Earlier this week in Brookside's 365 Bible Reading Plan, we read through Luke 12. One of the statements Jesus makes in this chapter catches many off guard. Here's what Jesus says that have led some to understandably ask questions (I've heard questions about this more than once this week!):
...anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven" (Luke 12:10b).
What?? An unforgivable sin? How should we think about this?
The Unforgivable Sin in Context
As with many "tough spots" in interpretation, this is one of those places where it's helpful to look at the larger context. Shortly before Jesus begins speaking in Luke 12, we learn at the end of Luke 11 that "...the Pharisees and teachers of the law began to oppose [Jesus] fiercely and to besiege him with questions" (11:53). And then in 12:1 Jesus speaks directly against the Pharisees, warning those listening to be on guard against the Pharisees and their hypocrisy. Jesus' mention of "blasphemy of the Holy Spirit" is situated in this same immediate context where we read about the hostility of the Pharisees toward Jesus, and His denunciation of their hypocrisy. Contextually, then, there are connections between this posture of the Pharisees and Jesus' mention of the blasphemy of the Spirit. In other words, we can't understand the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit without reflecting on what we learn about the Pharisees in this passage. Keep that in mind as you keep reading.
When we zoom out a bit more to consider how other gospels shed light on this, we learn even more. This warning against "blasphemy of the Spirit" also comes up in Matthew 12:32 and Mark 3:28-29. And in the larger context of each of these passages, the immediate situation is that the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of performing miracles (specifically, casting out demons) by the power of Satan. It's almost as if these Pharisees had predetermined to disbelieve; they disallowed any notion of Jesus being the promised Messiah. The picture we get is that the Pharisees are assessing the miracles Jesus is doing with their arms folded and a smug look on their faces. They're determined to disbelieve - it's like they don't even consider other alternatives about who Jesus might be.
In these passages, the Pharisees are attributing Christ’s work to demonic activity. And here’s why this is such a big deal: By stubbornly labeling Christ's good work as evil, they would "slam the door shut" on any hope of forgiveness. For if they would persist in determining that Christ's work is bad, then they would of course not seriously consider His other deeds, including His work on the cross.
It's directly in the midst of this that Jesus warns against the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
When we put all this together, then, we see that this warning against the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is given in contexts of stubborn opposition, hypocrisy, and a predetermined disbelief. The stubborn refusal and resistance of the Pharisees is palpable. I think these clues from the context help understand what blasphemy of the Spirit is.
One commentary sums things up in a helpful way: "Surely what Jesus is speaking of here [with the unforgivable sin] is not an isolated act but a settled condition of the soul – the result of a long history of repeated and willful acts of sin. And if the person involved cannot be forgiven it is not so much that God refuses to forgive as it is the sinner refuses to allow him” (Gabelein, ed, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 645. Emphasis added).
What Might Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit Look Like Today?
Some question whether the Holy Spirit can really be blasphemed today. I believe He can, and that this warning of Jesus is still "live." Here's what I think blasphemy of the Holy Spirit might look like today:
It's having a stubborn, preconceived notion of who God is and how He acts that is more narrow than the sweep of the biblical picture – a view of God and how He works that is more informed by tradition and preference than God’s story of His action throughout history.
It's a determination to disbelieve and a refusal to repent. It's a pre-decision to "explain away" God's existence and His work in our midst, in such a way that we won't bow the knee to the God who is there.
how to Avoid Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (or Anything Close)
I offer three brief words of counsel:
One Final thing to Keep in Mind
“J.C. Ryle's famous words are great reassurance to any who might be anxious about this sin: 'There is such a thing as a sin which is never forgiven. But those who are troubled about it are most unlikely to have committed it.' On the other hand, those who actually do commit the sin are so dominated by evil that it is unlikely that they would be aware of it” (quoted in Frank Gabelein, ed, Expositor’s Bible Commentary).
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