(Thoughts on Matthew 12:22-32)
Have you ever wondered if God can really forgive all, let alone any, of the sins you’ve committed? Have you worried you’ve committed the “unforgivable sin,” even if unknowingly?
Even John Bunyan, famous preacher and author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, in his autobiographical book Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, relates how he spent years being tormented with the conviction he had committed the unpardonable sin. The fact that such a man struggled so much to understand what Jesus Christ meant in Matthew 12 and Mark 3 causes me to hesitate to even attempt to explain what I think it is. Additionally, there is still disagreement amongst pastors and theologians as to what, exactly, it means to “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.” However, a simple reading of the texts in both Gospels provides what I think is sufficient clarity and encouragement.
There are really three main things happening in Matthew 12:22-32. The first is that a demon-oppressed man is miraculously freed by Jesus, but then he and his plight quickly become almost tangential to the rest of the story as the Pharisees come into the narrative and spar with Jesus (the second thing taking place). The religious elite were jealous of the crowds Jesus was attracting – crowds who in this passage openly started to question if Jesus was in fact the Messiah, “the Son of David.” The Pharisees jumped into action to counter this growing sentiment and stated that Jesus’ power to cast out demons was granted to him by Satan rather than the Holy Spirit of God.
The third main thing is Jesus’ response to the Pharisees that contains multiple analogies and some very significant, convicting and encouraging statements. He first points out the fact that even Satan is not so stupid as to fight against himself by stating that “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste.” He then compares Satan to a “strong man” protecting a house, but who is then bound so the house can be plundered (presumably by the Gospel of the Kingdom that Jesus was preaching). By these statements Jesus affirms the fact the Kingdom of God “has come upon you,” and that Satan has been defeated, not through an eventual self-destructive strategy as the Pharisees were implying was happening, but by the power of God.
Jesus then shifts to an agricultural analogy of sowing and gathering, stating that “whoever is not with me is against me.” This is important to understand. There is no neutral. You are either living for God – obeying him, loving him, loving your neighbor and sharing the Gospel – or you’re his enemy. However, there’s hope for God’s enemies because “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us … For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:8, 10). Yet, the question still remains for some: Have I committed the unforgivable sin?
I believe what Jesus tells us is the unpardonable sin is to attribute the work of the Holy Spirit to the Devil. Mark’s Gospel clarifies this for us at the end of his relation of this narrative saying, “for [the Pharisees] were saying [Jesus] had an unclean spirit.” Thus, to attribute the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan is to blaspheme the Holy Spirit and to be “guilty of an eternal sin.”
This is what it comes down to. This is where we either receive the most encouraging or the most damning words from Jesus. If you’ve ever worried you’ve sinned yourself out of being saved, Jesus also says in this passage that “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people…” Therefore, you have every hope that God will forgive any sin you have committed, or will commit. Take refuge in that when Satan tries to convince you you’re too far gone to be saved. “But, what about the unpardonable sin?” you might ask. Yes, Jesus said that one sin is “eternal,” but, as John Bunyan finally came to understand, anyone who truly seeks to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ cannot have committed the unpardonable sin because no one who truly seeks God will be cast away.
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out … For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” – Jesus Christ (John 6:37, 40)