What I'm Reading + "The Unpardonable Sin"
This year I will be writing an occasional “pastor’s desk” note that will address two goals:
- I want to give up you updates about which books and articles I’m reading (I might throw in some podcasts as well!) so you can read along with me if you desire.
- I want to provide a space to, when necessary, give more detail about how I reached particular theological conclusions during my sermons. On Sunday mornings I try to “show my work” as much as I can, but time constraints limit what I’m able to do in that setting.
I intend to write these posts on Mondays, but not every week. I will write them as often as I can depending on the rhythms of church life and the space they allow (or don’t allow) for me to write posts like these.
What I’m Reading
“Remember Death” – Matthew McCullough (just finished)
“This Is Our Time” – Trevin Wax (just finished)
“The Cross Before Me” – Rankin Wilbourne (just starting)
“The Care of Souls” – Harold Senkbeil (just starting)
“Disappearing Church” – Mark Sayers (up next)
“This Cultural Moment” (so far seasons 1-3)
Showing My Work - "The Unpardonable Sin"
This past Sunday’s passage (Mark 3:20-35) included one of the most difficult “sayings” that’s directly attributed to Jesus. I’m referring to vv. 28-30, which deal with blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and being guilty of an eternal (or “unpardonable”) sin for which there is no forgiveness.
There is some debate among Christian scholars and pastors about how to best interpret and apply this passage, and picking a side in the debate generally entails answering the following four questions:
- Were the Scribes (and other religious leaders) committing a very specific blasphemy that was only possible for the Scribes to commit during Jesus’ earthly ministry? In other words – do we need to be concerned about this kind of blasphemy in the present day, or did the possibility for this kind of blasphemy “expire” at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry?
- By the time Jesus gave this warning, had the Scribes already committed an eternal sin? Or was it still possible for them to repent and enjoy God’s grace?
- Was Jesus mainly concerned about the very specific declarations the Scribes were making, or was there a root issue underneath the declarations that was even more concerning than the declarations themselves?
- If it is possible to “blasphemy the Holy Spirit” in the present day, is it possible for us to know when this has occurred?
A few reflections, followed by resource recommendations for further reading on this subject:
- The Scribes witnessed firsthand the undeniably powerful ministry of Jesus, so they had to draw some conclusions concerning the source of that power. Either the power was from God, or from somewhere else. And given that these Scribes and Pharisees were religious authorities, the only other plausible option was Satan/unclean spirits. Since they were rejecting Jesus and his Messianic identity, they were effectively forced to ascribe Jesus’ power to Satan. This conclusion contradicted the clear witness and promptings of the Holy Spirit (see for example John 15:26), which put the Scribes on very dangerous spiritual ground.
- I say “dangerous” because I don’t see enough evidence in this text (or parallel texts like Matthew 12:22-32) to definitively conclude that the Scribes had already (and therefore “finally”) committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Notice that the wording and syntax of vv. 28-30 strongly suggest that Jesus is giving a warning, and one of the important functions of a biblical warning is to expose dangerous behavior before it leads to final destruction. Warnings suggest that someone is in an extremely perilous position, but all may not be lost. I take the position that the Scribes were in an extremely dangerous position, but not necessarily a lost cause. I’m encouraged that a religious leader as obstinate and even murderous as Saul (eventually the Apostle Paul) could ultimately repent and trust in Jesus.
- It could be that Jesus, having divine insight into the spiritual condition of these Scribes (insight that we do not have!), knew that the Scribes had become so entrenched in their obstinance toward Jesus and their derision toward the work of the Spirit that they were effectively “beyond repentance” and permanently hardened in their sin. There is no way for us to know if this was or was not the case. Attempts to draw clear conclusions about this issue are speculative.
- The context of Mark chapter 3 indicates that the “core issue” for the Scribes is unbelief concerning Jesus’ identity and ministry. They are rejecting him completely, as seen in the accusations that preceded the accusation that Jesus is responding to in vv. 28-30. Denying the witness of the Holy Spirit (by ascribing the Spirit’s work to Satan) effectively becomes the ultimate symptom of that unbelief/rejection. This rejection helps us understand the placement of the scene Mark includes immediately following the warning passage (see vv. 31-35). Jesus identifies those who are sitting around him as his “true family” because they are believing in Jesus’ identity and ministry – belief manifested in their desire to do the will of God. This “reception” scene is an intentional foil to the rejection we observe from the Scribes.
- If rejecting Jesus is the core issue (ultimately displayed in an entrenched denial of the witness and promptings of the Spirit), then yes, we are certainly capable of mimicking the Scribes in their obstinance and should pay close attention to Jesus’ warning. Keep in mind that rejecting Jesus CAN look like open and aggressive hostility (such as what we see from the Scribes), but it can ALSO involve subtler forms of rejection like apathy and/or living obstinately in unrepentant sin (see 2 Timothy 3). When we reject Jesus (and resist the Holy Spirit) and there is no repentance, this is an eternal sin for which there is no forgiveness.
- The good news is that, should we repent of our sin and trust in Jesus, “all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter” (v. 28). The grace of God is far more wonderful and comprehensive than we can possibly imagine. If we run into the Father’s arms, he will never push us away.
- It seems plausible (if not likely) that someone could become so entrenched in their rejection of Jesus and denial of the Spirit’s witness that they could reach a point in their earthly existence when they are effectively beyond repentance. The problem is that WE (unlike Jesus) are incapable of knowing when someone might have crossed this line. The greatest amount of clarity we can have is when someone takes their obstinate posture to the grave, but even then we cannot have 100% certainty. Therefore, it seems wise to pursue people evangelistically without ever assuming that certain people are a lost cause. And it seems wise for us to flee sin and pursue repentance as a safeguard to possibly committing an eternal sin. It should be of great comfort to those who are anxious about committing an “unpardonable sin” that such anxiety indicates that they have not entrenched themselves in an obstinate position that is beyond repentance.
Note: I’m intentionally including articles/sermons that show you some of the differences of opinion about the issues we’ve been discussing. The following articles/sermons are not in full alignment with one another.