What is the ‘Unforgivable Sin’?

My friend, Brian McLaren was asked this question recently, and I thought his reply was superb. Brian’s book, “Everything Must Change” (Thomas Nelson, 2007, buy on Kindle) helped to form my sense that our generation needs to face the reality of systemic problems, corporate sin and broken systems.

And we can do something about this now.

For the first time in human history, we now have access to cheap, fast and effective global communication tools and also the potential to co-ordinate our activities and efforts more than ever before. From vitally important things like eradicating polio (nearly done, just as smallpox has been already) to silly, but effective memes like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge doing the rounds right now, we’re proving to ourselves that we can deal with big, complex, systemic issues.

For many Christians, though, the starting point is accepting that we should put as much emphasis on corporate and societal sins as we do on individual sin and salvation. That’s why I think Brian’s answer to a question about the “unforgivable sin” against the Holy Spirit mentioned in Matthew and Mark is so important:

First, we need to remember that Jesus wasn’t a “Christian.” In other words, he wasn’t working within the Calvinist or Thomist or Pentecostal or Eastern Orthodox or Fundamentalist theological assumptions that frame Christian faith today. Jesus was a Jew.

For a Jew in Jesus’ day, sin was not understood primarily as something that, in its mortal variety, could send your soul to hell because of total depravity or original sin. It was something that would result in people missing God’s blessing – which for an oppressed people, meant missing liberation from their occupying oppressors.

So I think in those passages, Jesus was warning his peers that if they didn’t hear the voice of the Spirit and respond to it, they faced a set of natural consequences that would be tragic. Specifically, he foresaw that his countrymen could easily stage a violent revolution against Rome which would be crushed brutally. The Spirit was calling people, Jesus knew, to a different path to liberation – a nonviolent path, a creative path, a path of courage without hostility. If they rejected the Spirit’s leading, they wouldn’t get an exemption from consequences.

I think we face a similar reality today. The Spirit is calling us to turn from racism, ecological destruction, greed, carelessness toward our poor and vulnerable neighbors, dependence on weapons for peace, and abdication of personal responsibility. If we don’t, we can’t expect to avoid the natural consequences of our actions – explosions of conflict, rising seas and destabilized climate, fear, bombs, economic tumult, insecurity.

Another way to say the same thing: there is no way to peace apart from the Spirit of peace. There is no way to a regenerative economy apart from the Spirit of regeneration. There is no way to prosperity apart from the Spirit of generosity and concern for the common good. Reject, mock, belittle, turn from that Spirit … and predictable natural consequences will follow.

Source: Brian McLaren

One thought on “What is the ‘Unforgivable Sin’?”

  1. “For a Jew in Jesus’ day, sin was not understood primarily as something that, in its mortal variety, could send your soul to hell because of total depravity or original sin. It was something that would result in people missing God’s blessing – which for an oppressed people, meant missing liberation from their occupying oppressors.” Sadly, McLaren answers this question in a vacuum devoid of its context in both passages. Jesus connects the consequences of this sin to damnation & lack of forgiveness. Jesus’ words in Mark 3 go as follows: “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.” (Mark 3:28-30 ESV)

    “Eternal sin” doesn’t exactly sound like simply missing out on God’s blessings in this life. It actually sounds like eternal punishment & separation from God. Which is of course the orthodox, historical view of Hell.

    And His word’s in Matthew 12 are unmissable. “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 12:32 ESV)

    This sounds a lot like someone who commits this sin will suffer for eternity in a state of deprivation from God’s saving grace in Jesus.

    There is a Biblical answer to this question that considers the context & makes more sense given Jesus’ actual words. This is a very specific sin that is characterised by hardness of heart & total disbelief. Ultimately blasphemy is to persistently & unrepentantly attribute to Satan what is truly the work of the Holy Spirit. Namely it means to carry this attitude of indifference & rebellion toward the person & work of Christ to the grave. It simply means to persist in unrepentance & unbelief until your final breath. Augustine simply says this… “It is unrepentance that is a blasphemy against the Spirit.” This answer seems to capture the meaning of Christ’s words much more simply, faithfully, & accurately than does Mr. McLaren’s.

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