What is the Unforgivable Sin?

I pastored a church, once, in a community where a homosexual man worked for a funeral home. One of the ladies in our church, the one who claimed the church was the most loving church anyone could ever find, hated this man because he was a practicing homosexual. “Don’t ever let that man do anything at my funeral,” she would say, “Homosexuality is the unforgivable sin.”

Matthew is showing us Jesus’s teachings about the kingdom of Heaven. The Pharisees have just accused Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan. Jesus has answered them and now explains some doctrinal truth related to their accusation and His own answer.

Matthew 12:31-37

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.

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.

The unforgivable sin (v. 31-32)

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.

When Jesus says, “Therefore…” He is referring to what has preceded His following teaching. He is going to say what He is about to say because of what transpired directly before this passage in the story. Jesus healed a demon-possessed, blind, and mute man. The Pharisees accused Him of casting out demons by Satan. Jesus claimed to be binding up Satan so He might steal His people from darkness and bring them into the light. Those who gather to Christ while Satan is bound are His. Those who do not gather to Christ, like the Pharisees, scatter into the darkness and is against Christ (see the notes by clicking here).

Because Jesus is stealing His people out of the darkness and those who are not with Him are against Him, He says what He does to the Pharisees (v. 24-25). Jesus begins His statement with hope—any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people. Here, Jesus refers to a type of sin and not every single, individual instance. Jesus is alluding to a principle He defined from the Old Testament earlier in the story; God said about Himself, “I desire compassion and not a sacrifice” (v. 7). As we read in the story leading up to this passage, the Pharisees were legalistic people. They added to God’s Law. Their goal was to, by religious ritual, keep God’s Law and be righteous. Jesus revealed the absurdity of such works-based religion. God desires our hearts, not our religious systems. So, Jesus applies the Old Testament principle by teaching that every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven except for one—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

The text isn’t clear, yet, about what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is. All we can know is that this unforgivable sin relates somehow to the pharisees’ accusation against Jesus, that He was casting out demons in Satan’s name, and to Jesus’s claim that he who is not with Jesus is against Him. Jesus makes a brief clarification before explaining the unforgivable sin. Blasphemy against both the Father and Son will be forgiven. People who make Jesus their enemy and who deny God may be forgiven. Those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven because of the nature of this sin, whatever it is.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit explained (v. 33-37)

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.

Jesus’s teaching concerning the unforgivable sin relates somehow to His teaching in the sermon on the mount, in which He taught,

So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.

Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (7:17-23).

Jesus has consistently held to this root produces fruit anthropology. A person can’t simply be a good tree. A good tree has good roots. Good roots are evidenced by good fruit. In this case, having good roots means being known by Christ. If a person is not known by Christ, he or she does not have good roots and, therefore, cannot produce good fruit—he or she is not a good tree. In modern formulation, we say that regeneration precedes and causes faith and faith precedes and causes good works in a broad, God-honoring sense. To see a fuller explanation, see my notes on Matthew 7:17-23 passage by clicking here for part 1 and here for part 2. Jesus is alluding to His earlier teaching to make a statement about the Pharisees He is talking to regarding the unforgivable sin.

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.

Jesus calls these pharisees a brood of vipers, or sons of snakes, to their faces. The Bible uses this type of language in other places to refer to other people. In 1 Samuel 2:12, “Worthless” is translated from בני בליעל, which literally translates to “sons of Belial” or “sons of destruction” or “sons of wickedness.” In 2 Corinthians 6:15, the Hebrew “בליעל” was transliterated into the Greek “Βελιαρ,” which is pronounced “Beliar.” It is used as a proper name for the one who is the Christ’s opposition, the devil or Satan. Belial would become a personification of wickedness and Paul will use the term as a name for Satan. The sentence structure of 1 Samuel 2:12 makes it clear that Hophni and Phinehas were sons of Belial in a manner which paralleled the fact that they were sons of Eli. The same phraseology is used to describe their sonship under both Eli and Belial in the Hebrew. They were in the spiritual lineage of wickedness, born of wickedness. When Jesus employs this language, He asserts that these pharisees are in the spiritual lineage of wickedness—sons of Satan.

Because they are sons of Satan by nature, they are evil; these pharisees have bad roots, which makes them bad trees no matter what they do. No matter what they try to teach, they are unable to speak what is good, bear good fruit, because their roots are bad. The mouth speaks from the heart, not merely the brain. This is why so many teachers can consider themselves to be sound teachers but not preach sound doctrine or honor God with their speech. If a person is good, in this case being known by Christ and having had his or her heart regenerated in Christ, he speaks from his new, rich heart and not from his unrighteous nature. Again we see that regeneration precedes and causes faith; faith precedes and causes good fruit (in this case, sound teaching). Any teacher, then, who is not first regenerated by Christ will not be able to represent Christ well as he teaches. No person can cause his or her own heart to be regenerated. We can’t change our own spiritual lineage. Christ must choose to adopt us and know us. As He taught in the previous passage, He must be the one to steal us from the darkness. There is no way we can contribute to that work. It’s in His hands.

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.

People, particularly these pharisees, will be held to account for everything they carelessly teach. By their words they will either be justified or condemned. Verses like this are often misappropriated to insist that if a person simply speaks or does the correct things, he or she will be justified before God. We’ve already seen through Matthew’s Gospel and in this passage that root produces fruit. Jesus explicitly identifies these pharisees’ words or teachings as their fruits. Without first being regenerated, stolen by Christ from the darkness, a person stands against Christ and his or her words, particularly teaching, reflects his or her opposition to Christ. Judging from the fruit, a person’s words or teaching, a person’s roots are revealed—they are either regenerate or not and the way they teach reveals which.

The unforgivable sin, then, at the root is to be in the spiritual lineage of Satan—not chosen or rescued from the darkness by Christ and not to have been given a regenerate heart. The fruit is self-interested teaching such as the pharisees submitted in their accusations against Jesus. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then, is for a person to try in word and deed to fulfill the role in his or her own life that only the Holy Spirit can fill—to try to be righteous instead of receiving Christ’s regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit refers to legalistic living. Rather than loving God, a person is given to religious ritual and legalism as if he or she actually has something to offer—their lives are more about what they can or must do rather than what Christ did. They read and teach Scripture like a list of restrictions and permissions rather than to simply know God.

In considering this, we remember the foundation of Christ’s teaching. Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand (4:17). It is through repentance, not by being good, that we are forgiven and given eternal life.

What we have seen about the kingdom of Heaven so far:

Kingdom of HeavenKingdom of This World
Kingdom of priestsKingdom of consumers
Kingdom of prestige even for the leastKingdom of comparison and contrast
Kingdom of judgment even for the greatest
Exists throughout time—even before Christ’s incarnation
A people not a physical locationDefined by visible structures and conquests
Kingdom of suffering in the midst of this worldKingdom of force
Able to hear and understand Christ’s teachingUnable to hear and understand Christ’s teaching
Kingdom of wisdomKingdom of faultfinding
Kingdom of repentanceKingdom of pride
Chosen and built by God’s will aloneRejected by God’s will alone
Kingdom of restKingdom of merit
Kingdom of libertyKingdom of restriction
Kingdom of willing purityKingdom of unwilling rule-keeping
Kingdom of healingKingdom of using people
Kingdom whereby all human life is absolutely sacredKingdom whereby rules, programs, and organizations are elevated above  human worth
Kingdom of sincerity in learningKingdom of dogma
Kingdom of satisfaction and enjoymentKingdom of bondage and decay
A people forgiven of every imaginable sinA people not forgiven because they are not regenerate

Questions:

  1. Does someone commit the unforgivable sin, or is the unforgivable sin a state of the heart?
  2. How can a person be justified by his or her words if salvation is by grace alone through faith alone?
  3. What does it mean to receive Christ’s gift through repentance rather than works, and that any works are merely the fruit?
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