And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12:31 NIV)
The words of Jesus here in Matthew 12 have frightened many Christians. Have I committed the unforgiveable sin? No less a man than the great preacher, John Bunyan, feared that he might be guilty of the sin and was deeply troubled by it.
If you are someone who worries about this verse let me tell you what it does not mean. Jesus is not saying that there might have been a sin in your past, maybe something that continues to haunt you that you cannot confess to God and find complete and final forgiveness. Too many Christians struggle with guilt over sins of the past when the promise of God is clear.
If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sin – 1 John 1:9
If we are ever to understand what Jesus is referring to we need to put these verses in their proper context.
What prompts Jesus to utter these remarks is what happens at the beginning of the section that leads up to his statement. In v.22-23 we discover that the people of Israel see Jesus cast out a demon from a blind and mute man. What they see leads them to conclude that maybe this man is the Christ. But when the Pharisees see that many are considering Christ they in turn attribute the work of God through Christ to Satan.
Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. 23 All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” (Mat 12:22 NIV)
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is therefore to deliberately and wilfully attributes the work of God to his ultimate enemy Satan. This sin is to self-consciously reject self evident truth about God.
The casting out of a demon can ONLY be the work of God. So to witness it and accept it is to see the incontrovertible hand of God at work. To then call it evil is the sin of blaspheming the Spirit.
So what does Jesus mean when he says ‘anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not’?
I think the best way to understand this is to see that it is possible to speak against Jesus out of ignorance. RT France in his commentary argues that it is possible to speak a word against Jesus
‘without being aware that one was opposing the saving purpose of God….But the significance of Jesus’ exorcisms was plain for all to see; there could be no excuse for misinterpreting this work of the Holy Spirit and attributing it to Beelzebul.’
Of course in our own times we are too sophisticated to believe in evil spirits but that doesn’t change the fact that there are men and women out there who make it their business, sometimes quite literally their business, for profit, to call what is good, evil.
Some of the new atheists come close to this. When Christopher Hitchens in his book ‘God is not great: How religion poisons everything‘ describes Christianity as an agent for evil in the world that is self-evidently false. It is a deliberate distortion of history to call good evil. Even a most basic look back into history reveals the profound impact for good that Christianity has had on our culture.
David Cameron in a speech remembering the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible said this
‘the knowledge that God created man in his own image was, if you like, a game changer for the cause of human dignity and equality…When each and every individual is related to a power above all of us, and when every human being is of equal and infinite importance, created in the very image of God, we get the irrepressible foundation for equality and human rights.’
Bruce Sheiman in his book ‘An atheist defends religion’ writes of the extraordinary impact of Christianity when he reminds us of what we owe to the gospel;
‘A commitment to human dignity, personal liberty, and individual equality did not previously appear in ANY other culture’
To describe Christianity as a force for evil in our world is to call light to darkness, calling that which is good, evil is the very message brought to us today most clearly in the message of new atheism.
We also have to fear for a culture that refuses to see the hand of God at work in creation preferring to ascribe the existence and complexity of our universe to nothing rather than to God.
Dick Lucas, Rector Emeritus of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, a large church in the city of London said this:
To look at this marvellous creation and dismiss the idea of God seems to me to be very close to calling light darkness
Are we any more rational than the Pharisees when we attribute the universe to ‘nothing’. Are we not so close to blaspheming the Spirit?
The psalmist writes
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. 2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. 3 There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. (Psalm 19:1-3 NIV)
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