On the Unforgivable Sin

[Texts:  Matthew 12:22-32; Mark 3:22-30; Luke 11:14-23]

I very much liked the suggestion I heard on Sunday, that what we refer to as “the unforgivable sin” or “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” may be of a piece with Jesus’ criticisms and warnings to “this generation.” That is, when Jesus brings this up he is talking to the people who, historically speaking, COULD commit this sin — and so we don’t need to get tied up in knots about identifying what it looks like in our day (or deciding whether we’ve committed it or not), because it was a “back-then” thing.

The relevant passages are Mark 3:22-30 and Matt. 12:22-32, with a similar bit in Luke 11:14-23 that doesn’t get all the way to naming the sin. The immediate context is the accusation made by the Jewish leaders that Jesus’ exorcisms are accomplished via satanic power.

Some helpful commentary on this sin as 1st-century-context-specific comes from my favorite Matthew scholar, Dale Bruner. (He actually would extend the relevance of Jesus’ warning into the age of the church, since, he reasons, the Spirit is still active; but he is very strong on the immediate historical setting, and I think he helpfully narrows the definition of the sin in question.) Think about the insights below and see if it makes sense to you to read this (mostly or even exclusively) as a “this-generation” offense. This is a relevant thing to think about, as there will always be sensitive souls in our circles who fear they have crossed the line.

“But what is the sin against the Spirit? In context it is resistance to the mission of God’s Spirit at work in Jesus. Here, interestingly, the Holy Spirit is unmistakably personal: one can only sin against persons.”

“Mark’s Jesus adds one more sentence to the passage, and it is clarifying: ‘because they were saying, “He [Jesus] has an unclean Spirit”‘ (Mark 3:30). In Mark, saying JESUS has an unclean spirit is the sin against the Holy Spirit. In context, in all three Gospels, the sin against the Spirit is not some arbitrary curse of deity or some foolish remark about either God or the Spirit per se; it is trying to ruin Jesus in the eyes of others.”

“…intentionally to speak against the Spirit so powerfully at work then in Jesus and now in the church’s message of Jesus, to question Jesus’ motives or ‘spirit,’ so that others will not trust him — this is quite another thing, this is the work of another ‘spirit.’ Bengel sees this private/public distinction: ‘By sin a wretched man injures himself; the blasphemer affects many others with irreparable harm.'”

“Sin against the Holy Spirit is the sin the historical Pharisees approached in attributing Jesus’ work to a nefarious spirit in order, in turn, to deflect the people of God from faith in Jesus as the messianic Son of David (Matt. 12:22-24). Jesus mercifully warns them about, but he does not yet accuse them of, the unpardonable sin. Indeed, in the paragraph that follows, Jesus calls them sharply to repentance (vv.33-37).”
— F. Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Vol. 1 (567). Eerdmans, 2004.

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Filed under Luke, Mark, Matthew, Synoptic Gospels

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