Is There an Unforgivable Sin? Maybe.

Jason Micheli —  September 25, 2014 — 37 Comments

rainbow-cross_aprilAnd it may not be one that you want to hear.

This weekend we conclude our September sermon series on the Holy Spirit.

Jesus calls the Spirit ‘the Comforter’ in John’s Gospel, but what Jesus has to say about the Holy Spirit in Mark’s Gospel is anything but comforting.

Mark 3.20 – 4.1 contains this little stick of theological dynamite:

28 ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

For his spare artistry, pregnant irony and subversive Jesus Mark’s Gospel is far and away my favorite of the four narratives.

Needless to say, though, the idea of loving, compassionate Jesus categorizing a particular sin as ‘unforgivable’ less than a quarter of the way into the Gospel didn’t sit too well even with me.

‘He doesn’t really mean unforgivable, does he?’

‘Jesus is just being rhetorical right? Exaggerating?’

‘I thought God forgives everything?’

I recall an adult Sunday School I taught in which we methodically made our way through Mark, and, asking them what they thought Jesus meant by ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,’ I found little variance in the responses:

‘Cursing God’

‘Rejecting that Jesus is the Messiah.’

‘Refusing to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.’

‘Resisting the Spirit’s work to make us confess that Jesus is God.’

All told their responses didn’t deviate very much from the neanderthal Calvinist, John Piper, who defines the blasphemy thusly:

‘The unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an act of resistance which belittles the Holy Spirit so grievously that he withdraws for ever with his convicting power so that we are never able to repent and be forgiven.’

My friend Morgan posted on this same topic, reflecting on how John MacArthur went off the rails and accused most of his Pentecostal brethren of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ by attributing words and directions to the Spirit that the Spirit did not give.

Certainly I’m sure there’s a good deal of such attribution in Pentecostalism but that would be called idolatry- or anthropomorphism- not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x68211.jpg

What John Piper and John MacArthur and even the folks in my class failed to do- what we almost always fail to do when thinking about the unforgivable sin- is read Jesus’ words within the context of Mark’s early chapters.

In chapter 1, right after Jesus speaks on stage for the first time about how the Kingdom of God has arrived, he casts out a demon in church. By doing so, Jesus usurps the authority of the temple priests, whom, Mark leads us to surmise, had previously turned the possessed man away.

Jesus leaves church that day telling people to keep hush- not in order to keep his ‘Messianic secret’ but to keep his wonder-working on the down low because now he’s a marked man.

And ritually impure to boot, which is why he retreats away.

Skip ahead to the end of chapter 2. Offstage the scribes apparently have been dispatched to follow Jesus, presumably for the purpose of finding a chargeable offense against him.

Jesus encounters a leper, who asks Jesus to make him clean.

[First!] Jesus touches him.

And then, only after touching him, does Jesus cleanse him.

In both instances Jesus explicitly violates the law.

The first renders Jesus ritually impure once again. He’s literally taking on the sin of the people, making himself an outcast.

Oh yeah, and Jesus applies to himself the divine-political title ‘Son of Man’ in the heated exchange that ensues with the scribes.

In chapter 2, Mark tells us that Jesus is reclining ‘on his left elbow’ with sinners and tax collectors. Chilling with them, in other words. He’s accused of carousing with them, eating and boozing with the oclos, the unclean masses. This is the first time the word ‘disciple’ to reference Jesus’ followers.

In chapter 3, Jesus heals on the Sabbath, violating the law and presuming to possess the authority to interpret the law in one fail swoop.

Starting in the initial chapter, each of these encounters elicits increasing hostility towards Jesus- from the temple priests, from the scribes and even from his family, who think Jesus has gone insane.

The scribes, keepers of the ancient texts and the interpretation of them, presume they’re on God’s side.

So they accuse Jesus of being demonic.

Those in power have the power to impugn the motives and character of those not in power.

Jesus turns it back on them with the little quip Abraham Lincoln made even more famous about a house divided against itself.

Jesus’ point is different from Abe’s:

If I’m demonic how is it I could exorcise demons?

Conclusion: only someone on God’s side could exorcise demons.

Implication:

Those who assume they’re on God’s side…aren’t.

‘Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ is the culminating, summary charge that erupts as the conclusion to the increasingly hostile encounters Jesus has with the keepers of the status quo.

As such, any interpretation of what constitutes such a blasphemy should be read in light of those exchanges.

The scribes for ideological reasons- and even Jesus’ own family- refuse to see the liberating work of God right before their eyes.

Refuse to see this new healing, liberating activity of Jesus as GOD’S WORK.

It’s not like they haven’t seen Jesus heal and exorcise and cast out. It’s just that their ideology, their interpretation of what God said or did in the past, in the Hebrew scripture, doesn’t conform to what Jesus is doing in the present.

And so they reject Jesus and attribute the demonic to him.

After all, it’s not like the scribes were wrong in their interpretation of scripture.

Jesus doesn’t have the authority to heal in the temple. He shouldn’t be touching lepers. Who told him he could heal on the Sabbath…not God’s word that’s for sure.

To make it plain, what so many interpretations of what constitutes ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ miss is why Jesus would specify the Holy Spirit.

What is it about the Holy Spirit Jesus wants us to take notice?

The_Holy_Trinity

This is where Trinitarian language always comes in handy. Because the Holy Spirit, we profess, is the revelation of God in our midst, in the present, in the here and now.

The Holy Spirit is what reminds us that God didn’t speak or work in the past.

God continues to speak and work in the present.

God can do a new thing.

And that new thing might even go against everything we’ve understood about what God did and said in the past.

God can affirm and welcome and ‘declare clean’ what God’s word once declared quite to the contrary.

If I have to connect the dots to make clear how this is a relevant issue today, I’ve not been nearly the writer my wife tells me I am.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit =

So reifying your understanding of how God willed and spoke in the past- in scripture- that you’re willfully blind to see the liberating, healing work of God in the present.

And if you’ve connect the dots and want to blow me off as a knee-jerk liberal then fine.

Except, be warned, Jesus says it’s unforgivable.

Jason Micheli

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37 responses to Is There an Unforgivable Sin? Maybe.

  1. The only unforgivable sin is not completing your annual reports.

  2. Fine, not recognizing what God is doing in our midst is what it really means to be engaged in blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Now, please, help me know how it is that I am to determine whether it is the teaching of Jason Micheli or the activity of ISIS which represents that new thing?

    • Thanks Gene for the snarky reply that I myself would probably give were this someone else’s post! The closet Catholic in me would answer your question by saying that you should form an ecumenical council of believers from all over the world to discuss, discern and test the spirits. And that’s not a flip response. I do think the texts in Mark suggest blasphemy against the Spirit is just what I’ve laid out, and I DO think God can do a new thing- or at least new according to our conception of what God said/did in the past. However, don’t mistake me for someone who thinks that new thing can be so id’d quickly, casually or individually. Or apart from the received revelation and tradition of interpretation. ‘New’ can (and must) still be in continuity with the Gospel. Peter’s dream in Acts was certainly God doing something ‘new’ from Peter’s perspective yet that new thing was still in continuity with certain streams of scripture in the OT. If the scribes had held a council rather than try off Jesus they too might’ve realized Jesus’ new thing was in accord with the God of scripture even while seemingly violating God’s scripture.

  3. I don’t know. I still struggle with this. How are we to know if something “new” is the Holy Spirit or if it is just an ever-evolving trend in the secular society around us? Just because a cause or a movement becomes popular, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the Holy Spirit, right?

    If God has “changed His mind” on a particular hot button issue (and I seem to recall, possibly erroneously, other sermons that says God is unchangeable) then why doesn’t He let us know in a more concrete manner? After all, he gave Moses and the Jews the Ten Commandments…in stone.

    I had come to the understanding that the Holy Spirit worked within us – at an individual level – and to deny the Holy Spirit was to deny God’s design, rather than the Holy Spirit working at the collective level. Perhaps that veers too far into the individual vs collective salvation debate though.

  4. If ‘blasphemy of the Holy Spirit’ in Mark 3.20 – 4.1 is a rejection of the living, dynamic activity of the Holy Spirit in the present, could you take this a step further and say that this ‘unforgivable sin’ could also be the rejection of the transformative power of the Holy Spirit to reconcile and restore humanity and creation in God’s future Kingdom here on earth?

  5. You’re implying that those of us who believe that God intends sexual intercourse exclusively for a man and woman in marriage are now committing the unpardonable sin?

    Even assuming you’re engaging in your famous “hyperbole,” this is a new low for you.

  6. Brent, I do understand the picture above with the rainbow alludes to debates on sexuality, but the exegetical discourse here is decent and does not imply anything of that matter. I’m not 100% convinced that this is the full definition of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, but his points are valid, thought-out and, most importantly, not about homosexuality. What appears to be a “new low” indeed is not–unless you find him to be the one guilty of blasphemy. And my guess is that anyone writing blogs on the faith in his spare time to join the larger conversation is not someone who will easily be guilty of such a weighty crime.

    • “God can affirm and welcome and ‘declare clean’ what God’s word once declared quite to the contrary.

      If I have to connect the dots to make clear how this is a relevant issue today, I’ve not been nearly the writer my wife tells me I am.”

      Really, Eric?

      And, no, I strongly disagree that the Holy Spirit will reveal something to us today that contradicts what the Spirit has previously revealed in God’s Word. That’s a terrible doctrine of scripture!

      What’s funny is that Jason talks in the next post (I think) about the dangers of interpreting scripture outside of the tradition of the Church and its authorities. Yet the unanimous consensus of these authorities (at least before the sexual revolution) is that homosexual practice, per se, is sinful. This remains, by far, the stance of the vast majority of the Church.

      • There are pro-gay interpretations of scripture that rely on the context, language, etc. that I believe are true or, in the case of the ones about Ruth and Naomi and David and Jonathan, could be possible. http://www.wouldjesusdiscriminate.org/biblical_evidence/gay_couple.html

        • Thanks for the feedback, Jennifer. I wasn’t trying to be coy with the connections, but I thought to be more direct would just distract from the exegesis I was trying to unpack. And Brent’s right, I also think any ‘new’ interpretation has to be done through discernment with the larger body of believers so the Spirit doing a ‘new thing’ doesn’t necessarily equate to a ‘new, quick thing.’

          • But, the Holy Spirit has told me that he sometimes speaks to me individually and directly, and that everyone else (including Joseph Smith) is wrong. And I know this to be true, because this is what the Holy Spirit told me individually and directly.

        • You mean re interpeting scripture to mean what you want it to mean to justify your sin or others sin? Ruth and Naomi had a straight relationship not perverted to a sexual one! David and Jonathan also!

          • Well, that’s not what I mean nor does Jennifer (from her comments). And I can name about 5 dozen (Christian) scholars off the top of head who would argue the propriety of David and Jonathon’s relationship. The Ruth and Naomi point seems moot since a straight (no pun intended) reading of the text admits that Ruth nonetheless seduced Boaz in ways that violate the very same biblical mores.

    • And to be clear, Eric, Jason has said the same stuff before on this blog. Explicitly. I don’t understand why he’s being coy about it now.

  7. I had a pastor who gave us a fire and brim stone version of this once. What you wrote was easier for me to understand. I was in the eighth grade when that sermon happened. It was to scary for me to grasp. It bothered me for years, and I’m twenty-one. This article helped me.

    I think I’ll never understand it completely, because the apostle Paul was changed from wanting to kill Christians in to a Christian, so I don’t understand how literal the passage is, but this article is great.

  8. This post boils down to the following:

    If you do not accept homosexual relationships as having been now suddenly approved of God, you are committing the unforgivable sin, for which one could never be forgiven.

    Ergo – if you believe that marriage is between one man and one woman, as ordained by God from the beginning, and that there are no other permutations allowed, you are forever cast from God’s presence.

    You sir, are a man deceived. Repent and remember your first love.

    • Well, I’ve got plenty for which I should repent, but you didn’t actually address the exegesis in the post.

      • Jason – likewise do I have much from which I need to repent – but if the exegesis leads to a paradox and an absurd conclusion (which casts not just an aspersion but the harshest of judgements on those who take the words of Romans 1 and 1 Cor 6:8-10 seriously) then the onus is on the writer to find the error in his own reasoning.

        Even if I were to find the error(s) and clearly delineate them, you would not believe me anyway. If you can adopt a line of reasoning that leads you to an absurdity and even then insist on publishing and popularizing it, then the issue is that you are married to your own ideas. My reasoning won’t help.

        If you can try to legitimize a sin that is listed next to incest and bestiality and referred to as “abomination” in Lev 18 and is listed as certain to exclude one from heaven in 1 Cor 6, what will my words do? If you believe that homosexuality is now “made clean” then you might as well toss the Bible in the trash my man because you don’t believe it.

        • Well said, Dan. When, for example, in Acts 15, the early church does a “new thing” by recognizing that Gentiles are eligible for membership in God’s covenant family without first becoming Jewish, they nevertheless maintain that Gentiles must avoid porneia, usually translated “sexual immorality.” In this Jewish context, everyone would have understood that porneia refers back to Leviticus 18, which—as you say—condemns adultery, bestiality, and incest alongside homosexual practice.

          To me, Acts 15 couldn’t be more relevant to the discussion. Here we have the Spirit doing a new and (to some in the church) shocking thing (the point of Jason’s post), while at the same time affirming the Jewish status quo regarding homosexual practice.

          • Ah, here we are back again to the issue of homosexual relationships and whether the church should allow marriage of same sex individuals. The church has lived through marriage defined as a husband with multiple wives, it has limited women’s roles to inferior positions and told them to be silent, it has endorsed slavery and condoned discrimination against women. This has been acceptable based on the authority of the scriptures. And you would have us all believe that the Holy Spirit inspired these positions? What?? Is the Holy Spirit the tool of the cultural mores of testament times? Has Paul been elevated to the level of infallibility and I didn’t hear about it? Scripture writers were devout believers and no doubt inspired. But that does not inoculate them against cultural prejudices they may not even have been aware that they had. I’m tempted to ask at this point the trite question of What Would Jesus Do? The gospel of John is very clear that Jesus is the Logos, the Word of God. When discernment is involved, I’m going to opt for that which I believe more nearly reflects the mind of Christ, i.e. the more compassionate approach.

            Nobody chooses to be born male or female, heterosexual or homosexual. So when two people of the same sex fall in love, what is the loving, kind, caring, compassionate, and fair thing to do? Institutions are very slow to change. Pastors who have changed their minds about same sex marriage and disagree with the UMC’s current position are neither heretical nor hypocritical. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, they very likely are following the dictates of their consciences as so many reform minded pastors have done before them. The whole church will eventually come to the same conclusion.

    • Really? Somehow this post boils down to condoning homosexual relationships? I don’t see it. Sure, I see how one could sense that Jason believes in extending grace to homosexual relationships. But, I sure don’t see how one follows that up with the claim that Jason is asserting that those who fail to follow the same line of thinking that he has done are “forever cast from God’s presence.” That just isn’t in there. It might be something floating around in your own head, Dan. But it isn’t in what Jason actually wrote –and saying that it is violates the commandment against bearing false witness.

  9. Jason…can you clarify? Do you believe that those who condemn monogamous homosexual relationships between same sex Christians are resisting a new move of the Spirit? Yes or no would be simplest.

    • Well, in the context of this post, what I believe is that Mark’s narrative suggests the sin against the Holy Spirit to be a willful/ideological/political/tribal refusal to recognize God doing something new in your midst. What I’m implying by the exegesis is that while conservatives think liberals are committing a grave theological error in their embrace of homosexual relationships, it’s at least worth considering that conservatives, by reifying or even idolizing their reading of scripture, could be committing at least as serious an error.

      I’ve written elsewhere here about homosexuality ad nauseam (about the only posts Brent comments upon!). I could push back on the Acts citation that the conversion of a eunuch in the same book violates the very same holiness codes homosexuality does. I could argue that Romans defines homosexuality (at least the Roman 1st century equivalent- not monogamous married love) as ‘against nature’ but that Paul uses that very same term to define the inclusion of Gentiles in to the People of God so…it’s a wash. I could wonder why Leviticus carries such weight, for conservatives, when it comes to gay people and zero weight on immigration or jubilee economic issues. I could point out that saying heterosexual marriage is ‘ordained by God’ is to almost willfully ignore the rather sketchy (polygamous) relationships throughout that same book of Genesis and the fact that Jesus, the ‘true human’ was himself single. I could lament that the one thing Jesus does condemn (not homosexuality) is divorce but that Christians commit that sin at least as much as nonbelievers. I could point out that Paul feels empowered to say ‘I know Jesus said…’ about divorce but ‘I say…’ so I don’t know why the wooden interpretation for every passage has to apply to this one issue. I could insist that if you’re not a pacifist- a much stronger theological perspective- then you’ve no right to even take up this fight…

      But I’m old enough now, know enough people on both sides of the debate, know the texts and points etc to know that lobbing scripture back and forth on this question is neither productive nor persuasive and, actually, a conservation I had with Scot McKnight this weekend has convinced me that more important than being ‘right’ on this issue is the ability of the Church (read: You, me, Brent et al) to live with each other in the unity of Christ.

      • I’m confused. Are you now saying that you disagree, for instance, with an otherwise gay-affirming Bible scholar like Luke Timothy Johnson who says the Bible has a clear witness against homosexual practice? Or are you saying—as I understood you to be saying originally—that in spite of what the Bible says, God is showing us a new thing in relation to homosexuality?

        • Yes, my brother in Christ, I would say that the Holy Spirit is showing us a new thing with respect to homosexuality. Please see my comments to your post above. You have not responded to my post, but I’ll respond to yours. Please pardon the intrusion into your dialogue with Jason.

  10. That was a very long way of saying “yes”.

    • Doh! Except it wasn’t a way of saying ‘Yes!’ It was a way of saying I believe there’s scriptural warrant to stop the ‘the bible clearly says Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’ bromides and consider whether or not it’s a new move of the Spirit. I’ve also written (ad nauseam again) that even if it is a new work of the Spirit such work needs to be discerned and accepted by/within the universal Church~ more Nicene than denominational voting…

      • Jason, let’s suppose that after my best efforts at due and prayerful consideration of all relevant text and also both scientific data and sociological thought I was to conclude that I still believed the practice of homosexuality was incompatible with Christian teaching and that the church should neither ordain practicing homosexuals (though it could celibate homosexuals) nor condone its clergy officiating same-sex marriages. Do you believe that God could and would still extend saving and sanctifying grace to me?

        • Well, not knowing you in the flesh Gene, it’s hard to say, but since I believe ‘hell’ is how those who turn their backs to God’s love and light experience that love and light as fire and wrath…I’d say you’re covered. In fact, I’d say any ironclad disavowal of you b/c of your position would put me in danger of the aforementioned sin against the Spirit. All cheek aside, I think you’ve hit upon the point latent in my post: both sides have scripture from which to argue, both sides have faith and love intended, both sides have God’s will appeal to (tradition on the one hand and a new movement of the Spirit on the other). If both sides could cease and desist, recognize the Jesusy merits of the other perspective and spend more time building fellowship within the community of Christ…I think all would be all.

          As Scot convinced me this weekend, living with our debates rather than trying to ‘win’ or be ‘right’ is better witness to the Kingdom than anything, as ‘neither Jew nor Greek…’ didn’t imply the disappearance of difference but it’s submission to unity in light of the cross and empty tomb. My most profound disagreement with the conservative view, for ex, does not transcend my affinity for that conservative person in light of our mutual bond in Christ.

          This isn’t even abstract. Just Saturday, I was around the table with a crowd of defense contractors and military folks all lovingly listening to Scot McKnight talk about his pacifism. That’s the Kingdom- not being right on ‘war’ or homosexuality.

          • I love this new irenic tone! Scott McKnight must be a miracle-worker! I look forward to this same conciliatory tone being used in relation to future posts about the issue of homosexual practice and the Church.

            So you really don’t believe that we traditionalists on the issue are excluding ourselves from God’s kingdom—indeed, could even be bound for hell? What a relief! Because anyone who would say that—even hyperbolically—would hardly be expressing one’s “affinity” for Christians with whom he disagrees “in light of our mutual bond in Christ.”

  11. And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

  12. To be reasonably balanced by: “Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”

  13. I would like to take this small opportunity to convey how I understand this topic.

    It is often argued (as Juanita has argued above) that no one chooses homosexuality – they are born that way. While it is difficult to imagine that a behaviour as complex as human sexuality can be completely attributable to genetics and that experience has no influence, it is certainly the case with some of my childhood friends from church that they had same sex attraction early on in their life. So, let me start by conceding that lots of people appear to be born that way.

    To this I say, “So?”

    Doesn’t Jesus call us to be what we are not/i>.? I was born with a tendency to lie. I am called to be truthful. I may be born with a chronic illness. I am called not to be bitter and not to be jealous. I am born with greed and lust in my heart. I am called to selflessness and chastity.

    “Yeah – but I did not choose this!”

    None of us choose any cross that we bear. Is Jesus not the Lord of our sexuality also?

    “Yeah – but then I am called to never enjoy sexual and relational intimacy!”

    Yes, quite possibly. But how would you know unless you laid down your life to follow Christ and let Him show you where it all goes – all of it – sexuality, intimacy, everything.

    Jesus calls us not be be what we are/i>. but be what we are not/i>.. So, no matter what predisposition you are born with, no matter what kind of parents you had, no matter what other rotten thing you did not choose, Jesus calls you to follow Him – and this includes surrendering your sexual desires and desires for forms of human intimacy that he has forbidden you.

    That’s what it means to pick up your cross and walk. Anything short of that is your own private religion – a religion with one member and religion where all members will never know peace.

    • I don’t confuse character flaws with facts of nature. One is amenable to change, the other is not. Character flaws develop in response to life’s situations. Homosexuality is not something that develops; it is an occurrence of nature – it is there before you are born. I see no reason to deny loving relationships to same sex people. The way I read the scriptures, Jesus is much more concerned about the poor and oppressed. He reserves his severest criticism for hypocrisy and for failing to care for those in need. Moreover, I don’t confuse the life and teachings of Jesus (“the mind of Jesus”) with other parts of scripture that are culturally influenced by the mores of testament times, so therefore I don’t see Jesus calling homosexuals to be something they aren’t. What he does do is call us to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. We need to concentrate on doing that and stop worrying about what other people are doing in the bedroom. It’s the bedroom scene that seems most threatening to those who oppose homosexual relationships. I’m assuming that such relationships would be acceptable to traditionalists so long as no intimacy was involved. But why should same sex folks deny their own humanity to appease a part of society that should be out helping the poor and oppressed instead objecting to something that is none of their business.

      • Juanita…this is your own private religion. Jesus calls us to deny who we are, not to be who we are.

        • In that case, I assume you would also have been against ordaining women and for slavery. And, just for the record, no, I do not have a private religion anymore than you do. We just happen to disagree over how to interpret the scriptures. My seminary professors always stressed the role of the Holy Spirit in teaching us the more kind and compassionate way, the mind of Christ, when it comes to discernment. We will just have to agree to disagree.

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