(ESV is quoted unless otherwise stated.)
What is Sin? Why Does It Matter?
“Sin” is a huge topic that cannot be fully discussed without many words and much research. However, it is not impossible to give a brief idea on what sin means in the Bible. In New Testament Greek, “sin” means “to miss a mark”, or “to be in error”1. Therefore not reaching to the goal that God has set, or missing it, is considered a sin. For example, if God commanded not to steal, and yet a person steals an item, that person misses the mark God has set, and therefore has sinned. Disrespecting God’s law is also sin:
1 John 3:4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.
Not believing in God is also a sin against God (John 3:18). This is because such an attitude misses the mark God expects. This is a short and simple explanation on what “sin” is.
Why does it matter? We believe that God is the sovereign ruler of all there is, seen and unseen, known and unkown, tangible and untangible (Colossians 1:15-17). All existence depends on Him for existence, and all ultimately concern Him. All mankind will be under His judgement. He has set two endings for all mankind: end up in heaven of eternal rest and blessing, or end up in hell of eternal damnation and punishment. The sinful end up in hell, but the ones who put their faith in Christ have chance of salvation, or being saved from eternal damnation and receiving the eternal blessing (John 3:16-21; Revelation 20:12-15).
Christians may also sin, but they may also have the chance to repent. There is sin that leads to death, but not all sins are unforgivable. That is why we need to learn repentance. Of all sins, one sin is above all the most unforgivable.
Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit
Of many things listed, the Bible has recorded an immediate sin that allows no room for forgiveness: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. What then, is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?
In the context of Matthew 12:22-32, Mark 3:11-30, and Luke 11:9-23, blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is explained as claiming the Holy Spirit to be a demon / unclean spirit. This is most clearly explained in Mark 3:29-30:
29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 because they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”
The blasphemy uttered by the Pharisees (Matthew 12:24) and scribes (Mark 3:22) was most severe. Prior to their blasphemy, Christ appointed 12 disciples to go out and preach the kingdom of God, giving them authority to cast out demons and heal diseases (Matthew 10:1, 7; Mark 3:14; Luke 9:1, 6). Subsequently, Christ sent another 72 disciples out to do the same (Luke 10:9, 17). Overall, there were 84 disciples who went out to preach, exercising authority over demons and having the ability to heal the sick as testimony. This was a large scale evangelism, with God’s abidance and testimony explicitly shown to the people. The 72 were sent in groups of 2, and of the 12 apostles we do not know. Supposing the 12 apostles were also sent in groups of 2, the two evangelical activities were exercised by a total of 42 groups of people. If the 42 groups preached without geographically overlaying each other’s route, then the area they preached would have been significant. The evangelism would have been quite thorough through the town.
This means the Pharisees and scribes must have known what Christ had done through the disciples: preaching the kingdom of God, and proving that their gospel was true through the authority to cast out demons and power to heal diseases. They must know in their hearts that God was with Christ and His disciples, even if they outwardly deny it. Their denial therefore, is out of their jealousy, their pride, and their political purpose. They wanted to protect their status as the religious leader by claiming Christ did all these wonders through an unclean spirit. so that they would remain the orthodoxy and authority of faith. If they acknowledged Christ, they would have admitted that Christ had greater authority than them, and they would lose their social status. So much jealousy had they, that they not only blasphemed the Holy Spirit, they even lead others to claim that Christ was out of His mind (Mark 3:21-22; c.f. 5:15).
In response to this, Christ claimed their act as blasphemy and condemned them to eternal damnation without room for forgiveness. They knew clearly that God was with Christ, and yet they falsely testified against Him in such an evil way that they even claimed the Holy Spirit to be the prince of demons (Matthew 12:24), and made others to believe Christ had gone insane. This was most unforgivable.
Besides claiming the Holy Spirit to be an evil spirit, what other ways can also be considered blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?
What is Blasphemy?
The Bible defines blasphemy in various ways:
- Lev 24:11
Despising God (speaking words
of arrogance / despise)
- 2 King 18:32-35
- Isaiah 36:18-20
- Revelation 13:5
Speaking against God
- 2 King 19:22
- Isaiah 37:23
- Luke 22:65
- Revelation 13:6
Sinning against God
- 2 Sam 12:14
- Nehemiah 9:26
- Romans 2:22-24
Disobedience against God
- Nehemiah 9:26
Rebellion against God
- Nehemiah 9:26
Killing God’s prophets
- Nehemiah 9:26
Mistreatment and despise against
- Isaiah 52:3-5
Treacherous act against God
- Ezekiel 20:27
Claiming to be God
- Matthew 9:2
- John 10:33, 36
- Matthew 26:64-66
Speaking against the Gospel
- Acts 13:45
- 1 Timothy 1:13
Rejection of faith after having
- 1 Timothy 1:19-20
The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in the Gospels can be regarded as speaking against God (Matthew 12:32; Mark 3:29-30). Of the above list, the bold text is what I personally think is more directly related to what happened in the Gospels. Christ distinguishes general sin and blasphemy from the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31; Mark 3:28). The other types of blasphemy do not seem to directly relate to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, but are blasphemy against God in general, which has the potential of being forgiven (Matthew 12:31; Mark 3:28). Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is therefore a specific type of blasphemy that can be distinguished from other types of blasphemy. This is especially true when Christ says that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is “uttered” (Mark 3:28 (NASB, ESV)). It is therefore more to do with what we say, than what we do, that directly blasphemes the Holy Spirit.
It is easy to know when one has cursed the Holy Spirit, therefore the definition of this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is intuitive in nature. Speaking words of despise against the Holy Spirit, or speaking arrogantly against the Holy Spirit, is clearly demonstrated in the Bible (2 King 18:32-35; Isaiah 36:18-20). The Assyrians regarded God as a lifeless idol that could do nothing to stop them. This infuriated God.
What then, is speaking against the Holy Spirit? The Bible so defines what “speaking against” means:
Condemning the guiltless
- Numbers 12:1
- Job 19:3-5
- Isaiah 32:6
Words of despise
- Numbers 12:2, 8
- Psalm 31:18
- Psalm 139:20 (against God)
- Daniel 11:36-37 (against God, and even false gods)
Utter woe or defeat against
- 1 Sam 2:1
- Ezekiel 20:45-48
- Ezekiel 29:3-6
- Amos 7:16-17
- Acts 6:11-14 (God’s temple thrown down = blasphemy)
Speaking against God =
despising God, or making God the same as an idol / demon
- 2 Chronicles 32:17
Words of insult
- Job 19:3-5
- Daniel 3:29 (against God)
- Psalm 41:5
- Psalm 109:17-20
- Psalm 50:20
- Psalm 109:17-20
- Psalm 139:20 (against God)
Speak lies against / making
- Hosea 7:13
Twist the law of God = blasphemy
- Acts 6:11-14
All these define what “speaking against someone” means. I have made the text bold for what I think is related to what the Pharisees and scribes did when they blasphemed the Holy Spirit. These are: words of despise, calling God an idol / demon (1 Corinthians 10:19-20), words of insult, offensive speech, slander, wicked words, and speaking lies against / making false testimony. Such act against the Holy Spirit, especially when one is aware of what he/she is doing, is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. This is the most severe sin.
What do “truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter,” (Mark 3:28) and “therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (Matthew 12:31) mean?
Forgiveness is always followed by repentance (Deuteronomy 30:1; Jeremiah 5:1; Mark 1:4, 3:3; Luke 17:3-4, 24:47; Act 2:38, 5:31, 8:22). There is no forgiveness without repentance (Jeremiah 5:1-9; Matthew 11:20; Luke 10:13; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Revelation 2:5, 16, 3:3, 16:8-21). There is one instance of “excuse for the unrepentant”, which is applied to the non-believers:
Romans 2:14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
The excuse is judged according to their conscience, because they have no Bible to refer to what God wants of them. The believers, however, will be judged according to the Bible. Excusing their deed does not necessarily mean they will be saved, but that their punishment might be less (c.f. Luke 12:48). The judgement for them determines the severity of their punishment, not salvation. They will perish without the law (Romans 2:12).
The forgiveness of sin and blasphemy that Christ refers to, then, refers to forgiveness for one who has repented (such as Paul, who said he blasphemed before he believed (1 Timothy 1:13)). Another possible explanation is that the blasphemers are excused with their argument for their deed on the Judgement Day. How this will be is not further discussed in the Bible, but the Bible gives such possibility.
Christ also said a puzzling word:
Matthew 12:32 Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.
The Greek word for “age” is “aion”. This word is translated as “world” (Matthew 13:22), “age”, or “forever / ever / eternal” (Matthew 6:13, 21:19; Mark 3:29, 10:30, etc.). If understood as “world”, then Christ may be referring to having no forgiveness in this world, or the new world that we will see after the Judgement Day. If understood as “age”, then this can mean that the people in the age of Christ will not be forgiven for this sin, neither will the people who come after them. Understanding “aion” as age in this verse has the double meaning of Christ referring to the people of His generation (c.f. Luke 16:8), and the generations that come after, or the age as in the time this world exists, and the age to come meaning the age after the Judgement Day.
Judging from the use of the Greek phrase “touto to aioni oute en to mellonti” (in this age or in the [age] to come), it is most likely referring to this age, as in this world (Romans 12:2), and the age after the Judgement Day (Ephesians 1:21; c.f. Hebrews 6:5; also c.f. Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30). Such interpretation has the greater biblical support. In other words, Christ says that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit can neither be forgiven in this age / world, nor can it be forgiven in the age / world after the Judgement Day.
What does it mean to be forgiven of sins in the coming age? I believe that what Paul says about judgement on the non-believers explains what it means. Again, Romans 2:15 says that the Gentiles might even be excused for their sin based on their conscience for what they did. This is because they do not have the law of God, so the judgement imposed upon them is different from the believers. It might be that some sins, or blasphemies not against the Holy Spirit, may be excused on the Judgement Day because the person did not know what he really did (c.f. Luke 23:34), or perhaps excused for what he thought was right (such as Paul’s persecution, which he thought he was doing for God (Galatians 1:13-14)). The details of such is not expounded in the Bible, and we can but conjecture for now. Excusing their deed does not necessarily mean they will be saved, but that their punishment might be less (c.f. Luke 12:48). The judgement for them determines the severity of their punishment, not salvation. They will perish without the law (Romans 2:12).
1.2011. William D. Mounce. “Mounce Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament.” www.biblegateway.com