Is there a sin that cannot be forgiven? That is one of the subjects of today’s Gospel. Jesus does indeed say that there is a sin that will not be forgiven – but we need to try to understand what He means exactly. Compared to God, we are very hard on one another. We hold grudges about even very insignificant things: someone who never says “thank you,” someone who forgot to take the trash out again, someone who always takes over a conversation. Even when we are prepared to forgive bigger things, it is frequently the small things that we don’t want to let go of.
We can be sure that if there is something Christ is warning us about, a sin that will not be forgiven, it is not something petty. Commonly we understand blasphemy as the material vain utterance of the Lord’s name, or mixing curse words with the sacred. I’ve met people who are so paranoid that maybe once in their former ignorance they could have uttered a bad word in connection with the Holy Spirit that they confess it every time in confession. While there is a demonstration of humility in this sort of confession, I don’t think it gets to the heart of what would make a sin unforgivable.
I’ve also found other interpretations of the unforgivable sin. Some have said that since the Holy Spirit has the special mission to bring remission of sins to those who confess them, a refusal to confess would be unforgivable. In some ways, this is a very natural and coherent explanation since mercy can only be fully received by someone who wants it. Forgiveness is God’s love for us, and a refusal to receive or extend that same love would also be in a way unforgivable. These understandings of what could make a sin unforgivable are not permanent however – they depend on the disposition of the one who refuses forgiveness.
Some Church Fathers press on a little further. Anyone who has received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and is aware of divine life and love in their hearts, but nevertheless turns away and rejects that gift cannot be forgiven. Rather than make us fearful of damnation, however, this understanding ought to lead us to revere the significance of the gift we have received. The stronger our experience of the gift of the Holy Spirit, the more we come to rely upon that gift, the less likely or probable it is that we would ever turn away. The assurance of our salvation comes from a very real experience of God’s love and mercy and of our great need for it.
Insofar as a rebellion of the flesh against the rebellious soul prompted our parents to cover their shame, they experienced one kind of death—God’s desertion of the soul. It was this death that was intimated when God asked Adam, who was beside himself with fear and in hiding, “Where are you?” This was not asked, of course, because God did not know the answer. Rather, it was asked in order to scold Adam by reminding him that there really was nowhere that he could be, once God was not in him.1
The power of God the Father and God the Son is at work in the whole of creation. The saints are those who are fully receiving life in the Holy Spirit. Accordingly it is said, “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord except in the Holy Spirit.” However unworthy the apostles might have been, they were told: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit is come upon you.” This is what is referred to by the phrase, “he who has sinned against the Son of Man is worthy of forgiveness.” Even if one at times ceases to live according to this divine word, even if one falls into ignorance or folly, the way is not blocked to true penitence and forgiveness. But one who has once been counted worthy to share in life in the Holy Spirit and then finally turns back again in apostasy is by this very act and deed said to have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit.2
No one who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit can imagine saying “anathema” to Jesus.8 No one in the Spirit would deny that Christ is the Son of God, or reject God as Creator. No believer would utter such things contrary to Scriptures, or substitute alien or sacrilegious ordinances contrary to moral principles. But if anyone shamelessly blasphemes against this same Holy Spirit, he “does not have forgiveness, either in this world or in the world to come.”9 For it is the Spirit who through the apostles offers testimony to Christ,10 who in the martyrs manifests unwavering faith, and who in the lives of the chaste embraces the admirable continence of sealed chastity.11 It is the Spirit who, among the whole church, guards the laws of the Lord’s teaching uncorrupted and untainted, destroys heretics, corrects those in error, reproves unbelievers, reveals impostors, and corrects the wicked.3
It is not that this was a blasphemy which under no circumstances could be forgiven, for even this shall be forgiven if right repentance follows it.4
- CITY OF GOD 13.15. Louth, A., & Conti, M. (Eds.). (2001). Genesis 1–11 (p. 84). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON FIRST PRINCIPLES 1.3.7. Oden, T. C., & Hall, C. A. (Eds.). (1998). Mark (Revised) (p. 44). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- THE TRINITY 29. Oden, T. C., & Hall, C. A. (Eds.). (1998). Mark (Revised) (p. 44). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- SERMONS ON NEW TESTAMENT LESSONS 21.35. Oden, T. C., & Hall, C. A. (Eds.). (1998). Mark (Revised) (p. 45). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.