Sunday, February 3, 2008

Is There an Unforgivable Sin?

God is not only the living God; He is the forgiving God. The Lord has pity on us. He forgives, pardons, and provides for us salvation. No matter what we have done or said, Calvary covers it all! By nature God is forgiving, and that is the greatest news that any of us could hear. Both the New and the Old Testament’s amply demonstrate that God’s forgiveness is not and cannot be checked by the degree of sin, the volume of sin, or by the kind of sin. What follows are a few Old Testament teachings on God’s forgiveness:

  • Exodus 34:6-7 – “And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear [the guilty]; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth [generation].”
  • Psalm 86:5 – “For thou, Lord, [art] good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee."
  • Psalm 103:2-3a – “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits: Who forgiveth all thine iniquities."
  • Proverbs 28:13 – “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh [them] shall have mercy.”
  • Daniel 9:9 – “To the Lord our God [belong] mercies and forgivenesses, though we have rebelled against him”
  • Micah 7:18-19 – “Who [is] a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth [in] mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”

There are also plenty of Old Testament examples of God’s forgiveness. When Adam and Eve sinned, God forgave them. When Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the nation of Israel sinned, God forgave them. God forgave David. God forgave the people of Nineveh. The Old Testament is full of this teaching and these examples.

Likewise, the New Testament displays God as the living God of forgiveness. The essence of the gospel is God’s divine, gracious provision for the forgiveness of man’s sin in and through Jesus Christ the Lord. No matter how severe the sin, God is able and willing to forgive.

  • Ephesians 1:7 – “We have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace”
  • Colossians 1:14 – “In whom we have redemption through his blood, [even] the forgiveness of sins”
  • 1 John 1:9 – “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us [our] sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

There is no forgiveness of even the smallest of sin unless confessed and forsaken, but there is forgiveness of even the greatest of sin if those divine conditions are satisfied. This is a beautiful truth, because all have sinned. To be sure, there are some who are better than others. Not all are as bad as some. Even so, all have fallen far short of God’s glorious, perfect, and holy standard. There are none who are righteousness, yet God will grant forgiveness to even the chief of sinners based on the righteousness of Christ and His finished work on the cross.

The glorious truth that God is the living and forgiving God makes this statement from the lips of the Lord all the more shocking: “he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation” Mark 3:29. That verse comes at the tail end of this morning’s text – Mark 3:22-30 – let’s look at that passage together.

And the scribes which came down from Jerusalem said, He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils. And he called them [unto him], and said unto them in parables, How can Satan cast out Satan? And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan rise up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end. No man can enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he will first bind the strong man; and then he will spoil his house.

Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation: Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit.

The Rejection of Christ – v. 22

The opposition to Christ’s ministry had ascended ever since the Pharisees heard Him declare to the paralytic, “Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.” The first step was doubt. Doubt escalated to criticism. From criticism they climbed to open rejection, and now the opposition had culminated in blaspheming the Holy Spirit.
This is a heartbreaking moment. For generations the nation of Israel had lived in hope of their Messiah; their divine Deliverer. The desire of every Jewish girl was to be the Messiah’s mother. The heart-cry of every prophet and teacher was to proclaim the coming Messiah. They wanted that deliverance; that was their hope and dream. But when Deliverance came, they rejected Him, turned on Him, and wanted Him dead.

Mark retells the Pharisees’ accusation, but he doesn’t describe the activity that precipitated the accusation. Matthew does. A man who was demon-possessed, blind, and mute was brought before Jesus. The man was healed; instantaneously, totally, permanently, and publicly. Once again Christ had demonstrated His power over the spiritual and the physical. Christ’s supernatural power was beyond question, and, as Matthew records, this caused some people to begin wondering aloud “Can this be the Son of David?”

Son of David was a Messianic title. Supernatural power over the spiritual and the physical was a Messianic characteristic. This was obvious, and the light was beginning to dawn for some folks.

The Pharisees and religious elite were not of that number. They had come to hate Jesus. Sure, they knew that the miracles would be proof signs of the Messiah, but they were expected someone with a little…well…someone with a little substance, style, fanfare, pedigree, and, of course, someone who respected them and their system. Instead this was Man was gentle, compassionate, humble; followed by twelve ordinary men and a gaggle of women and hangers-on; most of whom would not be welcome in any local synagogue. Worse yet, this Man denounced them as hypocrites, and showed only disdain for their religious practice and traditions. Because of this they would not accept Jesus as their Lord and Deliverer.

They had chosen to be selective about the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah. His predicted coming in power and glory to defeat the foes of Israel and set His people free was easy for them to be excited about. His predicted coming in meekness and humility was not.

They refused to accept the fact that Jesus was God; that He worked the works of God and spoke the words of God because the implications of that reality were more than they were willing to admit.

They could not deny the power of Christ. They would not accept it as being from God. Therefore they concluded that Christ was a satanic agent.

The Rebuttal by Christ – vv. 23-29

Christ’s rebuttal of the Pharisees’ ridiculous and slanderous charge was not only Biblically and logically sound; it was presented with a right attitude; no emotional outburst; no angry, biting sarcasm or scorn. Christ calmly appealed to their common sense. They had made a serious accusation. He asked them to prove it: “How can Satan cast out Satan?” As was usual they stood dumb before Him, so He went on to demonstrate the foolishness of their accusation.

Christ’s Wisdom – vv. 24-27

The United vs. the Divided House – vv. 24-26
Kingdoms and homes that are divided cannot stand. That is an obvious and ancient truth. United we stand. Divided we fall. (Or to quote Jack Sheppard, “We live together, or we die alone.”) That applies to any nation, company, home, church, and even to the spiritual world. Satan’s minions are not divided amongst themselves. You can be certain that theirs is not a harmonious kingdom of peace and order, but the Enemy is a tyrant who will not suffer any disloyalty or disobedience. Satan is a master deceiver, liar, and murderer, but he does not fight against himself. Satan doesn’t cast out Satan.

The Strong Man’s House – v. 27
The strong man in Christ’s allegory is Satan. Satan’s “house” is the kingdom which he dominates here in this world, and his “goods” are those whom he holds in bondage by means of his malignant intelligence and his demonic servants. Mere men are powerless against him.

Not so with Jesus! Christ plundered the strong man’s house at will. Demons fled at His command, and even the Enemy himself, when he was told to “Be gone!” He got gone! As formidable as the strong man was (and is) he was no match for Christ. Jesus openly entered the strong man’s house. He bound him, and he loosed the hapless captives of the house.

Christ had demonstrated and now he declared what the hard-hearted Pharisees already knew: only God had the power to enter Satan’s house, bind him, and make off with his goods. Jesus had repeatedly displayed His power and authority over disease, death, and the demonic. Every detail of what Jesus taught and did corresponded to the Old Testament. Satan’s death blow was inflicted at the cross and will be actualized in the future, but even before that ultimate victory Christ’s unlimited unhindered power was evident for all to see and believe.

The Pharisees refused to believe the evidence. They rejected their Messiah who had come to them. Even worse, they blasphemed the very God whom they pretended to fastidiously serve.

Christ’s Warning – vv. 28-29

Now we have arrived at the chilling warning from Christ’s lips: “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”. Pastor and author John Piper recounts a visit he had one day while he was still a college professor. A student came to his office extremely distressed over this issue of the unforgivable sin. She told him how one day, as a young teenager, she got so angry at her Christian mother that she locked herself in her room and used every swear word and oath and all the foul language against God that she could think of. That day was seared into her conscience, and it regularly haunted her. Her question was: had she committed the unforgivable sin? Understand that this is not a merely academic question. What could be more terrifying than to believe you are beyond forgiveness and bound for eternal misery with no hope of escape?

To hear the living and forgiving God utter those three words “never has forgiveness” is an awful thing, and it must drive us to ask these two questions:

  1. What is this unforgivable sin?
  2. How must we live in light of it?

Let us first define what it is not. The unforgivable sin is not: cursing the Holy Spirit, taking the Lord’s name in vain, adultery, fornication, homicide, genocide, infanticide, or suicide. Yes, all of those are despicable sins, but they are all forgivable. Even blasphemy is forgivable. To blaspheme is to be defiantly irreverent; to openly denigrate and disdain God. At least two apostles were guilty of this sin. Both Paul and Peter had blasphemed. In writing to his protégé Timothy about his pre-conversion self Paul said, “Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” (1 Timothy 1:13) Likewise, Peter openly displayed disdain for God when he “Began to curse and to swear, saying, ‘I know not this man of whom you speak’.” (Mark 14:71) Both these men were forgiven and restored, because they acknowledged, repented, and confessed their sin.

What, then, is this sin that is beyond forgiveness? Christ called it “blasphemy against the Holy Ghost”, but what exactly is that? It is the determined rejection of the Holy Spirit’s witness to the deity and Messiahship of Jesus Christ. It is the refusal to believe Christ in spite of the evidence.

This continual rejection of the Spirit’s witness, this refusal to believe, will result in a loss of opportunity to believe. Christ said such a one “never has forgiveness” (Mark 3:29)“will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Mathew 12:32).

This sin is unpardonable because they will not bow before Christ to seek pardon. These Pharisees and all others who blaspheme the Holy Spirit cut themselves off from God’s mercy, not because it wasn’t offered but because it was abundantly offered yet rebelliously and permanently rejected. What a terrifying thought that people can so totally turn their backs on God’s revelation that they permanently cut themselves off from salvation.

How must we then live in light of this truth? First of all we need to understand that this warning is particularly pertinent to those who have grown up in church. Christ originally issued this warning to men who were well versed in the scriptures; they were subject to the constant witness of the Spirit through the word, yet they rejected the very One to whom the scriptures pointed. Beloved, it isn’t the ignorant blasphemer on the street who is in danger of committing the unforgivable sin; it is the man and woman who sit in church knowing the scriptures, having heard the Word accurately preached, having seen something of the miraculous power of God in changed lives, and yet rejects it all. This rejection doesn’t always, probably not usually, takes the guise of rank paganism.

You should not assume that the Pharisees and their sort were the only ones guilty of this sin, or that it is impossible to be guilty of this sin today. I agree with Kent Hughes when he writes:

There have been men and women who rejected the Spirit’s testimony regarding their own condition and the person and work of Christ so consistently that their hearts became unable to believe. Such people have ranged from the gross sinner to the urbane “good” person.

The awful fact that there is an unforgivable sin, that there comes a point in a life of sin after which the Holy Spirit will no longer call a sinner to repentance, that fact should drive us from sin with fear and trembling. You know not when your toying with sin will pass over into permanent hardness of heart. Do you have a serious or sentimental view of sin? Many people have the naïve notion that God's patience has no end and that they can always return from any length and depth of sin, forgetting that there is a point of resistance which belittles the Holy Spirit so grievously that he withdraws forever with His convicting power.

You have heard the warning. Now hear the offer of grace. All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme.” I urge you in the name of Christ, and by the grace of God; acknowledge, confess and repent of your sin today. Do it now, because tomorrow you may not be able.

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