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Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come (Matthew 12:31-32, RSV).
One of God’s blessings that I have found at St. Peter’s is that there are many parishioners in the church who have inquiring minds. So it was, on one day after Ash Wednesday, that one such soul wandered into my office and wanted to know what Scripture meant by an unforgivable sin, and, more specifically, what it meant by “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.” After all, if God is love, how can there be any unforgivable sin? I have to admit that it had been a long time since I’d thought about this passage in which Jesus is addressing the Pharisees who were accusing him of being Beelzebul, the prince of the demons and the rival of the God of Israel. I confessed my ignorance (Lent is a good time for confessing), and I went to a commentary to see what it had to offer for insight. I thought that if one person was asking about this, there must be others who have wondered about the same thing, so I offer these thoughts to you.
Going back to the early church fathers, known as the Patristic Period (the word patristic comes from the Latin word patēr, father), lasting from around 100 AD to the Council of Chalcedon (451), and even beyond to 700 AD, we find some interesting guidance. Hilary of Poitiers (c. 315-67) believed that to blaspheme the Holy Spirit was to deny God in Christ. “To forsake Christ is to forsake the nature of the Spirit of the Father residing in him. For Jesus fulfills every work in the Spirit of God, is himself the kingdom of heaven, and in him God is reconciling the world to himself. Therefore any blasphemy aimed at Christ is aimed at God, because God is in Christ and Christ is in God.” In the context of the Pharisees’ refusal to recognize God in Jesus, accusing him of being Beelzebul, was blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) thought that people could be ignorant of who Jesus was but they could not be ignorant of who the Holy Spirit was, “… due to their own previous experience. For the prophets had spoken through the Spirit. The Old Testament as a whole had an exalted understanding of the Holy Spirit. What he [Jesus] says, then, is this: ‘So be it – you may be offended at me, because of the humanity I have assumed. But you cannot say the same of the Holy Spirit. You cannot claim not to know the Spirit. Therefore your blasphemy has no excuse, and you will suffer the consequences both here and hereafter.” 2
Severus (c. 465-538) was stricter in his interpretation. People could claim ignorance of the mystery of God’s self-abasement as a man. “But in their blasphemy they heaped insults against the divine signs he [Jesus] manifested and the many miracles he worked through the Spirit who was in him and who is of the same essence [the same substance as Jesus]. They exclaimed, ‘He casts out demons by the prince of demons.’ Those insults … Christ says they shall not be forgiven. They could not use ignorance as a pretext for their defense.’”
Augustine of Hippo (354-438) I find the most helpful. For him, “… it is unrepentance that is a blasphemy against the Spirit.” By refusing God’s love to forgive one’s sins by remaining unrepentant, one rejects the Holy Spirit which communicates God’s love. “You are speaking a very evil, utterly graceless word against the Holy Spirit … if when the patience of God is beckoning you to repentance, you harden your impenitent heart. By doing so you store up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath and of the revelation of the just judgment of God, who will render to us all according to our works [on the Judgment Day].” God’s grace is always available, but as long as one rejects it one will never be forgiven.
A modern commentator, M. Eugene Boring, makes the point that, “In Matthew’s context, the sayings (vv. 31-32) are not speculative statements about which sin(s) may be unpardonable, but
a pronouncement of judgment against the Pharisees. In Matthew, the Pharisees represent the kingdom of Satan, those who have already decided to kill Jesus (12:14), who block others from
entering the kingdom of God (23:13), who are not planted by God but represent Satan’s work (15:13-14) and are destined for condemnation at the final judgment.… [S]uch pronouncements
function as warnings to church members and especially to church leaders. [Church members’ and church leaders’] function is not to provide a doctrinal category of “unforgivable sins”
about which Christians should be anxious.”
I am partial to Augustine’s interpretation of Matthew 12:31-32. God is love and yet if we reject his love, communicated by the Holy Spirit through absolution, by refusing to receive
his forgiveness, then we have condemned ourselves. Stubborn unrepentance dooms one to condemnation. Thank goodness that decision is God’s to make. It is not our job to decide what
sin(s) is/(are) unforgivable, as Boring suggests, but to live in the Easter joy of Jesus’ resurrection which promises us eternal life and gives us the ability to admit our wrongs and,
with penitent hearts, be forgiven.
1 Manlio Simonetti, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Matthew 1-13 (vol. 1a, 26 vols.; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 249.
(Boston, MA:Da Capo Press, 2016), 3.
2 Ibid. 250.
6 M. Eugene Boring, The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Gospel of Matthew (vol. VIII, XII vols.; Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 287.