The Unforgivable Sin

Monday, October 20, 2003



Disputations has two very good posts on October 17 and October 20, 2003 on the unforgivable sin. Oddly, I was considering writing on this topic myself around the 17th while I was wrapping up my thoughts on vocation and the case against all war. I even had an outline started. I decided to continue with my own piece because we may have different readers. Having seen Tom's piece, I decided to borrow some of his references to the Pope and Aquinas to fill out my own thoughts - but I wanted to give credit to Tom where it is due.

The New Testament speaks of unforgivable sins, and individual Christians have struggled for centuries to reconcile this notion with the infinite mercy and infinite love of a good God. Here are the New Testament texts that speak of the notion:
Therefore, I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12:31)

Amen, I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the holy Spirit will never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an everlasting sin." (Mark 3:28-30)

Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven. (Luke 12:10)

What does it mean to "blaspheme the Holy Spirit? How does one know if they might have committed the unpardonable sin?

If you are asking such a question, you likely haven't committed the sin. The unforgivable sin is not a single isolated act. It is an ongoing deliberate and habitual rejection of grace.

The word blasphemy is derived from the Greek, blaptein, meaning "to injure", and pheme meaning "reputation". Biblically, the word is used to describe a gross irreverence toward God.

In the context of the Gospel passages above, Jesus was driving out demons who caused people to suffer. Certain Pharisees claimed that he drove out demons by the power of Satan. Thus, they attributed the work of God to Satan. Jesus is portrayed as responding that people can say whatever they want about him or the Father, but to attribute the good works of the Spirit to Satan shows a hardness of heart that is not open to God's infinite grace.

Where the Pharisees reveal their own tendency to blasphemy of the Spirit is precisely in attributing goodness to the devil. The Pharisees seemed to believe that Satan can and does good in order to trick us. How can anyone who would believe such a thing ever open his or her heart to receive God's gracious goodness when it comes?

You see, what these Pharisees did was worse than simply doubting the Son of Man. It was not as though they questioned the miracles of Jesus. They did not claim he was a fake. They did not claim that the healings were psycosomatic. They did not believe that what they saw was a mistake. They did not wonder if the possessed were really possessed. Any of these types of doubts would have been blasphemy against the Son of Man, and Christ says this would have been forgiven. This is intellectual doubt, and God understands the weakness of the human condition that leads us to doubt. These Pharisees went beyond doubt.

They acknowledged that the possessed were truly oppressed by demons. Furthermore, they acknowledged that Jesus had the power to drive out the demons and end the suffering of the possessed. Yet, they attributed this power to Satan, instead of giving glory to God.

It would have been better if they simply said, "I'm not ready to become his follower, but I have to admit, something unusual that I can't explain is going on here.", and just left it at that. Instead, they interpreted a clear demonstration of God's goodness as a sign of demonic influence.

In the Gospel narratives, Jesus asks how Satan can drive out Satan, and points out that even if this is what was occurring, it would be a sign of division among the demons. Thus, it would remain a sign that God's reign is triumphing over the power of darkness. But instead of rejoicing that the power of darkness was fading, the Pharisees seem to be obstinately looking for ways to find fault with Jesus. It is not the particular or discreet act that is unforgivable, but the stubbornness of a heart that is not open to the goodness of God that cannot receive forgiveness.

Throughout the Gospels, the opponents of Christ are portrayed as self-righteous hypocrites who judge everyone as unrighteous except themselves. Sadly, those who call themselves followers of Christ today often appear outwardly to act the same way. According to Aquinas, who is building on Augustine, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit takes two forms that almost appear to be opposite sides of the same coin.

First, a person blasphemes the Holy Spirit through an ongoing habitual presumption. This is the person who denies the need for forgiveness because he or she does not believe he or she is in sin. Sin is a violation of the good, and a person who remains unrepentant of sin is refusing to acknowledge the good that he or she violated.

For example, if I commit murder, I deny the goodness of human life. If I kill someone in a fit of anger, and later regret it, I have repented and returned to seeing the goodness of human life. If I kill another out of ignorance, such as a child accidentally firing a gun, there is no real sin, but there will be natural remorse when the effect of the act is realized. However, if I kill out of revenge and refuse to acknowledge my act as a sin, I am placing my own will against the goodness of human life, and thereby blaspheming the Spirit, who is the Lord and giver of life. Presumption can be more subtle when the sin is less serious, and yet we remain unrepentant. Such a person rejects God's grace and mercy because he or she feels no need for it.

Catholics often fear the Protestant articulation of the assurance of salvation for just this reason. It borders closely on the sin of presumption to claim that you know with absolute certainty that you are saved. Yet, the Council of Trent maintains that we must trust in God's saving grace and have a reasonable hope for salvation.

Second, a person blasphemes the Holy Spirit through an ongoing habitual despair. This is not psychological despair, or clinical depression, or a feeling that comes and goes. Rather, this type of despair is the sense of knowing you are a sinner, and believing that your sin is beyond the pale of God's infinite forgiveness. This can result from scrupulosity and legalism.

Satan is called our accuser in the New Testament (Rev 12:10). The Scriptures tell us that even though wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord, it does not end there. It ends in love of God that cast out all fear:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:18-19)

The voice that we all hear telling us over and over that we are unworthy, unlovable, and incapable of good is not really the voice of God. It is Satan who stands at judgment as our prosecutor. The good news is that our brother paid the penalty for our sins, our dad is the judge, and the Holy Spirit is our legal counsel (paraclete). Through the sacraments, we are promised that God's grace is available to us, and we must trust the One who started the process in us to bring it to completion. The person who sins by despair is rejecting faith, hope, and love. Such a person chooses to believe that the possibility of salvation does not exist, and therefore, this person rejects the gift that is offered.

Thus, blasphemy of the Spirit is unpardonable, not because God refuses to forgive. Rather, the sin is unpardonable because the one in sin refuses to accept forgiveness. God is offerring a free gift, and we blaspheme the Spirit by either denying our need for the gift, or by acknowledging our need, but refusing to receive what is offered. We know the goodness of God, but refuse to accept it, just like the Pharisees who saw the goodness of God and attributed it to evil. Disputation's blog quotes the Holy Father on the subject from Dominum et Vificantem:
Why is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit unforgivable? How should this blasphemy be understood ? Saint Thomas Aquinas replies that it is a question of a sin that is "unforgivable by its very nature, insofar as it excludes the elements through which the forgiveness of sin takes place." According to such an exegesis, "blasphemy" does not properly consist in offending against the Holy Spirit in words; it consists rather in the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit,..."

Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is not a single act that we commit in a moment of passion. It is an ongoing habit of the will that is deliberately chosen. This is demonstrated in the Pharisaic manner of rejecting Jesus in an ongoing way throughout the Gospels to the point where they finally admit that nothing will convince them Christ is the Messiah - not even the driving out of demons!

There is no discreet act that cannot be forgiven. God forgives consumerist people addicted to money, abortionists, murders, pedophiles, rapists, drug addicts, embezzlers, kidnappers, thieves, fornicators, adulterers, heretics, schismatics, and so forth. What he cannot forgive is the person who absolutely will not accept his grace and mercy. God always respects our freedom, and if we deliberately chose to reject him in an ongoing manner intending to make our choice irrevocable, we are blaspheming the Spirit through the ongoing act.

Redemptorist Father Bernard Haring developed a theory in moral theology called the fundamental option. In this theory, each person is making a fundamental decision in the depths of the heart that is either responding favorably to God's infinite grace, or rejecting God's infinite grace. This fundamental option manifest itself in our actions, but is not our actions themselves by which we are judged. The First letter of John speaks of deadly sin (1 John 5:16), and the Catholic Church has developed a long tradition of classifying acts as either venially or mortally sinful. Yet, there is no single and discreet act which is unpardonable. When we speak of an act as a "mortal sin", what we are really saying is that such an act indicates a movement of the heart towards a fundamental option against God. Yet, the act in isolation is not the fundamental choice.

I would venture to say that nobody alive can really be said to have committed blasphemy of the Spirit yet. Only after a life has been lived in completion will the final outcome be known. I believe God allows us to live long enough for every attempt for salvation to occur. Because you are alive right now and reading this essay, you can be certain that you have not yet committed the unpardonable sin, and God is trying to reach you right now with his infinite grace!

Each and every milli-second, God is calling the sinner to true repentance, and offering sure signs of his mercy. Blasphemy of the Spirit is hard work, and only the most obstinate person can stand up to God's grace over the course of a life-time. Yet, the Gospel hints that there may be many who make such a choice, and each of us must avoid presumption. We know that the love of God is growing to perfection in us as we increase in our love for the people around us (c.f. 1 John 4:20). The capacity to love others without fear is assured to those who are open to God's infinite grace.

Be open!

Peace and blessings!

Readers may contact me at

On a related subject, see: Does Hell Exist?


posted by Jcecil3 2:32 PM

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