What is the Unpardonable or Unforgivable Sin?

There is a lot of confusion over the term unpardonable sin.  The phrase does not actually appear in the Bible but it is implied in Matthew 12:31-32.

And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 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.”

While grace and forgiveness are found throughout the Bible, we can’t simply ignore this passage in light of what the Bible says about forgiveness elsewhere.  We know that there are no contradictions in the Bible so we must work hard to discern what this statement by Jesus means.

To start, we should note the context of Jesus’ statement.  He was performing miracles and casting out demons.  The Pharisees accused Jesus of performing miracles with the power of Satan.  Attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan is what Jesus calls blasphemy against the Spirit.

Jesus makes it clear that “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven” which is in line with everything else that the Bible teaches.  Jesus includes a “but” along with His statement though.  He says that anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

Some say that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is simply hypothetical because there is no sin that a person can commit that is unforgiveable.  But let’s assume that Jesus is not speaking hypothetically and that this is a real sin that people commit.  This is not an accidental sin or even one that is intentionally committed.  Instead what Jesus is addressing is a matter of someone’s heart being so hard that they refuse to even acknowledge the work of God and instead attribute it to Satan.

Some Christians believe that salvation can be lost and others believe that there is eternal security.  This passage does not address either belief however.  This is not a sin that a Christian will commit.  While Christians are still capable of lots of terrible sins, their hearts will never become so hard as to call the work of the Holy Spirit Satanic.

It is worth noting that Jesus says “will not be forgiven” rather than “cannot be forgiven.”  It is perhaps key to our understanding of this passage and to our understanding of God’s forgiveness.  It seems arbitrary that God would choose to hold one sin as unforgiveable in light of all of the other terrible things that a person can do.  But when we look at this as a matter of the heart it makes sense.  A person who is so far gone as to blaspheme the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven because they will never seek forgiveness.  It is not that God’s grace is incapable of forgiving the person.  Instead it is a sign that the person has no interest in forgiveness.  The next verse gives us an indication of this.

“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.”  The fruit of the Spirit will be evident in the life of a Christian.  Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is the fruit of a life that is so far from God that the person will never seek forgiveness.

So the unforgiveable sin comes down to a matter of human will and not the ability of God.  God is still capable of forgiving any and all sins.  The Pharisees that Jesus is addressing have hearts that are so hard that they will never seek God in repentance however.  This is not a sin that a Christian can or would commit.  In fact only the most non-Christians will never be so far removed from God to commit this sin.

Can a person be a Christian and have no compassion?

The short answer is yes, but a Christian who shows no compassion is an immature one.  See “What is a Christian” for more information.  There is more to the issue of compassion than simply a mark of whether or not a person is a Christian however.

Compassion is an issue that is hotly debated in the United States.  We don’t think of it in such terms, but it appears in terms such as welfare and unemployment extensions.  Not to oversimplify the issues because there is more to it than this, but one side says that we should take care of those less fortunate by offering them financial assistance.  The other side believes that the best way to help is by forcing someone to work and thus they will take care of themselves and their family.  It is the adage of “give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day.  Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”  Although politics is never this simple and both sides often have selfish motives, in essence both sides are trying to be compassionate but they are displaying it in different ways.  (Please no comments about the politics of the issue because I know it is oversimplifying a complex issue.)

Compassion is similar in Christianity.  Churches constantly get requests for financial assistance, most often at the last minute and as a last resort.  To some, the most compassionate thing to do is to give out money when it is available and requested and if the money is misused, then it is on the conscience of the person who took the money.  To others, if the money is needed because of a drug or alcohol problem or because of poor financial management, simply giving money isn’t doing the person a favor.  Rather it enables a sinful lifestyle and contributing does more harm than good.  There is a fine line to walk when it comes to being compassionate.

When it comes to compassion though, every Christian is going to display a different level that is not related to how mature of a Christian they are.  Compassion is a spiritual gift.  Some people have a God given gift to be more merciful and compassionate than others.  Mercy is pretty much at the bottom of the list of my spiritual gifts.  This means that to a person who has a lot of compassion, I’m going to look pretty compassionless.  This does not give me or anyone else an excuse to be compassionless, it just means that other people are going to be more compassionate than I am without even trying.  In the eyes of someone who has the gift of compassion I may appear to have no compassion.  In this instance, it is a matter of perspective.  If you have the gift of compassion you are more likely to be frustrated by those who don’t have the gift.  The same is true with other gifts.  Those who are gifted in evangelism will be frustrated by those who don’t have the same passion for evangelism as they do.

What is the kinsman redeemer?

There are two main duties of a kinsman redeemer.  Both revolve around the death of a man’s brother.

In the first case, if a brother died, the man had a responsibility to take care of his brother’s widow.  Not only this but he was to marry her and father children in his brother’s name.  They would receive his brother’s inheritance, the land that the man took care of.  This was a sacred duty and not an easy one as the man would essentially be paying to raise two families.  If the brother rejected his right as kinsman redeemer the next in line could claim it.  This is what happened in the story of Ruth when Boaz agreed to marry her.  He was not the first in line as her kinsman redeemer and had to have the closest relative to her waive his right to redeem her ex husband’s property.

The other right of a kinsman redeemer involved if a brother was wrongfully killed.  The kinsman redeemer could seek out justice and hunt down his brother’s killer.  If it was an accident the killer could flee to one of twelve cities of refuge.  There the elders of the city would hear what happened and determine the proper punishment.  If the man left the city of refuge his blood was on his own head if the kinsman redeemer sought justice for his brother’s wrongful death.  In the case of a deliberate killing – murder – there were no cities of refuge and the kinsman redeemer was entitled to act as his brother’s avenger.

Why did God allow polygamy in the Bible?

It would appear that polygamy is something that is tolerated rather than approved.  Just as Jesus noted that Moses allowed divorce because the people’s hearts were hard, it seems as if polygamy is something that is less than ideal.

The first instance of polygamy in the Bible is early in Genesis 4:19.  Lamech is noted to have two wives.  Lamech is also very wicked and boasts about killing a man for wounding him.  While we shouldn’t associate polygamy with wickedness just for this reason it is noteworthy that our first instance of polygamy comes from a very wicked man.

There is one place in the Bible that allows for polygamy.  In a levirate marriage a man is called upon to marry his brother’s widow in the event of his brother’s death.  This assured that the widow would be taken care of.  It also allowed for the brother’s line to continue as all children born to the widow would be considered legally to be the brother’s and they would inherit the brother’s property.

Some suggest that polygamy occurs in the ancient world as a matter of convenience.  This may or may not be the case, but here is the argument anyway.  Because of wars and a more physical lifestyle, men died younger and often before reaching marrying age as they tended to be older than their brides.  This created a shortage of available husbands.  Because women were most often untrained and uneducated they required a man to protect them.  While the father could take of them eventually he would die so it was far better to be a second wife to a man than to be left to fend for herself.  Whether this was actually the thinking of the time is questionable but the argument does make sense.

There is a very good and spiritual reason why men are allowed multiple wives but women are not allowed multiple husbands.  It is to preserve the sanctity of the family.  If a man with multiple wives impregnates his wife, it is clear who the father and mother are.  However, if a woman has multiple husbands and she becomes pregnant, it is not clear who the father may be. 

While there is not a recorded command forbidding polygamy by the time of the New Testament it did not exist.  Polygamy was not an issue in the Roman empire.  1 Timothy 3:2 states that church leaders should be “the husband of one wife.”  This would seem to imply that spiritual leaders should not practice polygamy.

When did polygamy stop in the Bible?

Polygamy begins early in Genesis 4:19 with Lamech having two wives.  Nothing good is associated with Lamech as he thumbs his nose at God and boasts of murdering another man some time after Cain killed Abel.  While this does not automatically make polygamy wrong, it is worth noting that our first instance of it comes from a very evil man.

Several Bible characters of note had multiple wives including Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon.  Despite this, we don’t get the impression that this was ever the norm and was never expressed as ideal.  There is one instance in which God calls for multiple wives – the kinsman redeemer.  If a man’s brother dies that man is to marry his brother’s widow, to take care of her, and to father children in his brother’s name in order to keep his family line going.  The story of Ruth is about a kinsman redeemer.  Closer relatives refused to do their duty so Boaz took Ruth as his wife.  While Boaz is not noted as being married previously the law of the kinsman redeemer allowed for multiple wives in this case.

There is no official end to polygamy in the Bible.  There is little mention of it after Solomon and his son Rehoboam however.  While Solomon’s sin did not lie with having multiple wives but in marrying foreign women and worshipping foreign gods, it seems that Israel took note of the problem.  Multiple wives brought about trouble and if even the wisest man on earth, Solomon, could not keep from sinning the rest of Israel stood no chance.

In the New Testament polygamy was not an issue in the Roman world.  Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:2 that a requirement for spiritual leadership was to be the “husband of one wife.”  Some take this to imply that church leaders should only be men while others imply that it is in reference to divorce.  In either case, it seems clear that polygamy was not accepted within the church.

Can a Christian be forgiven if they won’t forgive?

The difficulty with the Christian life is that despite being Christians we aren’t perfect.  This means that at times we may hold grudges and not be willing to forgive just the same as a Christian may continue to struggle with issues such as lust, lying, or anger.

Just because we are not perfect does not mean that we stop striving for perfection though.  We must constantly be working to better ourselves and forgiveness is a big area.  In the Lord’s Prayer we are taught to pray “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  People who pray that pray are asking that God forgive them on the basis that they have forgiven others.  Anyone who prays that prayer and who has not forgiven someone else is essentially asking God not to forgive them.  This is obviously a serious issue.

There are two kinds of forgiveness in Christianity.  The first is the forgiveness of our sins at the time of salvation.  Our sins are erased on the basis of Jesus’ death on the cross.  Every Christian has this and it can’t be undone.  What some Christians don’t have is the daily forgiveness of their sins.  As mentioned earlier we are not perfect and continue to sin even after we become Christians.  As before we were saved sin affects our relationship with God.  The more we sin, the worse our relationship with God. 

Daily asking forgiveness of our sins not only keeps our relationship right with God, it keeps our focus on Him.  It reminds us that our forgiveness is from God and has nothing to do with how “holy” we are.  A person who won’t forgive others has no right to ask God to continue to forgive them however and their relationship with God suffers.

In Matthew 18 Jesus told a parable about a man who was forgiven a debt that he could never repay by the king.  However that man went and held another man to a much smaller debt that was owed to him.  When the king heard about this he was furious and had the man thrown into prison for his inability to forgive a debt despite the fact that he had a much greater one forgiven.  Some believe that this passage warns of a loss of salvation while others hold that salvation can never truly be lost.  Whatever one’s interpretation is, everyone can agree upon the fact that the situation is not good and the man should have forgiven the small debt as he had been forgiven a great one.

Christians should be forgiving, plain and simple.  It may not affect one’s salvation but it definitely affects one’s relationship with God.

What is a Christian?

What is a Christian is one of the simplest and most complex questions that can be asked.  Within Christianity there is a definite divide between Protestantism and Catholicism.  There is also Eastern Orthodox and Episcopal which started as a branch off of Catholicism that allowed divorce and is now somewhere between Protestant and Catholic.  Add in the hundreds if not thousands of denominations that have differing views on the Bible and its interpretation and the question, “What is a Christian?” become very complex.

It’s best to remain simple and basic on this question.  Once things start getting adding it gets difficult and ugly and ultimately that’s how the divisions came about in the first place.  A Christian is anyone who has accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior.  This means that they have acknowledged that they are a sinner.  They believe that Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of the sins.  They have asked God to forgive them of their sins on this basis.  I fully believe that anyone who does this is a Christian and is saved.

What most people mean when they ask “What is a Christian?” is really “What does a good Christian look like?”  If a person commits such and such a sin, are they really a Christian?  If a person doesn’t go to church every Sunday or isn’t forgiving, are they really a Christian?  Christians are not perfect and they are going to slip up and sin.  Some Christians slip up more than others and some are much more mature than others. 

The mark of a mature Christian is best seen in the fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.  Mature Christians are going to demonstrate these things consistently.  Immature Christians are going to be lacking them as they take time to develop.  Showing possession of the fruit of the Spirit is a good indication that a person is a genuine Christian.  The reverse is not true however.  Just because they don’t show the fruit of the Spirit in their lives does not mean that they are not a Christian, it may just mean that they are an immature Christian.  There are many immature Christians in the world and they should be striving to be better Christians.