*The articles appearing under this theme are the substance of a lecture given in the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Northern Ireland on January 12, 2011. Previous article in this series: September 15, 2011, p. 488.
In our last article we noted that the Scriptures refer to and warn against various sins against the Holy Spirit. Noting the pertinent passages in Scripture, we drew out of them the doctrine of the Holy Spirit that Christian and Reformed believers confess: that the Holy Spirit is truly and eternally God; that the Holy Spirit is a distinct person of the triune Godhead; and that the Holy Spirit sanctifies God’s church and children.
It is good that we examine these sins more particularly. Depraved by nature, God’s people are capable of committing every heinous sin imaginable, including most of these sins against the Holy Spirit. In fact, not only are we capable of committing such, but we areprone to commit such, so that only God’s grace prevents us from committing them. That Israel vexed God’s Holy Spirit (Is. 63:10) underscores our need for this grace. And implied in God’s warning that the church not grieve the Spirit (Eph. 4:30) and not quench the Spirit (I Thess. 5:19) is God’s promise of grace to those who seek it from Him.
One sin against the Holy Spirit, that of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, God’s people will never commit. To this particular sin, distinct from all others, we now turn our attention.
What this sin is
To this sin Jesus refers in Matthew 12:31-32, as well as in the parallel passages of Mark 3:28-29 and Luke 12:10. We read in Matthew 12:31-32: “Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”
Also Hebrews 10:29 refers to this sin: “Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden underfoot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?”
Although Hebrews 6:4-6 and I John 5:16 do not expressly say that they refer to the sin against the Holy Spirit, they do in fact refer to this sin. I John 5:16 reads, “there is a sin unto death.” Our Reformed fathers understood this text to refer to the sin against the Holy Spirit, for they refer to it in the Canons of Dordrecht, Head 5, Rejection of Errors 4, in that very connection. Hebrews 6:4-6 speaks of those who “were made partakers of the Holy Ghost” and who fell away, but says, about the real character of that sin, this: “they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame.”
Let us be clear on what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is.
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not just any sin against the Holy Spirit. Rather:
Blasphemy of the Spirit is the deliberate denial, rejection and contempt of the saving work of the Holy Spirit on the part of one who knows full well that the work is that of the Spirit, indeed, it may be, on the part of one who has himself “tasted of the heavenly gift, and [was] made partaker of the Holy Ghost”,
The sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit has several characteristics. All of the following are true when this sin is committed.
First, it involves speaking certain words that show that one hates the Holy Spirit and His work in the church. Blasphemy always shows itself in words.
Jesus underscored this by His words to the Jews in Matthew 12. Jesus had just healed one who was blind, dumb, and possessed with a devil. Responding to this miracle, the Pharisees said: “This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub the prince of the devils” (v. 24). Jesus’ answer in verses 27-28 was: “And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you.” This accusation of the Pharisees that Jesus worked miracles by the power of the devil was their blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.
The second characteristic of this sin is that those who commit it are in the sphere of the covenant, although not true members of the covenant. This was true of the Pharisees as a whole, although not of every individual Pharisee (Nicodemus was a true disciple of Christ). And this explains why the writer to the Hebrews says that they “were made partakers of the Holy Ghost” (Heb. 6:4), and that they were “sanctified” by “the blood of the covenant” (Heb. 10:29).
Understood in their contexts, neither of these statements in Hebrews can mean that those who crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh (Heb. 6:6), and who do despite to the Spirit of grace (Heb. 10:29), were inwardly regenerated and sanctified, possessing the grace of salvation. God’s Word says of them that they cannot be brought to repentance (Heb. 6:6), and that they will experience God’s vengeance and suffer a punishment sorer than death by stoning (Heb. 10:29, 30). If these passages do teach that the Holy Spirit worked the grace of salvation in these people, then they also teach that these people lost that grace. This would contradict those passages that teach that God always preserves His grace in His people.
Rather, to understand these passages in Hebrews we must distinguish between the Spirit’s saving work of applying the benefits of Christ to the elect sinner, and the Spirit’s work of equipping a person with the gifts necessary to serve the church. The passages in Hebrews speak of those who were members of Christian churches on earth, and who had gifts by which to serve these churches, but who did not receive the graces of salvation. (The same was true of the reprobate king Saul, who received the Spirit, and lost the Spirit— I Sam. 10:10 and I Sam. 16:14).
Because these are in the sphere of the covenant, those who blaspheme the Spirit have some intellectual knowledge of the Spirit, and some experiential knowledge of the Spirit’s power. Some of them may have experienced this power by being able to prophesy or to speak in tongues. But all of them would have experienced this power in that they intellectually understood the gospel, having “tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come” (Heb. 6:5).
The third characteristic of this sin is that the hearts of those who commit it are impenitently hardened against the gospel. Having once professed to believe, they now openly proclaim their unbelief, ridiculing the true gospel and those who believe it, and of this unbelief they do not repent. This follows from Hebrews 6:4-6(“it is impossible…to renew them again unto repentance”) and from the words of Jesus that this sin will not be forgiven one in this world, or in the world to come (Matt. 12:31-32).
Again I say that in the case of one who blasphemes the Holy Spirit, each of these three characteristics are true. Some elect children of God, either before or after their conversion, have blasphemed God, but are given to see their sin, hate it, and repent of it. Such have not committed the unforgivable sin. A case in point is the apostle Paul, a former Pharisee, who was “a blasphemer,” but who “obtained mercy” because he did it “ignorantly in unbelief” (I Tim. 1:13).
He who repents of his sin, however heinous that sin may have been, knows he has not committed the unforgivable sin, for those who commit the unforgivable sin are not given grace to repent.
Why this sin is unforgivable
Jesus sets this sin in a category by itself by saying that it will not be forgiven either in this world or in the world to come. With these words, He teaches that this sin is most offensive to the triune God and that it bars one from fellowship with this God now and forever.
Why will this sin not be forgiven?
The answer has nothing to do with a limitation in God Himself. That this sin is unforgivable does not suggest that God does not have enough power or mercy to forgive this sin; that His grace is not sufficient; that Jesus’ death on the cross could not atone for it; or that the Spirit could not apply the blessings of salvation to one who committed it.
We should note carefully the helping verb that Jesus used in Matthew 12:31ff. He did not say that this sin “cannot” be forgiven. Rather, He said that it “shall not” be forgiven.
This is a promise. God will not forgive this sin.
This promise accords with God’s justice.
This promise accords with God’s justice generally, in that God’s justice requires all sin to be punished with extreme punishment of body and soul. Manifesting both mercy and justice, God sent Christ to bear the punishment for the sins of all the elect. Those for whom Christ did not die (the reprobate) must bear their own guilt and curse. He who blasphemes the Spirit manifests himself to be reprobate. This is why, from God’s viewpoint, this sin will not be forgiven: God forgives the sins of none for whom Christ did not die.
More specifically, from the viewpoint now of the sinner who blasphemes the Holy Spirit, this promise accords with God’s justice because of how dreadful the sin is. No sin is small; every sin is an affront to the holy and majestic Jehovah. But to blaspheme Him, to do so as one who for a time confessed to believe the gospel, and to do so with a heart now resolutely hardened in unbelief—this is most offensive to Jehovah. Jehovah’s wrath will fall on the men of Tyre and Sidon and of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment—but all the more severely will it fall on those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit.
God manifests His wisdom in carrying out this promise. In His wisdom, the sovereign God permits some men to speak evil against the Holy Spirit, in order to make manifest that they deserve nothing less than the everlasting punishment that He will send upon them. And He governs all things so that it becomes evident that they are hardened in their sin, and are being prepared for the destruction to which they were appointed.
The impossibility of God’s children committing this sin
From the fact that this sin will not be forgiven, it follows that God’s children will never commit this sin.
The beautiful biblical doctrine of God’s preservation of His saints in grace necessarily leads to this conclusion. If “he which hath begun a good work in [us] will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6); and if we “are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (I Pet. 1:5); and if nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35)—then those whom God has chosen from all eternity to salvation in Christ will certainly be brought to that salvation, and will be kept from committing this sin.
Jesus Himself taught this in John 10:27-29: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.”
Reformed churches and believers officially confess in the Canons of Dordrecht that it is impossible that God’s children commit this sin. Having set forth the biblical doctrine of preservation in the fifth head, the fathers at the Synod of Dordt explicitly reject this error:
Error 4: Who teach that true believers and regenerate can sin the sin unto death or against the Holy Spirit.
Rejection: Since the same apostle John, after having spoken in the fifth chapter of his first epistle, verses 16 and 17, of those who sin unto death, and having forbidden to pray for them, immediately adds to this in verse 18: We know that whosoever is begotten of God sinneth not (meaning a sin of that character), but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and the evil one toucheth him not,
Yet Satan, the great accuser, assaults some of God’s children, tormenting them with the fear that they have committed this sin, that their entire religious life on earth must be one of hypocrisy, and that they will not be finally saved in heaven.
God’s Word and the gospel of grace provide us with an answer to these assaults of Satan.
From the Scriptures, we learn that one who hates sin because he desires to be pleasing to God is a child of God (Matt. 5:4, 6). We know further that one who hates his sin and turns in true sorrow to Jesus Christ does find in Him and His work all things necessary for salvation. And such find in Christ the power to live a godly life. Thus we make our calling and election sure: “for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall” (II Pet. 1:10).
The point is this: rather than concluding that he has committed the unforgivable sin, and therefore not looking to Christ, the child of God must look to Christ, find in Him alone the assurance of salvation, and then conclude that he has not committed the unforgivable sin. He then returns this answer to Satan: “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:1).
If any reader continues to be plagued by the fear that he has committed this sin, and he needs more help in finding assurance in Christ, he should talk to his pastor or another godly, sympathetic believer.
But remember this: the very fact that one is afraid he has committed this sin is evidence that he has not committed this sin. For, first, this fear shows that he longs for heaven and fellowship with the true God. Second, this fear shows that he truly hates sin. And third, this fear indicates a desire for grace to repent of one’s sins and live according to God’s law. Such longing for heaven, such hatred of sin, and such desire for grace characterize the true child of God, whom God will preserve until we reach heavenly perfection.
God forgives every sin of which one truly repents. True repentance, being worked in us by God’s grace, is evidence that one is a child of God. None to whom Christ gives eternal life will ever perish.
¹ David J. Engelsma, “The Holy Spirit and the Covenant of Grace,” which is chapter 3 in the bookThe Work of the Holy Spirit (Ballymena, Northern Ireland, UK: The British Reformed Fellowship, 2010), p. 64.
² The Confessions and Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (Grandville, MI: Protestant Reformed Churches in America, 2005), p. 177.