“Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.
“And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
These words were spoken by Jesus Christ Himself (Matthew 12:31-32; Revised Standard Version). The Son of God came to Earth in large part to pay the death penalty for the sins of human beings so we could be forgiven and have hope for eternal life. Yet He said a man can commit a sin that shall not be forgiven him.
What did Christ mean by this? What sins are unforgivable? Can a non-Christian commit them? Can a Christian commit them?
What is this unpardonable sin Jesus described? Are you in danger of it?
Understanding this grave subject begins with understanding what a Christian is. Most people think it is simply a believer in Christianity. But the Bible states that even demons believe and tremble (James 2:19). Holding a belief or joining a Church does not make one Christian.
A Christian is someone God has called, and who has responded by believing and obeying God, surrendering to God, truly repenting of his sins, and being baptized. Through this process he receives God’s spiritual power so that God lives in him, in spirit. Simply put, the Bible definition of a Christian is someone to whom God has given His Holy Spirit (Romans 8:6-9). Throughout history, very few of those who consider themselves followers of Christ have ever been called (John 6:44), much less become true Christians.
The process of becoming a true Christian begins with an attitude, a direction of mind. This sincere, deep change of heart involves not just being sorry that you are suffering the consequences of sin, nor just being sorry for committing sin. It means being thoroughly sorry for your whole life apart from God. Real repentance is repentance of what you are. You completely surrender to God, yielding your will to His will so He can change the entire direction of your life, including your attitude toward God and your attitude toward sin.
Many think that if they believe that Jesus Christ was real, that He was the Son of God, and that He died for their sins, then they are Christians and are forgiven for the rest of their lives. But the Bible shows that true repentance and conversion are far deeper; they are ongoing, day-by-day, lifelong processes. True Christians must keep moving in that repentant, humble, believing, obedient direction in which they started out at baptism. They must fight sin every day. They must continuously use the Holy Spirit, which is God’s power, because without it, they cannot conquer sin.
One of the most important aspects of the true Christian’s day-to-day life is this struggle against sin! Is your approach to sin truly Christian? Do you hate sin like God and Jesus Christ do? Sin is what caused Jesus Christ to suffer horrendous torture and death!
What defines sin? It’s not other people’s ideas or our own conscience but God’s law. Without God’s law, we don’t know what sin means. It is a mirror that reflects when we have deviated from the perfect standard. Sin is the transgression of God’s perfect, spiritual law of love (see 1 John 3:4).
But sin is so subtle, so tempting, so widespread, so powerful. Struggling against sin is the hardest thing for a person to do. I have the privilege of working with true Christians and with those whom God might be calling into His one true Church. I find that many of them expect to become converted all at once. Others believe they cannot become a Christian until they have broken all sinful habits and have made themselves righteous. When these fallacies prove untrue, they become discouraged; some give up altogether on trying to live a Christian life.
When a true Christian is baptized, he receives only a small portion of the Holy Spirit. His human nature continues to exert a strong pull toward sinful attitudes and actions. He must continue, day by day, to come to the knowledge of the right, choose the right, and exert self-discipline to resist the wrong and actually do the right. This is only possible through God’s Word, God’s law, God’s government, God’s Church and God’s Holy Spirit.
As the late Herbert W. Armstrong emphasized, sinful nature from Satan, society and our own selves exerts a heavy pull, but God uses this pull for “the very purpose and goal of strengthening and developing right character! … No human being is strong enough to do this by himself! He must seek, and in faith receive, the help and power of God. Even with God’s power he will not overcome such forces easily, or all at once. It is not easy!” (Good News, February 1985).
But notice: A true Christian wants, intends and tries to live God’s way, not just as his “religion,” but as his entire way of life.
Many people deceive themselves into thinking they can have it both ways, but God’s righteousness and sin are mutually exclusive: They cannot exist together!
“… God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:5-10).
A true Christian is either moving in the overall direction of the light, God’s righteousness, or in the direction of sin, which is darkness.
Even for a true Christian like the Apostle Paul, the struggle against sin was day-to-day, hand-to-hand spiritual combat! He described his struggle in Romans 7 and 8 and wrote that he was “carnal, sold under sin,” failing to do good even though he wanted to, and succumbing to sin even though he did not want to. For Paul, “the law of my mind” desired to follow and use the Holy Spirit to resist sin, but he kept succumbing to the opposing “law of sin and death.”
Sin in any form is harmful, putrid, vile, despicable, abominable and deadly. True Christians should and must resist it with all their might. Yet even they often succumb to the powerful pull of human nature and commit sin, as Paul did, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes knowingly, sometimes out of weakness, and sometimes even willingly.
When a Christian sins, is he lost? The answer to that question might be a tragic yes, or it might be a definite no! Let’s look closely at the difference between a sin that leads to eternal death, and a sin that does not.
It is absolutely true that the penalty for sin is eternal death (Romans 3:23; 6:23; John 8:21). A true Christian’s calling and covenant with God ends in only one of two destinations: eternal life or eternal death!
From the initial calling, through repentance, faith, obedience, baptism and throughout the years, the most important aspect of a Christian’s life is his attitude and direction of mind. Repentance means a total change of attitude, heart and direction, and the true Christian must have a continuously repentant mind.
“For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would” (Galatians 5:17; rsv).
“You have a natural mind that is in tune with the devil’s wavelength (Ephesians 2:2),” Mr. Armstrong wrote. “It picks up the very attitudes of Satan as expressed by selfishness, criticism, envy, unhappiness, etc. … Of this natural mind, God says: ‘The carnal mind is enmity [hostile] against God; for it is not subject to the law of God …’ (Romans 8:7)” (What Do You Mean … The ‘Unpardonable’ Sin?).
This natural, carnal mind is easily tempted into sin, and sin spreads and multiplies even if we try to resist it. If a true Christian who has God’s Holy Spirit does not use that power, he will lose more and more battles with sin.
At a certain point, this can result in a terrible eternal consequence.
“For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy [Spirit], And have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, If they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame” (Hebrew 6:4-6).
When does it become impossible to renew someone to repentance?
God is the one who grants repentance (Acts 5:31; 11:18). But by definition, repentance requires you to choose it. God doesn’t force it. When you succumb to sinful thinking enough that you no longer desire to repent, then you become unable to repent. When you willfully turn the direction of your life away from God, it becomes impossible to renew you to repentance. At that point, you have committed the unpardonable sin.
“For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:26-27).
Mr. Armstrong wrote in the February 1985 Good News, “If, once having been converted, having received God’s Spirit and tasted of the joys of God’s way, one deliberately rejects that way, makes the decision, not under stress of temptation, but deliberately and finally, not to go God’s way, then God says it is impossible to renew such a one to repentance. He would have to repent of that decision. But if he willfully made it, not in a time of temptation, but calmly, deliberately, willfully, then he just will not ever repent of it.”
Earlier he wrote: “It is only the one who deliberately quits and gives up—who rejects God and God’s way, and rejects Jesus Christ as his Savior—who turns from this direction of God’s way, in his mind and heart in his inner intent—who deliberately and intentionally in his mind turns from Jesus Christ, who is lost.”
You may think, I would never turn my back on God. But be wary! Every “little” sin is turning your back on God. You must exert every effort to repent of every sin, every time, or your mind will slowly change as sin accumulates. If you don’t fight sin, it will eventually make perfect sense in your mind to willfully turn your back on God and go in a different direction of your own choosing.
Mr. Armstrong wrote in his booklet on the unpardonable sin: “When one receives the Holy Spirit by God’s grace, this Spirit dwelling in him is tentative and conditional salvation. But if one again changes his mind—changes his life’s goal—takes his eyes completely off the goal of God’s Kingdom, and fixes them purposely on going back to the way of worldliness and sin—if he changes his way of life back to the carnal way of the world, leaving the road he was traveling with Christ—then he has set his mind on determined, premeditated, deliberate willful sin!
“If he decides he no longer wants to go God’s way, deliberately and intentionally changes his overall attitude, and desires, and chooses the world and its ways—deliberately chooses a life of rebellion, comes to have contempt and disregard for God’s law, then that man either has done or is in danger of doing despite to God’s Holy Spirit which a merciful and loving God had given by grace!
“Such a man is surely in grave danger of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit!”
The Apostle John wrote: “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:6-7). That act of cleansing, as the original Greek word katharizo indicates, is ongoing. You can say you are a Christian, but if you are not actually overcoming sin day by day and year by year, you are walking in darkness.
As Mr. Armstrong wrote, a true Christian can reach the terrible stage of abandoning his walk with God either by deliberate choice, or continued neglect.
“If you leave the way that God’s Spirit is leading, then God’s Spirit may leave you—no longer dwelling in you! You will commit sins, but you will not be sorry—and you will probably not repent!” (ibid).
You will not repent because you do not want to. You have allowed sin to accumulate and ultimately have willfully chosen to turn the direction of your life away from God and Jesus Christ.
The unpardonable sin is not lying or coveting or even murder. These and “all manner of sin and blasphemy” can indeed be forgiven by the power of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice if the sinner truly repents. But these sins and even less drastic and less obvious sins like vanity, bitterness, rebellion and other wrong attitudes can and will lead to eternal death unless repented of and blotted out by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Hebrews 6:1-2 make plain that eternal judgment is on the line!Yes, it is possible to commit an unpardonable sin. Using or not using the power of the Holy Spirit to surrender to God and fight sin is a matter of eternal life and eternal death!
Do You Fear Having Committed This Sin?
Mr. Armstrong had good news for those who feared that they had committed the unpardonable sin: “You probably haven’t” he wrote. “But they will persist, ‘Yes, but I consented, in my mind, to commit that sin. Sure I was tempted—and I tried to resist it in my mind, but the more I resisted, the more I wanted to do it—until, finally, I just gave in, and consented in my mind, to do it. I did it knowingly. Wasn’t that sinning willfully? Wasn’t that the unpardonable sin?’” (ibid).
Why has such a person probably not committed the unpardonable sin? Because your concern indicates that you desire to turn away from sin and toward God. Most likely, your attitude is moving in the right direction.
The vast majority of Christians are not truly converted in the first place. Those who have received God’s Holy Spirit, begun the process of conversion, who then fear that they have committed this sin but desire to repent can be “renewed to repentance.”
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
1 John 2:1 contains this encouragement for true Christians: “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
Mr. Armstrong said in a 1983 sermon that if a true Christian does sin, the important question was the attitude. The sin might have been committed “knowingly—through temptation, through habit, or whatever—but not maliciously. … Not willfully. Sometimes willingly, but not willfully; there’s quite a difference.”
A true Christian feels great shame and guilt when he sins, not just because he knows it will cause eternal death, but because of what God the Father and Jesus Christ suffered to pay for that sin. He has sinned, even if it is knowingly, from weakness, not out of malice toward God. Now he must sincerely and deeply repent—or that sin will breed more sin and, eventually, malice.
Committing a sin must make you turn back to God, not move further away from Him. “When God’s people stumble and sin, we may think only of God distancing Himself from us—ashamed of us. But that’s not the way it is. Do we realize that, when we draw upon Him, Christ becomes our Advocate, pleading our case with God the Father? When you sin, and perhaps get depressed over it, Christ is at God’s throne being your Advocate!” Royal Vision editor in chief Gerald Flurry writes in The Last Hour.“Christ is our Advocate, not when we are righteous, but when we sin,”he emphasizes earlier in the booklet. “If we sin, we have an Advocate, or one who pleads another’s case before a judge—God the Father, in this case. … We all fail to be perfect like our Father. This does not mean it is OK to sin—it is simply acknowledging reality.”
If you have committed a sin, but you have not done so maliciously and willfully, no matter what the sin is, God can and will forgive you if you repent!
We must acknowledge that our sins have brought upon us the death penalty. Our only hope—but it is a great hope—is God helping us overcome sin and giving us the gift of eternal life. That is what salvation is.
Use the Holy Spirit
Mr. Armstrong wrote in the unpardonable sin booklet: “A Christian, then, in God’s terms, is one who has, at the moment, God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in him. Before this change has taken place, he is none of his—not a Christian. IF the Holy Spirit no longer dwells in him, then he is no longer a Christian. He is a Christian while, and only while, the Holy Spirit is dwelling in him.”
This is vital to understanding what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is. This is the reason King David, after committing heinous sins involving Uriah and Bathsheba, cried to God, “[T]ake not thy holy spirit from me”! (Psalm 51:11). It is possible to lose God’s Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19).
Right after explaining the unpardonable sin, Jesus said in Matthew 12:33 that you must judge the quality of a tree by its fruits. What is the connection between the two subjects?
It is this: We must not let God’s Holy Spirit become dormant in us! We cannot “bottle it up.” Jesus Christ is alive and active, and if we are spiritually lifeless, He cannot continue to dwell in us in Spirit. He warns us of this in John 15:1-8.
To truly be Christian, we must not only have God’s Holy Spirit but also use it to bear fruit. God’s righteousness must be produced in a Christian’s life. Psalm 119:172 tells us, “[A]ll thy commandments are righteousness.”
What then happens when we transgress the law and break one of God’s commandments? Mr. Armstrong wrote: “This does not necessarily mean God will cut you off immediately, the first day or week or month you might let go by without producing active and positive fruit. There is, however, a limit somewhere along life’s way where, unless you are definitely growing spiritually, that God’s Spirit will no longer ‘dwell in you,’ and if you let that time come, you shall, like a dead grape branch, be ultimately cast into the final ‘gehenna fire.’
“But be sure of this: It is a dangerous thing for a truly converted Christian to grow lukewarm and careless, and become a ‘passive’ Christian. Perhaps most have temporary lapses in spiritual progress. But as soon as you ‘wake up’ to such a lapse, repent immediately and seek God with your whole heart for a closer, more active spiritual walk with Him” (ibid).
To know the truth is to possess dangerous knowledge. Do not grow careless! As soon as you realize you are moving away from God and His righteousness, cry out to Him for His mercy and goodness to lead you to sincere repentance! Cry out to your Advocate, Jesus Christ, asking Him to plead your case before God the Father. Ask to be grafted back into the vine if your life has not produced the fruit it should have. Feed from that vine, by Jesus Christ dwelling in you, and produce abundant, spiritual fruit.
The critical thing is the direction in which you are moving. There are only two overall attitudes of mind, and they are directly opposite from one another.
Seek to overcome sin and make God’s way your habitual way of life. Following where God’s Spirit leads, you may occasionally stumble, but if you confess it and repent, God is faithful and just to forgive! If you are diligent, your occasional stumbling will become more and more infrequent. You will overcome and grow spiritually in the righteous godly character of faith and obedience to God’s law.
This is why indifference toward sin and self-justification regarding sin put us on such dangerous ground. Repent from that! If you still desire to go God’s way, it’s not too late. Turn from sin and confess your shortcomings and truly repent.
When you sin, cast yourself on God’s mercy. Pick yourself up, with Christ’s helping hand, and go on overcoming and growing spiritually. Once you know you have repented and that God has forgiven you, don’t dwell on your sin and don’t repeat it. Forget it! (Philippians 3:13-14).
Yielding to God is not passive. It requires great effort on our part! We must labor and fight to continually yield our minds to God. Jesus Christ said we must “[s]trive to enter in at the strait gate …” (Luke 13:24). Strive indicates agonizing effort in a hard struggle.
Sin is deceptive, abominable and deadly. We must never grow comfortable with it and turn “the grace of our God into lasciviousness”—a license to sin. This mistake is made by the overwhelming majority of professing Christians!
True Christians must fight sin each day until the end of their physical lives. When they sin, they do not give up in discouragement, but turn to God in repentance and try again, and again—and again. Growing spiritually is much like a toddler learning to walk. He stumbles too many times to count, but he keeps trying, keeps improving and learns to walk! The true Christian must repeatedly ask for God’s forgiveness and go on to fight sin with renewed determination to yield to God more perfectly, using His power to conquer sin!
Unable to Sin
You cannot put sin out of your life without putting righteousness in. Mr. Armstrong often used the analogy of a bottle “filled with some very dark, ugly and poisonous liquid; and you want to empty it out (like we must empty ourselves of sin, and get sin out of our lives). You can’t get that polluted liquid out of the bottle without letting something else go in, because the bottle is not going to be a vacuum. For every fluid ounce that goes out, an equal amount of air will have to come in or something to take the place of it.” Oftentimes putting righteousness in is the way to force the sin out.
The true Christian’s goal is to follow and use God’s Holy Spirit to obey His perfect law of love, constantly repenting and stumbling less and less, till he drives sin out to the point that he is unable to sin! This is impossible with human effort, but it is God’s ultimate purpose for every human being ever created!
The Apostle John delivered a grave warning and a great hope on this subject: “Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” (1 John 3:7-9).
With the true, biblical, godly perspective, we know that fighting sin is a lifelong struggle, but growing in that attitude leads to becoming born into God’s Family and being so opposed to sin that we will be unable to sin! How wonderful that will be!
Mr. Armstrong said in April 1983 that Jesus Christ could have sinned when He became a human being, but He rejected every temptation, every day, perfectly. Having done that and having become a Spirit-composed God Being once again, He is unable to sin. If we resist temptation (albeit imperfectly), we too will be unable to sin! We too will be God beings in God’s Family!