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The Unforgivable Sin

June 3, 2012 Speaker: Allen Snapp Series: Gospel of Mark

Topic: Holy Spirit Passage: Mark 3:22–3:30

We are in a study of the gospel of Mark, and this morning we come to one of Jesus’ most chilling warnings, the warning that there is an unforgivable sin, there is a line that, once stepped over, removes all chance of forgiveness for all eternity. Jesus’ warning isn’t the only one like it in the Bible. We don’t have time to do an exhaustive study of these passages, but passages like those found in Hebrews 6 and 10 also indicate a point of no return, a line over which the next step is eternal damnation without chance of repentance or forgiveness.

ILL: As I began to study this subject, I found myself thinking of Roy, a troubled young man I knew some years ago who was convinced that he had committed the unforgivable sin. No matter how many times those who knew him and cared about him tried to reassure him of God’s grace and willingness to forgive, he was tormented by the fear that he had stepped over that line. He’s not alone. Through the centuries Christians and non-Christians alike have tried to understand what Jesus is saying here: is there really such a line of no return? How does someone cross that line? Have I crossed that line?

These are the questions I want to ask and hopefully bring some answers to:

• What is the unforgivable sin?
• How does a person commit the unforgivable sin?
• How does a Christian hold onto this warning the way Jesus would have us hold onto it, not being tormented by it but not dismissing it either?

Mark 3:22-30 

I. What is the unforgivable sin?

Jesus actually tells us what the unforgivable sin is, it is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, but to understand what it means to blaspheme he Holy Spirit we need to take a careful look at the context, so hang with me as we unpack this.

We’ve already seen in chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3 that the hostility that the religious leaders have towards Jesus escalates until it reaches the point in chapter 3:6 that they begin to plot how they can destroy Jesus. Ironically, their hatred for Jesus is growing and growing and at the same time Jesus’ popularity with the crowds is growing and growing. And a big part of Jesus’ appeal to the crowds is that he is doing amazing miracles: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and the demon possessed are set free. The crowds are convinced this is the power of God at work and that Jesus is a powerful prophet – maybe even the Messiah. The Pharisees and scribes want to undermine this growing perception that God is with Jesus in a unique way, but they can’t possibly deny the stunning reality of the miracles Jesus is doing – they’ve seen these miracles with their own eyes.

This is where their plotting takes an even more sinister turn: if they can’t deny that Jesus is doing amazing things, maybe they can cast suspicion on whose power he is tapping into to do those amazing things. So they begin telling the crowds, it’s not God at work through him, it’s the devil. He is possessed by a devil from hell, he casts out demons by the power of the prince of demons.
It’s a dark accusation that doesn’t fit any of the evidence or make logical sense but their hope is that it will cast suspicion on Jesus and turn the crowds against him. Jesus gives two responses to their accusation. First he presses on the logic of their premise: how can Satan cast out Satan? Successful armies don’t kill their own soldiers. They don’t fight to give up ground that other battalions have fought to attain.

One of the most critical footholds obtained in any war was on June 6, 1944, the day of the Normandy landing, D-Day. Under command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower Allied troops landed at five beaches simultaneously while French Resistance fighters engaged in behind the lines sabotage and combat with the Germans. The success of that plan was the beginning of the end for the Germans, but it would have been a doomed strategy if Eisenhower had commanded his American troops to turn around and attack the British troops in order to drive them from the beaches they had just gotten a foothold in.

Jesus is saying, if Satan is driving his own forces from territory they have taken a foothold in, then how can his kingdom stand? No, Jesus asserts, this isn’t the power of Satan fighting Satan. This is the power of God plundering Satan’s goods, because someone far more powerful than Satan is here. The reason that people who had been bound by the devil for years and years were being set free is because the strongman had been bound by a stronger man. Jesus was plundering the devil’s kingdom and there was nothing Satan could do about it. That’s Jesus’ first response – it gets to the heart of the accusation.
But then Jesus gets to the heart of the accusers- he sees the twisted jealousy, the envy, the hatred that motivated the Pharisees and scribes to make this accusation, and this is where Jesus warns them that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. What’s it mean to blaspheme against the Spirit? It means to do what the Pharisees were doing – to attribute to Satan what is the gracious work of the Spirit. We know that’s exactly what Jesus is referring to because Mark closes this section with the words “for they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” That’s why Jesus warned them. That’s the blasphemy of the Spirit. That’s the unforgivable sin. Let’s unpack it a little more.

So what exactly is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?

The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit isn’t doubting the truth of the gospel or not believing in Jesus. Even Thomas doubted after he heard reports of the resurrection. It isn’t asking difficult questions – some of Jesus’ most profound teachings were in response to hard questions. It isn’t accidentally or even purposely thinking or saying something against the Holy Spirit, as if you can blaspheme God or Jesus, but the Holy Spirit is so sensitive that if you say something against Him, He will never forgive you. The blasphemy of the Spirit isn’t trying to discern if something is or isn’t the work of the Spirit and maybe even getting it wrong. I went to the revival meeting of a well-known evangelist years ago and it was hours of crazy stuff happening all in the name of being “drunk in the Spirit”. I left there sincerely doubting that it was the Spirit moving as they were saying it was. I even felt there was something spiritually unhealthy – seriously unhealthy happening. But what if I got it wrong and it really was a move of the Spirit – would that be blaspheming the Holy Spirit?

The answer is no. That wouldn’t be what the Pharisees and scribes are guilty of in this passage. The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is the resolute determination against all evidence, knowledge of truth, and even one’s own conscience, to attribute the Spirit’s work of pointing to Christ to the devil. This is the frightening thing about the Pharisees: deep inside they knew that what Jesus did was done by the power of God. They weren’t ignorant of the truth, they suppressed the truth because they had an agenda – a conclusion – that they were determined to reach (Jesus isn’t the Messiah) and the paths of truth weren’t going to get them there so they deliberately chose paths of deception and suppression of truth. They were more committed to their agenda than to the truth.

Kent Hughes in his commentary on Mark writes:

Very simply it [the blasphemy of the Spirit] is the ongoing, continual rejection of the witness of the Holy Spirit to the Divinity and Saviorhood of Christ. It is the perversion in the heart which chooses to call light darkness and darkness light. It is continuing rejection of the witness of the Holy Spirit, whether that witness be a quiet witness in the conscience, the rational witness of the Word, or even miracles and wonders. ~ Kent Hughes in Mark, Jesus, Servant and Savior, pg. 92

In the gospel of Matthew we see another window into the hardened hearts of the religious leaders. After Jesus has been crucified and buried the Pharisees and chief priests go to Pilate and say, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’64 Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.”

Three days later when Jesus is resurrected in power and the guards are leveled by an angel from heaven listen what happens when the guards go to the religious leaders and tell them what happened:

11 While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’

They pay them to lie so no one hears what really happened. They’re not ignorant of the truth, they are trying to suppress the truth.

II. How does someone blaspheme the Holy Spirit?

The blasphemy of the Spirit is the deliberate rejection of His work to illuminate our hearts to see the truth of who Christ because we don’t want to see that truth. It’s when we want something more than that truth – whether it be our own sin, our own plans, our own agenda, and we are willing to reject and refuse the clear work of the Spirit in order to hold onto that thing we want more than Christ.

And now we know why it is the “unforgivable sin” – not because Christ’s blood couldn’t cover such a sin, but because it hardens and insulates a person from the very work of the Spirit to save a soul – it places a person beyond repentance. They cross a dangerous line –by the work of the Spirit they see who Christ is, they become enlightened to the truth, they taste of the grace of God, and they deliberately close their eyes, deliberately spit the grace of God out, deliberately, against their own conscience, say Christ isn’t good, he is contemptible. They have hardened their heart to a point of no return and that’s why it is unforgivable – because they will never repent and turn to Christ from that point.

III. How is a Christian supposed to hold onto this warning?

So let’s take a few minutes to consider, how is a Christ supposed to hold onto this warning? It should be clear that no true Christian could ever be guilty of the unforgivable sin – though it is possible someone could hang out regularly in the church, even for a long time, and ultimately choose to reject the Spirit’s work of convincing them of Christ and go on to malign Christ and hold him in contempt.
So those who follow Jesus should never be tormented by fears of not being forgiven, but at the same time we should never dismiss our Lord’s warnings either. How do we hold onto warnings like this one?

a. We should walk in the fear of the Lord

This warning should sober us and cause us to cling to Christ all the more tightly. Sin is serious, Satan is serious, and the war over souls is serious. The Christian should always seek to walk in the fear of the Lord – a posture of reverence and awe and submission to His will.

b. We should be amazed at the forgiveness of God through Christ

This warning should not focus us on the unforgiveness of God but amaze us at how free and immeasurable the forgiveness of God through Christ is. All sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter. All sins. Whatever blasphemies. The forgiveness Christ has purchased for us is full and free. The gospel isn’t about limitations to what can be forgiven, there aren’t sins so big, so deep, so dark that Jesus’ blood can’t cover them or isn’t sufficient to pay for them. When serial killer Ted Bundy claimed to have a conversion experience while on death row, many were offended and skeptical about his “getting forgiven” without facing the judgment of God for his heinous crimes. I don’t know if his conversion was genuine or not – that isn’t for us to judge. But could he be forgiven? Is Christ’s blood sufficient to atone for a serial killer or a mass murderer? Absolutely – infinite mercy and atoning power of Christ’s blood. Christ’s death on the cross is more than sufficient to forgive you for all your sins when you trust in him. We should never stop being amazed at that.

c. We should be careful not to resist, quench, or grieve the Holy Spirit

Scripture gives us instructions that exhort us to keep a tender heart toward the work of the Spirit in our lives.

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Eph. 4:30
Do not quench the Spirit. 1 Thess. 5:19

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion… Hebrews 3:7

We should seek to have tender hearts towards the work and conviction of the Holy Spirit. These passages imply that we can grieve the Spirit, quench the Spirit, and harden our hearts to the voice of the Lord through the Spirit.

One of the times when my heart is most likely to become hardened is when I am in a conflict. If my wife and I have an argument, I can almost feel my heart getting hardened in its position. And I can sense the Holy Spirit nudging me: soften your heart. Confess your sin and ask her to forgive you (and oh, that bothers me cause I feel like she’s the culprit). Maybe for you it’s not conflict – maybe it’s a “pet sin” that tempts you to harden your heart to the Spirit’s voice. Or pride. Or some other sin. Sin hardens, but grace softens. We should be careful to keep a tender heart toward the work of the Spirit in our lives. Ultimately the Pharisees hardened their heart to the extreme – we don’t want to even take one step in that direction.

d. We should be careful to love truth more than any agenda

I enjoy following politics. Actually, enjoy might not be the word – I get frustrated and feel like throwing things at the TV or news reports about politics. But that’s another message! But on both sides of the aisle, when an agenda – a desired outcome – becomes more important than truth, politicians play fast and loose with the truth. They put a spin on everything – that spin spins towards an agenda, not the truth. We are never more capable of twisting truth or weaving deception (even deceiving ourselves) than when we have a conclusion we are committed to and then massage our perception of the truth to arrive at that conclusion.

That’s what the Pharisee did: Jesus threatened their status, their power, their way of doing things, and so they rejected him based on their own desires. They then were willing to twist their reality to conform to their agenda. In Matthew we see that just before they accuse Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Satan, that he had just delivered a man who was blind and mute, so that he spoke and saw. How could such a wonderful thing not touch the hearts of the Pharisees? Because it didn’t further their agenda. So they suppressed and distorted the truth. Ignorance of the truth can be forgiven. Rejecting the truth can be overcome by the truth and forgiven. Twisting and distorting the truth to arrive at a foregone conclusion is a dangerous thing.

Am I ready to hear any truth, no matter how devastating to me or my agenda that truth may be? We should be careful to love the truth more than any agenda or conclusion.

e. A word to those who aren’t Christians

As we close, I want to have a word to anyone here who isn’t a Christ – especially if you are a regular church-goer. With this warning in view I want to appeal to you to open your heart to the work of the Holy Spirit to convince you of your need to be saved and set your heart on fire with the grace of Jesus Christ.

Please understand, this is not to discourage you from asking questions – ask away! This is not to pressure you into believing when you’re not convinced that Jesus’ claims are true – that wouldn’t be wise and it wouldn’t last. This is not to hurry you or manipulate you – that wouldn’t be honest and the truth is always honest. Jesus is the truth, and as Christians we must present him honestly and sincerely, not through manipulation or high pressure.

But when you hear His voice, when you sense Him opening your eyes to believe, when you realize that you are seeing – deep within – your need for a Savior and are becoming convinced that Jesus is the only Savior of the world, don’t push that away. Don’t harden your heart to that voice. Don’t refuse Jesus because he might interrupt your fun or lifestyle or cramp your style. Don’t allow the imperfections of Christians to become your justification for not believing. It won’t wash – we’re sinners saved by grace and this isn’t about us, it’s about Jesus.

So my appeal to you is: when you hear Him, when you sense Him, when you find your eyes seeing Jesus like you’ve never seen him before – don’t harden your heart, don’t reject him, and don’t just hang out. Urge you to bow your knee to Jesus’ lordship, to confess your sins to him and ask him to forgive you and be your Lord and Savior. To call on Jesus to save you. He promises that if you call, he will hear and he will save. Let’s pray.