I am not sure anyone has ever preached to you on the unforgivable sin before. I suspect most of your ministers have never tried to preach through a book of the Bible. There are just too many awkward texts that even we ministers much rather avoid. Talbot Davis, a Methodist Minister, wrote a book on the difficult sayings of Jesus, the unforgivable sin was one difficult saying he included. And he apply entitled his book, “Head Scratchers: When the Words of Jesus don’t make sense.” Because most folks, including myself, when they read a text like this scratch their head and say to themselves, “Say what Jesus?” What is Jesus talking about here? We really want to know because we want to be sure we don’t cross that line. Since most of us don’t know what the unforgivable sin is can we commit it unintentionally and thus be damned? There are so many questions that this text raises. And the stakes are high. The stakes are eternal salvation or damnation.
Let’s first be clear about what the unforgivable sin is not. It is not suicide. I know such a view has been made popular by Roman Catholic theology and popular culture. Suicide certainly isn’t a good thing and it certainly is a sin to hurt ourselves. But the scriptures never say it is unforgivable. The scriptures never really address suicide in any in depth way. We don’t have time today to get into all the different moral and theological issues involved in suicide. But I believe forgiveness is possible for suicide as it is possible for any other sin we commit.
Besides, it is clear from this passage that Jesus and the Pharisees are not talking about suicide. Jesus said these words after he had cast out demons from a man. In response to this amazing miracle the Pharisees mumbled to themselves, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” Beelzebub was another name for Satan. Jesus’ response to the accusation that he casts out demons by the power of the Devil is to point out the absurdity of the claim. He says that a house divided against itself cannot stand. Satan cannot cast out Satan. Then he turns the accusation on his rivals. He says to them if he casts out demons by Satan then their own exorcists could be guilty of doing so as well. And then Jesus tells them the power by which he deals with evil. He tells them, “If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Jesus makes clear evil in our lives can only be dealt with by the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells them that many things can be forgiven, even cursing against the Son of Man, a name Jesus often used to refer to himself. But not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. That will not be forgiven in this age or the age to come. So what is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? To put it simply blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is believing something that is doing is done by the Devil. It is believing that something that is inherently good is evil and something that is inherently evil is good. It is taking the way God sees things and flipping that on its head. And that attitude Jesus tells us is unforgivable.
Now if you are worrying about whether you have committed the unforgivable sin that probably means you have not. That worry is the Holy Spirit speaking to your conscience, witnessing to you your need for forgiveness, your need for a Savior. The unforgivable sin is characterized by self-deception. Those who have committed it and those in danger of committing it usually cannot admit it to themselves they are on that path. The unforgiveable sin is not something that we accidently fall into. It is not a mistake you make and then God is like, “oh you crossed the line, I am sorry, now there is no going back. Sorry no redoes, no refunds, you are done.” God is not that arbitrary. Instead, it is an attitude, it is a hardening of the heart, a warping of our state of mind, that leads us to a place where we don’t want forgiveness, where we may say with our lips that Jesus is Lord but in our hearts we don’t know what we are talking about. What Jesus is warning us about today is not open Devil worship, playing with Ouji boards, and human sacrifices. Most of us have the sense not to get involved in that sort of thing. What Jesus is warning us about is a more subtle self-deception where we think we are serving God but we are not. A self-deception where our beliefs are sincere but we are sincerely wrong.
There are practical examples of this in our everyday lives that don’t have to do with salvation but are good analogies for us to understand what Jesus is talking about. Perhaps you heard the news in 2015 that Disney Land in California suffered a measles outbreak. This happened because some parents falsely believed that vaccines cause autism. The vast amount of scientific evidence points to the fact that vaccines are safe and have minimal side effects. We can even see the reality of the power of vaccines with the almost near elimination of such diseases a polio. And yet people call something that is inherently good bad. Or take for instance the tobacco industry’s battle to convince people that smoking does not cause cancer. In that case a company tried to convince people that something bad was good. We know inherently when good is called evil or evil is called good there are consequences in this world. Jesus is just saying that there are also consequences in the spiritual world for believing that the work of God is evil. And those consequences are much more severe than a measles outbreak at Disney Land.
The eternal and pressing question is how do we not start down that path towards the unforgivable sin? I think there are three things we need to know to avoid this unforgivable sin.
- The work of the Holy Spirit
- The root of the unforgivable sin.
To be sure that we don’t blasphemy the Holy Spirit we need to know who He is and what He does. The Holy Spirit is one of the three members of the Trinity. We believe God is one God but in three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now all the members of the Trinity work together but they also have different focuses or responsibilities. The Holy Spirit, in the scriptures has three primary responsibilities.
- The Holy Spirit reveals to us the Truth. Particularly the Truth about Jesus Christ
- The Holy Spirit helps us bear fruit for the Christian Life
- The Holy Spirit empowers us for ministry.
Jesus, in John 15:26 tells us that when the Holy Spirit, or the Spirit of Truth comes, He will witness to us about Jesus. The Holy Spirit reveals Jesus’ identity to us. That he is both Lord and Savior, God and Man, and that no one can come to the Father except through him. That is why the unforgivable sin is often called the sin of unbelief. Because part it is theological. Part of it is openly denying the person and work of Jesus Christ. There is a hell and you can’t avoid it without Jesus. And yet, the unforgivable sin isn’t as simple as denying Jesus or cursing the name of Jesus. As Jesus says in this passage you can be forgiven for that. The text book case is Peter, a man who said he believed in Jesus, but denied him publicly. Jesus says in Matthew 10:32, “ So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” Peter, based on the face value of his actions, would seem to meet the criteria of one who denied Jesus. And yet he became one of the leaders of the church. The lesson is that God is in it for the long game. As long as we have breath in our lungs God is not done with us yet. So while confession of faith and faithfulness are important God knows that we are more than the sum of our mistakes and we can always come back to him in repentance.
Next, we learn that the Holy Spirit helps us bear fruit in the Christian life. In other words, the Holy Spirit shapes us to make our behavior reflect that of Jesus Christ. As Paul tells us in Galatians 5:22-24, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control; against such things there is no law.” Jesus says not all who call him Lord know what they are talking about but only those who do the will of his Father who is in heaven. Now none of us will grow in all of these fruit in equal amounts because we are not Jesus. But we can expect to bear more fruit as we progress in our Christian walk.
Finally, the Holy Spirit equips us with gifts for ministry. Much of the time these can be everyday gifts like mercy or administration. Sometimes the gifts can be more spectacular such as healing, prophecy, or miracles. But the gifts are given not for our own amusement but for the common good and to help proclaim the name of Jesus Christ. So if we hear people going against these things we begin to get a sense that we are going down the road of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
Finally, how do we not go down that road, that unforgivable route where we call good evil and evil good? What is the root of the unforgivable sin? I believe the root of the unforgivable sin is envy and we avoid it by embracing our calling.
As Talbot Davis argues in his book Head Scratchers envy is at the center of this sin. The Pharisees hated Jesus because he was speaking the Truth and he was doing things that they could not do. The power of God was with Jesus and exposed the lack of integrity and power in their own ministry. To quote Talbot, “ You know what envy is right? It’s not jealously. Jealousy is saying, “I want what you have.” Envy takes it a step further and says, “I want what you have, and I don’t want you to have it anymore.” Envy is the art of counting another’s blessings instead of your own. Envy is a thief. It takes the image of God we all carry and makes it all but unrecognizable, robbing us of the ability to see the image of God in others and in ourselves.” These words struck me. I can’t tell you how many times I have judged mega churches because I am a small church pastor. I often think to myself. They are growing but they have a shallow faith. Maybe that is true. Maybe it isn’t. The Spirit can help us discern that. But I know the place my heart is coming from in thinking that isn’t right. It is a dangerous place. Where is your place of envy? Where is your road sign tempting you towards the unforgivable path?
How do we keep away from that path of envy and jealously, what the Bible would call coveting? The answer I believe is knowing our calling. The answer is knowing who God is and knowing who we are and being comfortable with that. Recently, I have been reading Under the Unpredictable Plant, by Eugene Peterson. Peterson is perhaps one of the most famous Presbyterian ministers in our denomination. This book is about his calling. And as I read it I saw that his being famous means very little to Peterson. He reflects on how often working in churches tempted him to sell out his ministry, it caused him sometimes to forget why he became a pastor in the first place. But in this book he tells us why he became a pastor;
“God and passion. That is why I was a pastor, that is why I had come to this place: to live in the presence of God, to live with passion-and to gather others into the presence of God, introducing them into the possibilities of a passionate life.” (Peterson, 44) God and passion. That brought me to tears. Because that is why I entered into ministry as well. And I think that is what we are all seeking. But sometimes that gets lost because we all need to make a living. And in that process of the daily grind we can lose ourselves, we can lose our center, we can be tempted because of envy, because of fear, because of many things, to call good evil and evil good. We can come to believe the lie. And once we believe the lie we can become the lie.
Along with being a pastor Eugene Peterson is also called to be a writer. Now you may be thinking that is obvious since he has published a lot of books and made a good deal of money. But vocation and occupation are not always the same thing. And sometimes in pursuing or vocation as an occupation we can compromise the integrity of our call. This moment came for Peterson when he accepted a commission to be a ghostwriter for someone. Before this opportunity Peterson had been submitting his writing to publishers for several years and he only got rejection slips. He was elated to have some validation even if people believed it was the writing of someone else. Peterson accepted the assignment and he got paid well. What he wrote was even published by a firm that had rejected his writing when it was under his own name. He knew he could continue writing that way. It was good work. But he wasn’t alive when he did it. It was a job. It wasn’t his calling. To continue down that path would be for him living a lie. As Jesus would say what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his soul?
That is how Jesus is in this passage and in our lives. He knows why he came. And he doesn’t care if the Pharisees find it acceptable or not. He came to bind the strong man and to pillage his house. He came to destroy the works of the Devil. He came to shine a light in the darkness and to set the captive free. To call such good, such holiness, such power, such freedom, evil, well yes, that is nothing less than unforgivable.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.