I have heard of people who lived their entire lives thinking that they were cursed because they, or their parents, had committed the “unforgiveable sin.” It was partly this conviction that made Søren Kirkegaard the gloomy Dane. If you sincerely believed that you were utterly beyond redemption and without hope, you would be gloomy too.
One of the greatest sources of anxiety among believers is confusion over issues of sin and forgiveness. Tell a confused Christian that there is an unforgiveable sin and it’s like throwing petrol on a fire. So is there an unforgiveable sin and, if so, what is it?
The bottom 10 list
Below is a list of candidate sins that I have gleaned from various commentaries. You may have committed one or all of them, but rest assured that none of them is unforgiveable:
1. an attitude that calls evil good and good evil
2. a lack of reverence
3. being stubborn and unteachable
4. not loving the Lord with all your heart, mind and strength
5. willful or intentional sin
6. unconfessed sin
7. unrepented sin
8. harboring unforgiveness in your heart
9. taking the Lord’s Name in vain
10. having disrespectful thoughts about the Holy Spirit
Now there is some bad stuff on this list that can really hurt you. For instance, if you harbor unforgiveness you’ll end up bitter and twisted. But it is not helpful to tell a young mother whose husband has just run off with her best friend that she must forgive him or face eternal damnation. You might as well ask her to walk on water! The power to overcome sin – and forgive the unforgiveable – is not found in religious fear-mongering. So, in the hope of breaking a few man-made yokes, let’s review some of these so-called unforgiveable sins.
Some people will try and tell you that the unforgiveable sin is a bad attitude or a lack of reverence or it’s being stubborn and unteachable. This is nonsense! Jesus didn’t suffer and die to enter us into a reverence contest. We neither earn points for being quick learners nor get punished for being dimwitted. Attitude is certainly important as it will affect the way you live and whether you reign in life. But a poor attitude won’t disqualify a saint any more than a good attitude will qualify a sinner.
Others say the unforgiveable sin is not loving the Lord with all your heart, mind and strength – it’s putting Sunday football ahead of Jesus. This mindset naturally leads to a system of religious score-keeping. It’s the debits versus the credits. But God is not counting the number of hours we put into church versus the number of hours we spend kicking a football. You don’t qualify for eternal life because you maintain a positive or pious attitude. In fact, Jesus said this sort of religious thinking makes Him nauseous. We don’t love God to stay on His good side. We love Him because He first loved us and saved us and redeemed us and did everything we needed, while we were yet sinners (Rm 5:8).
What about willful sin? That sounds serious. Well if Jesus can’t forgive the sins we’ve done on purpose then no one can be saved. Don’t worry – His best is greater than your worst and His grace is greater than your sin!
I’ve heard plenty of people say that unpardonable sins are those we neither confess nor repent of. (This would include suicide.) They seem to forget that Jesus went around forgiving people who neither repented nor asked for forgiveness. They also forget that He forgave them long before they were born. If you preach, “you must repent to be forgiven,” then you’re preaching dead works. You’re trying to define righteousness in terms of what you do or don’t do. Wrong tree.
Am I saying you don’t need to repent? You must, but from dead works rather than sin (He 6:1). Jesus said, “repent and believe the good news” (Mk 1:15). When you change the way you think and start believing the good news – that His grace and love led Him to die for you before you had done any confessing or turning of your own – it will empower you to overcome sin. We don’t turn from sin to get forgiven; we turn because we are forgiven and His grace enables us.
What about harboring unforgiveness in our hearts? Didn’t Jesus say forgiving others was a precondition for receiving God’s forgiveness (Mt 6:15)? If it is then there’s no such thing as grace. Read your Bible through the lens of the cross. Jesus preached the law of conditional forgiveness to those who lived under the law to silence their self-righteousness and reveal their need for a Savior (Rm 3:19, Gal 3:24). We are not under law but grace (Rm 6:15). We forgive others because He first forgave us (Col 3:13).
What about taking the Lord’s Name in vain? This is one of the 10 Commandments and was a stoning offense under the old covenant:
“Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him. Whether an alien or native-born, when he blasphemes the Name, he must be put to death.” (Lev 24:16)
If you have taken the Lord’s Name in vain, then thank God that we live under a new and better covenant! Thank God for Jesus who has set us free from the curse of the law and and who said:
Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven… (Mat 12:32a)
You may have cursed God, but He has blessed you! I wish I could go back to 19th century Copenhagen, find the gloomy Dane and tell him the good news. “Søren, all your sins were forgiven!”
But what about the rest of that verse…
…but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Mat 12:32b)
Here Jesus identifies the one thing that can never be forgiven, namely, the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
The unforgiveable sin
This week I heard about someone who was battling condemnation because they had had disrespectful thoughts about the Holy Spirit. They were worried that they had committed the unforgiveable sin. If this has happened to you, don’t panic! First of all, don’t take ownership for every thought that passes through your mind. As the saying goes, you can’t stop the birds flying overhead, but you can stop them building a nest in your hair. Second, and as we will see in the next post, the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is something very specific. If you’ve had disrespectful thoughts, that probably means you don’t know the Holy Spirit very well. But you haven’t blasphemed Him. Not even close.
So who is a blasphemer? Religion paints a picture of a blasphemer as someone who is belligerent and foul-mouthed. But a blasphemer may look more like the Pharisees and law-teachers of Jesus’ day. A blasphemer is one whose religious beliefs prevent him from receiving the grace of God. This includes those who refuse to believe that all the sins of men have been forgiven. Rather than allow the Holy Spirit to convict them of their unbelief, they are preoccupied with maintaining their own moral performance. “How’s my walk? Am I confessing my sins? Am I praying enough, maintaining a positive attitude and behaving such that God will bless me?” These are works that lead to death. Those who do them need to repent.
What is the unforgiveable sin? It is the “sin” of unbelief in Jesus and His finished work. It is the sin of not receiving the free gift of His grace and righteousness. This sin cannot be forgiven because he who commits it chooses to reject the very thing that would otherwise save him. This rejection may take the form of hard heartedness (“I don’t need Him”) or religious idolatry (“He needs my help”). In either case the grace of God is rendered ineffective simply because it is not received.
If you love Jesus, there’s no need to get hung up over the unforgiveable sin. Although hell will be full of murderers, thieves and adulterers, people do not go to hell for committing murder, stealing or adultery. As terrible as they are, all these sins have been paid for by the precious blood of the Lamb (1 Jn 1:7, Eph 1:7). So have the sins listed at the top of this post. Your choice is this: You can be sin-conscious and gloomy, or you can be Christ-conscious and rejoice!