Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (a.k.a. the Unforgivable Sin).
Today we’ve got another one of those “clobber passages” from the Bible that tend to make people nervous when they read them.
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, his family, and the religious scribes, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”.
People are terrified at thought that there could even be any such thing as an “eternal” or “unforgiveable sin”. We don’t want to believe there is anything we could do, say, or think that might put us forever beyond the reach of God’s grace. This question is especially important for us Reformed Protestants, who believe so firmly that we are saved “by grace, through faith” and not by any works that we do (or don’t do). So, if that’s not what Jesus is saying here, then what does he mean by “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” and “unforgivable sin”? That’s what I’m going to talk about today.
But before I get into that, I would like to settle the pastoral side of this question first.
People sometimes come to me in fear after they’ve read this passage. They ask, “What if I’ve accidentally committed the ‘unforgivable sin’ without realizing it? Could I have unintentionally said or done something so bad that God would never forgive me?”
Sometimes, the person asking this question has done some genuinely terrible things in life. And even though many of them have come to a place of sorrow and repentance for their actions (sometimes years ago), they still harbor a secret fear that they are forever beyond redemption… that their sins are “unforgivable”.
In my career, I’ve had the privilege of being a pastor to people who are outlaws, outcasts, murderers, and sex offenders. And I have yet to meet a single, solitary person who is “unforgivable” or “beyond redemption.”
So, whenever someone comes to me with the concerned question, “Could I have committed the unforgivable sin?” I always have one answer (and one answer only):
You have not committed the unforgivable sin. And here’s the biblical logic behind my response:
If a person had (hypothetically) committed an unforgivable sin, then God would have completely forsaken that person. If such was the case, then such a person would have no inner longing to know God or grow spiritually. Jesus said, very explicitly in John 6:44, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me”. Similarly, St. Paul wrote in Philippians 2:13, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” So, what this means is that if there is anything in you, any part of you that desires to know God and grow spiritually, to learn what is true and do what is right, then God is at present and active in your life.
So, if you are concerned enough to even care that you might have committed the unforgivable sin, then you haven’t committed it. Because, if you had, then you wouldn’t care. If God was really gone from your life, then there would be nothing within you that cared about knowing truth or doing right. Even the most diehard atheists have that (which is why I’m perfectly comfortable saying that atheists have a relationship with God… although they wouldn’t call him by that name).
So, I just wanted to get that one thing out the way first: If you’re concerned that you might have committed the unforgivable sin, then you have not committed it.
Now then, let’s look at what Jesus is really saying in today’s gospel passage…
When Jesus talks about this “eternal sin” from which a person “can never have forgiveness,” he is talking about something called “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” What is that? Let’s look at the context of the passage.
This conversation takes place near the very beginning of Mark’s gospel, as Jesus’ movement is just picking up speed. Word is spreading about him and people are coming from all around to see what’s up with this Jesus guy. Jesus, as we already know, is kind of a counter-cultural dude. He doesn’t easily fit inside anyone else’s ideological boxes (not even the Presbyterian ones). He does and says things that are unexpected. He makes people uncomfortable. I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that I liked because it reminded me of the effect that Jesus had on people’s lives: “Comfort the disturbed; disturb the comfortable.” That’s how Jesus rolls. And that’s exactly what he’s doing at this point in his ministry: he’s disturbing the comfortable.
But, as we all know, comfortable people don’t like to be disturbed (not even by Jesus), so they’re fighting back against him. The first group to approach are the members of Jesus’ own family: his “mother and brothers and sisters,” we are told. They have come because Jesus is becoming a public embarrassment to his family. The neighbors have been talking and saying things like, “He has gone out of his mind.” So, his family is staging an intervention in order to “restrain” Jesus. They want him to go back to being “that nice Jewish boy.”
But Jesus, in his typically blunt manner, refuses to play their social game. “Family,” he says (in effect), “is less about where you’ve come from and more about where you’re going.”
[Jesus said,] “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
After his family of origin come the clergy: the scribes, the religious leaders and scholars (i.e. pastors and theologians). They have even more harsh things to say about Jesus: “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” They’ve passed judgment on Jesus, not because of any fruit his ministry was producing, but because he did not fit their pre-conceived notions of what a good rabbi should look like. It seems that, when it came to his family and the religious leaders, Jesus was a “square peg” that wouldn’t fit into a “round hole.”
This is what Jesus does: he disturbs the comfortable, he upsets our apple-carts, he scrambles our marbles, topples our Jenga™ towers, and squeezes our toothpaste tubes from the middle. Several years ago, there was a book that came out called Who Moved My Cheese? And the answer is: Jesus.
Jesus moved your cheese. That’s what Jesus does in our lives. The only question left to us is – Are we open to letting Jesus move our cheese? Faith asks – Will you let Jesus disturb you? Will you let him make you uncomfortable?
The religious scribes and Jesus’ family of origin didn’t understand that. They already had their whole lives arranged and organized into neat little piles where they knew where everything was. And then Jesus comes along and messes all of that up. He turns their whole world upside down and they are angry about it.
They say, “No, Jesus! Don’t confuse us with the facts. Don’t ask us to change. We know best. And you need to get with our program!” And Jesus very gently (yet bluntly) replies, “That’s not how this works.”
That deep, recalcitrant “No!” is what Jesus means by “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” It is something that arises within each and every one of us whenever Jesus says or does something (in the Bible or in our lives) that messes with our sense of security.
We “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit” whenever we decide that we are more in love with own pre-conceived ideas about the world than we are with Jesus. Jesus calls this “an eternal sin” and has some very strong things to say about it (and I must admit that I myself feel disturbed by Jesus when he says that such a person “can never have forgiveness”).
“Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” is the recalcitrant attitude that refuses to look for the leading of the Holy Spirit in what former Vice President Al Gore might call “an inconvenient truth.” When we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we promise to follow his lead at all times, not simply when it is convenient for us. Our refusal to allow Jesus to challenge us in disturbing ways is the only thing that can block us from growing spiritually.
It’s not a matter of God refusing to forgive us for this hard-heartedness; it’s that we are so hard-hearted that we don’t even want God’s forgiveness when it is offered. We prefer to wallow in misery while our self-centered little worlds revolve around us, rather than open our hearts and minds to the new things that Jesus is trying to show us.
I have to chuckle sometimes when I hear people say things like, “I read the Bible (or go to church) for comfort… to be reminded of those things that never change.” Because the truth of the matter is that the Bible is not comforting; it is disturbing. And being the Church is not about resisting change, it’s about changing us from the inside out.
Just as the bread and wine of the Eucharist are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, so we are being changed by that same Spirit into Christ. I love a line from the Communion service in The Book of Common Prayer: “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.”
When we come to church, or sit down to read the Bible, or approach the Table to receive Communion, faith insists that we come with a willingness to be changed by the One we encounter here. This open-mindedness is the key to real spiritual growth. This is the place within us where Jesus can meet us and transform our lives from the inside out. This is how Jesus is able to take us out of our isolated, self-centered little worlds and bring us into this great, big, interconnected, God-centered Universe in which we can hear those words that have been spoken to us continually since the beginning of time itself:
“I love you. God loves you. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”