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The Unforgivable Sin

Matthew 12:22-37

Lesson audio


It comes as a surprise to modern man that there could be such a thing as unforgivable sin. Since the modern position is that man passes judgment on God, not the other way around, it would seem that here is a point to parallel Sodom and Gomorrah – after all, shouldn’t the loving God forgive everything? We shall see.

House Divided

Then a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute was brought to Jesus, and He healed him, so that the mute man spoke and saw. All the crowds were amazed, and were saying, "This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?" But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, "This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons." And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, "Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. "If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? "If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges. "But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. "Or how can anyone enter the strong man's house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.

(Mat 12:22-29 NASB)

The principle

It is common to quote Lincoln when he said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” But if you dig through the older editions of Familiar Quotations, you will see that this quotation comes from this section of Scripture. Lincoln was quoting it, knowing that virtually all his hearers would understand the principle as given in the Scripture. It was an apt quotation, considering the strife of the Civil War.

But the principle has not gone away. Our nation now blesses “tolerance” (by which we mean intolerance of the Truth, in favor of whatever…) and “diversity” (by which we mean “it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’re sincere.”) This cannot continue; we will either continue as a Christian nation or break apart – for we are a house divided.

Worse than that, the American church is a house divided. I do not mean Roman Catholic vs. Protestant; that division remains but (in America at least) seems to have lost its power. Indeed, the evangelical and Catholic find common ground in things like our opposition to abortion. The right wing Catholic holds to many tenets that our common with the evangelical Christian – but not common with the “mainstream” church. Even in the evangelical churches, the apostate is common enough.

The Great Divide

The point was raised here by Jesus in answer to a severe accusation. There are three answers to the only question: Who do you say Jesus is?

  • Liar. This is the accusation they raise here, that Jesus is in league with the father of lies, Satan.
  • Lunatic. In their time, this would be demon possession. He is an unwitting or unwilling pawn of Satan.
  • Lord. He is who He says He is: God in the flesh.

The first two are dealt with by this argument. Jesus simply points out that Satan does not oppose Satan. Ultimately, the fraud is exposed – or the light shines through. Here, in meekness, Christ confronts his adversaries. His claim is not made in arrogance but in humility – which neither the liar nor the lunatic would do.

Easy to accuse, hard to prove

In our own time we have added a new wrinkle to the argument: conspiracy theories. Of course, the proof a great conspiracy is that there is no proof for it; it’s all been hidden so well. Knowing that, the conspiracy depends upon a selective memory for facts. Start with your theory; select the facts to “prove” it; declare all other relevant facts to be lies and distortion by the evil priesthood of the church. For example:

  • The Da Vinci Code. Pieces of this have been around for quite a while. Note that the work is advertised as a work of fiction, while presenting itself as being based on the facts. (Satan is alive and well.)
  • Gnosticism. Of course, the “true facts” have to come from somewhere. The Gnostics were the early church’s Da Vinci code. They professed to having received “secret revelations” from God.
  • Mormonism (and a bunch of other so called prophets). These profess in our own time to be additional revelations from God – which are being persecuted by the Pharisees of the church. “We’re the only ones who have the real truth.”

It is fitting that this section starts with the healing of a man blind and mute. Satan wants to control what you see and hear; as we shall see, this is the back door to the things you treasure. That treasure Satan wants to claim as his own.

The Unforgivable Sin

"He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters. "Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. "Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.

(Mat 12:30-32 NASB)

“…in all Holy Scripture there is not perhaps so great or so difficult a question as this.” (Augustine).

What is it, really?

The truth of the matter seems evanescent. Christ mentions it; John the Apostle; Paul too – but it seems we have only a limited insight on it. But perhaps we can narrow it down a bit:

  • First, it is clearly not a “sin of the flesh.” It must be a sin of the spirit, for it is against the Holy Spirit, who is not corporeal.
  • Second, we know from history of the early church that virtually all the heresies which arose attacked the Trinity in some fashion. Since we have mystic union by the Holy Spirit, who indwells all Christians, any attack on the Trinity (and thus the divine appointment of the Church) must be this sin. Or so the early church fathers concluded.
  • Note, too, that the phrase is “who speaks a word” against Christ (logos). But it is “speaks against” the Holy Spirit. This carries with it the verb tense of continuous present tense. From this we can conclude it takes some time to commit the unforgivable sin.

My own view is in line with these ideas. Forgiveness is a process. First you must hear the Word; then you must repent. If you refuse to repent, you are calling the Spirit a liar, for the task of the Spirit is to convict the world of sin and judgment to come.

Can hell hold heaven hostage?

One might ask, why should there be an unforgivable sin? After all, God is a loving God, forgiveness is part of His nature of love. Why, then, would God proclaim a certain sin to be unforgivable? Consider the opposite position: a man could spend his life in sin, telling God that He’ll just have to put up with it and forgive it – it’s God’s hobby, you know. Indeed, he could make himself to be his own hostage; if God doesn’t forgive, I’ll do something even worse. This is the state in which man has no conviction of judgment to come; if this can be forgiven, then what was the purpose in Christ’s death? This position denies sin and repentance; how then can such a person be saved?

Interestingly, there are schisms in the church over this matter. The most famous is that of one Novation. His sect arose after the end of the great Diocletian persecution. Many weak Christians simply gave in to the demand of Diocletian that he be recognized as a god. When the persecution was over, many who had seen their family members dipped in tar, crucified in the morning and lit as a torch in the evening were unwilling to accept the repentance of those who gave in to the pressure. Novation called this the unforgivable sin. His schism died out as those who had been through the persecution died out.

The modern church errs in the other direction. She denies that the unforgivable sin exists. There are now “alternate paths” to God, according to mainstream churches. There is no sense of this in the Scripture – but this is what defines the mainstream church. As the Episcopalians did when they began ordaining homosexual priests, they announced that they were guided by the Holy Spirit in doing so. This is, in my opinion, a further fracturing of the Church Christ loves.

Fundamental unity of the church

One of the common characteristics of Christians is that they believe in the unity of the church. “He who is not with me is against me.” There’s a line in the sand to cross, not a fence to straddle. For those who cross that line, Christ prays that we should all be one. Indeed, the instruction is rather clear:

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift.

(Eph 4:1-7 NASB)

The church is the body of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit.[1] You are either in, or out. If you refuse conviction of sin, and therefore decline repentance, you are out. As long as you do this, you are unforgivable – because you do not ask forgiveness.

By their fruits

"Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. "You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. "The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. "But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. "For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."

(Mat 12:33-37 NASB)

Make the tree

Notice, please, that Christ’s words to the Pharisees start with, “make the tree.” It is clear, therefore, that this is something we have a choice in. We cannot choose to be/not be a tree (human); we can choose which kind of tree.

It also means that we have the power to do this, for Christ does not command that which cannot be done. (He often commands that which cannot be done unaided by the Spirit.)

This section is addressed to the Pharisees. They are those who live by their works, not their faith. Christ therefore appeals to their own conception of good works. He pleads with all to repent and be forgiven, but the plea comes in many different ways.

Out of his treasure

In another place Christ refers to this as “out of his storehouse.” Note the key word, treasure. He is not talking about the things you have, but the things you treasure. It is a question of the will.

There are those who treasure things evil. It may be a string of adulteries; a fascination with the toys of this world or, worse yet, pride. There are those who treasure things which are good.

Is this important? The Day of Judgment is one day closer today; it’s coming is sure. Then where will your treasure be?

Every careless word

Note that the phrase is “every careless word.” The justice of God will be very fine on the Day. The admonition applies to all of us. And if this is so, what does this say about our not-so-careless words?

The principle of the yardstick is still with us: by what you speak you will be judged. God is simply using the yardstick you us – and proclaim to all others.

[1] 1 Corinthians 12:13

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