At times I get theological questions from troubled people. Recently someone opened up to share a deep concern: ‘I’ve been told that there is an unforgivable sin. Does the Bible really say that, and, if it does, how do I know whether or not I have committed it?’
Actually a number of people, even searching non-Christians, have poised this question over the years gives. And it gives rise to another question – ‘Is it possible to commit such a big sin or so many sins that we can go beyond the point where we can be saved?’
Sin cannot exceed love
The good news of the gospel is that our sin cannot exceed the love, grace and mercy of God.
Every person who has ever lived has been in rebellion against God at some time, but the Bible affirms the great truth that ‘when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!’ (Romans 5:10).
However, there are a few verses in the Bible that suggest that some sin is unforgivable and for centuries biblical scholars have wrestled with finding the correct interpretation.
The problem arises when we consider those verses against other New Testament affirmations such as, ‘… where sin increased, God’s grace increased much more’ (Romans 5:20). Also, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
Let’s consider first the ‘sin that leads to death.’ (1 John 5:16) Clearly at one level we understand that ALL sin leads to spiritual death. The Bible makes this clear and Paul succinctly writes, ‘The wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23).
Some have argued that the ‘sin that leads to death’ refers to physical death, but that interpretation is hard to sustain. However, if John was referring to sin that leads to spiritual death, we have to consider that in the context of a belief that all sins can be forgiven.
Actually the Bible never states that! Sin not repented of, for example, will not be forgiven. Repentance is a prerequisite for God’s forgiveness to be received: ‘Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord’ (Acts 3:19). Ignoring God’s offer of salvation also leads to eternal loss for ‘how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?’ (Hebrews 2:3).
And then Jesus said, ‘I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come’ (Matthew 12:31-32).
What then is this sin that ‘will not be forgiven’?
What is ‘blasphemy against the Spirit’? We must understand this phrase in the context of the passage in Matthew 12. There we find that the Pharisees, despite the evidence, not only rejected Jesus but also tried to distort the significance of Jesus’ miracles, and, in effect, described the work of the Holy Spirit as evil.
Jesus further described the ministry of the Holy Spirit in this way: ‘When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment’ (John 16:8). Before we can be saved, we need to be aware of our sin and to realise that we need a Saviour. The Holy Spirit stirs our consciences, convicts us of our sin and directs us to Jesus who saves us. The respected New Testament scholar, Dr F F Bruce, has written…
‘The Holy Spirit persuades and enables men to accept Christ and enjoy the saving benefits of the gospel (John 16:8; 1 Corinthians 2:12-14; Acts 7:51), but if anyone refuses to submit to the Spirit’s gracious constraint, preferring to call good evil and evil good, how can the gospel avail for him? The deliberate refusal of the grace of God is the one sin which by its very nature is irremediable.’
No one is too guilty for God to forgive, but people can fail to discover God’s forgiveness because they have not responded to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
But here is a word of assurance – anyone who seeks Jesus’ forgiveness certainly has not committed the sin that ‘will not be forgiven’!
Jesus promised, ‘Whoever comes to me I will never drive away’ (John 6:37). It appears that John uses the word ‘brother’ (in this and other verses) in a generic way that includes non-Christians. We cannot, therefore, conclude that he was referring exclusively to Christians in 1 John 5:16.
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
In his well-researched Grace Revisited he reveals grace as having a strong active meaning and is like a many faceted diamond out of which shines a greater understanding of the great God we worship. Normally $35 but now offered free by Dr Jim in EPUB and MOBI versions to anyone who contacts him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Good news: Currently Dr Jim is writing a new book entitled Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage which will be available electronically.