From his collected sermons, The Way Everlasting
This sermon concerns the slander of Jesus recorded by Matthew:
31 Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. 32 And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.
Matthew 12:31–32 (KJV 1900). It discusses what it means to commit the “unpardonable sin.”
This text is striking: Jesus, who came to bring forgiveness of sins, is here stating a sin is not forgivable. To understand this text, we must first we must put aside our false stereotype of Jesus:
The tradition of Christian art has taught us to think of Jesus as living a life of untroubled calm; His countenance in pictures may be pensive or majestic or compassionate, but it is always in repose. Anything strained or overwrought would seem out of place. But here we see that alike upon friends and enemies He made a different impression. He was rapt, as He taught the multitudes, in a lofty excitement. When He encountered those who were regarded as possessed by evil spirits, the Spirit that was in Him reacted with intense vehemence against their delusions and degradation; the Gospels are full of the peremptory and commanding words that He spoke as He set them free. If we think of a scene like the cleansing of the temple, when zeal for His Father’s house consumed Him like a flame; or of His baptism, when He saw the heavens open and heard the Father’s voice; or of the hour when He turned on Peter with the terrible rebuke, “Get thee behind me, Satan”; we can feel how untrue is that conception of Jesus which represents Him as immovably placid. Perhaps it would be truer to think of Him as habitually rapt, exalted, intense. Certainly this is how we must think of Him on the occasion on which he is presented to us in the text.
James Denney, The Way Everlasting: Sermons (London; New York; Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911), 242–243. Jesus’ ministry was often a shock to those around. Even his own friends and family did not rightly understand him:
31 There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. 32 And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. 33 And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? 34 And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! 35 For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.
Mark 3:31–35 (KJV 1900). Denney explains this:
A life and work like that of Jesus must often have seemed baffling to those who were about Him and who had a natural affection for Him. We can understand how His mother and His brothers had a true though misplaced concern for His welfare. If there were a son or a brother in our house to whom the one thing real was the kingdom of God, who broke every earthly tie to give himself completely to it, who spent whole nights on the hillside in prayer to God over it, who was so absorbed in it that he could not find time for his necessary food and apparently did not care, should we not be tempted to think that he needed looking after? No doubt the friends of Jesus should have known Him better than they did. They ought to have had greater sympathy with Him, greater appreciation for His work. They ought not to have made it possible for Him to say, with the bitter accent of experience, “A man’s foes are they of his own household”. But though they sinned in these respects, it was not a hopeless or unpardonable sin. Their hearts were not really shut against Jesus; they were not deliberately and malignantly opposed to His work. I do not say this as though the sin of their speech could be explained away. If they were alarmed on Jesus’ account, they were irritated and annoyed on their own; they were provoked that One who ought to have been able to take care of Himself should persist in causing needless anxiety; and their petulant exclamation, pardonable though it was, was gravely wrong when we remember who was its object. Nevertheless, it was only petulant, not malignant. It was something they could and would be sorry for afterwards; they would repent and it would be forgiven.
And then there was the response of the leaders, those whom Jesus rebuked so strongly in our text. They did not merely misunderstand Jesus with misplaced sympathy: they spoke against him. Denney turns to the modern “historical Jesus” research and readers: those who decide to judge Jesus and decide what he may and may not be, according to their own lights:
The friends of Jesus who said “He is beside Himself” had lost for the moment or had not yet attained any real sense of what He was; they spoke of Him as if He were just one of themselves, who in an excess of zeal was like to go off His head. Their attitude is reproduced by a great many people who, without thinking what they are doing, really take the measure of Jesus in their own minds, point out His limitations, assign Him His place, show where and how far He paid tribute to His time,—betray, in short, in their whole relation to Him, the twentieth century’s sense of its own superiority to the first. I am not going to deny that the twentieth century is in many ways superior to the first; nor even that it was part of the reality of our Lord’s manhood that He should be man of the particular age in which He was born, and not of another; but if we cease to feel through all such distinctions that Jesus is the Lord, we shall run great risk of falling into the sin in question. Do not let us consider it a sin of no consequence because it is pardonable. It is pardonable on the same condition as other sins—namely, that it is repented of, confessed, renounced. To
What then was the sin of these leaders to Jesus “who threatened everything the scribes counted dear.” (249):
It was not the exclamation of men who were irritated at the moment and forgot themselves, so to speak; that could have been repented of and forgiven; it was the deliberate and settled malice of men who would say anything and do anything rather than yield to the appeal of the good Spirit of God in Jesus. This is the blasphemy against the Spirit, the sin which in its very nature is unpardonable. Jesus calls it eternal sin. It is sin which, look at it as long as you may, is never turned by repentance into anything else; and therefore it has no forgiveness, neither in this world nor in that which is to come.
249–250. What then is necessary for this sin today:
The terrible solemnity of these words has oppressed many hearts. People of sensitive conscience have been tormented with the dread that they had committed the unpardonable sin—that without knowing it, or in some hasty but irretrievable word or act, they had placed themselves for ever beyond the reach of mercy. It would be wrong to say anything which encouraged sinful men to think lightly of their sins, but it is surely clear from what has been said already that this fatal sin cannot be committed inadvertently. It is the last degree of antipathy to Christ to which the soul can advance, the sin of those who will do anything rather than recognize in Him the presence of God.
250. Now perhaps we do not break out in this sin in all its plain manifestation, but there hints and similarities in it when we disparage the good work of the Spirit in others. “Perhaps we are naturally grasping and mean, and our selfish nature resent the reproof of another’s generosity.” (251). “It is the sin of refusing ot acknowledge God when he is manifestly there, and introducing something Satanic to explain and discredit what has unquestionably God behind it.”
Conversely, “It is a sign of spiritual health when we are quick to recognize and to welcome goodness, and our joy in the appreciation of it is one of the surest indications that we ourselves have a place in God’s kingdom.” 253.