What’s the unforgivable sin? (Matthew 12:30-32)

Ever worried you’ve committed the unpardonable sin?

You’re a baptized follower of Jesus, but you’ve blown it. Like, really blown it. Have you messed up your one chance to be saved? Have you committed the unpardonable sin? This question has troubled believers for 2000 years.

Are some sins unforgivable? How about these words from Jesus:

Matthew 12:31-32 (my translation, compare ESV)
31 The point of what I’m saying is that all kinds of wrongdoing and slander against people will be forgiven, but slandering the Spirit won’t be forgiven. 32 If someone speaks a word against the son of man, it will be forgiven them, but if someone speaks against the Holy Spirit it will not be forgiven them, in this era or the coming one.

Hear what Jesus said in his context. He’s the divinely appointed king (Christ), restoring God’s reign. Yet, the towns of Galilee have not accepted his kingship (11:20-24), even though he’s doing what Isaiah said the servant of the Lord would do (12:15-21).

The Pharisees who hold power in these towns accuse him of being a Satanic agent (12:24). If Jesus is king, that’s an act of rebellion, and the rulers of this world don’t take too kindly to being demonized like that. Speak against Herod, and he’d throw you into prison. Slander Pilate, and he’d run you through with a sword.

Jesus is a different kind of king, He has neither prison nor sword to enforce his authority. Instead of handing down sentence on the insubordinate town leaders, the king offers them a pardon!

That’s the problem. How can a ruler’s authority stand if it’s not enforced? That’s the reason we have armies. This was precisely why Jesus was crucified: his claim to be “King of the Jews” was untenable.

So how can Jesus ever gain authority if he doesn’t silence those who want to destroy him (12:14)? They accuse him of being a spy for their enemies, destroying Israel for Satan, and Jesus benignly says, “You know what, you can be forgiven for insulting me!” How can that kind of leadership ever work?

Did you notice that Jesus did not say, “I forgive you for insulting me.” He was saying something more. “It will be forgiven” can be heard as referring to a higher authority, the authority he represents. As the son of David (12:23), Jesus is the earthly representative of the heavenly sovereign. The heavenly sovereign might forgive you for insulting his earthly representative, but if you reject the authority of the heavenly sovereign, then you really are stuck! There’s no higher authority to appeal to.

That’s why Jesus says that if these Galilean leaders continue to resist not only Jesus but  also the Spirit of the heavenly sovereign himself, they’re sunk. There is still a chance of God forgiving them for refusing the earthly representative of the heavenly king (son of man), but if they refuse God’s own Spirit, what hope do they have?

The Holy Spirit is wooing humanity back under divine kingship. But when someone rejects the work of God’s Holy Spirit who calls us all into submission to Jesus’ kingship, how can they be restored? Rejecting the Holy Spirit’s work is rejecting the only opportunity for forgiveness.

Did you see what Jesus did here? He did not enforce his kingship with prison or sword. Instead, he offered his critics both a pardon and a warning. He offered them a pardon, despite their slander (accusing him of working for Satan). But his work in healing (12:13) and releasing people from demons (12:22) demonstrates he is the servant of the Lord (12:15-21). His works are the works of the Holy Spirit. In slandering him for his works, they are in danger of slandering the Holy Spirit.

They can be forgiven for slandering and rejecting God’s human servant, but they cannot be forgiven if they keep slandering and rejecting God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus is doing God’s work in the power of the Holy Spirit, but if they keep attributing the Holy Spirit’s work to Satan, they can never be rescued.

The unforgivable sin is not some evil behaviour like murder or lust or malice. Humanity if full of that kind of evil. That’s why we need Jesus as our Saviour. But it is the Holy Spirit who does the work of regenerating human hearts. Holy Spirit restores us to the Father through the Son. What matters, then, is your responsiveness to the Holy Spirit who calls you to give allegiance to King Jesus.

When it comes to Jesus’ kingship over humanity, there’s no middle ground:

Matthew 12 30 The one who is not with me is against me. The one who is not gathering with me is scattering.

What others are saying

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 482–483:

The opening “therefore” indicates that in this context blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is to be understood in terms of the Pharisees’ charge in v. 24, attributing what is in fact the work of God’s Spirit (v. 28) to his ultimate enemy, Satan. It is thus a complete perversion of spiritual values, revealing a decisive choice of the wrong side in the battle between good and evil, between God and Satan. It is this which has shown these Pharisees to be decisively “against” Jesus (v. 30). And it is this diametrical opposition to the good purpose of God which is ultimately unforgivable. The point needs to be emphasized, since the language of this saying has sometimes been incautiously applied to real or supposed offenses “against the Holy Spirit” which have nothing to do with the blasphemy of these Pharisees, and serious pastoral damage has thus been caused. This saying is a wake-up call to the arrogant, not a bogey to frighten those of tender conscience.

Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 448:

The Pharisees have been mounting charges of blasphemy against Jesus, but now Jesus shows that all of their charges are actually blasphemy themselves.

[previous: Out of darkness]

[next: Why does context matter?]

Update 2022-04-30: Translation updated.

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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