What is the “Blasphemy Against the Spirit”?

crossing-crossroad-businessman-fashion-medium copyA friend recently asked a question about the “blasphemy against the Spirit” in the comments section of the “Key to Hebrews 6:4-6” post. I am posting my response here for those who may be interested. A lot of people wonder about this issue, and there are many misconceptions about it, so I hope this will clear at least some of the fog.

The Unpardonable Sin in the New Testament

The idea of an “unpardonable sin” can be traced to at least three passages in the New Testament. The first is found in the gospels and appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The full text in Matthew (12:22-36) reads as follows:

Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” 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? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. “Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house. “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 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. “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 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.”

The second passage is in 1 John 5:16:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.

The third passage is in Hebrews 6:4-6:

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. 

I dealt with the third passage here, and so I will omit it from this post.

A Work of the Spirit

Firstly, we need to notice that the Matthew 12 passage presents the ministry of the Holy Spirit in a way that is different to anything found in the first twelve chapters. Here we read Jesus’ words: “…I drive out demons by the Spirit of God…”

Secondly, we need to notice that a quote from the prophet Isaiah precedes the passage. It starts with the words: “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah” (v17). The quote is from Isaiah 42:1-4 and paves the way for the reference to the work of the Spirit in Jesus’ ministry:

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

Note that the passage in Isaiah points to several things that the Lord Jesus would do in his earthly ministry, but only to one thing that God the Father would do: “I will put my Spirit upon him.” It is God’s Spirit “upon” Jesus that would empower him to proclaim justice without having to quarrel, cry aloud or let his voice be heard in the streets. It is God’s Spirit who would enable Jesus to minister without breaking the bruised reed or quenching the smouldering wick, and to bring justice to victory and enable the Gentiles to hope in his name.

Why does Matthew quote the Isaiah passage? In verse 16 we read that Jesus had been healing people, and that he “ordered them not to make him known”. Matthew tells us that herein is a fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Naturally, for the whole point of the prophecy was to reveal that the active agent throughout Jesus’ ministry would be the Spirit of God and not the forceful efforts of a human being or a mere  audible testimony. That is how he would “proclaim justice” without needing to quarrel or cry, or even having people “hear his voice in the streets”. And so his order to the people not to make him known is a fulfilment of the prophecy.

A remarkable parallel of the principle embodies in Isaiah’s quote is found in Zachariah 4:6: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”

The “Anointed One” and the Kingdom

This brings us to the statement in verse 28: “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” According to the Old Testament prophets, the coming of the kingdom and the appearance of the Lord’s “anointed one” were one and the same thing. According to the New Testament, the “anointing” is the Holy Spirit who comes upon a person or dwells in a person. And so Jesus is saying that the manifestation of the “anointing” is a sign that the kingdom is at hand.

It is also for this reason that Jesus’ famous reading of Isaiah 61:1-2 in the synagogue, and his subsequent statement that “this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, began with the words “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…” It is the Spirit-anointing that validates the ministry of Jesus as the long awaited Messiah.

Many people are in fact ignorant of the fact that the two most important words that we have in the Bible to refer to Jesus, namely “Messiah” and “Christ”, both mean exactly the same thing: The Anointed One. Messiah is a transliteration (a phonetic transcription of a word from one language into another with no regard for its actual meaning) from the Hebrew mashiach and Christ from the Greek khristós. The “Anointed One” was the future Jewish king from the Davidic line, anointed to usher in and rule in God’s kingdom.

More Than a Mere Exorcism

What we find in Matthew 12 is thus more than the testimony of a man, or a mere miraculous exorcism. We find a unique display of the Spirit’s power, with the express intention of revealing the appearance of the king and his kingdom, combined with the deposition of the “prince of this world”, the evil ruler who is identified as “the strong man”. We see here the dawn of the messianic age, the era of the Spirit’s power and conviction.

The fact that this was the intention behind the miracle can be inferred from the people’s response. They were “astonished” and asked” Could this be the son of David?” (verse 23). That was exactly the point. The “son of David” was the Messiah, the Christ, the one chosen and anointed as king of Israel, just like David was before him. Driving out demons “by the Spirit of God” was intended as a sign that the kingdom was upon the people, that the king of that kingdom was in the process of being revealed and that the messianic prophecies were being fulfilled.

This is exactly the effect that the miracle had on the people, except of course for those who refused to acknowledge and respond to the the convicting power of the Holy Spirit. They were not merely skeptical about a supposed miracle, but were in fact hardening themselves to a direct revelation from the Father, through the Spirit, that Jesus was Lord and Christ. 

The Spirit as God’s Agent of Conviction

To appreciate the above, we need to consider that the “anointing” was never intended to remain on Jesus alone, but to be distributed amongst his followers. Even though Jesus performed miracles in “the power of the Spirit”, this was intended as a mere introduction to something much greater, deeper and more lasting. God’s purpose was that all who would respond to the revelation of his Son, through the activity of his Spirit, would ultimately receive the fullness of the Spirit for themselves.

This “promise” is evident in Old Testament passages, such as Ezekiel 36:26-27:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 

It is also evident from many New Testament passages, such as the following ones in John’s gospel:

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (14:26)

When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (16:13)

Years later, in his first epistle, John would look back on these promises and proclaim that they had been fulfilled:

But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him. (2:27)

It is clear from these passages that the way in which God deals with and speaks to human beings in this present age is through his Spirit.  Note Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. (1 Corinthians 2:9-12)

It is for this reason that the Holy Spirit is referred to as “the Spirit of truth” who “convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8).

The End of Ignorance and the Era of Accountability

If God comes to us” through his Spirit” in this present age, then it follows clearly that the way in which to resist him is is to resist his Spirit. By resisting God’s Spirit we are, in fact, resisting the only available channel of legitimate divine communication with him, and thus all potential benefits proclaimed by and accessible through the Spirit.

Simply put, the sin against the Holy Spirit is unique because the ministry of the Holy Spirit is unique. It is a ministry of illumination, of enlightenment, and so it brings an accountability to humanity hitherto unknown to them.

Space does not permit an in depth discussion of God’s willingness to overlook human ignorance, but let us at least note that the Bible has much more to say about this than what people generally realise. The following verses provide a few examples:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. (Acts 17:30)

Formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief. (1 Timoth 1:13)

And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more. (Luke 12:47-48)

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. (Matthew 11:21-22)

If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. (John 15:22)

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. (James 4:17)

The receive the illumination of the Holy Spirit is to have the both the problem and excuse of ignorance removed. It is for this reason that Jesus calls the rejection of the Holy Spirit an act of blasphemy. It is a willing, knowing rejection of God. It is a sin in the light and against the light. As God’s “agent” convicting a person of sin and righteousness, the Holy Spirit is the channel through which a person is led to confession, repentance and forgiveness. To resist the Holy Spirit is to willingly and knowingly resist the offer of forgiveness, and so it is a sin which cannot be pardoned on the grounds of ignorance or unintentionality.

Speaking Against the Son of Man

Note that Jesus said “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”. Why? 

The answer is remarkably simple: There is nothing in Jesus himself that reveals him to be the Messiah, and so to merely reject the historical Christ, without any revelation as to who he is, is on the same par as rejecting any self proclaimed prophet. It is an act of ignorance, the reason being that the ONLY way in which people could recognise Jesus as the Christ was through the convicting power of the Holy Spirit sent from the Father.

This is clear from a number of passages in the New Testament, but one stands out. When Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (See Matthew 16:13-16), their answer revealed that no one knew: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But then he asked Peter, who replied: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Note Jesus’ words: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” Also note that this “revelation” from the Father was not an arbitrary incident, but one that would serve as the “rock” on which Jesus would build his church. The way in which Peter “recognised” Jesus models the way in which every future believer would recognise him – through a personal revelation from God the Father, through his Spirit. Indeed, no one can come to the Son unless the Father “draws” him or her (John 6:44).

Similarly, John the Baptist stated that Jesus was in the world, but that the world did not recognise him (John 1:10). He then went on to say to the Pharisees “among you stands one you do not know” (John 1:26). Finally, he confessed: “I myself did not know him” (verses 31 and 33). So how did John then recognise Jesus? Note his reply in verses 33-34: “The one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.” Again, God the Father, through a work of his Spirit, revealed Jesus to be the Christ.

The same principle is evident from Paul’s statement to the Corinthians: “No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Herein is the key to the sin “against” the Spirit. According to Romans 10, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”. A person can only make this confession of salvation through the Holy Spirit, Paul says, and so it follows naturally that salvation can only be rejected by resisting the Spirit.

No Forgiveness in this Age or the Age to Come

The final predicament that we face in this passage comes from the statement that anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either “in this age or in the age to come.” This has led many to believe that the sin against the Holy Spirit, once committed, becomes a permanent condition in the life of the one who has committed it. Yet this is not what the text says. It says that the penalty of the sin has eternal consequences, which is a wholly different thing. It never says that the sin itself cannot be repented from.

To understand this, imagine a doctor saying to a desperately ill patient that he has to take his tablets daily in order to get better, and then giving him a chilling warning: “If you do not take your tablets, you can never recover. Not now, not next week, not next month or next year, never ever…!” Does this mean that the curse becomes a permanent and unalterable reality if the person becomes agitated with the side effects of the tablets and throws them in the trash? Of course not. He merely needs to come to his senses, go back to the doctor for another prescription and start taking his tablets in order for their healing effects to start.

In the same way, the sin against the Holy Spirit has eternal consequences as long as it is being committed, but that does not mean that one cannot repent and yield to the Holy Spirit and find the forgiveness that has been so elusive during the time of rebellion.

Two Unpardonable Sins?

We have seen that there is only one unpardonable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit. This oftentimes raises the question: What then about the “unsaved” – those who have never come to Christ. If they are never forgiven because of their lost state, does that mean that there are two unpardonable sins?

By now you should be able to answer this question for yourself: The sin of being and remaining “unsaved” when one is enlightened by the Holy Spirit is in fact the sin against the Holy Spirit. People who reject Christ do so by rejecting the convicting power of the Holy Spirit in their lives, not by rejecting some bearded Palestinian prophet from the first century who looks no different than thousands of male Middle-Easterners. And so Christ was really warning the Pharisees in Matthew 12 that they were alienating themselves from a salvation offered to them by resisting a display of the Spirit’s power. The era of the “Anointed One” had arrived, and, with that, the promised kingdom and deposition of Satan. This was the salvation that they had been awaiting, but now they were excluding themselves from it. During the times of “ignorance” they had the benefits of an Old Testament system of Law and sacrifice, but now they were expected to promote from the types and shadows to their realities.

A Final Word: The “Sin Unto Death”

This also answers our last question: What about 1 John 5:16’s “sin that leads to death” that is so severe that one should not even pray for those who committed it? Here it is again:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.

With all of the above in mind, the question answers itself: The “sin unto death” is the unpardonable sin, the sin for which there is no advocacy or mediation. Unlike the sins committed by a “brother” that one can pray for, a prayer that God will answer by giving “life” to the brother, this sin is committed apart from Christ and the atonement. A mediatory prayer is entirely useless, for such a person is not a “brother” who qualifies for the intercessory work of the advocate.

This interpretation is clearly inferred from everything we have covered above, but one can actually find it in the immediate context of the passage. Note the words leading up to verse 16:

“And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth… If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Note that God’s testimony concerning his Son takes place through the “Spirit who testifies”, and that the one who responds in faith to this testimony receives the Son and “has life” whilst the one who rejects it “does not have life”.

This explains why we can pray for a “brother” who sins, and ask God to give him life, for he already has life and has qualified himself to be an ongoing recipient of life. Such a person’s sins are not unpardonable, for he has an advocate who speaks on his behalf. Here John echoes his earlier words “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).

However, the sins of the one who does not have Christ and who does not have life (because he/she has rejected the testimony of the Spirit) are sins that lead to one place only: Death. An intercessory prayer for forgiveness is no use, for their is no advocate who speaks on his/her behalf. Such a person must first yield to the testimony of the Spirit and receive the life of the Son before we can pray for him/her as a brother or sister.

9 thoughts on “What is the “Blasphemy Against the Spirit”?

  1. Wesley Rostoll September 17, 2015 / 9:26 am

    Hello!

    I can’t tell you enough how much I appreciated this post. I studied the topic a short while ago and wrote a similar post (although it was not nearly as comprehensive or deep as yours). My only concern with my conclusion was that absolutely no one else seemed to see what I saw, until I read your post. I’m posting the link to mine just in case you are interested in reading it.

    http://wrostoll.blogspot.co.za/2015/07/what-does-it-mean-to-blaspheme-holy.html

    Keep well and keep up the great work!

  2. Tobie September 18, 2015 / 4:21 am

    Hey Wesley. Thanks for the comment. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post, and found the similarities with what I’ve written quite astounding. Many blessings!

    • Tobie September 20, 2015 / 5:58 am

      And thank you for prompting me! I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.

  3. JohnC October 10, 2015 / 8:50 pm

    I haven’t the honour of reading all of this post, but for what I have, I feel obliged to encourage you. This is *well* written and I hold the same views as you. I ought not to use the term “view” when referring to Truth. For it was before me and shall be after me.
    Yes, Truth has the power to set free the captive… I believe many a legalist captive could potentially find peace through this teaching… May the Lord bless you brother.

    • Tobie October 11, 2015 / 10:56 am

      Thanks John. Much appreciated!

  4. Becky Johnson November 18, 2015 / 3:03 pm

    Tobie, hello! A new reader here. Erroll mentioned your blog in his latest post. I can’t tell you how timely these words were for me. I have been reading on the Holy Spirit in a book titled The Helper. Just yesterday was this in reference to his dying and their fear of his going away, and his telling them he will manifest himself to them:

    “So Jesus was telling his followers, “Look, having broken into the time-space capsule of Planet Earth and lived for a time among you, you don’t think I’m going to leave you there, do you? For in that case, what would those have who come after you? Only the written record of Me as an historical figure. No contemporary expression of God, the Father, or of Me – Jesus – for themselves. No, I won’t leave it that way. I will come to you in the form of One who loves you as I do and is able to care for you even as I do now.”

    […]

    “The Holy Spirit is today present in His office on earth, all spiritual presence and divine communication of the Trinity with men are via the Spirit. In other words, while God, the Father, and God, the Son, are present and reigning in heaven, they are invisibly here in the body of the believer by the indwelling God, the Holy Spirit – the Helper.”

    So to then come here and read your words, it was good food for my soul.

    In addition, though, I am curious about the very last paragraph:

    “However, the sins of the one who does not have Christ and who does not have life (because he/she has rejected the testimony of the Spirit) are sins that lead to one place only: Death. An intercessory prayer for forgiveness is no use, for their is no advocate who speaks on his/her behalf. Such a person must first yield to the testimony of the Spirit and receive the life of the Son before we can pray for him/her as a brother or sister.”

    “…the sins of the one who does not have Christ.” I am surrounded by those who do not have Christ (unsaved, unbelievers) and pray for them often. How would I know if they have rejected the Spirit or not? At first glance and reading, it sounds like you’re saying my prayers for them are of no use. I cannot wrap that around my head or heart. Please explain when you have time. Thank you.

  5. naturalchurch November 19, 2015 / 8:37 am

    Hi Becky – thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog! I love the quote, and especially the sentence “…all spiritual presence and divine communication of the Trinity with men are via the Spirit.” That truly unlocks the uniqueness of the “sin against the Spirit.”

    Let me clarify what I meant with the sentence that troubles you.

    “The wages of sin is death, and the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” which means that sins will always lead to death where Christ is absent in a person’s life. The “sin unto death” is thus not an invention of the New Testament, but the very sin committed by Adam and Eve, as well everyone after them. The reason why it is singled out as a seemingly unique sin in the New Testament, is that it is contrasted with sins that have been atoned for (the free gift of eternal life referred to above) and that no longer leads the sinner “to death.”

    John’s reference to praying for a “brother” appears to aim at one thing only – a restoration unto the life that already belongs to the brother through Jesus Christ. It is thus not a prayer for the salvation of an unbeliever that he has in mind here, but an integral component of the type of brotherly support and restoration referred to in Galatians 6:1’s “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”

    You cannot do this for an unbeliever, and you cannot pray for them to receive it. The type of prayer that one should pray for an unbeliever is the one Paul refers to in Romans 10:1, in speaking about his fellow unbelieving Jews – “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.”

    And so all I am saying is that we cannot pray for an unbeliever to be forgiven, but that we should pray for them to be saved – which is what I’m sure you are doing.

    Hope that helps! Many blessings.

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