About a week ago, I preached on a passage from Mark’s gospel that included this phrase: “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit” (Mark 3:28–30).
I’ve always wondered about this passage. I grew up thinking that God forgives all sin. What exactly is this “unforgivable sin” about which Jesus speaks? What if I have committed it? How would I know? Am I in danger of hellfire? Is it all over? Is there any hope for me at all? It’s enough to cause a person to lose sleep.
After some extensive research, I found that there is no consensus of opinion regarding exactly what Jesus meant here. Commentaries are all over the map. Some give lists of sins that might fall into this category while others are rather agnostic about its true meaning. Here are a couple of ideas that crossed my mind as I was mulling over this passage:
- Jesus suggests that it is the Holy Spirit that convicts humanity of sin and draws us to God (John 6:44, 16:8). This leads me to believe that we cannot repent of our sins without the assistance of the Holy Spirit at work within us. Therefore, if we have hardened our heart to the work of the Spirit, repentance and forgiveness are all but impossible. Hence, Jesus’ statement here that blasphemy against the Spirit is “unforgivable.”
- Secondly, I approach this text by way of analogy. In Greek, the term translated “Spirit” is the term pneuma and is also used to connote “breath” or “wind.” If the human body ceases to breathe, it ceases to function. Death is inevitable. Could the same be said about the role of the Spirit in a person’s life? To blaspheme against the Spirit is to curse the very “breath” that gives life. As a result, spiritual death is inevitable.
The bottom line is that this is a complicated passage and one of those times that it would have been nice for Jesus to clarify his precise meaning. Then again, maybe the point was to provoke us into wrestling with it a bit in order that we might grow in our faith. At the end of the day, I guess I lean on the advice given me by a wise old pastor when I was a young man. He said, “Son, if you’re concerned that you might have committed it, that shows me that the Spirit is still at work in you. Therefore, you haven’t committed it. Stop worrying.”
I don’t know if it was the most theologically satisfying answer, but pastorally-speaking, I think he was onto something. What do you think? What has been your experience with this passage?