.
Rejection of the Father and the Son
Christ taught that “all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men” (Matt. 12:31). In other words, these Pharisees could still believe that He was the Son of David and Israel’s Messiah and their sin and blasphemy could be forgiven. “But,” Christ pointed out, “the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men” (v. 31b).
The Holy Spirit had not yet been given (Matt. 3:11; John 7:39; 16:7-8,13). The Holy Spirit was later sent by Christ on the day of Pentecost after Christ’s ascension to heaven. When Christ warned Israel’s religious leaders about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, it was because the Holy Spirit was soon to descend and come to Israel to give them their last opportunity to repent as a nation. It was when the Spirit was sent to Israel that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit would not be forgiven unto men.
For emphasis, the Lord reiterated that “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” (Matt. 12:32). This double warning by Christ was a warning of love and concern. Christ loves the world, and though these religious leaders had made this wicked accusation and spoken a word against Him, He told them that they could be forgiven of it. But He also warned them, out of love, that there was coming a day when their blasphemy and speaking against the Holy Spirit would not be forgiven.
The Lord’s teaching that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit was unforgivable was not because the Holy Spirit is greater than God the Father or greater than God the Son, but because God the Holy Spirit arrived later than the Father and the Son. The Spirit’s
ministry was later, or after the Father’s ministry to Israel, and after the Son’s earthly ministry to Israel.
Throughout Old Testament times, Israel rejected and resisted God the Father. They did this through their unbelief and pervasive idolatry. They did not trust and obey the law of God, and we see this by how they reaped the curses of disobedience to His law. Not only that, but Israel killed the prophets that the Father sent to them to turn them back to Him. Israel also rejected the Father when they desired a king to rule over them like all the other nations. In 1 Samuel 8:7 we read, “And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them.”
Yet, in love and mercy, God the Father sent His Son to Israel. In the Gospels, we learn how the Son labored, performed miracles, and taught Israel that she might receive Him as her Messiah and trust the gospel of the kingdom and be saved from her sins. However, when we consider this account in Matthew 12, we see that the religious leaders were rejecting God the Son and who He was, even accusing Him of performing miracles in the power of Satan. And the leaders’ rejection of Christ led to having Him crucified. The Lord told His disciples, “The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day” (Luke 9:22).
Nonetheless, on the cross, the Lord prayed in amazing mercy, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Their sin and blasphemy against Christ was forgiven by the Father in answer to the Son’s prayer. The reason is that the crucifying of God’s Son was a sin of ignorance.
A Presumptuous Sin
The Lord prayed for His Father to forgive Israel of His Son’s crucifixion because “they know not what they do.” Later, Peter told Israel, “And now, brethren, I wot [know] that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:17). Under the law, there were sacrifices and offerings for sins of ignorance, and God made a provision for their forgiveness. However, for willful sins of presumption there was no provision for forgiveness.
“But the soul that doeth ought [or sins] presumptuously, whether he be born in the land, or a stranger, the same reproacheth the Lord; and that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Because he hath despised the word of the Lord, and hath broken His commandment, that soul shall utterly be cut off; his iniquity shall be upon him” (Num. 15:30-31).
“Presumptuously” means with a high hand. To sin presumptuously is a bold, defiant act of transgression against the fullest evidence, and in spite of divine authority. This kind of conduct in Israel disrespected God, because it treated His commands as needless and unreasonable and as if His judgment wasn’t to be feared or regarded as authoritative. Under the law, that person was condemned to be cut off from Israel and to bear full responsibility for the iniquity, never to be forgiven.
This describes Israel’s sin after the Holy Spirit was sent to her. They sinned with a high hand. It was an act of transgression against the fullest evidence. The Holy Spirit bore witness to Christ’s resurrection and identity as Israel’s Messiah, and He did so with undeniable proof and power. Further, by the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit through the apostles, the Spirit brought the Word of the Lord to Israel and glorified God’s Son. God did not let Israel continue in her ignorance. He had Peter, by the Spirit, confront them with the truth that they had “denied the Holy One and the Just… And killed the Prince of life, Whom God hath raised from the dead” (Acts 3:14-15).
Thus Israel was no longer ignorant of what they had done in crucifying their Messiah. In response to the Holy Spirit’s ministry, many in the nation despised the Word of the Lord. By rejecting the Spirit’s ministry and message, those in Israel knowingly and willfully sinned against and blasphemed the Spirit. And for this, there was no forgiveness.
Rejection of the Holy Spirit
In the Old Testament, Israel rejected God the Father. In the Gospel records, they rejected God the Son. In early Acts, Israel rejected God the Holy Spirit. By blaspheming the Spirit in deliberate rebellion, they completed their rejection of the Godhead in totality. The Holy Spirit was their last chance to repent, believe, and be saved. That’s why blaspheming the third Person of the Trinity was unforgivable.
The Holy Spirit came at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) and then worked mightily in Israel with signs and wonders. Those signs and wonders, done in the name of Jesus Christ, confronted Israel and its leaders with overwhelming proof of Christ’s resurrection and Messiahship (Acts 3:6-21). Israel’s continued rejection of Christ was inexcusable in light of the Spirit’s ministry. Rather than heed the pleadings of the Spirit-filled apostles, the religious leaders ignored them and initiated a persecution against them in which they were threatened (Acts 4:17-21), imprisoned (Acts 5:17-18), and beaten (Acts 5:40-42).
Israel’s rejection of the Holy Spirit reached its zenith in Acts 7, when Stephen confronted their sin and unbelief. Stephen was “a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 6:5). He stood before the Sanhedrin, Israel’s ruling religious body, and challenged them about their willful rejection of Christ, their refusal to open their hearts, and their guilt of resisting the Holy Spirit:
“Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, YE DO ALWAYS RESIST THE HOLY GHOST: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of Whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers” (Acts 7:51-52).
In a rage, these men then ran upon Stephen, seized him, dragged him outside the city gates, and stoned him to death. These religious leaders committed the exact unpardonable sin that Christ warned them about. Israel’s leaders had been presented with overwhelming evidence that Jesus Christ was alive and was both Lord and Christ.
The religious leaders blasphemed the Spirit by their rejection of His miraculous, powerful ministry in pointing Israel to Christ, by their refusal to accept the witness of the Holy Spirit as to who Jesus Christ was, and by their murder of Stephen. By stoning Stephen with wicked hands, in that time and place, at that moment of history, Israel’s religious leaders crossed a line they could never uncross. They sealed their fate. Their sin was unpardonable because it represented a decisive, national rejection of Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel, despite the testimony of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As Stephen was being stoned, in a prayer similar to that of his Savior, “he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60). However, this prayer for forgiveness of the nation was not granted by the Father because it was not a sin of ignorance. It was a willful, presumptuous sin. They knew what they were doing. At this point, Israel as a whole had rejected God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
God dealt with His chosen people as a nation. When the majority of Israel obeyed, God blessed them, including the disobedient among them. When the majority were disobedient, God punished them, including the faithful believers in their midst. And so it is at this point that Israel fell. On the prophetic timeline, it was time to purge Israel and the world of unbelief through the events of Daniel’s 70th week, or the seven-year Tribulation. Instead of pouring out His wrath though, God ushered in a previously hidden
dispensation of the grace of God in which grace reigns and in which grace is greater than all our sin.
Grace Reigns Today
“Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5:20-21).
Romans 5:20-21 is the solution for the anxiety that the unpardonable sin has brought to many. “Sin abounded” when Christ had been crucified and, after His resurrection, the Spirit’s ministry demonstrated powerfully that Christ was risen from the dead and was Israel’s Messiah—and yet, Christ’s enemies and Israel’s leaders willfully stood by what they had done and they stoned Stephen. Rather than the stoning of Stephen resulting in the seven-year Tribulation, God temporarily suspended His program with Israel, and “grace did much more abound” when God turned to the nations and ushered in the dispensation of the grace of God.
We live under a different program now, different from the program that was suspended because of the unpardonable sin. The unpardonable sin cannot be committed under grace. That warning from Christ was for Israel and her religious leaders. Its dispensational context was that of Israel’s prophetic program and the coming of the Holy Spirit to Israel. It had to do with Israel’s rejection of Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit to Israel. The unpardonable sin does not apply to us today, nor has it applied to anyone since the stoning of Stephen. God has rendered it impossible to commit this sin today because His program changed from Israel to the Body of Christ. Thus, when we rightly divide God’s Word, the unforgivable sin does not need to strike fear in our hearts.
By rightly dividing the Word, we understand that today we are under grace. And under grace, grace reigns supreme. Grace triumphs over all our sin. When Paul wrote that “grace did much more abound,” it means that grace hyper-abounds, superabounds, abounds beyond measure. In other words, we’re not talking about normal, regular, everyday grace here. This is grace that the world has never seen before, because we are in the dispensation of grace in which grace reigns conspicuously.
Grace superabounds over any TYPE of sin that a person commits today. No matter what sin it is, it makes no difference; grace abounds over it and it can be forgiven. Murder, suicide, blasphemy, hating God, adultery, drunkenness, etc.—all sin is forgiven in Christ when one trusts Christ as personal Savior.
Grace superabounds over any AMOUNT of sin a person commits. You cannot sin too much to be saved by the grace of God. No person is beyond the reach of God’s grace. Anyone can be saved by grace through faith in Christ.
God’s superabounding grace freely gives those who believe “eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5:21). The warning of the unpardonable sin does not in any way need to cause us to worry or doubt, because God’s Word to the Body of Christ today tells us,
“In Whom [Christ] we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7).
“And you, being dead in your sins… hath He quickened [made alive] together with Him, having forgiven you ALL trespasses” (Col. 2:13).
We are forgiven all our sins, past, present, and future, the moment we trust that Christ died for our sins and rose again. Christ’s precious blood washes away all our sins the moment we believe. To be perfectly clear though, those who do not believe do not have their sins forgiven; eventually, they will die in their sins and will be condemned to eternal, conscious torment in hell.
No one today needs to fear committing the unpardonable sin which the Lord warned about in His earthly ministry for three reasons: first, the unforgivable sin was a warning given to Israel and her leaders; second, God’s program has changed; third, today there is no sin that cannot be forgiven by God’s superabounding grace through faith in Christ Jesus and there is no sin that could ever cause God to take away our salvation.
As the old hymn of the faith proclaims—and we each should sing it out with all our heart— “Wonderful grace of Jesus, / greater than all my sin; / how shall my tongue describe it, / where shall its praise begin? / Taking away my burden, / setting my spirit free, / for the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.”2
1. David O. Dykes, “What is the Unforgivable Sin?” Preaching.com, accessed January 8, 2021, https://www.preaching.com/sermons/what-is-the-unforgivable-sin/.
2. Haldor Lillenas, “Wonderful Grace of Jesus,” Hymnary.org, accesssed January 8, 2021, https://hymnary.org/text/wonderful_grace_of_Jesus.