We need to hear Jesus’ warning in today’s scripture: We can commit a sin that will permanently, eternally exclude us from God’s kingdom and send us to hell. What is it? How can we be sure we haven’t committed it? How can we be sure we won’t commit it? This sermon will answer these questions.
Sermon Text: Matthew 12:22-32
I worked at Kroger when I was in high school. I worked alongside a young man named Elbert who was the first Pentecostal Christian I ever knew. More than any other Christian tradition, Pentecostals tend to place a greater emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit, on miracles, on spiritual gifts—especially the gift of speaking in tongues. Many Pentecostals will even say that other Christians haven’t received the gift of the Holy Spirit unless or until they give evidence of having received the Spirit—which, to them, means speaking in tongues.
As much as I respect Pentecostals—and trust me, if I’m ever in some life-threatening situation, I want a Pentecostal praying for me, because they pray as if they mean business; they pray expecting results. But as much as I respect Pentecostals, this widespread Pentecostal doctrine that says we’ve only received the Holy Spirit if we speak in tongues is deeply unbiblical. After all, the main issue that Paul speaks against in 1 Corinthians is the moral superiority that some of the Corinthian Christians feel toward other Christians in the church who, unlike them, don’t possess more extravagant spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues. Paul says that all true believers have spiritual gifts—and they’re all important in the body of Christ. This controversy inspired him to write the most beautiful love poem in the ancient world: 1 Corinthians 13: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Anyway, it was through Elbert that I first became aware of the fact that there are Christians who worry about whether or not they’ve committed the so-called unpardonable sin that Jesus mentions in today’s scripture: what Jesus refers to as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” Elbert explained to me that he didn’t grow up Pentecostal, and he used to make fun of Pentecostals. He made fun of the idea that they spoke in tongues—that there was anything more to it than just incoherent babble. And he said to me, “I just hope that before my conversion I never blasphemed the Holy Spirit.” I said, “What are you talking about?” And he referred me to today’s scripture. He was afraid that by making fun of the gift of speaking in tongues he might have inadvertently “spoke a word against the Holy Spirit,” and thus committed the unpardonable sin.
See, from Elbert’s perspective, blaspheming the Holy Spirit might consist of saying one careless word, or having one careless thought, at one moment in your life—and on that basis forfeiting any chance that you’d have of receiving eternal life, of going to heaven, of being saved. Even as a young Christian teenager, I knew that didn’t sound right to me. And of course it’s not: For one thing, while it’s true that the Pharisees attribute Jesus’ power to drive out demons to the “prince of demons” himself, the devil—and it’s true that that’s a deadly serious charge—Jesus doesn’t say that the Pharisees have committed the unpardonable sin… yet. True, they’re in danger of it… they’re moving in the direction of it… and unless they change course it’s very likely they will… But Jesus doesn’t say they have committed it yet.
Even more importantly, think about Paul’s words to the Philippian jailer in Acts 16. He tells him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…” He doesn’t qualify it by saying, “Unless of course at some point in your life you’ve committed the unpardonable sin, in which case there’s no chance you’ll be saved.” Or think about his words in Romans 10:9-10: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” He doesn’t say, “… you’ll be saved unless of course you’ve blasphemed the Spirit.”
No… so long as you are able to repent and believe the gospel—as my friend Elbert was able to do—you don’t need to worry that you’ve committed the unpardonable sin. A helpful, pastoral rule of thumb is this: “If you’re worried that you’ve committed the unpardonable sin, then you can be sure that you haven’t.” Because the very fact that your conscience is bothering you proves that the Holy Spirit is still able to bring you to repentance.
It’s likely that a few of you, like my friend Elbert, have worried at some point in your life that you’ve committed the unpardonable sin—and I hate that for you, and I’ve tried to give you some scripture today to alleviate your fear. If you are a sincere Christian with a tender conscience who is worried that you’ve committed this sin—because of some careless thought or word—and you worry that you are thereby excluded God’s kingdom, I want to reassure you that you are not. You haven’t committed this sin.
But most of today’s sermon will be directed to the rest of us—who haven’t worried, including those of us who read or hear these sobering, frightening words of Jesus without giving them a second thought. Without even wondering what kind of sin Jesus is talking about. Without wondering whether this fearful warning of Jesus could be directed to you or me.
I want us to hear the warning. We need to hear the warning. Jesus wants us to hear the warning.
Several years ago, there was a TV show called Saving Grace, starring Holly Hunter. It was like a raunchy version of Touched by an Angel. In the show, a redneck angel named Earl is sent from heaven to save the lives of people who are otherwise hell-bent on destroying themselves. One of these people is a prisoner on death row named Leon. Earl the angel meets with Leon in his prison cell regularly—and Earl gives Leon encouragement and hope. In one episode, however, we learn that Leon has been cheating on his “Christian” angel. Leon’s been meeting with a Muslim imam and reading the Koran—behind Earl’s back. Leon has decided to convert to Islam. Earl finds out about it and seems angry and hurt. He challenges Leon to go ahead and convert to Islam if that’s what he wants to do. In order to convert to Islam, all you do is say a couple of sentences of a Muslim creed.
Before saying these words, Leon says, “Well, I guess this is it. Thanks for everything you’ve done for me.” And then Leon makes his Muslim profession of faith.
And guess what? Earl is still sitting there. He greets Leon with an Arabic greeting. Leon looks confused. “Why are you still here? Aren’t you a Christian angel?” Earl laughs: “Humans! You get so hung up on all these religious differences. They all lead to the same place, you know?”
They all lead to the same place, you know?
And of course the writers of this TV show were simply reflecting what most people in our culture believe: that it doesn’t really matter whether you follow Jesus, or Mohammed, or Buddha, or Vishnu, or Brahma, or Moses—just so long as you’re sincere. If you’re sincere—and you’re a “good person,” whatever that means—you’ll be saved. After all, these different religions are paths to the same place, to the same God.
Friends, if you have bought in to this harmful idea, how can you begin to square it with Jesus’ own words here? Whether the Pharisees have committed the unpardonable sin or not, please notice that there is an unpardonable sin that will remain unforgiven—forever—which will exclude people from God’s kingdom, which will send people to hell.
If we say we believe in the Bible—including the red-letter words of Jesus himself—we better make sure we know what this unpardonable sin is—and how to avoid it! As bad as it was that my friend Elbert lived his life in fear that he’d committed this sin, you know what’s worse? That so many churchgoing people can read and hear these words and remain unaffected… indifferent… complacent!
If not for the sake of our own soul, then for the sake of the souls of our children, or our grandchildren, or our friends and classmates, or our neighbors and coworkers—many of whom live their lives without giving much thought to anything that Jesus says or God’s Word reveals—we need to hear these challenging words of Jesus and heed the warning: there is a sin for which forgiveness is eternally unavailable.
So what is this sin? Let’s try to figure this out.
Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven—even blasphemies against God the Father and God the Son. But not blasphemies against the Third Person of the Trinity, God the Holy Spirit.
Why? This may seem weird, I know—but not when we understand what the role of the Spirit is.
In John’s gospel, chapter 16, Jesus is talking to his disciples on the night of his arrest, the night before his crucifixion, about the the role of the Spirit. He says, “[I]t is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes,” Jesus says, here’s what he’ll do. When we think of what the Holy Spirit does, what do we normally think of? I often visit people in hospitals and rehab centers—and I pray for healing. I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide doctors and nurses; give them wisdom. Because the Holy Spirit can do that. Or if I’m visiting someone who’s dealing with a great loss—perhaps a death in the family—I’ll pray that the Holy Spirit will comfort that person. Because elsewhere Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit being the “comforter.” And when we recall the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, we recall that the Spirit enabled the disciples of Jesus to become powerful witnesses for Christ. So when I think of the Holy Spirit, I think of him as enabling us to be witnesses. But this isn’t the main thing that the Spirit does. The main thing, Jesus says in John 16, is this: “he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” He will convict the world. Why does the world need to be convicted of their sins? So that we will repent and believe the gospel.
The Bible teaches that it is solely the work of the Third Person of the Trinity to convict us, to bring us to repentance, to convert us, to turn our hearts to Jesus, to empower us to believe in Jesus, to impart to us saving faith. Apart from this work of the Spirit, we are forever lost. So the Spirit is, right now, working in the hearts of people all over the world to woo people into God’s kingdom, to convince them of the truth of the gospel.
And what do we often do in response to the Spirit’s work? We resist, and resist, and resist… And if we continue to resist, Jesus is warning us that we can pass a point of no return, after which we will no longer able to repent. In effect, we have made our choice against Jesus Christ, consciously or not, through a lifetime of unrepented sin and disobedience, or indifference, or complacency: we have repeatedly told God through our words, thoughts, and actions that we don’t want Jesus in our lives; we don’t want the gift of salvation that he offers; we don’t want to repent and be saved. And God will ultimately respect and honor that choice. C.S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'” Which one are we?
Just last week, in the middle of the road near my house there was a dead critter—an armadillo or possum had gotten hit by a car, as often happens. And of course, God has created this amazing ecosystem in which scavengers come and clean these things up. And sure enough, a very fat, persistent, and happy buzzard—or vulture—was enjoying his lunch in the middle of the road. I’m driving my car toward the buzzard, and I’m thinking, “Is he going to get out of the way or am I going to hit that thing?” And sure enough, when my front bumper is just a few feet from him, he flies away. Then when I pass by, I look in my rearview and there he is again—back in the middle of the road, enjoying his lunch. It’s amazing how these birds can sense danger approaching and fly away in the nick of time.
Pastor John Piper in his sermon on this text, tells the story of another buzzard. This one is up north somewhere: It’s cold enough that there are patches of ice floating in a river. A buzzard spots an animal carcass floating on a patch of ice—the piece of ice is large enough to support the buzzard’s weight, so he lands on it and begins eating. As he does so, he’s aware the river is approaching a steep waterfall, but what does the buzzard care? As in the case of my fast approaching car, the buzzard can simply fly away before he goes over the ledge. So he continues to eat, unconcerned about the potential danger ahead. Except… when the waterfall is upon him, and he can wait no longer, he finds that his claws have become frozen in the ice, and as fast as can flap his wings, he can no longer lift himself up—weighted down as he is by the ice. He has passed the point of no return. He falls to his death.
The unpardonable sin—blaspheming the Holy Spirit—is like that. We can play around with sin, and play around with sin, and play around with sin—never repenting, never taking the warnings of Jesus, the warnings of God’s Word, seriously. I’ll get my life right with God eventually. There’s plenty of time. Until there isn’t. Until it’s too late. Until we lose the ability to repent. It’s not even that we don’t want to; like the buzzard in the story, we can’t. We have so badly grieved the Spirit that he has withdrawn himself from us.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that if your right eye causes you to sin, you need to gouge it out. If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Why? Because sin is that serious! Because, he says, it’s better to enter the kingdom of heaven maimed than not to enter it at all. And you might say, “Yes, but Jesus is exaggerating here; he’s using hyperbole. He doesn’t literally mean for us to mutilate ourselves.” And I agree with you… but Jesus does mean for us to have a holy fear about sin in our lives. A healthy respect for the harm that it can cause. We take sin lightly at our own peril.
[Pause.] I know this has been a difficult message. But… let’s not hear the second part of verse 31—“the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven”—without also hearing the first part: “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people.” This means that so long as the Holy Spirit makes repentance possible, there is no sin, no blasphemy, no nothing that we can do or think or say that will prevent God from forgiving us.