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You asked for a sermon on The Sin Against The Holy Spirit


Matthew 12:22-32      Isaiah 5:20       Romans 14:17

[1] The words are frightening, aren’t they. “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man [i.e., Jesus himself] will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” Any sin, however lurid, however heinous, however horrible, however cruel — any sin can be forgiven, except the sin against the Holy Spirit. It will never be forgiven, never. There’s no doubt that Jesus said it. Matthew, Mark and Luke record it. There can be no doubt that Jesus meant it. Still, precisely what did he mean?


[2] My heart sinks every time I think of the people who have been tormented by this text. As a pastor I have found many people tormented whom I wanted only to relieve, haunted as I have been by those for whom the text was never intended.

People tormented by scrupulosity, for instance. Scrupulosity is a psychological condition (a neurosis, to be exact) wherein someone is afflicted with a hair-trigger conscience; moreover, a hair-trigger conscience that screams over matters that are spiritually insignificant. The person suffering from scrupulosity has a conscience like a fire-alarm system so super-sensitive as to be set off by anything at all, and constantly set off by what isn’t even a fire. In other words, such a person’s scrupulous conscience, his built-in alarm system, is always sending in false alarms. As false as these false alarms are, however, they are distressing; distressing to him, and upsetting to everyone who has to live with him. False alarms anywhere in life are always disturbing and dangerous.

Our Lord’s pronouncement also haunts people whose theological grasp is inadequate. These people draw up a list of sins and rate them in order of seriousness. Their theological grasp is inadequate in that they think that sins can be listed, enumerated, like a shopping list of things we shouldn’t buy. But of course sin as the systemic human condition can never be comprehended in terms of lists and lists of lists. The second aspect of their inadequate theological grasp is that they evaluate the sins they have listed. The third aspect of their inadequate theological grasp is that the one sin in them they have evaluated as most serious they then label unforgivable, and unforgivable just because they deem it the most serious. Now they conclude that they are beyond the reach of God’s mercy. Beyond the reach of God’s mercy, they conclude that their situation before God is hopeless. Soon they are spiralling down in ever-worsening self-loathing and self-rejection. My heart aches for them.

And then there are the folk who suffer from endogenous depression. Endogenous depression is depression rooted in biochemical imbalance. Endogenous depression must always be distinguished from reactive depression. Reactive depression is the sadness we experience whenever we undergo major loss. If we are bereaved we become depressed. We may be bereaved of someone we love, of our job, of our reputation, of an opportunity that seemed within grasp only to be snatched away; when we are bereaved — i.e., suffer loss — we are depressed. This is normal. Such depression abates as situations change and life goes on.

Endogenous depression, however, biochemically induced depression, is something else. People suffering from it must seek medical help and must be treated pharmaceutically. Until they are treated they sink lower and lower, all the while regarding themselves as worthless. I have had much to do with endogenously depressed people whose depression convinces them that they have committed the unpardonable sin. Soon they are saying ominous things, such as, “I might as well end it all since I’m wretched now and the future can only be worse.” If these people were to receive adequate medical care they would cease speaking like this and laugh at the emotional space they occupied six months ago.


[3] As we circle around the text this morning in order to look at it from all angles the first thing I want to point out is this: our Lord never spoke of “the sin against the Holy Spirit”; he never said, “…whoever sins against the Holy Spirit…”. He said, “…whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit…”. We must keep this distinction in mind for the duration of the sermon — and after the sermon as well.

The second thing I want to emphasize as forcefully as I can is this: whenever, in the course of his earthly ministry, Jesus speaks of sin, he always speaks of mercy and pardon in the next breath and he always magnifies the forgiveness of God.

Peter asks Jesus how many times a disciple should forgive the person who offends. Seven times would surely be more than enough. “Seventy times seven is more like it”, says Jesus, “there’s no limit to the forgiveness we must press upon those who offend us.” If Jesus insists there’s to be no limit to our forgiveness, it’s absurd to think there would be any limit to God’s. Jesus reinforces this point through the parable of the unforgiving servant. The bottom line of the parable is lucid: the servant ought to have forgiven his neighbour simply because God had already poured limitless forgiveness, inexhaustible forgiveness, upon the servant himself. So vast is God’s mercy in forgiving the servant that alongside God’s oceanic forgiveness of the servant, the neighbour’s violation of the same servant is a trifle. In other words, God’s pardon is immeasurable and inexhaustible. Wherever Jesus speaks severely, he speaks tenderly in the very next breath.

Wherever Jesus goes in his earthly ministry he lavishes pardon on anyone at all who looks penitently to him. In fact, it’s his joyful welcome of notorious sinners, his large-hearted, open-handed acceptance of them, that lands him in so much trouble. Mean-spirited people don’t want to see notorious sinners forgiven; mean-spirited people want to see sinners suffer. (Mean-spirited people, of course, never understand that their proud, superior, shrivelled hearts advertise them as the greatest sinners of all.) Mean-spirited people are outraged at Jesus: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” It was his eating with sinners that brought murderous rage down on the head of Jesus. To eat with someone meant, in first century Palestine, that you and he were knit together in undeflectable intimacy; there was no open or hidden impediment to your cherishing each other.

Notorious sinners always know what it means to share a meal with Jesus; they know it and relish it and glory in it. That’s why they respond so openly and generously themselves. Think of the woman who pours her perfume (really, it was high-priced body-deodorant much valued by “hookers” in a land that had few bathtubs) out over the feet of Jesus. She doesn’t care that tongues are wagging. She knows only that she’s received a pardon of incomparable worth. She knows that Christ’s embrace embraces everything about her, sin and all, before his embrace begins to squeeze her sin out of her.

The truth is, you and I are sinners to the core. Our Reformation foreparents spoke of us all as totus peccator, sinner throughout. There is no one part of my being or personality that is sin-free and by means of which the rest of me can be saved. Because my thinking is sin-disordered my thinking can’t save my will and my affections. Because my will is disordered I can’t will myself into correcting my thinking or my affections. Because my affections are disordered (I love what I should repudiate and repudiate what I should love) my misaligned affections can’t correct my distorted thinking or my perverted willing. I am simply totus peccator, sinner throughout.

What’s more, the older I become the more aware I am of my thorough-going depravity. I used to think of myself as a modest sinner, at worst. Now, when I reflect on myself with as much honesty as I can muster (not a great deal of honesty), I’m sobered when I realize what overtakes me when I’m careless or foolish, how big a “hook” certain temptations still have in me, how great the savagery that can flash out of me when I’m irked or pricked or frustrated. Modest sinner? I’m totus peccator, sinner throughout!

At the same time, I rejoice with my Reformation foreparents who knew that all Christ’s people are also totus iustus, forgiven throughout. There is no part of our being or personality that God’s pardon doesn’t reach. God’s mercy is like penetrating oil: it gets into cracks and crevices and recesses of all kinds, most of which, in fact, can’t be seen by even the sharpest-sighted. Yet his mercy unfailingly penetrates to the core, the same core that our sinnership taints. God’s pardon always outstrips our perversity.

I have been a pastor for 27 hears. In that time I have had scores of people huddle in my study and confess what they could barely bring themselves to mention: falteringly they have croaked out what they regard as heinous, so heinous as to have been mentioned to no one else. They have poured out vile mixtures of vice, immorality, folly, even criminality. And I have told them with conviction that as wide and deep as their depravity is, God’s forgiveness is wider and deeper still. And I have assured them that however inexcusable, horrific, and even despicable the sin they have committed, they have not committed the “sin against the Holy Spirit.” And I have told them that Jesus Christ himself authorizes me to press all of this upon them.


[4] Then what does our Lord mean when he speaks of that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit which will not be forgiven? We must examine the context of his pronouncement. Throughout his public ministry Jesus has been freeing people from the grip of evil. He has done so in the power of the Holy Spirit (which is to say the power of God in our midst). And then he comes upon some hostile people who maintain that he isn’t freeing people in the power of the Spirit. They maintain that so far from freeing people from the grip of evil in the power of the Spirit, Jesus is in league with evil and is victimizing gullible people in the power of evil. In other words, our Lord’s enemies are slandering his work. What Jesus insists is a work of God (the Spirit being the power of God in our midst), his enemies pronounce evil.

They are slandering Christ’s work. Blasphemeo is a Greek verb meaning “to slander”. Our Lord’s enemies are slandering his work; and since his work is done in the power of the Spirit, they are blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. What is in truth of God, they label devilish; what is truly good, they perversely call evil; what is genuinely restorative, they denounce as deceptive and destructive. They are doing exactly what Isaiah had spoken of 700 years earlier: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”

Please note: it’s not that our Lord’s enemies are slow to see the light. All of us are slow to see the light. Rather, having glimpsed the light they call it darkness; having glimpsed the truth they call it falsehood. They are not spiritually retarded people (all of us are spiritually retarded) who are slow to grasp the truth and slower still to do it, all the while deploring the spiritual impediments they find everywhere in themselves even as they cry to God for help every day. Not at all: they hate so much the truth Jesus brings and the truth he is that they harden themselves against the truth. They slander God himself (the Spirit, remember, is the power of God in our midst); they slander God himself, denying that God himself is the power by which the Son of God does the work of God. The unforgivable sin is the utter rebellion against God that denies God to be the doer of his own deeds. The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then, is a deliberate, wilful smearing of the power of God as the force of evil. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a deliberate, wilful, ever-hardening denial of what is undeniably the work of God. And such hardening, says Jesus, eventually is irreversible.

To treat as false what one knows deep-down to be true; to treat as true what one knows deep-down to be false; what is this but to steep oneself in falsehood? To treat as glorious what one knows to be shameful is to steep oneself in shame. To treat as blessing what one knows to be accursed is to cement oneself into curse. Eventually cement hardens. Not the semi-faith and the semi-groping of the man who cried to Jesus, “I believe — as much as I’m able; make me more able!”; not the godly sorrow of the person who never doubts that sin is sin even as for now she seems to be forever defeated by it; not the person whom life’s tragedies have rendered incapable for now, it would seem, of faith in the God whose mercies endure forever; not the person who has been surrounded since birth by atheists who despised the faith openly or by church-folk who contradicted it hypocritically; not any of these but rather the person who has most certainly glimpsed the work of God in the works of Jesus and who, hating the master for who knows what reason, slanders his work as a manifestation of evil; that person, says our Lord, will find himself left with the Christlessness he has said repeatedly that he wants. But Christlessness, of course, entails forgivenessless. That person, says our Lord most certainly, but that person only, says our Lord most compassionately.

Compassionately? Yes. Not only does Matthew tell us of our Lord’s pronouncement concerning the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit; in the very same chapter Matthew tells us of something else about Jesus. Quoting the prophet Isaiah Matthew says of Jesus, “He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick…”. The weakest faith; the most faltering discipleship; the most hesitant, doubt-filled following; honest doubt and genuine perplexity; all of this our Lord sees and notes and helps. None of it will he scorn or dismiss. And none of it must we ever, ever suggest to be anything approaching the blasphemy against the Spirit. Weak faith he strengthens; faltering faith he makes resolute; genuine perplexity he addresses. He doesn’t break bruised reeds or quench smouldering wicks. He has nothing but compassion and help for all who cry that their struggle for faith is just that: a struggle. At the same time, he has nothing but condemnation for those who persist unrelentingly in maintaining that light is darkness and darkness light, that evil is good and good evil.


[5] I trust I have said enough this morning to help any who might be haunted on account of misunderstanding our Lord’s pronouncement. I trust I have said enough to comfort any who might be afflicted with scrupulosity or bad theology or severe depression. Anyone who is the slightest bit apprehensive about her having committed the “unpardonable sin”, as it is so often put, must know by now that her apprehension is proof positive that the Holy Spirit hasn’t been blasphemed and the power of God maligned. Merely to be sobered upon hearing our Lord’s solemn word is proof positive that one is spiritually sensitive.


[6] We must always remember that Jesus speaks a severe word always and only for the sake of a kind word. In other words, his undeniable warning is spoken for the sake of his undeflectable purpose in coming among us; namely, the kingdom of God. He warns us only for the sake of keeping us fixed upon the kingdom of God. He wants only to have us find that kingdom to be like a pearl so attractive as to make everything else appear tawdry.

The kingdom of God, Paul reminds us, is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Since we have already been talking about the Holy Spirit today, let’s talk now about the Holy Spirit in terms of righteousness, peace and joy. The Spirit, remember, is the power of God in our midst; as Jesus bestows upon us that power which he bears himself, we are set free for righteousness, peace and joy.

Righteousness, in Romans 14, is our life of discipleship; righteousness is our daily life in all its ordinariness and occasional extraordinariness lived out of our righted relationship with God and lived so as to adorn his name.

Peace is contentment, for now we are relieved of guilt, anxiety and frenzy. Our past doesn’t drag us under; neither does our future paralyze us; for our past God has forgiven and our future is in his hands.

Joy is the deep-down throb that pulsates in us just because we know we are citizens of that kingdom which cannot be shaken. It all overtakes us as Jesus Christ draws us into the orbit of God’s Spirit; no longer spiritual orphans, we are the cherished children of God. The kingdom of God is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. It’s for the sake of this; it’s to ensure that we don’t miss this that our Lord has cautioned us about blaspheming the Holy Spirit. For above all he wants us to respond eagerly to the subtlest nudge as the Spirit of God acquaints us with our need of a righted relationship, moves us to live from this relationship, brings us the profoundest contentment, and crowns it all with a joy that unbelievers can neither explain nor deny. The kingdom of God is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

You asked for a sermon on “the sin against the Holy Spirit.” Let’s use the vocabulary our Lord uses: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, persistent slander of that power of God by which Jesus Christ acted and still acts. Such blasphemy or slander is to call a good work evil, evil good, light darkness and darkness light. People are tempted to do this for any number of reasons, none of which is excusable. Such slander or blasphemy, such perverse defiance, persisted in can be persisted in until correction becomes impossible.

But we are here today inasmuch as we crave even greater sensitivity to God’s Spirit. We are here today inasmuch as we welcome any work of God within us that untangles our sin-twisted heart, any work of God without us that advertises his presence and power. We are here today inasmuch as we welcome the approach of that God whose power intends only our blessing. Repudiating any temptation to call light darkness and darkness light, we want only to acknowledge yet again and exemplify yet more consistently that kingdom which is now and always will be righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.


                                                                           Victor Shepherd
April 1997