Friday, July 10, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Unpardon Me

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all make reference to a sin that will, in Matthew’s words “not be forgiven”. Mark calls it an “eternal sin”.

The reference has been a source of distress down through the centuries to Christians who fear they may have committed it and be irreversibly destined for perdition.

Tom: Personally, Immanuel Can, I’ve always thought the unpardonable sin was lazy exegesis, but I haven’t got much scripture to back me up there.

Immanuel Can: Lazy exegesis? Bad, yes, but probably pardonable if you repent. Now, being a Pittsburgh Steelers fan … that’s a whole different category: expect perdition.

Pardonable Sins

Tom: Quite. Before we get into exactly what this “eternal sin” might be, why don’t we talk a little bit about what it definitely isn’t. Paul gives a long list of sins to the Corinthians and says, in effect, “You’ve been washed and sanctified and justified. God is not holding your past against you.” These include sexual immorality, idolatry (literal or metaphorical, I think), adultery, homosexuality, stealing, greed, drunkenness, reviling and swindling. I don’t think he means to be exhaustive here, but he’s giving us an indication of the extent and nature of God’s forgiveness.

IC: Yes. There are quite a lot of things there that in our human assessment we might feel so guilty about that we might wonder if God wouldn’t simply want to be done with us. Apparently not, though.

Tom: And a good thing. But it’s not about our subjective assessment of our own guilt, is it? It’s about the outer limits of God’s grace, and I’m not sure we’re qualified to mark those off too sharply. When we do so, we’re often being legalists, excluding others for sins WE feel are in a category of their own when we have no real biblical authority to make such distinctions. More importantly we’re failing to grasp the value of the cross of Christ, aren’t we?

Undoing the Work of the Cross

IC: Ah, yes … the key point. We need to begin with a strong understanding of the basis of salvation. This is important because whatever “unforgivable” may mean, it not only has to be worse than all the things identified as forgivable by passages like the one you cited (we know that, say, prostitution, homosexuality, drunkenness, being a violent aggressor and so on are clearly NOT in the “unforgivable” category, however badly we may feel about them) — but whatever it is, it has to be bad enough to cancel out the thing by which salvation is purchased. It has to undo the dynamic that saves.

Tom: Right. And I’ll add abortion and suicide to that list. I’m sure there was the odd deliberately induced miscarriage in Israelite history, and I find suicide a very selfish evil, but for something to qualify as the “unpardonable” sin, it would have to at least appear somewhere in the context of the three synoptic passages that deal with the subject. We can’t just parachute our ideas in out of nowhere.

But sorry, back to what you were saying about “undoing” the thing that saves us. What could that possible involve? What’s the basis of our salvation?

The Basis of Salvation

IC: It’s the standing that the Lord Jesus Christ has before the Father. As Romans says, “He was delivered up for our transgressions but raised because of our justification.” (That’s the right way to translate that verse.) In other words, when the Father raised the Son, he was testifying that the sacrificed One was sufficient payment to offset our sins. We are “raised with him”, meaning that we are now accepted not because of our own deeds, but because of the sufficiency of the goodness of the price paid to buy us back.

To be brief: we are saved because of what the Father thinks of the Son; NOT by what he would think of us if we approached him on our own.

Tom: So basically you’re saying we can’t lose what we didn’t earn in the first place. And not only did we not earn it, but we don’t maintain it. Peter writes to those “who by God’s power are being guarded through faith”. Our faith may be the mechanism by which we are guarded for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time, but that mechanism is powered by God, not by you or me. It’s critical to understand that. So the idea of a truly born again believer in Jesus Christ committing the “unpardonable sin” is a total non sequitur. Can’t happen. We can’t undo a deal that stands or falls on what the Father thinks of the Son. What an insult to the Lord Jesus to even suggest it!

And yet at one point in history prior to the cross, there WAS a sin that would not be forgiven. How are we to understand that?

Context and Circumstances

IC: Right. We need to go and look at the precise context and circumstances of this singular mention of the “unpardonable sin”.

Tom: Yes, or to be obsessively picky, a singular instance that is mentioned once each in three different gospels. It seems all three passages arise from a single incident.

IC: Now, whatever fits the bill here must be very precise. We’ve already been told that what we might call ordinary sins aren’t in view: they can all be forgiven.

Tom: When we go to Matthew or Mark, we find the statement arises in the context of the Pharisees accusing Jesus of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub. (In Luke it’s much more proverbial; there’s no story to supply context.) In Matthew’s account, Jesus begins his statement about the sin that will not be forgiven with the word “Therefore”, tying it to what has just occurred. He goes on to say, “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.”

Does that help?

The Original Audience

IC: Notice something here: the original audience was composed of unbelievers. The disciples may have been around, but they were not the objects of the Lord’s conversation at that moment. Not only that, but these were angry, insulting, hypocritical and intransigent unbelievers — not reasonable, tractable, persuadable persons.

The teaching about the “unpardonable sin” is never repeated in other contexts. It’s neither directed to persuadable unbelievers, nor to disciples, nor to the Church; and if we try to make it apply to them, then we’re well outside of the Bible on that. That’s point one ...

Tom: Don’t let me slow you down. Carry on!

IC: Secondly, notice that the rejection happened by the people of the Lord’s home town. These were the same people who had seen the Lord grow up for three decades. And lately, they’d seen him heal many and deliver demoniacs. (If there is anything kinder to be doing, I don’t know what it is.) They had also heard the Spirit with which he had been speaking, and yet their assessment of him was that he was a lunatic, and they’d come to take custody of him. Nasty.

Worse still, the scribes came down from Jerusalem, and they multiplied the slander. They claimed the Spirit with which he was speaking, the Spirit by which he was delivering bodies and souls was “unclean” and “by the ruler of demons”. Yet not one of his townspeople spoke on his behalf: all bowed to the scribes because they were religious authorities.

In other words, they were implicated in the collective slander of both the Son of God and an absolute refusal of the Holy Spirit that motivated him. And they knew full well what they were doing ...

A Once-in-Human-History Kind of Sin

Tom: What I think we’re saying here is that this is a once-in-human-history kind of sin. I understand what people are saying when they claim that the “unforgivable” sin is attributing the work of the Holy Spirit or Christ to Satan, but the writer of Assured of Heaven, for instance, makes this much too broad. He says:
“That the unpardonable sin is attributing the work of the Holy Spirit or of Christ to Satan strikes a chord from our own lives. Sometimes we see something terrible happen and we may say, or at least believe, that it came from the hand of Satan. Who of us hasn’t ignorantly attributed to Satan something God did himself?”
As close as his definition is, I think it misses the mark, and it sounds like you agree with me.

Conditions that Cannot Be Recreated

IC: Yes. Biblically, you’ve got some very specific conditions: first, an unequivocal demonstration of the authenticity of Jesus Christ and the holiness of the Spirit in which he came; and this is secondly coupled with a completely aware and bloody-minded rejection of the obvious evidence in favor of blasphemy. But none of us has been given that kind of proof or has that kind of opportunity today. Nor do we have the Son of God standing in front of us, so that we can pass corrupt judgment on his works and the Spirit by which he did them. That’s a pretty narrow category, I think you’d agree.

To think this could be broadened to the present is simply to go beyond anything scripture says about it.

Tom: He’s also broadened it from verbal to non-verbal. When he says, “Sometimes we see something terrible happen and … believe that it came from the hand of Satan,” that too is not the sin in question. What the Lord calls “unpardonable” is verbal. It’s a public, audible renouncing of the Son of God also called by Mark “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” and by Matthew “speaking against the Holy Spirit”. Having a blasphemous thought occur to you is not a good thing, but it’s not blasphemy. Blasphemy is a verbal sin.

The Rejection of Christ?

One more question. Some people have called the unpardonable sin “the constant, complete, and final rejection of the Holy Spirit drawing a person to Christ”. Again, that doesn’t work, does it? When the Holy Spirit convicts the unsaved today, and they fail to respond and ultimately they die in their sin, then yes, their sins are not forgiven. That does not mean there was any particular sin they committed which at the time was unpardonable. And it should be obvious that if the convicted person later comes to the Lord, then his or her sin was not “unpardonable”.

IC: Quite. Remember that when Christ spoke of it, his death had not yet happened, Pentecost was far in the future, and he was speaking to people under the Old Covenant. The important question, then, is “Have we any reason to think it is even the kind of thing that is possible under the New Covenant?”

Consider that if this sin still existed, and if it could result in saved persons being lost, then it would have to be of such a magnitude and wickedness as to overcome the value of the blood of Christ. But we are told that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. So either Paul in Romans is telling a lie, or the “unpardonable sin” simply does not exist any longer, since it never applied to Christians. I believe the latter is true.

Tom: That’s well put.

Questioning the Character of God

IC: You’d also have to worry about what that would make of the character of God. Do we really think that he is the sort of deity who would make provision for all sorts of sins, and then among them bury a single, particular sin, one cloaked in mystery and dubious in application to the present, but one that would nevertheless forever damn those who stumbled into it, no matter how oblivious they were to its real nature? Is that how we think God operates?

If that were the case, what would we make of all his intentions toward us? Could any of his intentions be good then?

Ironically, I’d say it’s almost blasphemous to accuse God of operating like that. Maybe we’d just best take his word.

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