If you type the words “the unforgivable sin” into a google search bar, you will be promptly drowned in several hundred articles on the subject. Apparently, there’s something here that weighs on the minds of many a Christian googler!
If you scroll a bit through the results, you may also find that this flood of links isn’t content to just stay behind your screen. Instead, it bursts through the tempered glass like waves of anxiety. This anxiety is perfectly expressed by one of the bold page-titles in front of your eyes: “Have You Committed The Unforgivable Sin?”
If you click on image results, things get worse. One of the very first images is a cartoon drawing of a goblin-like pastor angrily stooping over his pulpit to point his bony finger at the face of a terrified parishioner in the front pew. The caption: “You committed the unforgivable sin!!! It’s over!!!”
As someone who has nervously made these searches before—several times, in fact—I’ve recently felt the need to go back to the story that is quoted when people refer to this sin. A particularly convicting version of this story can be found in Mark 3:20-30.
Why is Jesus speaking of an unforgivable sin? What is the unforgivable sin? How does the mention of this sin fit into the larger gospel story? And most importantly, have I committed this sin? Have you committed the unforgivable sin?
Jesus is sitting in a house, trying to eat, but he can’t even finish his meal because of the droves of people who have crowded into the home to catch a glimpse of him. At the very same time, Jesus’ family members are trying to kidnap him because they think he is insane! And if this situation isn’t already chaotic enough, Jesus also must worry about a group of religious leaders who are out to kill him. Great!
Under these circumstances, we see Jesus engage carefully and thoughtfully with each of these groups of people. When the murderous religious leaders try to discredit Jesus by accusing him of being possessed by Satan, instead of completely losing it—the guy was just trying to eat lunch!—Jesus gives a striking message about forgiveness of sins.
Indeed, we often emphasize the harshest words in Jesus’ response “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven.” This is what we call the unforgivable sin. But notice the words that come just before, “…people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter…” If Jesus himself puts more emphasis on the condemnation, it is because of who he is talking to, namely, those who are opposing his divine mission. But to Jesus’ own followers the words of forgiveness are more relevant.
But we want to know what the unforgivable sin actually is. What do the Pharisees do that constitute blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?
Well, the answer to that last question seems clear enough: the Pharisees accuse Jesus of being possessed by Satan. And since Jesus in fact is anointed by the Holy Spirit, as Mark tells us in Mark 1:10, the Pharisees are misidentifying the Holy Spirit as Satan. This is deeply dishonoring to God, in other words, blasphemous.
But let’s delve deeper: why do the Pharisees make this accusation? What is going on in their hearts?
We’re only at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, but there is already a short history of tension between Jesus and the Pharisees that we can explore to understand what lies behind the Pharisees’ accusation. What is their motivation? In the Gospel of Mark, the very first time the Pharisees take issue with Jesus is when he says to a paralytic man in Capernaum, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). “Why does this fellow talk like that?” the Pharisees squawk, “He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:7).
At the heart of the Pharisees’ rejection of Jesus is their rejection of his divinity—only God can forgive sins, and Jesus most certainly is not God! Conversely, notice how that rejection of divinity plays out at the beginning of Mark: it plays out in their rejection of his divine mission to forgive sins!
The Pharisees’ accusation that Jesus is possessed by Satan is so serious, then, not only because their words dishonor the Holy Spirit, but even more because it is an expression of their underlying rejection of Jesus’ divinity and his divine mission of forgiveness. Similarly, when Jesus reprimands the Pharisees by saying that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, he is not just talking about their words; he is not saying that you can say whatever you want about his Father and be fine, but utter a word against the Spirit and be forever lost. He is in fact seeing beyond the Pharisees’ words to what has been in their hearts ever since Capernaum. He recognizes that by misidentifying God’s Spirit in him, they are rejecting his own divinity and in doing so his divine mission of forgiveness.
Now this is how the controversy over Jesus’ divinity is relevant to forgiveness in our specific text: Jesus says that all sins will be forgiven, even blasphemy (3:28). But if the Pharisees reject God’s Son, who is anointed with God’s Spirit (1:10), and through whom forgiveness itself comes, then how will they be forgiven their blasphemy? The Pharisees have rejected Jesus’ divinity and, as a result, his mission to forgive sins. Now how will they be forgiven such a sin? Forgiveness is found in God’s Son Jesus, whom they reject!
Mark is drawing attention to an irony here in his storytelling. When Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic in Capernaum, the Pharisees accused him of blasphemy. Mark is now circling back to that theme of blasphemy to show the listener that true blasphemy of the worst kind is when one rejects Jesus’ divinity and his divine mission of forgiveness—the very mission that was on display when Jesus forgave the paralytic. This is the worst form of blasphemy because it attacks the Son of God through whom forgiveness of sin comes—and God’s forgiveness is exactly what blasphemers need!
What amazes me about this story is that even as Jesus delivers harsh judgement on those who reject him and his forgiveness, in the same breath he affirms the truly striking hope for those who receive him as the Son of God who forgives. For if there is no forgiveness for those who reject forgiveness itself by opposing Jesus, then there is abundant forgiveness for those who receive him in faith. Yes, every single sin will be forgiven, even blasphemy!
Was this story included in the Gospels so that we would anxiously doubt Jesus’ ability to forgive us our sins? On the contrary, Jesus’ words are instead an invitation to repent from all the ways in which we have dishonored God, and through the life and death of his son Jesus to receive his forgiveness for all our sins!
Pastor Matthias Szobody is a second-year seminarian at Lutheran Brethren Seminary and serves as associate pastor at Liberty Lutheran Brethren Church in Fargo, North Dakota.