(This post is part of a series of short studies in Mark's Gospel)
What is “the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” and why did Jesus say it was the “unforgiveable sin?” Can we commit “the unforgivable sin” today?
First, spanning out and considering a larger context, this incident (3:19-30) is preceded by Jesus’ confirmation that He is indeed claiming to be God, who alone can forgive sins, in direct response to a charge of blasphemy from the Scribes—if only at this juncture in their unexpressed thoughts (2:1-12). Now we see him charging them with blasphemy for openly ascribing the works of God to the works of demons, or “Satan” (the prince of evil spirits, or the adversary). So in Mark’s chronology we see Jesus’ identity progressively revealed, and along with this revelation we see the Jewish leaders becoming increasingly bolder in their accusations against him, and in their denial of his deity—which is their rejection of God’s revelation of His salvation to humankind in Christ.
Specifically to the question of why Jesus defines blasphemy as the “unforgiveable sin,” it is important to identify from the text what that “blasphemy” is. And we do have the definitive statement that Jesus is speaking against the “blasphemy” of those who had said, “he has an unclean spirit” (3:30). In other words, this unforgivable blasphemy—committed in a specific time and place by a specific group of people--was the denial of Jesus’ deity, and not simply by suggesting he was a mere man rather than “the Son of Man,” but with the added force of claiming the works he performed to prove his identity were in fact works he performed by the power of “Satan.”
I have occasionally heard people wonder, “what if I have committed the unforgivable sin?” It is important that we remember the time and place context of this story. Again, Jesus was speaking to a specific group of people, who had committed a specific offense—that of denying that His works, done physically in their presence, were the works of God, and ascribing those works instead to the works of “Satan.” This is not a position any of us are in today, historically speaking. Beyond this, our theology, and specifically our soteriology, will dictate our response to someone who fears they may be “unforgivable.” When our faith in the power of the cross assures us that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (cf. Romans 8:1) we can comfort one another with this “good news.”
 First century Jews would have indeed understood from their prophets that Israel’s Savior would be none other than God. In fact, it is not possible to call Jesus “Savior” without also calling him “God” (cf. Isaiah 43:3; 45:21; Hosea 13:4).
 “Soteriology” refers to the doctrine of salvation, or our belief about how one becomes saved, and would also encompass whether we believe one could ever “lose salvation.”
A while back someone posted on our forum some thoughts about our obedience to Old Testament law today, not suggesting that it is required we obey it in order to be justified, but that perhaps we should be motivated out of gratitude to obey those laws, and also for practical reasons as many of them are wise guides for living. And another question was raised: If we are not under obligation to obey the law--either Old Testament or New Testament--in order to be justified before God, then what is our motivation to live morally? Or for that matter, to abstain from immorality?
The reason I am so drawn to having this conversation is that it's right where we all live. And it involves that tension I think we all feel between the legalism we were brought up with and our understanding of liberty in Christ, and also the tension between the fact (yes, it is a fact) that our consciences have been cleansed and are now absolutely perfect and guilt free--no, we couldn't possibly be cleaner, purer, or more righteous in God's sight--and the feeling we sometimes have that we are guilty.
And how do we assuage that "guilty" feeling? I think it's often by trying to be more obedient. It's our nature to try to do that. But when we find ourselves seeking relief from the feeling of guilt in obedience to law--any law, OT, NT, some standard we set up in our mind derived from comparing ourselves to others, whatever--it should be a red flag to us that we have forgotten the cross. For however brief a moment, and to whatever degree, when we seek to relieve our guilty feeling through our own performance, we have forgotten His mercy. And that is a very dangerous thing. Because as soon as we forget His mercy to us, we diminish our capacity to show it to others.
Something else that needs to be pointed out whenever we start talking about obeying Old Testament law (even as a wise and practical guide for living), is that Scripture doesn't make any distinction within that code that allows any parceling. So you simply cannot separate a discussion about obedience to any Old Testament law without dealing with the dilemma presented by the fact that Jesus and the apostles never said anything along the lines of, "Ok, guys, here is a list of the ones we are doing away with, and here is a list of the ones that still apply." Christians have those lists in their heads but they are nowhere in Scripture. So if we speak of obedience to certain laws--or to even one of them--"out of gratitude," then how do we avoid advocating the obedience of the entire law out of gratitude?
But now back to motive. If our motive is not to assuage our guilty conscience, since we are truly guilt-free, then what motive do we have to obey--specifically, setting the Old Testament law aside, what motive do we have to abstain from immorality as defined by the New Testament? Certainly, the "law of Christ" can be summed up as 1. Love God and 2. Love others. And if that is all we ever thought about, if our motive was simply love for God and others in response to His love for us, out of thankfulness, then wouldn't "immorality" be a non-issue? When we think of New Testament admonitions toward how we should "walk" as God's people, love as the motive really does cover everything. "We love because He first loved us," and we prove He has loved us when we love one another (1 John).
But there is another "motive" we all tend toward. Or I know I am confronted with this every day. The best way I know to illustrate it is with this familiar passage:
1Co 6:9 Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, 1Co 6:10 Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. 1Co 6:11 And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.
Legalists loooooove this passage. The self-righteous simply adore it. Never mind that it condemns them all with the same standard by which they judge others. They can't be bothered with that. They just love to use it to prove that salvation is by works!
Let's face the facts, if it were true that by doing something on that list, you are disinherited from the kingdom, then we are all dead. The cross did nothing for us, and we have no hope. We've all done things on that list since becoming Christians. But the power of the cross and the glory of mercy is stated right there in that passage: even though we still do those things, those things are not who we are.
"And such were some of you. But you are washed." In other words, in God's eyes that is not who you are, anymore. And it has nothing to do with your ability to avoid doing those things. And thank God it doesn't!
What then is my motive for abstaining from those things which I know to be immoral as the Bible defines immorality, and both harmful to myself and others? It certainly is not to assuage my guilt over having done them, or even my guilt for continuing to fall into them. I am free of that guilt because of Christ's righteousness. And because of His mercies new every morning. But when I do those things I still may feel guilty. And such a feeling of guilt or shame , when it doesn't drive me to my knees in thankfulness at the foot of the cross, may instead drive me back to legalism, which always leads to projecting judgment onto someone else. Self-righteousness is the twin brother of guilt, they are truly two sides of the same coin. And both are an affront to the finished work of Christ.
So just as falling into self-righteous law keeping should be a red flag reminding me to not forget the cross; falling into immorality should be a red flag reminding me to not forget the cross. And when I do fall and feel guilty, I need to run to the cross and be reminded that I am forgiven and cleansed. And be restored once again to the joy of that forgiveness so that I can share it with others. And love them. My motive? "The love of Christ compels me." That's the communion we are invited to experience with Him and with one another in Him, whereby we "fulfill the law of Christ."
I wanted to share some thoughts about a message we just added to our video archive at NCMI, called The Holiness of God.
We have a growing archive of sermons at our website. They are all wonderful messages that Ward has given communicating the beauty of the kingdom and grace of God. This one in particular, though, is probably one of the two or three most significant, and impactful to me personally. It is foundational to what our ministry is all about, because it so clearly defines God's radical mercy which He has lavished upon us. Indeed, it took an act of infinite mercy to bring us into the presence of an infinitely holy God.
Since I started seeing Christ in the Old Testament, this has become one of my favorite passages:
Isaiah 57:15 For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
It seems to come up a lot in our podcast studies in the prophets, and it's often my "go to" passage when I am writing about the kindgom of heaven--its character and substance, how it was fulfilled, and how we experience it. In this sermon, Ward talks about this passage in conjunction with one of his bullet points: "The Holiness of God does not allow Him to dwell with evil." That statement should cause us all to pause and consider just what it took to make us the "many mansions--or dwelling places--in our Father's house." No less than this was required: that we be made holy as He is holy. Nothing less would ever do.
Ward also makes a rather provocative, yet entirely Biblical statement:
If you are saying in your heart, "God will never save that guy, he's too wicked," then God probably hasn't saved you.
When you consider it, in light of Isaiah 57:15, you will understand my heart's passion toward the ministry of NCMI. It's only in humbling ourselves before God's holiness, and seeing who we really are apart from Him, that we can know the incalculable riches of His mercy, and share it with others. So that we can truly experience the joy of forgiveness and presence with God. And rest in His completed work. For me, it's all right there in that passage.
There are so many Christians who have trusted Christ as their Savior, and yet are still burdened with feelings of guilt and shame. And that guilt and shame tends to come out toward others as self-righteousness and condemnation. And I think it's what mainly keeps people away from "churches." That is why this message is so needed.
I am personally so thankful for the technology of video and the internet, which allows us to share these messages with a wide audience. And I know there are all kinds of things competing for your time and attention. But I just wanted to encourage you all to listen to this one message even if you typically don't get a chance to listen regularly. I can't tell you how many times I had to pause it while editing through tears (as I need a clear view to insert text at the appropriate places). And also, I was thinking of so many applications of this message to current preterist "in-house" debates on the forums, including the unbiblical concept known as "progressive sanctification" which is being argued for and against. It occurred to me as I was listening to this message and as I considered the cross, the most awesome display of God's power there ever was, and what it accomplished: my holiness in His sight--that this "progressive sanctification" notion is a particularly blatant offense to God. And it must grieve Him to know that His children still see themselves as lacking something, when He's already given them Himself.
This past summer on our family vacation, which included three extra teenagers, as each of ours brought a friend, I watched an Ellen DeGeneres DVD with the girls. I have always enjoyed her comedy and we laughed a lot. At the end of one of the segments, however, it got a little more serious, when she took comments and questions from the audience. A young woman came to the mic who would be recognized on the street immediately by any of us as being a lesbian. She immediately choked up to the point of having difficulty speaking, and expressed to Ellen what a difference she had made in her life by "coming out" and how it gave her hope for her future, and brought her comfort in the midst of all the pain she had experienced at the treatment she had received by those in her community, and some in her own family.
Ellen was visibly moved (sure, there may be some who would say it was all staged and contrived, but I am not speaking here to those people) and motioned for the woman to come forward. She bent down over the front of the stage and embraced her, at which point the woman sobbed uncontrollably in her arms.
My girls all teared up as most anyone with even a basic sense of compassion would. I was moved to tears as well, but perhaps for more specific reasons. I immediately wondered if she came from a "fundamentalist" background. It is a story I am sure you all have heard over and over again from homosexuals who speak out: they come out from "fundamentalism" and break free of its oppression. Invariably, anyone who comes out as a homosexual, and is a member of a church even remotely resembling the church in which I grew up, has only one option available to them, and that is to leave that church...or be expelled.
You know what's perplexing? You don't see gossips being compelled to leave the church. On the contrary, it's often a "the more the merrier" mentality. You don't see those who perpetuate strife among brothers being kicked out, as they often manage to present themselves as acting in the interest of "truth". But there is no such thing as truth void of mercy; that "truth" is a lie.
As I watched Ellen embrace this young woman, and comfort her in her pain, letting her know she was not alone, I thought about Christ, and how He would have responded to her. We don't have to wonder whether He would have responded like Ellen who embraced her, or like the "fundamentalists" who had turned their backs. We already know.
I thought about my girls and what I am teaching them about Christianity, and who Christ is. And who we are in Him. What made me weep was the fact that an unbeliever was demonstrating to them them a level of compassion that they were not likely to see in a "church" any time soon.
My 17-yr-old daughter asked me a few months ago, "If I got pregnant, would you kick me out of the house? Because [so-and-so's] mom would kick her out." I was immediately grieved that the question had to be asked, but what I realized after a very tender conversation with her, was that she knew the answer, she just needed to hear it from me again. And so I resolved that day that she would continue to hear it again, and often.
The moralist will dismiss this as sentimentalism, or "emotionalism", or as somehow excusing immorality. I even heard one say recently that to admit to our moral weaknesses, and confess them to one another, was to take pride in them, or to be without remorse. That somehow owning up to our human frailty and reveling in the mercy of God is the height of debauchery. (Nothing like entirely missing the point!) But "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."
As Christians, who have experienced God's mercy and forgiveness and are commanded to love one another as Christ has loved us, we should respond to a fellow believer who struggles with homosexuality the same way we respond to a fellow believer who struggles with any other area of weakness. And yet for whatever reason, this one "sin", and even one who commits it, has been separated as untouchable by the church. This is especially perplexing since the afore-mentioned sin of gossip arguably does much more damage to God's people and the reputation of His Kingdom in the world. It should sadden all of us, and convict our conscience, to see an unbeliever show more compassion to a stranger than we as members of God's household would show to a hurting brother or sister.
Why does James write, "Confess your faults one to another?" He tells us why, in that very context:
James 5: 16 Confess your faults one to another, <em>and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
It goes hand in hand with this passage:
Galatians 6: 1 Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, <em>restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. 2 <em>Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
We confess our faults, or our struggles and weaknesses, with one another <em>so that</em> we may be restored and healed. But where there is fear of judgment and condemnation, not to mention excommunication, this restoration cannot be accomplished. Christ's law cannot be fulfilled through our communion if we are fearing one another. That is why the apostle writes, "There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).
So many times I have heard Christian parents speak about the ultimate shame of finding out their child struggles with homosexuality. But would these same parents hang their heads and be afraid to show their faces in church if their child struggled with being unkind, unloving, self-righteous or judgmental? It is no wonder that hurting people desperate for mercy often run as far from "church" as they can get.
As parents, we should consider fervently how we are portraying Christianity to our children. I want my children to encounter Christ in my loving arms. I want all who enter my home to be embraced by His mercy. And someday, maybe those expelled from "church" will be drawn to the Kingdom of our Savior.
I have been married to my loving husband Keith for 26 years. We have three beautiful and brilliant children, ages 24, 22 and 20. Nothing cheers my heart more than having them all at home, yet nothing is more satisfying to my mind than watching them grow from afar. My personal passion is theology: the knowledge and experience of the Truth and Mercy found only in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and displayed in the lives and communion of His people. My husband and I love to travel, and because our children are often out and about in the world, we get lots of opportunities to see it! And we also love to fill our home with friends who love us, and love our wine collection.