Is there such a thing as an unforgivable sin?
It’s a dreadful thing to do something so bad that it could never be forgiven.
There are certain things that our society treats as unforgiveable. Certain forms of abuse. Specific crimes from years back. Things that will leave the offenders tarred forever, standing no chance of ever integrating back into society again.
But what about with God? Is there anything that is so awful God could never forgive it?
If there was, we’d do anything we can to steer around it. The thought of doing something so bad that God will never forgive it, not in this life, not in the life to come – it’s unthinkable.
Well look at verse 32 of today’s reading: “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” “…will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
So we’d better know what he’s talking about.
The key to understanding any text in the Bible is its context.
We’re in Matthew chapter 12. Matthew chapters 5 to 9 set out the authority of Jesus. He taught with authority. He acted with authority, performing great miracles.
In chapter 10, he shared his authority with his disciples, so they could spread the good news.
But then in chapters 11 and 12 we’ve been watching as Jesus’ authority is rejected. John the Baptist had second thoughts. The cities where Jesus performed most of his miracles did not repent. The Pharisees wanted him dead.
And in today’s passage Matthew is asking whether it matters. Does it matter if Jesus is rejected? Does it matter if Jesus’ authority is rejected? Or is it no big deal? You can think what you like of various political leaders. You can like or dislike thinkers of the past. In the same way, can you just walk away from Jesus, he’s just another thinker, just another leader?
That’s Matthew’s question for today.
Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit
And the story that gives him the chance to answer it is another healing miracle. Here was a man with three problems. He was demon-possessed. He was blind. And he was mute – couldn’t talk.
In verse 22, Matthew records in a very matter of fact way: “Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see.” The miracle is not his concern. It’s the discussion that followed.
The crowd loved it. Verse 23: “All the people were astonished and said, ‘Could this be the Son of David?’” By this stage in Matthew’s gospel, we know the answer to that question. Yes, he is the Son of David, the promised Messiah.
But then comes the other reaction. Verse 24: “But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.’”
“There’s only one reason he’s got the demons wrapped around his little finger. He must be working for the chief demon, Beelzebul, Satan, the devil. Demons are loyal. They know their master. So Jesus must be the voice of their master.”
The first thing Jesus does is show them how absurd this is. It’s deeply illogical. Jesus is destroying the demons. He’s taking their toys away. He’s depriving them of the people they’ve been controlling. Robbing them of their spoils. How ridiculous to suggest that the devil is doing this to his own troops! It makes no sense at all.
Verse 25: “Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand?”
In fact, if anything, the suggestion reflects badly on them. Other Jews of Jesus’ day were performing exorcisms. Jesus did by far the best. He had a 100% success rate. So if he was working in cahoots with the devil, what does that say about the Pharisees who did it? “If I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges.”
No, that’s not how Jesus is able to control and drive out these demons. There’s another explanation. Verse 28: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”
This is the work of God’s Spirit.
That’s no surprise. Last week, we saw Matthew quote a passage from Isaiah 42, which describes Jesus as the one that God has put his Spirit on. God put his Spirit on Jesus to equip him to put the world right. And that’s what’s going on here. One of the things that is not right is the grip that evil has. One of the things that is not right is the way that evil can take control of a person’s life and hold them captive. So Jesus is driving out these demons, and he’s doing it by the power of the Spirit of God.
But the Pharisees twist this terribly. There’s Jesus doing wonderful things. There’s Jesus driving out evil in the power of the Spirit. And the Pharisees attribute it to the devil.
This, he tells them, is nothing less than blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
And hopefully we can now see why.
Blasphemy is speaking badly, disrespectfully, dismissively, of God.
Jesus is doing what he’s doing in the power of the Spirit. But they’re attributing it to evil. They’re refusing to recognise that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised one, the one who has God’s Spirit to make God’s world better again.
That is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
If they’d only been blaspheming against the Son of Man, they could still be forgiven. The Son of Man is Jesus’ favourite way of talking about himself. People say all kinds of things against Jesus. People misunderstand Jesus in all kinds of ways. None of those are unforgiveable. Except this one thing: To fail to recognise that he is the one God has sent into this world as our rescuer.
That’s unforgiveable, because it means a person cannot take hold of the rescue for themselves. They cannot take hold of the forgiveness for themselves.
There’s been a shipwreck at sea. Survivors are in the water, and an offshore lifeboat reaches them to rescue them. It pulls up alongside the first survivor. They decide that the lifeboat is really a pirate skiff, decked out as a lifeboat. So they refuse the rope.
That’s a mistake that will see them drown. Not because the lifeboat crew will do anything to make them drown. But simply because, for as long as they think the lifeboat that has come to save them is actually something bad, they’ll never grab hold of that rope. At any point, they could change their view. The lifeboat will come back and give them lots of chances. All they have to do is decide that this lifeboat really is there to save them, grab hold of the rope, and they’ll be safe. But for as long as they persist in sending the lifeboat away, thinking it’s there to hurt them, they’ll drown. And eventually, they’ll run out of chances, run out of time.
That’s what’s going on with these Pharisees. That’s what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is all about. They look at Jesus, and decide he’s something bad. When in fact he’s the one God sent into the world to rescue them. But for as long as they persist in sending him away, thinking he’s there to hurt them, they won’t be forgiven. And eventually they’ll run out of chances, run out of time, and they’ll never be forgiven – not now, not in eternity.
Now that we’ve understood what blasphemy against the Spirit means, let’s return to the question we began with. Does it matter if someone rejects Jesus? Does it matter if someone decides not to follow Jesus?
Matthew gives us three reasons why it does matter.
It sets us against Jesus
Firstly, it matters because it sets us against Jesus. It sets us against Jesus.
Verse 30: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”
There’s no middle ground with Jesus. Either you’re on his side, or you’re against him.
So if you say “no, thank you” to him, you’re setting yourself against him.
Don’t kid yourself you can politely decline Jesus, and it doesn’t matter. If you’re not with him, you’re against him, you’re taking him on.
It sets us against Jesus.
It puts us beyond forgiveness
Second, it matters because it puts us beyond forgiveness. It puts us beyond forgiveness.
This is the bit we’ve just been looking at.
God has no “plan B”. He sent Jesus into the world to rescue us. He sent Jesus into the world to take everything that’s broken and make it good again. God’s forgiveness is wonderfully open to everyone who trusts Jesus, no matter what they’ve done. It’s free, and it’s bigger than the biggest things you’ve done wrong.
But you do have to accept the offer. Jesus is “plan A” and there is no “plan B”.
To go back to the lifeboat image, there’s no second lifeboat for those who said “no, thank you” to the first one. You may get many chances to get on that lifeboat, but if you persist in saying “no” there’s no second boat coming along behind to get you.
So, again, don’t kid yourself you can politely decline Jesus and it doesn’t matter. If you say “no, thank you” to Jesus, there is no other way for God to forgive you.
It puts us beyond forgiveness.
It works against you at the judgement.
Third, it matters because it works against you at the judgement. It works against you at the judgement.
Jesus doesn’t mince his words. He calls the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” in verse 34. It’s language he used before, back in chapter 3. Where he also used the picture of the tree.
How do you know what kind of tree you have in your garden? Wait for autumn. If it grows apples, it’s an apple tree. If it grows pairs, it’s a pair tree.
How do you know what’s going on inside a person’s heart? You can’t see inside their heart. But you can see the fruit. What kind of life is the result of what happens inside their heart?
In Matthew 3, Jesus used this picture to speak of the kind of life a person leads. The way we live is the fruit. Here, he’s much more specific. He goes for a particular dimension of life. The fruit is what we say.
Verse 34: “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Verse 36: “But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
That’s the problem these Pharisees have got. This life is not all there is. Death is not the end. After death comes judgement. And the evidence God will use as he judges us is the words we have spoken.
And in the Pharisees case, things are not looking good. They’ve just betrayed what they truly think about Jesus by what they’ve said about him. And, because Jesus is the one God sent into the world in the power of the Spirit, they’ve just betrayed what they truly think about God. When those words are played back before God’s court, they won’t have a leg to stand on.
So, once again, don’t kid yourself you can politely decline Jesus and it doesn’t matter. If you say “no, thank you” to Jesus, there will come a moment when those words will be played back. They’ll be played back at the judgement, at the end of life, as God is ruling on your eternal destiny.
It works against you at the judgement.
So, is there such a thing as an unforgiveable sin?
There is, but it’s none of the things our society thinks is unforgiveable.
It may be that some of us here have done things that we think could never be forgiven. They’re so awful. If other people knew, they’d never want to talk to us again. And you’re convinced that God knows, and there’s no way he could possibly forgive you.
Well there’s good news. God sent Jesus into the world. He put his Spirit on him, to send him into the world, to put everything right. To mend what’s broken. He died on the cross so that he could offer full and free forgiveness for everyone who trusts him .His death on the cross was so big, so precious, so costly, that it’s big enough to cover even “that sin”.
The only thing that can never be forgiven is saying “no” to this Jesus.
Do that, and you’re taking sides against him. Do that, and you’re refusing the only way there is to be forgiven. Do that, and your refusal will come back to haunt you at the judgement.
But instead of saying “no” to Jesus, you can say “… yes”. Say “yes”, and you’re on his side. Say “yes”, and there’s full and free forgiveness. Say “yes”, and the verdict at the judgement is already determined to be “not guilty”.
Which will be your response to Jesus? What word will be played back before the court? “No”. Or “yes”?