What is the Unforgivable Sin?
Ultimately, only one sin fits all of the requirements as the identification of the unforgivable sin. It is this: The unforgivable sin is a willful and slanderous rejection of the Holy Spirit’s testimony about Jesus Christ.
This sin fits the text of Matthew 12: 31-32 as well as the surrounding context. It fits the words and actions of the Pharisees as well as the words and actions of Jesus.
It enables the unpardonable sin to be something that could be committed at the time of Jesus and also today.
It maintains the strengths of all the previous views discussed so far in this book, while avoiding the weaknesses. Most importantly, this sin is specifically committed against the Holy Spirit. Though many do not realize it, the Holy Spirit is actively at work not just in the lives of believers, but also among unbelievers. The Spirit is at work in the world convicting unbelievers of sin, their need for righteousness, and reminding them about the coming judgment (John 16: 7-11). The Holy Spirit testifies about Jesus and draws people to Jesus (John 15: 26). Without this drawing work of the Holy Spirit upon unbelievers, nobody would ever believe in Jesus for eternal life. If a person is being convinced by the Holy Spirit that Jesus is the Messiah, is being drawn to Jesus by the Spirit, and is being shown who Jesus is and that judgment is coming if they do not believe in Jesus, and yet that person lashes out verbally at the Holy Spirit, making a “reviling judgment” about what they are being shown, it is then that they commit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
There are various forms this willful and verbal rejection of the Spirit might take, but when it is committed by someone, the Holy Spirit backs away from this person forever. The Spirit never returns to them to convict them of sin, righteousness, and judgment. The Spirit stops trying to draw such a person toward faith in Jesus. And when a person no longer is being convicted, convinced, or drawn by the Holy Spirit, they will never believe in Jesus. There is no more hope for them. They are eternally condemned.
How Does a Person Commit the Unforgivable Sin?
What sort of things might cause the Spirit to back away permanently from a person in such a way? It is hard to say with certainty since there are no real examples of it in Scripture. Remember that Jesus does not say that the Jewish religious leaders had committed this sin. No, He is warning them against the sin, hoping that they would not continue down the path they were on. They were refusing the clear signs and teachings of Jesus which should have proven to them that Jesus was the Messiah. They were saying that He was from the devil and that His signs were Satanic. Such words themselves were not the sin of blasphemy against the Spirit, but indicated that they were on the path toward committing such a sin. The Pharisees clearly saw the signs which Jesus presented, and even asked for more signs, but despite the evidence that was right before their eyes, continued to reject and deny that Jesus was from God, that Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel. Jesus warned them that if they continued in this manner, they would not be forgiven of this sin. Every other sin would be forgiven them, but not this sin.
So if someone today willfully, scornfully, and slanderously rejects the clear evidence that is laid before them about Jesus and their need to believe in Him for eternal life, and they do this repeatedly, while we can never say with certainty that they have committed the unpardonable sin, we can warn them as Jesus does here that if they continue on that path, they will commit blasphemy against the Spirit, for which there is no forgiveness, and from which there is no return.
In other words, the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is different than resistance against the Holy Spirit (Acts 7: 51). Resisting the Holy Spirit is a step toward blasphemy against the Spirit, but is not the same thing. When unbelievers resist the Holy Spirit, they are trying to ignore what the Holy Spirit is telling them about Jesus Christ. They may even attempt to drown out the Spirit’s still small voice with other things in life, such as arguments against the existence of God, constant music, recreation, and entertainment, or sex, alcohol, and drugs. They deny the voice of the Spirit which tells them that they have sinned against God and judgment is coming, and believe instead that they are “pretty good” people. If this sounds like nearly every person you know, this is because nearly every unbeliever spends a lot of time and energy resisting the Holy Spirit.
From this state of resisting the Spirit, one of three things will happen. First, an unbeliever may get tired of always resisting the Spirit and may lash out in anger and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit for what He is trying to tell them. The fact that they lash out in such a way proves that they recognized what He was trying to do in their life, but knowingly and maliciously reject it. They completely and utterly refuse “to respond to the overtures of the Spirit of God.” They slander the Holy Spirit for His efforts to draw them to Jesus and utterly reject the free offer of eternal life. When this happens, they commit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Blasphemy against the Spirit is “a conscious and wicked rejection of the saving power and grace of God towards man. Only the man who sets himself against forgiveness is excluded from it.”[ 9]
The result is that the Holy Spirit stops trying to convict them of sin, righteousness, and judgment. [The believer has permanently pushed away the Holy Spirit by speaking against Him.] He stops trying to draw them. They have once and for all chosen their path of rebellion against God. Such people demand to be left alone, and the Holy Spirit honors their request. When an unbeliever lashes out in this way, this reveals a heart hardened beyond hope of forgiveness. They will never be forgiven because they have caused the Holy Spirit to withdraw from them completely. The Holy Spirit stops attempting to convict and convince such people about the truth, love, grace, and mercy found in Jesus Christ. And without the Holy Spirit’s work in this way, no person will ever believe in Jesus for eternal life.
Though there is no way to be certain, the numbers of people who commit this sin are probably very small. It is much more likely that the vast majority of people who do not believe in Jesus for eternal life never commit the unpardonable sin, but simply die in a state of unbelief and life-long resistance to the convicting work of the Holy Spirit. This is the second option for how people may respond to the work of the Spirit. He works tirelessly on them all the way up until they take their last breath. Such an unbeliever continues to resist the Holy Spirit throughout his or her life (Acts 7: 51; Rom 1: 18-20). They never commit the unpardonable sin, but nor do they ever believe in Jesus for eternal life. Instead, they live their entire lives resisting the Holy Spirit and as a result, end up in eternal separation from God because they never believed in Jesus for eternal life.
The third and final option is the most desirable. It is what the Holy Spirit is working toward. While some people may commit the unpardonable sin and the Holy Spirit stops working on them completely, and others may continue to resist the Holy Spirit their entire lives, there are many people who will recognize the truth of what the Holy Spirit is showing them, will stop resisting His work, and will believe in Jesus for eternal life. This may happen when a person is very young, or only a second or two before death, but all such people recognize the truth of the Holy Spirit’s testimony that we are sinners, that God is righteous, that judgment is coming, and the only way to obtain God’s righteousness and thus avoid judgment is to believe in Jesus for eternal life.
Once a person believes in Jesus in this way, they are born again into God’s family and are eternally identified as one of His children. The possibility of committing the unpardonable sin is now past because the Holy Spirit has ceased attempting to draw them to Jesus, and will now begin to shape and form this new believer into who God wants them to be.