We are told that when Jesus healed “a blind and dumb demoniac”, the Pharisees responded to the report by looking for evil in what was happening
“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons”.
Jesus refuted the charge, claiming the healing as further evidence that God was at work;
“If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew ch12 vv22-28).
Then he went on to give a solemn warning;
“Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever
says 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” (vv31-32).
This warning has troubled many.
In their understanding of the term “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”, it seemed possible that they might have offended in this way, and of
course the thought made them anxious.
The most common answer to this anxiety is to explain that Jesus is referring to a rejection of God which is determined and incorrigible, “and if
you’re still capable of worrying about it, then you can’t have done it”.
I recently came across or rediscovered the explanation offered by Richard Baxter.
His case is that the essence of the sin is continuing disbelief even in the presence of God’s power as expressed in his miracles;
And I think this is it which is called the sin against the Holy Ghost, when men will not be convinced by miracles, that Jesus is the Christ…
The sense of the place (which the whole context will show you, if you view it deliberately, will show you) seems to me to be this: as if Christ had
said; while you believed not the testimony of the prophets, yet there was hope; the testimony of John the Baptist might have convinced you; yea, when
you believed not John, you might have been convinced by my own doctrine; yea though you did not believe my doctrine, yet there was hope you might have
been convinced by my miracles.
But when you accuse them to be the works of Beelzebub, and ascribe the work of the divine power, or Spirit, to the prince of devils, what more
I will after my ascension send the Holy Ghost upon my disciples, that they may work miracles to convince the world; but if you sin against the Holy
Ghost (that is, they will not believe for all these miracles)… there is no other more convincing testimony left, and so their sin of unbelief
is incurable, and consequently unpardonable.
Richard Baxter, “The Saints’ Everlasting Rest” (1650), Second Part, ch4.
I think Baxter may be on to something.
As he observes, the context of the warning was disbelief and hostility in the face of the healing miracles.
The Spirit of God, in the Bible, is always associated with power
In the Old Testament, the Spirit falls upon one man, and he begins to prophesy.
Then the Spirit falls upon a man like Jephthah, and he goes out to fight the Ammonites (Judges ch11 v29).
Either way, it is about power, in one form or another.
In the New Testament, in the same way, the Spirit is guiding men to speak.
But as Jesus points out in this episode, the Spirit is also responsible for his powers of healing.
So those who knew of the miracles of Jesus were experiencing the power of God more directly than is usually the case, which gave them less excuse for
continuing to reject him.
The Pharisees were expressing their hostility to the work of God almost in his face.
Baxter claims that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit remains possible today because of the testimony
of the miracles;
“Though the miracles are ceased, yet their testimony doth still live… So I think that when men will not believe that Jesus is the Christ, though
they are convinced by undeniable arguments, of the miracles which both Himself and his disciples wrought; this is now the sin against the Holy
But this is an argument designed to suit his purpose in this chapter, which is to use the testimony of miracles “to prove Scripture to be the Word
Therefore it could be argued that he makes his definition of the sin too broad.
The original warning may have been meant for those who could see the works of Jesus in front of them, in which case it might be less applicable to a
long-distance testimony about what he did.
Especially if it was part of the essence of their sin that the power of God was immediately recognisable in the person of Jesus.
For the writer of Hebrews, the ultimate sin is the deliberate abandonment of a Christian faith once truly known – “If we sin deliberately after
receiving the knowledge of the truth…” (Hebrews ch10 v26).
This is because, like the Pharisees, such people are knowingly
turning away from God, and not even intending to return.
While John speaks of a sin which is “mortal” and need not be prayed for, which may be talking about the same thing (1 John ch5 v16).
So both writers assume that the possibility of unforgivable sin remains.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that the usual assurance is equally valid under Baxter’s mode of explanation.
Their disparagement of God’s work was emerging from an attitude of hostility.
And the case of Paul shows that even hostility can be forgiven, when there is no previous experience of meeting God.
Whereas the behaviour of these Pharisees, knowing what they did, was beyond curing. They were unable to believe because they did not want to believe,
and there was no getting past that obstacle.
Nobody who is willing to know God should have reason to think that their sin is unforgivable.