What is the Sin Against the Holy Ghost?

“All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men; but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.”
—Matthew 12:31

It often comes as quite a shock when Christians hear of a sin that is unpardonable. After all, they learned, most of them since childhood already, confidently to declare with the Apostle John in his first epistle (1:7), “The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin.” There seems at first glance to be a contradiction here, even though this descriptive adjective, “unpardonable”, is consistently applied to ONE sin and one sin ONLY, namely, to “The sin against the Holy Ghost” as it is also called. There is, of course, no contradiction whatsoever in the Holy Scriptures. A misunderstanding sometimes arises, however, when we attempt with only one word of human language to describe a somewhat complex concept or issue. Jesus uses the expressions, “…shall not be forgiven” and “hath never forgiveness”.

When we use the word “unpardonable”, this is not to suggest that God, on His part, is not able to pardon any sin committed against Him in thoughts, desires, words or deeds; for such an idea flies in the face of God Himself, His divine attributes, His objective justification of the world for Jesus’ sake, and His holy will, as if He were in this instance “defective”. On the contrary, this Sin against the Holy Ghost is UNPARDONABLE

not because God does not desire the sinner’s salvation (I Timothy 2:4; Ezekiel 33:11; II Peter 3:9);

not because this particular sin is greater than the grace of God is able to cover (Romans 5:20);

not because the sacrifice of Christ was insufficient to atone for it (I John 1:7);

but rather because the very nature of the sin is such that the person who commits it persistently rejects and blasphemes the saving operation of the Holy Ghost through the Means of Grace whereby he could otherwise be brought to true repentance and faith. Thus he keeps forgiveness from himself forever.

By definition, the Sin against the Holy Ghost is a conscious, malicious, and unrelenting opposition to the work of the Holy Spirit of God, including bold and openly hostile blasphemy against God’s saving truth, on the part of a person who himself was once converted, was personally convinced of the truth, or who at least experienced the influence of the Holy Ghost in his heart. This definition, a composite of those offered over the years by sound Lutheran theologians, has been derived from what the various passages have to say which treat of this grievous sin.

Besides the Savior’s words in Matthew’s Gospel, quoted in part above (Matthew 12:22-32, especially verses 31-32), other passages specifically refer to this heinous sin and describe both its characteristics and its eventual result, namely, Mark 3:22-30 (very pointedly verses 28 and 29); Luke 12:10; I John 5:16; Hebrews 6:4-8; and Hebrews 10:26-31. Based on these clear words of God, the following details should be noted:

—This sin is not committed against the person of the Holy Ghost (who is a person no more glorious, majestic, or important than is either the Father or the Son, but is co-equal with them). Rather, it is deliberate opposition to the Holy Spirit’s office, to His work of calling sinners by the Gospel, enlightening them with His gifts, sanctifying and keeping them in the one true and saving faith through the Means of Grace (Sanctification in the wider sense).

—Only such a person can commit this sin who was once enlightened by the operation of the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 6:4), who became convinced in his heart of the Truth (Hebrews 10:26), and who tasted the sweetness of the Gospel (Hebrews 6:5), but who subsequently and deliberately rejects the Truth contrary to such better knowledge and personal conviction (Hebrews 10:26).

—According to the passages, the person committing this sin blasphemes the work of the Holy Ghost, that is, he willfully mocks and ridicules it, not merely in his heart; but he speaketh against the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 12:32), openly and contemptuously vilifying and reviling the Spirit’s work with wicked abandon!

—A person who commits this sin will persist in it even unto death. He cannot and will not repent; he has no desire for forgiveness; and he rejects all pardon because he consciously despises the grace of God proclaimed in the Gospel, puts the Lord Jesus and His vicarious atonement to an open shame, and stubbornly resists every effort of the Holy Spirit to convert him.

—While this sin IS identifiable (I John 5:16), we should never be hasty in charging someone with committing it! A rash and unfounded charge may destroy in one who is truly penitent for the sin of blasphemy, for example, any hope of forgiveness! Should a person, who to all appearances has committed this sin against the Holy Ghost, repent upon his deathbed, it is certain that he has NOT committed it.

—We are not to pray for those who have committed the Sin against the Holy Ghost, the “sin unto death” (I John 5:16). The judgment of eternal damnation for this sin has already been pronounced upon them by God in this present life already!

—Nevertheless, if a person commits this sin, persisting in it unto death with irrecoverable hardness of heart (obduration), it is not GOD who put him into that condition, but it is entirely the sinner’s OWN FAULT who first despised God’s grace, resisted the Holy Spirit, and hardened his OWN heart! (I Timothy 2:4; Matthew 23:37; Acts 7:51; Hosea 13:9; etc.)

—On the other hand, if a person is kept from this sin, this is due not in the least to his own better conduct, receptiveness, diligence and faithfulness and therefore to his OWN glory, but alone to the glory of God’s grace in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 11:6; I Peter 1:5)

The Unpardonable Sin or The Sin Against the Holy Ghost must not be identified with or in any way confused with other sins committed against God’s Holy Spirit, from which it should be carefully distinguished. The Sin Against the Holy Ghost is…

NOT to be applied to one who has been excommunicated from the Christian congregation as “an heathen man and a publican” (Matthew 18:17) because of persistent impenitence for manifest sins. The purpose of excommunication (after all other efforts to gain a brother have been exhausted) is that the sinner see the gravity of his sins and repent. Such an outcome cannot be expected in one who has committed The Sin Against the Holy Ghost.

NOT the same as mere unbelief; for the Savior directs us, “Preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15) to the end that unbelievers may come unto the knowledge of the truth and be saved. (I Timothy 2:4) This will not happen in those who have committed The Sin Against the Holy Ghost.

NOT identical to final impenitence. Not all those who die in unbelief and thus perish in everlasting damnation have necessarily committed The Sin Against the Holy Ghost with all of its attendant features.

NOT every blasphemy against the Holy Spirit or against the Truth of His Word, particularly such blasphemy as comes from the mouth of “the natural man” (I Corinthians 2:14) in his spiritual blindness. Such a person has never become personally convinced of the Truth in his own heart. (We have a poignant example in the Apostle Paul, who, before his conversion, was “a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious.” –I Timothy 1:13)

NOT every denial or blasphemy of the Truth on the part of one who IS convinced, when such sins are motivated by self-righteousness and pride, by the love of this present world, by selfishness, or by the fear of one’s earthly enemies. While he is certainly in danger of doing so, he may not yet have committed the Unpardonable Sin. (An example of this is Peter, who by God’s grace repented of his denial and blasphemy and was restored to his apostleship. –John 21:15-19)

NOT every resistance against the Holy Spirit and His sincere efforts to convert the sinner. By nature, all men are spiritually blind, dead and enemies of God, oppose His good and gracious will, and resist His Holy Spirit. Such resistance is pardonable, however; and the sinner receives that pardon by faith when the Holy Spirit through the Means of Grace changes his heart in conversion. (Jeremiah 31:18; I Corinthians 12:3; Acts 3:19; Romans 5:1; etc.)

NOT every case of spiritual obduracy or hardening of the heart. There are degrees of obduracy, all of which place the soul in jeopardy of a punitive or judicial hardening by God (Romans 9:18). But not every case of hardening is beyond recovery, with an obvious exception being The Sin Against the Holy Ghost, which persists unto death.

♦ A word of comfort is in order here for those who are troubled in their minds about the possibility that they might have committed the Unpardonable Sin by an earlier apostasy or blasphemy: Those who are at all concerned about their sins have not committed The Sin Against the Holy Ghost. On the contrary, those who have committed it are not in the least worried about it or in any way contrite; nor is there in their hearts the slightest longing for God’s gracious forgiveness in Christ Jesus.

The passages which speak of and describe in detail The Sin Against the Holy Ghost were “written for our learning” (Romans 15:4), chiefly as a earnest warning to us “who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good work of God, and the powers of the world to come,” namely, to us who are, by the Spirit’s operation in our hearts through the Gospel, true believers in Christ and heirs of eternal life. (Hebrews 6:4-5) We ourselves in these last evil days of sore distress are targets of Satan, who “as a roaring lion walketh about seeking whom he may devour.” (I Peter 5:8-9) Let us therefore be warned against taking the manifold grace of God for granted (Romans 6:1; II Corinthians 6:1), against following after the world with its disdain for God’s precious Word and doctrine pure (II Timothy 4:3), against minimizing or making light of the work of the Holy Ghost (Matthew 12:31-32, etc.), and against the trend among so many who call themselves Christians not to be seriously concerned about the welfare of their eternal souls (Mark 13:33-37; II Peter 3:17)! Luther aptly exhorts us in his sermon on our title-text, Matthew 12:31-32, “For this let us pray that we do not fall into this sin that will not endure the plain truth; for in that case there is no counsel, or help, or excuse; but the final wrath of God has set in!” (Luther: Sämmtliche Schriften, St. Louis Ed., X, p. 1206, 14)

Only by having our hearts and minds and thoughts turned completely to the absolutely universal and absolutely free grace of God in Christ Jesus, our Savior, as this is so clearly and so comfortingly revealed to us in the Gospel, can we be truly relieved of any personal apprehension or anxiety that we might have committed this heinous sin. To that end, may “the God of all grace, who hath called us unto His eternal glory by Christ Jesus…stablish, strengthen, settle” us all by the effectual working of His Holy Spirit through His Word, unto life everlasting! “To Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” (I Peter 5:10-11)

D. T. M.

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