The Greater Sin: Are There Degrees of Sin? (Part 4)

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The Unpardonable Sin Today?

In light of these and other passages, it seems difficult to deny that there is such a thing as an “unpardonable sin” or what Jesus calls, “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” But the possibility of such a sin raises many difficult questions, especially for pastors. Was the unpardonable sin unique to the first century? Or is it still possible for someone to commit this sin today? If so, how shall we counsel the struggling soul who believes he has commit­ted this sin and can no longer be forgiven? Can we know whether someone has committed this sin? If so, should we pray for their salvation or refrain from doing so?

Is the unpardonable sin unique to the first century? Or may someone be guilty of this sin today? According to Berkhof, some of the earlier church fathers believed only those who saw Christ perform miracles could commit the unpardonable sin. In this case, the unpardonable sin would no longer be a possibility after Christ’s earthly ministry.19 The references to unpardonable sin in the epistles, however, make this view untenable, since these writings were composed many years after Christ’s death.20 Others, on the basis of Hebrews 6, limit the unpardonable sin to individuals who were endowed with supernatural gifts of the Spirit but who apostatized from the faith.21 Certainly, the Bible does provide examples of indi­viduals who exercised supernatural power but who were never regenerate (e.g., Judas Iscariot). But there is no proof that the Pharisees whom Jesus accused of blaspheming the Holy Spirit experienced or exercised supernatural gifts of the Spirit. For that reason, I would be hesitant to limit the unpardonable sin to the time of Jesus and the Apostles.

Instead, I believe the greater amount of special revelation and supernatural power the greater the possibility someone may commit the unpardonable sin. Since a high degree of special revelation and supernatural power accompanied the earthly ministries of Christ and the apostles, perhaps there was a greater likelihood of committing the unpardonable sin in the first century than today. Nevertheless, Christ still reveals Himself to men through the Scriptures, and the Holy Spirit still manifests His power today. Therefore, I think it is still possible to commit blasphemy against the Spirit in our day, especially where Christ’s gospel and the Spirit’s power are abundantly manifest. For that reason, we as pastors still need to preach the warnings of Jesus and the apostles to our congregations. If we see professing believers who have received much gospel light drifting from the faith, we should admonish them with words of Hebrews 3:12-13:

Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.

But what about the struggling soul who believes he has committed this sin and can no longer be forgiven? What about the brother with the hypersensitive conscious that believes he may have blasphemed the Holy Spirit? How should we counsel such a person? First, we need to tell them that the unpardonable sin is not the same as doubt or general struggles with unbelief. Even the best of God’s people may at times struggle with unbelief.22 But the unpardonable sin includes a defiant attitude towards God and sacred things that is deliberate and persistent. Second, the very fact the person fears he may have committed the sin is proof that he has not. Those who have committed the unpardonable sin either presume all is well between them and God, or they no longer care.23

That leads to one final matter. Jesus and the Apostles seem to assume that those who commit the unpardonable sin may be identified. In light of this, is it possible for us today to identify such persons? If so, may we still pray for them, or should we refrain, as John seems to suggest?

I must confess, these are difficult questions to answer. My present thoughts are as follows: first, I am not as confident of my own judgment as I am of the judgment of Christ and the apostles. Therefore, any judgment I would make regarding an individual would be tentative. Second, there are examples in the Bible and church history of individuals who nearly committed the unpardonable sin but who were converted. The prime example is the apostle Paul. According to his own testimony, he was the foremost sinner ever saved (1 Tim. 1:15, 16). When he identifies the sins that made him so infamous, they resemble the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit: “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man” (v. 13; cf. Acts 7, 8). In summary, Paul was the archenemy of the early church. Nevertheless, Paul goes on to make a statement that indicates that he stopped short of committing the unpardonable sin: “but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” Paul’s not excusing his sin. Rather he is pointing out that by God’s grace he had not crossed the line by knowingly and purposely sinning against the truth. The point I want to make is that it may have appeared to some that Paul had committed the unpardonable sin. Luke tells us in Acts 9 that the church of Jerusalem was not initially eager to accept his profession of faith. But as it turns out, Paul had not committed the unpardonable sin. This fact should caution us against complete writing off individuals who seem opposed to the gospel. Those who persist in defiance against God and persecution of the church, however, may legitimately become the object of imprecatory prayers rather than intercessory prayers (Pss. 35; 69; 109; 137; Matt. 23; Gal. 1:8, 9; 1 Cor. 16:22; Rev. 6:9-10).

Notes

19 Berkhof gives Jerome and Chrysostom as proponents of this view. System­atic Theology, 252-53.

20 Hebrews was probably written in the 60’s and 1 John in the 90’s.

21 Berkhof sees Hebrews 6 as a particular form of the unpardonable sin that would have been limited to the apostolic age (254).

22 Note in particular the struggles of Abraham (Gen. 11:31-32; 12:10-13; 15:1-3, 8; 16:1-6), Job (Job 42:1-6), John the Baptist (Matt. 10:1-6), Peter (Mark 14:28-31), and other disciples of Christ (Matt. 8:25-26; 16:8; 17:20; 28:17; Mark 9:24; 16:14; Luke 24:25).

23 See Hoekema, 185-86.

Bob Gonzales bio


Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological ReviewThe Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.

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