Rethinking the Unpardonable Sin
"Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. 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." (Matthew 12:31-32)
What do we do with it?
Often, I am asked what to do with these above verses in light of what we know of the grace and mercy of God through Christ. There are probably a few good ways to look at this. First, we have to remember that Jesus, being the full revelation and character of God, forgave his enemies on the cross and throughout his time pre-resurrection. Since Jesus is the face of God, what does it mean that there is no forgiveness?
If you look at the verses leading up to this passage we see the Pharisees denying Jesus having the spirit of God as being the means of his healing people and said that it was the spirit of the devil.
But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, "This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons." ( Matthew 12:24)
Immediately following the next set of verses, which begin with a “therefore” indicating the message about to be given is a response/result of the previous text, it states:
“Therefore, I tell you...." (vs 31)
Immediately we can see and deduce that insulting/blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is unbelief in the work of the Spirit due to the passage in the text right before this as noted in verse 24.
Also the word ‘forgiveness’ here, aphiémi, is better translated in English as liberation or “freedom from something”. The word is way more nuanced than what is often just simply translated as "forgiveness". But it's important to know what we are liberated from is not an angry God that wants to punish us or being sent to an eternal conscious torment chamber when we die. It’s from the effects of sin. As author Paul Young stated in his book “The Shack”, sin has its own punishment. In N.T. Wright’s book “The Day the Revolution Began”, he describes sin as idolatry which causes one or a group of people to be “exiled” and so, he says, the ‘forgiveness of sins’ that is described in scripture is an escape from exile. Liberation!
So, to repent of sin and be forgiven is to change our mind or turn from the sin causing us harm and we will be liberated from its consequences. Same thing with confession and forgiving others. We are freed from that which holds us captive. Here are some verses re-worded, using this thought process:
“But if you refuse to release others of their offense, your Father will not be able to liberate you from yours.” Matthew 6:15
And Peter said to them, “Change your minds and follow the way of Jesus so you will have liberation from your sins, and you will activate the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:38
If we admit we screwed up, he is faithful and just to liberate us from our sins and that will cleanse our consciousness. 1 John 1:9
Rethinking the text
To me, what is basically being said in these verses and what is described as the unpardonable or unforgivable sin is this:
“Therefore, I tell you that people will be freed from the power of every sin and insult to God. But unbelief in the power and work of the Spirit and the freedom it offers you will result in enslavement, because you’re not believing the truth. And whoever speaks a word against Jesus can still see freedom because the spirit can still be seen. But whoever doesn’t believe in the work of the spirit won’t experience the freedom of their true identity, in this age or the next."
I think when reading scripture and when talking about God, Jesus always has to be the center and the plumb line when determining what verses mean and what the character of God is like in those verses. When we escape from this way of christocentric interpretation, all kinds of exclusion, bigotry, and scapegoating occur all in the name of scripture. It's always helpful to remember that God is like Jesus and there is never a time when God will act contrary to Jesus. And that's good news.
Nathan is a Husband, Father and aspiring Jesus follower. Nathan was raised Mormon, turned agnostic, to fundamentalist evangelical, to a sojourner following grace wherever it leads. Nathan says, "We live in a pluristic world and to be able to transcend former assertions and still include those in different places without passing judgment is something I aspire to do everyday. I love writing about theology, the Divine and the universal question "why"." Nathan's hope is to continue the conversation of being human - using the language of the faith tradition he knows and loves. He currently resides in Texas, U.S.A. See all previous articles by Nathan Jennings