What Is Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit?
Scott J. Kaczorowski | January 6, 2022
What Is Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit?
In Matthew 12 and it’s parallel passage in Mark 3 we find these harrowing words from Jesus:
“Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the 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.” (Matt 12:31-32)
“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)
What does this warning mean? We will explore three views and then summarize what we can say with relative certainty from Scripture about this sin.
Three Views of the Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit
The Technical View
This view would propose that any and every insult issued specifically against the Holy Spirit. That is, after all, what Jesus says, right?
Strengths of this view. Blasphemy in this context means insulting the Spirit of God. Speaking insulting words towards the Spirit of God seems to be the straightforward way to understand this. This is the manner in which the text is taken by those who read it for the first time with no other preconceived notions about the nature of this sin. The statement in Mark seems to be quite unqualified in scope; hence we should put under this rubric any and every insulting word against the Spirit. This seems to be the very context of the statement in Matthew 12 that every idle word will be judged. Jesus says this directly after issuing his statements concerning the blasphemy of the Spirit and a tree and its fruit. It appears in that connection that He is warning the Pharisees that they are speaking foolishly, without thinking, and that these “idle words” which spring from their wicked hearts will never be forgiven.
Weaknesses of this view. The implications of this would be truly terrible. The sin could be committed accidentally—even by true believers. Among unbelievers, a great many people would never even be able to come to Christ for forgiveness—even if they wanted to. Indeed, since in certain situations some people have spoken against the Holy Spirit and then repented and came to Jesus, we would have to postulate the awful scenario of someone desiring to repent of this sin, but still not being received by God. Among believers, we would find that a great many Christians would be going to hell (including John Bunyan, probably John Calvin and possibly a great number of the evangelicals who have critiqued the charismatic movement in unwise ways, or have not discerned correctly the working of the Spirit in their lives.)
Many commentators suggest that this is a particularly infrequent and relatively rare sin. However, judging from the concern about it in the Christian world among many of the lay people, speaking against the Holy Spirit appears to be quiet frequent. Pastors can attests to the number of people who have come into their office with this fear, and the literature counsels pastors on how to deal with this kind of fear. Not rare at all.
Certainly we cannot ignore the explicit teaching of Scripture because we are not pleased with the implications of that teaching; however, when a view results in absurdity it might be a clue that we are not on the right track to begin with. Wrong trails lead to wrong destinations. Furthermore, simply because Jesus states the case in a very unqualified way, that does not mean that we have to read it in an unqualified sense, since other statements that Jesus make seem similarly universal, yet are balanced by other places in Scripture.
The Historically Bounded View
This view would claim that only attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to a demon during the life and ministry of Jesus on earth could qualify as the unforgiveable sin.
Exposition of this view. This view takes the above stated principle (that statements universal in utterance might not be universal in meaning) to drastically limit the very definition of blasphemy of the Spirit based on the immediate context of the passage. Hence, in order to commit this sin, you would have to: (1) see Jesus’ physical earthly ministry and (2) attribute the work of the Spirit in that ministry to Satan. Since no one today can fulfill the first criteria—the earthly ministry of the Lord being ended—no one is even physically capable of committing this sin today. If the first view drastically widens the road to hell along this particular path, this view drastically reduces it and limits it to just a select number of individuals in all of history—only a handful of antagonists while Jesus ministered on earth.
Weaknesses of this view. While the careful attention to the context that this view takes can be appreciated, it perhaps pushes things too far. One of the obvious problems with it is that it seems to mistake an example of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit for a definition of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It would appear that there are other ways that one could commit this sin than to call the Holy Spirit an unclean spirit—though this would be a particularly egregious instance of it.
The Grievous Offense View
This approach would view this sin as a particularly grievous and heinous insulting of the Holy Spirit, which offends the Spirit so badly that He will never call that person to repentance again.
Exposition of this view. Words have a higher meaning and lower meaning. For example, the word divine in English takes one sense when we say, “Chocolate is divine” and quite another if we state, “Jesus is divine.” The first uses the word in a lower sense, while the second uses the word in the highest possible sense. Similarly, there could be levels of intensity to the word blasphemy. The assumption here would be that “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” uses the word blasphemy in the most intensive sense possible. These are the most particularly horrid things that a person could say about the Holy Spirit.
At that point, the Holy Spirit is so offended that He will not speak with them again. The person in effect reaches a “point of no return.” They have insulted the Holy Spirit so badly that He will not continue to work in their lives to bring them to repentance. They have, in a sense, offended-away the Holy Spirit from their lives.
Obviously, not every resistance to the Gospel would fall under this category. And it seems that there would need to be a distinctly verbal aspect to this rejection, focused on the Peron of the Spirit Himself. One of the implications of this view is that not every blasphemy leveled against the Holy Spirit is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit of which Jesus warned.
Strengths of this view. This view gives an explanation of why the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an unforgivable sin in a way that the other two cannot. On the previous two views, the unpardonable sin is unpardonable simply because God has chosen not to forgive it. But no explanation can be given as to why this would be the case. Why is it, that God, who is willing to forgive men whatever blasphemies they utter, singles this particular blasphemy out above all others and decides that it will not receive any possibility of forgiveness? It makes good sense to claim that it is not forgiven because it can’t be forgiven, by the very nature of the offense itself.
This explanation resonates with the work of the Holy Spirit as described in John 16—He will “convict the world concerning sin.” One who maliciously spurns this conviction to the point of verbal abuse cuts themselves off from the only hope of salvation. That is indeed an eternal sin. It also resonates with the writer of Hebrews who mentions those who have “insulted [or “outraged” ESV] the Spirit of grace”—which seems to certainly be a case of the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (though expressed in slightly different terminology).
There is some limited contextual support for viewing the sin in this way as well. The main question comes down to whether Jesus is issuing a warning to the Pharisees or pronouncing a condemnation on them. Is He warning them or damning them? It seems to me, from a gut reading of the text, that Jesus is warning them about the severe danger they were in. There is a small but important phrase in Mark’s account: “And He called them [i.e. the Pharisees!] to Him and said to them…” He specifically called to Himself these men who had made these awful accusations. The general tenor of what follows reads like an attempt to reason with them about who He is and point out to them the extreme, soul threatening danger they were in by making these statements. Given the fact that the entire discourse here is directed to the Pharisees, it is difficult to understand the point of the Lord reasoning with them about these things if they were irrevocably lost already. Is not God’s response to those who have passed the point of no return silence?
Weaknesses of this view. Even though this does appear to be an accurate description of what the Pharisees were doing, this is not exactly what the text says. We are required to make a qualification of an absolute text based on nothing more than hints in the context. This is sometimes the correct way to interpret a passage, but the dangers are also evident…
What Can We Say with Certainty about this Sin?
Despite the lack of absolute certainty regarding this, there are several characteristics of this sin that can be outlined from Scripture:
(1) It is a verbal sin. (i.e. Barnard Franklin calls it a “tongue-sin”)
(2) It is a malicious sin. It is indented to harm and uses vitriol to accomplish this.
(3) It is a directed sin. It is specifically pointed at the Holy Spirit.
(4) It is an unforgiveable sin (either by its very nature—per view three above—or by divine decision—per view one above).
(5) Anyone who has come to Christ in faith and repentance probably has not committed this sin in the past (allowing for the off chance that view one above is correct). No one who desires to repent will be turned away from Jesus.
(6) No genuine believer ever will or even can commit this sin. This would entail an immediate lost of salvation, which we know from Scripture is impossible. Jude says that true believers are “kept by Jesus Christ.” First Peter 1 makes clear that we “by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” “Kept by Jesus” and “guarded by God’s power” are promises of great value to the Christian soul.
Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 284 tells this intriguing story about Bunyan, the author of the beloved Pilgrim’s Progress: “…in his anguish [he] confessed to an elderly fellow Christian, ‘that I was afraid I had sinned the sin against the Holy Ghost; and he told me he thought so too’” (quoting John Bunyan, Grace Abounding paragraph 182).
In his commentary on this passage, Calvin suggests that the exorcisms preformed in the Roman Catholic Church were an example of Satan pretending to drive out Satan! Yet later he suggests that during the period of Jesus’ ministry, the Jews of that day had genuine exorcisms since the Spirit of God is gracious. Why not give the same assessment of the Catholic Church? It seems that if exorcisms are genuinely performed in the RCC, that that could very well be a the gracious Spirit of God having mercy on a people even though they are not entirely in the line with the truth of the Gospel. Is God’s graciousness confined to the completely orthodox?
As is also suggested by Craig Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 205. He states: “…one should tread most cautiously when speaking of Satan’s direct influence in Christian circles. One of the most unfortunate violates of this principle is the common charge that certain spiritual gifts prominent in the charismatic movement actually come from the devil… Ironically those making this charge more closely resemble the Pharisees in this text and hence remain more in danger of committing the unforgivable sin themselves than do those they associate with Satan.” This is somewhat confusing in the context of Blomberg’s commentary, however, since he defines the sin a page earlier as, “nothing more or less than the unrelenting rejection of [Jesus’] advances” (204). How then would a Christian ever be in danger of committing this sin?
For a defense of this view see Barnard Franklin, “The Blasphemy Against the Holy Ghost: An Inquiry Into the Scriptural Teaching Regarding the Unpardonable Sin,” Bibliotheca Sacra 93 (1936): 219-233. I was able to relocate this reference in Nicholas Lammé, “The Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit: The Unpardonable Sin in Matthew 12:22-32,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 23 (2012): 28 n.29.
A similar critique could be made of views that equate this sin with attributing the Spirit’s work to Satan even today. For example, John Walvoord defines it as: “attributing to Satan what is accomplished by the power of God” (John Walvoord, Matthew: Thy Kingdom Come [Chicago: Moody, 1974], 89; as quoted in Blomberg, 203).