Is There An Unforgiveable Sin?
One of the manliest men I’ve ever known was the late Joe Flanagan, the father of a dear friend. Handsome, competent and a successful businessman, he had been a bomber pilot in WW2.
But Joe had a particular pain which grew deeper as he grew older: during a night bombing run, he had placed his bombs as he was ordered and after returning to base learned that a terrible mistake had been made. He and his squadron had killed Allied soldiers. The events left him humbled and heartbroken.
There's a term used when troops kills their own. It's called "friendly fire," a tragic, but common horror of war. Sadly, it often matches the way that believers treat each other. Or worse, it may be how we treat ourselves.
Some people are nursing deep, hidden feelings of guilt or condemnation. What began with the response of a healthy conscience has deteriorated into self-accusation--"friendly fire." And many people who don't know what the Bible teaches about sin and guilt have heard that Yeshua--Jesus--spoke of an "unforgiveable" or "unpardonable" sin. What they don't know is that He never intended for us to live in the shadow of unredeemable guilt.
Let's take a look at the Scriptural roots of that phrase.
In Mark 3 and in a corresponding passage in Matthew 12, Yeshua has become known to the religious authorities. But as he performs miracles, instead of being acclaimed, he is condemned, rejected and accused of consorting with Satan. So, he replies to his detractors:
Mark3:4-6: Then Jesus asked them, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
The hardening of the P’rushim (Pharisees) towards Yeshua makes it clear that their political and spiritual leadership in Israel is threatened and they will go to any lengths to discredit him.
The parallel passage is in Matt. 12:22-24: Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, "Could this be the Son of David?" But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, "It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons."
1. Yeshua challenges their logic. vv. 25,26: "...Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand?"
2. He challenges their objectivity: v. 27 "And if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out?"
3. He challenges their conclusion: v. 28 "But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."
But then he addresses the consequences of their judgments:
vv. 30-33 "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. And so 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."
The leaders had observed Yeshua’s selfless acts; they witnessed his powerful miracles, the signs affirming His words and His message of grace. You see how the emphasis here is on the P'rushim (Pharisees we call them) because they have an emphasis on Torah study and adherence to the Scriptures. But having set their hearts against Yeshua, they rejected the truth and attacked him before the crowds.
Those who should have been acclaiming the Messiah were now condemning and rejecting him: he wasn’t one of them, he wasn’t known to them, and he wasn’t politically acceptable. Instead of receiving Emmanuel, the One promised in the Scriptures for whom they had been waiting, they attacked with "friendly fire."
This scenario is often read as a fight between Christians and Jews. But this is a battle going on within the ranks of Israel, even though many Pharisees (including Rabbi Saul) will later become Yeshua's followers-see Acts 15:5; 21:20. But because so many rejected Him, there are terrible consequences that Yeshua predicts in Luke 21: within one generation the majority of Israel will not only reject Him but ignite the battles against Rome that destroy Jerusalem, the Temple and send the nation into exile.
But these large scale, national events are never associated with "the unpardonable sin." The sin of which Yeshua speaks appears to be one that is individual and personal.
When you spend time among young people, it’s not unusual to hear the confession: they've committed the "unpardonable sin." I've heard that you can't be in youth ministry unless you were dealing with at least one young person convinced they were guilty of this sin—even if they couldn't explain to you what it is. On occasion, you’ll meet adults who suspect that they've committed this sin, too.
So what is it? Apparently, the great evil here is to declare before the living Messiah, despite the witness of the Spirit, that he is of the devil. But Yeshua says that the sin is not committed against Him, but against the Spirit, which means that his detractors refused to soften their hearts against the very appeal of God.
But instead of focusing on whether we've committed the ultimate sin, and allowing some fear to creep in that God will find an excuse to reject us for all time, we need to do something more important. Consider this: have we allowed condemnation from other believers or our own hearts to hinder us from living fully in the grace and peace offered to us in Messiah?
There was a time when I knew one of the current leaders of Jews for Judaism; he was a very dear friend of mine when he was a believer—but he ended up in an argument with our pastor. The situation esclated into a bitter dispute and after some time, this man decided that he was no longer in the Lord. Months later, when I asked why—because this brother had at one time preached the Gospel of Yeshua fervently—he referred me to a passage in Hebrews 10:26-29:
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?
Here again, we see a passage that has been used as a variant of "the unpardonable sin." But is it? Certainly there's a warning for those who persist in sin but it stands against the very words of Yeshua: after all, as he died on the cursed tree, he was interceding for the ones who put him there.
Listen to Yochanan (John): "...if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."(1 John 1:7-10)
"My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus the Messiah, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:1,2)
In our human frailty, we're full of condemnation, guilt and the residue of sin. But the miracle of God’s forgiveness in Messiah, through His truly ultimate sacrifice, has accomplished all that needs to be done to deal with sin. We may be so judgmental that we're unable to forgive or forget our own sin. And we may be so harsh on others that we're the source of "friendly fire" for others. (Just think of that old acquaintance, now sharing his ignorance about the Bible with so many others.)
But can our sin overcome the power of God's love? Yeshua's "last words" are the last word on that subject. He said, "It is finished." There is no more to be done, except for us to acknowledge what he has done for us. We could all learn from the great Puritan writer, John Bunyan, whose diaries reveal a moment of doubt when he sees his sins, as overwhelming as they seem, washed away like a drop in the ocean of God's grace.
Do we condemn ourselves?
The bestseller, The Shack, features a man who is palpably full of anger against God after the murder of his beautiful young daughter. But when the full reasons for his anger come out, at the heart of his fury is a terrible truth: he blames himself for an act which he couldn’t prevent. He has reserved the greatest judgment for himself.
If anyone could claim to have committed "the unpardonable sin" it would be Rabbi Saul of Tarsus, better known to us as Paul. He was an accessory to the murder of Stephen and openly worked to destroy the first community of Yeshua's followers. He wrestled with the question of sin in the book of Romans and asked: What’s wrong with me—why can't I simply respond to God’s love and stop sinning?
Romans 7:14-25: We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do...in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Yeshua HaMashiach our Lord!
So, if someone is saying: "I’m guilty of the unpardonable sin," they may be expressing something deeper: “It’s not my fault. I tried doing my best, but now I’m too guilty to do anything but sin.” Or, they may simply have condemned themselves without knowing God's desire to love and restore their hearts.
And what if you know you’ve been forgiven? We all must rely on Yeshua day to day, moment by moment—even when our own hearts convict us of our weaknesses, confront us with our failings—we are compelled to keep seeking His will and live as fully as possible in Him. Even under friendly fire.
One of the great stories in Messianic Judaism is that of my mentor and teacher, Rachmiel Frydland. In his book, When Being Jewish was a Crime, he recounts the horrors of the Holocaust through which he lived in Poland. His young wife, a faithful believer in Yeshua, was murdered by the Nazis and he experienced both betrayal and rejection from fellow believers in those harrowing days when life was cheap and death everywhere. Then, at a certain point, Rachmiel understood that he had been visited by an unearthly grace: the Lord was going to spare his life. As the war wound to a close, his great task was no longer merely survival, but to find meaning for himself and others after the shadow of evil had passed. At that moment, he says, he surrendered in a new way to God's will. And he left no legacy of bitterness to any of us whom he taught; only the humble grace of a fellow servant who was overcoming day by day.
This is our challenge: cease fire and receive God’s love; not because we're perfect, but because Yeshua first loved us. And when the cannon fire of doubt rises, remember His words, "Father, forgive them..." They also apply to me and you.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash