Few passages in the New Testament produce more anxiety than those concerning the unpardonable sin. Every pastor has been confronted with doubts from members coming to him for comfort and counseling on this problem. They do not come to him because of mere theological speculations, but they-are driven by their soul's perplexity and the fear of having "sinned against the Holy Spirit."
Though of great theological interest, a correct understanding of these passages is above all a pastoral concern. No matter how much help psychological arguments and pastoral comfort may offer, it is the Word of God alone that gives the soul in distress full assurance and certainty Moreover, human arguments tend to weaken the earnest warning contained in the Scriptures against the danger of committing the unpardonable. The pastor's friendly word that he who is still "troubled with a haunting fear that he has committed the 'unpardonable sin,' thereby has conclusive evidence that he has not committed it," may be an encouragement. But only the full truth will set the conscience free, the truth of the Word of God. A serious exegesis, made prayerfully, then becomes a necessity.
Not Mysterious and Indefinable
The question may be raised first, however, whether it is given to man to know the truth concerning the unpardonable sin. Have not many assumed that those passages belong to the "hidden truths" of Scripture? But the serious, pious student may draw confidence from Ellen G. White's words that "no one need look upon the sin against the Holy Ghost as something mysterious and indefinable."'
Let us then turn to the Word:
The Synoptic Gospels. The texts in Mark 3:28 and 29, quoted from the New English Bible,* say: "'I tell you this: no sin, no slander, is beyond forgiveness for men; but whoever slanders the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven; he is guilty of eternal sin.'"
In Matthew 12:31 and 32 (N.E.B.) Jesus' words are: "'And so I tell you this: no sin, no slander, is beyond forgiveness for men, except slander spoken against the Spirit, and that will not be forgiven. Any man who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but if anyone speaks against the Holy Spirit, for him there is no forgiveness, either in this age or in the age to come.' "
And Luke 12:10 (N.E.B.) reads: "'Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will receive forgiveness; but for him who slanders the Holy Spirit there will be no forgiveness.'"
Two Different Concepts
These texts allow us to distinguish clearly between two different concepts: In Mark, the sin against the Holy Spirit is set over against all other slanders and sins. All of these may a man be forgiven, whereas he who slanders the Holy Spirit will never receive forgiveness: he is guilty of the eternal sin.
The unpardonable sin is here spoken of in the context of Jesus driving out the devils, which the Pharisees called the work of Satan. Most probably this is the historical context of Jesus' words concerning the unpardonable sin. It is therefore rather significant that Luke does not mention this context at all. Another rather important difference between the accounts in Mark and Luke is that in Luke the sin against the Holy Spirit—as the unpardonable sin —is not set over against all other sins, such as in Mark, but only over against speaking "a word against the Son of Man."
Matthew Gives Both Concepts
These two different concepts are also found in Matthew. But whereas Mark and Luke each emphasize only one of them, Matthew mentions them both in his Gospel, combining them in verses 31 and 32 of chapter 12.
Mark 3:28, 29; Matthew 12:31. In the context given here the sin against the Holy Spirit is to attribute work done in the power of God to the devil. That is a sin that never can be forgiven.
What does this mean? At His baptism Christ was endowed with the Holy Spirit. In driving out the devils, in rebuking the fever and the wild tempests, in calling the dead to life again, and in watching how Satan fell like lightning out of the sky, Jesus is giving people evidences that in the power of the Holy Spirit He is establishing the kingdom of God and destroying the dominion of the devil. In this light we understand also Jesus' words in Matthew 12:28 (N.E.B.): "But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out the devils, then be sure the kingdom of God has already come unto you."
God Not a Synonym for Satan
It is this work toward establishing the kingdom of God that the Pharisees attributed to the devil, thus making God a synonym for Satan. That is a sin for which there is no forgiveness.
But there is more. According to Ellen G. White: "To speak against Christ, charging His work to satanic agencies and attributing the manifestations of the Spirit to fanatacism is not of itself a damning sin."
Mark (3:21, 22) tells us for instance that Jesus' own relatives and friends went out to take charge of Him, because they thought that He was out of His mind. However, although Jesus charges the scribes with the unpardonable sin, He does not charge His relatives and friends with it.
The difference between Jesus' relatives and the Pharisees is that the former were simple, unlettered people who made these accusations out of sheer ignorance and error. A man will always be forgiven such a sin: "It shall be forgiven all the congregation of the children of Israel, and the stranger that sojourneth among them, seeing all the people were in ignorance" (Num. 15:26).
But the doctors of the law knew what they were doing when they accused Him. They lived with the Word of God daily. These men did not act out of ignorance or error. They attributed the work of Christ willfully and intentionally to satanic powers. They did so in the full knowledge that their charge was false. "The Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke this warning did not themselves believe the charge they brought against Him. . . . The evidence of His power exasperated them. . . . They did everything in their power to misrepresent Him and to falsify His words."'
And those people who sin deliberately in the full knowledge, beyad ramah, i.e. "with a high hand" (Num. 15:30) will be cut off. They are guilty of the eternal sin, that is a sin with eternal consequences.
This does not mean that one deliberate curse or one single willful act against the Holy Spirit constitutes the unpardonable sin already. The imperfect of the verb, namely "elegon," suggests that these Pharisees did not just slander once or twice: they continued to say that it was the work of the devil. They persisted in their false accusations. That is what ultimately makes the sin an eternal sin.
In this context, then, the unpardonable sin is a continued and willful attitude of hostility against the Holy Spirit; the proud, continued resistance against His guidance, the "persistent refusal to respond to the invitation to repent." The unpardonable sin is never a sin committed out of weakness, by mistake, or out of sheer ignorance.
Frame of Reference Omitted
Matthew 12:32; Luke 12:10. These texts do not present the original historical frame in which Jesus spoke the words concerning the unpardonable sin. Luke does not give us any frame of reference at all. He simply sets speaking "against the Son of Man" over against the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. For the first sin a man will be forgiven; the latter is the unpardonable sin.
There is a consensus among theologians that Luke purposely omitted the historical frame of reference. Luke is writing here from a totally different point of view than Mark. The latter is referring to the Holy Spirit as that power with which Jesus was endowed at His baptism and during His earthly ministry, to defeat the kingdom of Satan and to make the kingdom of God a living reality. But from the whole context in chapter 12 it is clear that Luke refers to the Holy Spirit sent by God at Pentecost. The promise of the Lord had been fulfilled. The early Christian church lived by the power of the Holy Spirit, who manifested Himself in the believer with great "signs and wonders." Luke is writing out of this certainty of fulfillment. He is interpreting Jesus' original words from the viewpoint of the church of Pentecost, where the presence of the Holy Spirit was an experienced reality.
Refers to Jesus as Man
For this reason Luke and Matthew (12: 32) place the sin against the Holy Spirit over against a speaking against Jesus, whom they call "ho huios tou anthropou." In these passages this name refers to Jesus in His earthly, human existence, not to the exalted Son of man, sitting at the right hand of the Father. While on earth Jesus was, "according to the flesh," the son of David (Rom. 1:3). That was before the manifestation of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost by which He was declared to be the Son of God (Rom. 1:3, 4).
In His earthly existence Jesus' glory and divinity were still hidden. His Messiahship had to be kept a secret. Sin against Him as the Son of man could easily be committed unconsciously and out of ignorance. But the event of Pentecost clearly demonstrated Jesus as the Anointed One, and declared Him to be the Son of God with power. The time of ignorance is now over (Acts 3:17). Luke, and, after him, Matthew write in the fullest certainty that the Holy Spirit has already been given to the church, where He is actively working now with signs and wonders. In this light a speaking against the Holy Spirit is a willful defiance of the power of God. Before Pentecost it was possible that people could defy Jesus because of ignorance: He hid His glory and kept His Messiahship a secret. But at Pentecost, and after, when God's Spirit continuously became manifest in miracles, in signs and wonders, people were no longer ignorant of the power of God. Whoever persisted then in his refusal to respond did so willfully and intentionally. It is a sin committed beyad ramah. Such a sin is unpardonable (Num. 15:30).
As in Mark 3:28 and 29 (N.E.B.), this sin is never just the uttering of a curse or a single act. It is the persistent and continued attitude of resistance and hostility. This at least is how the writer of the book of Hebrews expressed it: hamartanonton (Heb. 10:26). He is using the same verb form as Mark (elegon), indicating the attitude of persisting and continuing. The text reads: "For if we persist in sin after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins remains." And how could there be? Such a sin is unpardonable, since the man persists in it.
(To be continued)
Review and Herald, June 29, 1897.
3 The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on Mark 3:28, 29; Luke 12:10, p. 1092.
4 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 322.
5 Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, June 29, 1897.
* The texts in this article credited to N.E.B. are from The New English Bible, New Testament. The Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961.