Thursday, January 16, 2020

Unforgivable Sin

Over the holidays I was browsing a bookshop, and by chance happened to pick up a copy of Søren Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death (1849).

Now, I’m not saying it’s a book everybody’s going to find easy to read. I don’t think it’s one that an unbeliever — no matter how bright — is really going to be able to understand. Nor do I think an average believer will find it straightforward. But if you’ve got the will and the ability, and especially if you are a person of some theological background and an interest in the welfare of Christians generally, I most highly recommend it.

It’s blowing my mind.

My Brain Hurts

I’m staggered that a guy who wrote in the mid-19th century could get our situation so precisely. I don’t know how a guy who lived in such an age of formalized and dead religiosity gained the ability to see into the human heart and the deep messages of the gospel with such accuracy. But there it is.

And I guess the truth is that: (a) the Christian particulars have always been the same in every age; (b) human psychology hasn’t really changed either; (c) God can enable a man in any generation or time to see things his culture and society could never show him; and (d) prophets (of a sort) are necessary in every age.

A Disclaimer, and Your Permission

I really don’t want to get highbrow on you here. That’s not what is all about. We’re trying to speak to ordinary Christians about ordinary matters … and that means speaking in the language of the common person, not in the highbrow tones of the self-important intellectual.

At the same time, I’m benefiting so much from what Søren Kierkegaard wrote that I can’t help think that I would be doing a great disservice to my brothers and sisters in Christ if I did not try to share at least a bit of what I’m learning from him with you all more generally. So with your indulgence, I’d like to try to break down a couple of simple but profound realizations that have come to me from my recent reading.

Take them for what you will.

Sin Against the Spirit

Today, perhaps just one snippet from the vast quantity of insights gained from Kierkegaard’s little essay.

I remember reading a section of scripture years ago, and feeling somewhat troubled by it. If you’ve ever read the same passage, maybe it’s stirred you up too. It reads:
“[W]hoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
My first response was to ask myself, “Have I committed this ‘eternal sin’?” Then anxiety followed: “What if I have? What if I did, and didn’t even really know I did? What if I did it, in a moment of emotion, and now have put myself beyond the reach of salvation?”

I didn’t think I had, but how did I know? After all, isn’t it just typical of the lost soul not even to realize he’s lost?

I felt really disturbed, so I went to an older, wiser Christian, and he reassured me. “You can’t, really,” he said. “To commit that sin is to see the works of Christ performed on earth, and to attribute them to the devil. You can’t even possibly do that today, so you’re safe.”

The Larger Context

I looked at the larger context in which Christ had said those words. The circumstances were this: Jesus was in his hometown, and he had been appointing disciples and commissioning them to preach … and along with that, to cast out demons. The Lord’s own family was convinced he was exceeding his reasonable authority and was behaving irrationally, so they came down to get him under control. But the scribes who had come down from Jerusalem were saying, “He’s casting out demons by the power of the ruler of demons,” the devil.

It’s in this context that the Lord declares the unforgivable sin. You can even see that that’s right, if you simply look at the whole verse: it ends with a definite ascription of the reasons for the Lord’s statement:
“ ‘Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’ — for they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’ ”
They were saying he had an unclean spirit. Right. I see it right there. So the unpardonable sin is the sin of calling the work of the Spirit of God the work of the evil one. Well, I would never consciously do that — at least, even if the thought accidentally entered my head for a minute I would surely banish it. I don’t believe it, my faith is in Christ, so I think it’s probably true that I couldn’t — and wouldn’t — commit the unforgivable sin. Thus I reasoned it out with myself.

Questions Unanswered

That was all somewhat reassuring. And yet, I could not help but feel that some part of the explanation was still necessary. It remained just slightly disturbing that there would even exist some kind of sin that simply could not be forgiven, and while I hoped I had, and could have no part in it, I still felt I wanted a final answer.

And now a confession.

I needed to keep thinking about this one. I did have much of the puzzle worked out, I think. But I wasn’t completely satisfied with the resolution I had found, and lacking the means to make further progress, just had to shelve my lingering doubts for a time. That’s not an evil thing to do: sometimes the best thing one can do with a complicated puzzle is put it aside to come back to it with a fresh mind, or when a new piece is available to fit into it. Sometimes, you can’t reasonably do anything else.

The important thing is not to forget it, or to pretend the whole thing is solved when only a part of it is. The important thing is to be authentic, and to have faith that the Spirit will teach us what we need to know in the right time. We have the promise this will happen specifically from the Lord himself, and it applies particularly to the words he himself had spoken, so we can be confident in our trust of that.

Kierkegaard helped me. He gave me a new way of thinking through this difficult issue. I’m going to share it with you, in the hope that it helps you as well.

Seeing More

Well, according to Søren Kierkegaard, what is the sin against the Holy Spirit?

Kierkegaard puts it this way. The first responsibility of anyone who faces the Christian message is to have an opinion about it. To feign indifference is to reject the message, and to say, “It is of no significance to me what I think of it.” That is an insult against God. Kierkegaard writes:
“The fact that Christ is preached to thee signifies that thou shalt have an opinion about Christ. The judgment that He is, or that He exists, or that He has existed, is the decision for the whole of existence. If Christ is preached to thee, it is offense to say, ‘I will have no opinion about it.’ ”
It is an offense. And yet, many people offend in precisely this way. They act as if the fact of the incarnation is not startling, is not remarkable, and calls for no decision on their part. This issue is not, to them, “a sword that divides” and the incarnation is not a “stone of offense” over which they stumble, but rather an idle and speculative idea to which they imagine they owe nothing at all.

This is contempt. If the Spirit has been sent to teach us of Christ, and to lead us into all his truth, it is a dismissal of Christ, and an affront to that Spirit. There can be no neutrality in the matter that God has become man — both God and man at the same time, as Kierkegaard also recalls — and that a man forgave sins. Treating that as of no consequence is nothing less than blasphemy.

Worse Still

But it can be worse. Kierkegaard points out that blasphemy has a higher level. That is, to recognize the truth being offered to one, that in Christ, God is reconciling the world to himself, and to call it a lie. For a lie is a work and an expression of the deepest character of the devil. One is then implying that the entire gospel, the whole revelation of God, is of the evil one. And if that is what you say the gospel is, then in what spirit do you make the claim the message comes? It can be no other than the spirit of the father of lies.

Kierkegaard writes:
“In this denial of Christ as the paradox there is naturally implied the denial of everything Christian: sin, the forgiveness of sins, etc. This form of offense is sin against the Holy Ghost. As the Jews said of Christ that He cast out devils by the help of the devil, so does this form of offense make of Christ an invention of the devil.”
What heightened blasphemy this is! It does not even pretend to misunderstand, or attempt to dismiss the message; it recognizes the message, then calls it not merely incomprehensible or irrelevant, but an utterance of evil.

There can be no comeback from such a claim, especially if it is held in the heart and fervently believed by the speaker: for there is no agent of salvation but the One whom the speaker has recognized and rejected, and no regenerating Spirit but the One whom the speaker has heard speak and insulted.

There is no other path. There is no second recourse. There is no ingenious backup plan. There is no alternate fire-escape.

Goodbye, Charlie.


As Kierkegaard concludes, this is “the highest potentiation of sin”, meaning the kind of sin that can get, in practice, no worse. No single action of greed, lust or murder can damn the soul in a stroke, but this belief can. It is the ultimate offense, sin in full bloom and at its dynamic height.

And, says Kierkegaard, this is a product of the fact that men do not understand that the opposite of sin isn’t virtue, but faith. Any single act of sin may be forgiven a man or a woman, but there is no further recourse and no hope for one who, from the heart, rejects faith in the self-revelation of God.

To both believer and unbeliever, the idea of God-made-man, or of the Man who is God, is an offense; it’s beyond rational, shattering to human pride, and defeating to all our intellections. It’s a mystery. But like all of the mysteries of scripture, it is meant to be revealed — though only to the eye of faith.

“Blessed is the one,” said the Lord, “who is not offended by me.” To worship is to understand that God is Christ, and Christ is God; that an infinite gulf exists between the nature of Christ and the nature of what we are, and simultaneously to believe that he is close enough to be Immanuel — God with us.

You cannot rationalize that. It cannot help but be an offense to your human sensibilities. But faith refuses to remain offended by it. Instead, faith worships, for faith believes what God says is true — understand it or not.

Closing the Loop

So I have another piece of the puzzle.

To be in the state of unforgivable sin is to have genuinely seen the offense of the incarnation, and refuse it, and then to call it a lie. By implication, then, it is to insult the Spirit of Christ and to reject the gospel in its entirety. It is a willful position of “aggressive” animosity, of “active warfare” (Kierkegaard) against all that God has done and has said is true.

He writes, “This is sin against the Holy Spirit. The self … not merely casts away from itself the whole of Christianity, but makes it a lie and a falsehood.” It’s a reaction to the offense of the gospel wherein one becomes not merely uncertain, not merely indifferent, but viciously opposed to the point of condemning the whole thing as a lie and a product of Satan.

Like faith, it’s a firm, personal investment in a position; but in this case, of willful refusal of faith and of permanent antipathy to God. It’s not the sort of thing one does ignorantly. Even the most extreme ignorance can be forgiven. It’s something one decides to do, sets oneself to do, and commits oneself to stand in. You couldn’t do it without knowing it.

And no wonder it’s unforgivable. There are no alternatives.


I hope that this little nibble at Kierkegaard will whet your appetite for more. As I say, he’s got a lot to offer … particularly if you are in a role of leadership or teaching, but also for any thoughtful, ordinary Christian.

I have a feeling that in coming days I will be digesting more from his little essay myself; and Lord willing, I will try to share with you whatever I can.

1 comment :

  1. I found similar interpretations in reviewing Catholic media, e.g.,

    "Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven."1 There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.