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What is the Unforgivable Sin?

Matthew 12:22-32

When I served as pastor of a church in North Alabama during the early 1980s, there was an usher in our church named John. He was a sweet man who was always present in his regular spot to greet people and hand out bulletins, but John was a very troubled man. On several occasions, I met with him, and he began to weep as he told me that during World War II he had done something he thought was so evil that he was certain he had committed the unforgivable sin.

I tried to help him by telling Him God could forgive every sin except the sin of unbelief, but that didn't change his mind. John never told me what he had done, but he was convinced he never would go to heaven. He attended church and served the Lord faithfully. His family was active in the church, and his children were talented singers; but he was tormented with the belief that he had committed the unpardonable sin and never would make it to heaven.

I haven't heard from John for many years; and based on his age, chances are he already has died. From everything I knew about John and his life, I think he's in heaven; but he missed out on so much peace and joy in this life because he was tormented by the belief that his sin was unforgivable.

John isn't the only person who has expressed fear to me of having committed the unforgivable sin. Dozens of people have told me the same thing. Maybe you've wondered if you've committed the unforgivable sin. Let me start by saying what I tried to tell John: If you are concerned that you have committed the unforgivable sin, the fact that you are burdened about it means you probably haven't!

I often say there is a parable in every miracle and a miracle in every parable, so let's look first at the message we can glean from the miracle. Then we'll talk about the implications of the parable.

The Miracle: Jesus Can Deliver the Most Hopeless Person!
The Bible says, "They brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could talk and see." The phrase "demon-possessed" is actually a mistranslation. The literal term is demonized, so a better translation would be "under a demonic influence."

There are many levels of demonic influence. The blind and mute man in this passage was the victim of demonic influence, which makes us wonder, "Is every blindness or sickness the result of demonic activity?" The answer is, "No." This is one of the few times in the gospels that demonic affliction is associated with physical impairment. There were many times Jesus healed sickness that wasn't related to demonic activity, and there were many times Jesus delivered people from demonic influence when there weren't any symptoms of sickness.

There isn't any elaboration about this miracle, it simply says Jesus healed the blind and mute man so he could talk and see. How tragic it must have been for this man living in darkness and unable to talk! His family and friends must have thought his case was hopeless, but no person is beyond hope when Jesus is present.

This miracle reminds me of Helen Keller. As a young girl, Helen contracted scarlet fever; the illness left her blind, deaf and mute. She grew up frustrated by her inability to communicate and often flew into uncontrollable rages. Her parents were ready to give up on her, but before they packed her off to an insane asylum, they made one final attempt. They hired a half-blind teacher named Anne Sullivan to see if she could do anything with this helpless, hopeless child.

In 1962, The Miracle Worker was filmed with Anne Bancroft playing Anne Sullivan and Patty Duke playing Helen Keller. They both won Academy Awards for those roles. If you saw the movie, you probably recall how frustrated and angry Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller were about their inability to communicate.

The climax of the story is when Helen feels water on her hand and Anne repeatedly spells water using sign language into Helen's hand. Suddenly the light comes on and Helen understands. From that point Helen Keller quickly learned to communicate. Almost overnight she changed from a frantic, frustrated girl into a composed, eager student.

Helen Keller went on to become the first deaf and blind person to earn a college degree. Before she died in 1968, she had written a dozen books and traveled the world. In her own words, she described this turning point in her life: "Once I knew only darkness and stillness...my life was without past or future...but a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living."

That sounds like my testimony, as well. Once I was living in spiritual darkness and a miracle worker came into my life. With His nail-pierced hand He put His Word into my heart and replaced my emptiness with a kind of life beyond description.

You may feel that your life seems hopeless right now. Jesus is the real miracle worker; if you cry out to Him today, He can bring light where there was once darkness. Perhaps you have someone in your family or circle of friends whose life is out of control, hopeless. Don't stop praying for and sharing with him or her; remember Jesus can deliver the most hopeless person.

When Jesus performed the miracle of healing the demon-possessed man, some witnesses wondered if He was the "Son of David," a title for the Messiah. His enemies, the Pharisees, accused Him of using the power of Beelzebub to cast out demons. (Beelzebub means "lord of the flies." People observed swarms of flies around dead animals and equated them with death and demons.)

In Jewish literature, Beelzebub was a chief demon and sometimes identified as Lucifer, but the point they were making was: "Sure this guy has some powers, but he gets his power from Satan, not God." That was a very dangerous accusation, and Jesus used it as an opportunity to give a short but powerful parable.

The Parable: Jesus Came to Destroy the Works of the Devil
Jesus probably almost laughed in the faces of His accusers and said, "If I'm working for Satan, then it doesn't make sense for Me to repair the damage he caused to this man." Then He said, "If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."

It's a dangerous thing for religious people to say God's activities are from Satan. When I was in college, I traveled around leading weekend youth revivals. I would play my 12-string guitar and lead songs before I preached. The songs I sang were pretty radical—they weren't in the hymnal. They were heavy metal songs such as, "Get all excited, go tell everybody that Jesus Christ is Lord."

I can remember being in one church in North Alabama, and as I started leading the first song of the evening, an elderly man walked out shaking his head. It wasn't hard to miss him because there were only about 60 people there that night. He didn't come back in for the service, but he was there for the fellowship that followed. He came over to me, his face red. I don't remember his exact words, but he said something to the effect of: "I don't like you coming into my church and playing the devil's rock and roll music. We don't allow guitars in our church. It's the devil's instrument." I guess I was doubly devilish because I played a 12-string guitar!

I know he meant well, but he was doing the same thing the Pharisees had done. He didn't like my music, but God was saving teenagers every weekend.

You may think that kind of accusation was limited to the 1970s, but that's not true. I didn't go, but recently in the Oil Palace, Skillit and Toby Mac gave a concert. If you had been there, you might have walked out saying it was the devil's music; but be careful, because God is using those guys to reach a younger generation for Christ.

What can we learn from this miracle and parable? Here are four take-away truths:

Satan is strong, but Jesus is stronger!
In Matthew 12:29, Jesus delivers one of the shortest parables in the New Testament. He says, "How can anyone enter a strong man's house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house." In this mini-parable, the strong man is Satan. His house is this world. Satan is called the prince of this world. Jesus is the One who came into the world, and He binds Satan and steals his possessions.

Yet Jesus technically isn't stealing anything from Satan; He's reclaiming what Satan stole from Him. Satan is the thief. Jesus said in John 10:10, "The thief comes only to steal and kill destroy; I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full."

In the Old Testament, Jacob was a deceiver who stole Esau's birthright and his blessing from their father, Isaac. That's what Satan has done for every member of the human race; he has stolen our divine birthright and blessing. Jesus came to reclaim what originally belonged to us—our right to be children of God and receive God's divine blessing.

Satan is strong, but don't have to worry because Jesus is stronger! The Bible says, "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work…the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world" (1 John 3:8, 1 John 4:4).

A few weeks ago, our church was blessed when Travis Cottrell sang "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." This hymn originally was written in 1528 by the German pastor Martin Luther. Luther had an ongoing battle with Satan. It is recorded that he once was so angry with Satan's accusations that he hurled an ink bottle at him.

Maybe you've never thought about it, but because our version rhymes in English and the original hymn was written in German, we never have sung Luther's exact words. Our English version was translated by Fredrick Hedge in 1853. Let me share two of the stanzas in a literal translation of Luther's words:

A Mighty Fortress is our God, a great shield and weapon;
He freely helps us in every adversity that now concerns us.
The old, evil enemy now means serious business,
Great power and much cunning are his cruel armor,
On earth there is none like him.

When I first sang that in English, I thought it was talking about God, but it's about Satan. Here's the literal translation of the third verse:

And though the world is full of devils,
Who want to completely devour us
We don't fear too much,
It should work out for us alright.
The prince of this world, as angry as he is,
Does nothing to us, because he is judged,
One little Word can fell him.

Luther capitalized "Word" because the Word became flesh—Jesus, who came to destroy the works of the devil. Sure the devil is strong, but Someone much stronger came to bind Him and reclaim what was stolen. So don't be afraid of Satan, because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world!

It's impossible to be neutral about Jesus.
In verse 30 Jesus said, "He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters." Someone said this is the most narrow-minded statement Jesus ever made. That may be true in our current pluralistic, super-tolerant American religious mindset, but that doesn't change the fact that it is true.

Jesus says you cannot straddle the fence when it comes to Him. You are either at this moment trusting Him or rejecting Him. The only thing you cannot do is ignore Him. It's also true that by our daily actions and words we either are gathering people to Christ or scattering them away from Him. There are no neutral actions when it comes to Christ. Are you attracting people to Jesus by your lifestyle and language? If you aren't then, you're pushing them away.

In his classic book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains why it is impossible to be neutral about Jesus: "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say.

"A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God or else a madman or something worse.

"You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us."
Some nations such as Switzerland declare that when it comes to war, they are neutral; but if they ever were under attack, they would be forced to change their position. People who try to be neutral about Jesus remind me of the man in Kentucky during the Civil War who tried to be neutral. He didn't want to be identified with the Rebels, so he wore a dark blue shirt; he didn't want to be identified with the Yankees, so he wore grey trousers. As a result, he was shot at from both sides! There is no neutrality when it comes to Christ.

God graciously forgives every sin except one.
Jesus said: "I tell you every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven" (Mark 3:29).

When some people (such as my friend John mentioned earlier) read that there is one sin that is unforgivable, they immediately tend to fear they have committed it. That fear often prevents them from accepting God's forgiveness for a multitude of forgivable sins.
It reminds me of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God said, "Eat and enjoy the fruit of all the trees except one." Instead of enjoying those thousands of other good trees, they focused on the one that was off limits.

What was the unforgivable sin? Let me tell you what it is not: It is not murder. Moses was a murderer, and he is in heaven. It is not adultery. King David committed adultery, and God forgave him. It's not divorce. The woman at the well had multiple divorces and was forgiven. It is not suicide, although some denominations teach that suicide is an unforgivable sin. Suicide is self-murder, no different from homicide—both forgivable.

You may say, "Well, a person who commits suicide can't repent of that sin because he or she is dead." If that's your attitude, then you don't understand salvation. Once you are a Christian, you don't have to confess every single sin you commit in order to go to heaven. We confess our sins to stay in fellowship with God; but when you surrender your life to Christ, every past sin you've committed and every future sin you ever will commit is covered by the blood of Jesus Christ.

If I listed 10 sins that are forgivable, someone would think, "Well, I've got a sin not on that list." If I told you a hundred sins that weren't the unforgivable sin, someone would have one not on the list. So just know and rejoice that every sin except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is forgivable.

The only unforgivable sin is saying, 'No,' to the Holy Spirit's call to repent and be saved.
Jesus said: "When He [the Holy Spirit] comes, He will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment" (John 16:8). Before you can be saved, you must experience a sense of guilt about your sinful condition. Jesus said this is the role of the Holy Spirit. It's not my job to make you feel guilty; that's the job of the Holy Spirit. Scary stories may bring fears, and sad stories may bring tears; but only the Spirit of God can bring true conviction of sin.

The word blasphemy means to "speak against." So blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is when a person says, "No," to the conviction of the Holy Spirit. In that moment he or she is speaking against the Holy Spirit.

During high school, I worked at a saw mill. My job was pulling lumber off the green chain. I would take the freshly cut lumber that came directly from the saw and stack it according to size. This green lumber was rough and covered with splinters. I wore thick, canvas gloves to guard against splinters, but some of the men had worked there for years. They had developed thick calluses on their hands so they didn't need gloves. Shaking hands with them was like shaking hands with a lobster!

I believe some people have calluses on their hearts. They have heard the gospel message many times and said, "No," so many times that they have hardened their hearts. They are in a dangerous condition where they no longer can sense the conviction of the Holy Spirit.

In his excellent book The Holy Spirit, Billy Graham gives the best definition of this sin I've ever read. He writes: "The unpardonable sin involves the total and irrevocable rejection of Jesus Christ. It is rejecting, completely and finally, the witness of the Holy Spirit, which declares that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who alone can save us from our sins. No one has committed the unpardonable who continues to be under the disturbing, convicting and drawing power of the Holy Spirit. When a person has so resisted the Holy Spirit that he strives with him no more, then there is eternal danger" (The Holy Spirit, p. 124).

So the only sin God won't forgive is terminal unbelief. God won't forgive that sin because the person who commits it never will ask God for forgiveness. If you are someone who considers yourself to be an unbeliever, I appeal to you to trust Jesus. Every time you say, "No," makes it easier to say, "No," the next time.

There is more to life than this life. One day we will face eternity. If you consider yourself an unbeliever or you know someone who is an unbeliever, I've written a parable for you.

Once there were unborn twins, Carrie and Larry, inside their mother's womb. One day Carrie says to her twin brother, "Larry, I believe in life after birth. Do you?" Larry replies, "No, I don't believe in life after birth. This is all there is and all there will ever be." Carrie sighs and says, "Not me. I've got to believe there is another place—a place of light and colors, a place where we will have the freedom really to live." Larry says, "Well, go ahead and believe if it makes you feel better, but I don't see any evidence of any other existence than this."

Later, Carrie says, "Larry, I know you won't believe this either, but I have decided that I believe in the existence of a mother who gives us life." Larry scoffs and says, "What are you talking about? Have you ever seen a mother? No. I tell you, this place is all there is, and we've just got to make the best we can of this existence. Why do you want more? I know it's dark and tight, but we've got everything we need right here."

Carrie replies, "Don't you feel those squeezes, and can't you hear those muffled sounds? I know the squeezes are sometimes painful, but I think they're just getting us ready for another kind of living that's much more beautiful than this where we will see our mother face to face."

Finally, Larry was so fed up he didn't even answer; after all, the womb was all there was and all there would be. A few days later they were born, and Larry realized he was wrong. For Carrie, it was even better than she imagined!

Do you believe in life after death, or do you believe this is all there is? Do you not believe because you don't see God? How can you not see God? One day, we will learn there is life after death; and for those who put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ, it will be better than we can ever imagine!

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