Early on in my faith—in fact, nearly from the moment I became a Christian—I’ve been intrigued by an encounter in between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees. In Matthew 12:22-32, Jesus has just healed a demon oppressed man who had been brought to Him, and all the crowd marvelled. “Can this be the Son of David?” they asked.
But the Pharisees declared, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.”
Simply, the Pharisees just accused Jesus of being empowered by Satan to do this. Rather than accept what Jesus has done for what it is—a miraculous work of God—they declare it must be the devil’s work. He’s performing witchcraft!
Jesus’ response is telling. Knowing the Pharisees’ thoughts, he says,
Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand? And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.
Again, really basic here: Jesus calls their theory ludicrous—a divided kingdom can’t stand, it will be laid to waste. Defeat is inevitable. Satan’s desire isn’t to defeat himself, but to rule God’s creation for himself. You can say many things about the serpent, but he’s not an idiot. He’s the prince of this world, and he won’t give it up that easily.
But if Jesus is casting out demons by the power of the Holy Spirit, then it means the kingdom of God has come. It means Jesus, the “strong man” in his example, has come to plunder the goods of Satan’s house before crushing his head.
And then Jesus continues:
Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 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 l will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Emphasis mine.)
Here’s where so many people get confused—what is Jesus talking about here? What does He mean when He says “blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven”? Is it possible for a Christian to commit this sin?
The answer is a lot simpler than some of us realize: Not even a little bit.
John Bunyan helps us understand why—not so much from his writing, but from his experience. Bunyan, the 17th century preacher and author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, had a less than easy walk with the Lord. Frequently battling what appears to be depression and very likely severe spiritual attack, he became consumed by an expectation of damnation for two years as he feared he had blasphemed the Holy Spirit.
Here’s how he describes the event in his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners:
One morning as I lay in my bed I was, as other times, most fiercely assaulted with this temptation to sell and part with Christ, the wicked suggestion still running in my mind, “Sell him, sell him, sell him,” as fast as a man could speak. Against this also in my mind, as at other times, I answered, “No, no not for thousands, thousands, thousands,” at least twenty times together. At last, after much striving, even until I was almost out of breath, I felt this thought pass through my heart, “Let Him go if He will.” I thought also that I felt my heart freely consent to this. Oh, the diligence of Satan! Oh, the desperateness of man’s heart! (82-83)
For the next two years, he lived “with as heavy a heart as mortal man I think could bear,” believing himself bound for Hell, a fear that would continue until God, in His mercy intervened.
There was as if there had rushed upon me, very pleasant, and as if I heard a voice speaking, “Did you ever refuse to be justified by the blood of Christ?” With that, my whole life of past profession was in a moment opened unto me, where I was made to see that designedly I had not. So my heart answered a groaning, “No.”
Then fell with power that word of God upon me, “See that you do not refuse Him who speaks” (Heb. 12:25). This made a seizure upon my spirit: it brought light with it and commanded a silence in my heart of all those tumultuous thoughts that before, like masterless hellhounds, used to roar and bellow and make hideous noises within me. It showed me also that Jesus Christ had yet a word of grace and mercy for me—that He had not, as I had feared quite forsaken and cast off my soul. (100-101)
This, friends, is the answer to the question. What is blaspheming the Holy Spirit?
It is to continually and stubbornly reject His work and testimony concerning the identity of Jesus. It is the unrepentant refusal to to be justified by the blood of Christ. To deny the work and testimony of the Holy Spirit is to blaspheme Him. And those who persistently and unrepentantly resist the Spirit and salvation through faith in Christ, will not be saved.
So, here’s a question, because I know many Christians are concerned about this: can a believer blaspheme the Holy Spirit? Is it possible for a true Christian to commit the unforgivable sin?
Not even a little bit.
Have confidence, friends. Do not fear. Christ will not leave or forsake His people. Rejoice as John Bunyan did, remembering that God has “blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist;” and when we stray, “Return to me, for I have redeemed you” (Isa 44:22).
An earlier version of this post was published in 2009.