So I tell you, every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven—except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven. Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, either in this world or in the world to come. [Matthew 12:31-32 (NLT)]
When speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus delivers what could be called the ultimate good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that, no matter how evil, vicious or long-lasting the sin, any sin (even blasphemy) is forgivable. The good news, however, comes with a “but” when Jesus says blasphemy against the Spirit will never be forgiven.
Reading Jesus’ words—words said by the One whose blood was shed so our sins would be forgiven—is perplexing. If Jesus could forgive the many unnamed sins of those he healed, the soldiers who gambled for his clothing at the foot of the cross, and Peter’s three denials, what sin is so great that even His blood would not cover it? What exactly is blasphemy against the Spirit and how does it differ from speaking against the “Son of Man” (who we know to be Jesus)?
This good news/bad news scenario was delivered right after Jesus made it clear that there was no neutral ground when it came to Him—either people were with Jesus on God’s side or without Him on Satan’s side. He was directly speaking to Pharisees—people clearly not on Jesus’s side! They hated Him, were plotting His death, and just had denied proof of Christ’s divinity by attributing His healing miracles to Satan. Theirs wasn’t an act so horrendous that Jesus could not forgive them. Rather, their sin was one of attitude. What was unforgivable was their continual rejection of Jesus and their deliberate choice of Satan over Him.
As shocking as it seems, Jesus even says that blasphemy against Him can be forgiven. The Apostle Paul, for example, freely admitted to blaspheming the name of Christ while persecuting Christians. Yet, he experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness because he did so in ignorance and unbelief. If, however, after encountering the living Jesus on the road to Damascus, being supernaturally blinded, meeting Ananias, and having the scales fall from his eyes so that he knew the truth, Paul had never repented and come to believe in Christ, like the Pharisees, he would have committed the unforgivable sin. It would have become unpardonable blasphemy against the Spirit only if, after seeing the Truth incarnate, Paul continued to disparage, attack, and reject Jesus. Fortunately for us, after seeing the truth, Paul did repent and his “blasphemy” was forgiven.
Even scholars and theologians disagree on the exact meaning of this difficult text and I am neither scholar nor theologian. Nevertheless, the unpardonable sin appears to be what those Pharisees exhibited: a deliberate. obstinate, resolute, and tenacious resistance to the Spirit’s pursuit and voice. Even the demons recognized Jesus as the Son of God but the religious leaders, people who knew the prophecies and witnessed His miracles first-hand, blatantly refused to acknowledge Him. They didn’t even bother to dispute the miracles; they chose instead to dispute the source of Jesus’ power by attributing the works of God to Satan. That was unforgivable.
Some theologians think this warning applies only to those people of the 1st century who, like the Pharisees, actually witnessed the irrefutable proof that Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit and then denied the overwhelming evidence of His divinity. Only God knows for sure. The important thing for us to understand is that, like the unbelieving Pharisees, people freely choose how they will spend eternity and, like Paul, no matter how shameful the sin, when we sincerely seek God’s forgiveness through Christ, we can be certain that He will forgive us.