Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The "unpardonable sin" and Eternal Security

Jason Stellman (former Calvinist, now Catholic) made a brilliant observation on his blog a while back about the 'unpardonable sin' that Jesus speaks of in the Gospels. The verse states,
And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Mat 12:31-32; Mk 3:28-29; Lk 12:9-10)
Catholics have traditionally appealed to the phraseology of forgiveness "in the age to come" as evidence for purgatory, since this is the only reading that makes sense of the idea of sins being able to be forgiven after death. Some Protestants have tried to dodge this by appealing to the parallel accounts where Jesus says "will never be forgiven," but I call this a dodge because it doesn't get around the wording of "or in the age to come," it merely affirms what's already agreed upon: the sin is never forgiven. 

But that's not what Jason pointed out that I thought was worth sharing. What Jason pointed out was that this verse goes against the Protestant idea that salvation cannot be lost (known as Eternal Security or Once Saved, Always Saved). This is because the text says that Jesus is speaking of all kinds of sins being able to be forgiven, just not this one. This suggests a person can go 'too far' with their sins and thus cross an 'invisible line' of no return. They can sin one too many times or they can sin in such a severe way that they wont be forgiven and thus they will be damned. 

The only counter I can envision a Calvinist making is that this 'unpardonable sin' is simply talking about those who were never saved to begin with. But this makes the unpardonable sin synonymous with being in an unconverted/unregenerate state (i.e. born in original sin), which makes no sense for two reasons. First, everyone is born in the unconverted state, so this cannot be the unpardonable sin. Second, the context Jesus is speaking is that of sins that can be forgiven, just not this one, indicating it's a sin yet to be committed by any particular person.

All believe that there is no sin for which the Cross could not atone for, which means this 'unpardonable sin' has to be something more pernicious than sinful acts in general. The traditional Catholic reading of this text gives two interpretations, which overlap somewhat. The first is discerned by the context, where the Pharisees had seen all these miraculous signs coming from Jesus and yet they continued to refuse to believe in Him. What made this moment especially wicked was that they attributed the miracles to Satan rather than the Holy Spirit! This repeated willful blindness caused them to be permanently blind to seeing the light and thus beyond able to repent. They reached a point where God stopped trying to convert them. The second and more generic interpretation is that the 'unpardonable sin' is the sin of 'final unrepentance', meaning willfully refusing to repent of being in a state of mortal sin up to the moment of death. So someone who is out of communion with God who refuses to repent and dies in that way has put them self in a state that precludes forgiveness. Either way, Eternal Security is refuted by this verse.


JohnD said...

Nick, with all due respect, it this is not a good argument against the Reformed doctrine of perseverance of the saints. You did not interact with the most plausible response a Reformed Christian would give. Namely, the elect will not commit the unforgivable sin.

Perhaps I am missing the crux of your argument (*please point out if I have), but it seems to rest on this very week pillar, "...the text says that Jesus is speaking of all kinds of sins being able to be forgiven, just not this one. This suggests a person can go 'too far' with their sins and thus cross an 'invisible line' of no return."

I don't see any textual reasons to take this passage as meaning someone can take sin too far. Rather, Jesus appears to classify this one sin as unforgivable. On a Reformed view, it is not unforgivable in the sense that Christ's sacrifice was insufficient, but rather in the sense that God has not chosen to regenerate any man who commits this particular sin.

You might then ask, well what do Reformed Christians think the unforgivable sin is? I have not researched varying views, but here is Calvin on the passage:

"The reason why contempt is said to be poured on the Spirit, rather than on the Son or the Father, is this. By detracting from the grace and power of God, we make a direct attack on the Spirit, from whom they proceed, and in whom they are revealed to us. Shall any unbeliever curse God? It is as if a blind man were dashing against a wall. But no man curses the Spirit who is not enlightened by him, and conscious of ungodly rebellion against him; for it is not a superfluous distinction. that all other blasphemies shall be forgiven, except that one blasphemy which is directed against the Spirit. If a man shall simply blaspheme against God, he is not declared to be beyond the hope of pardon; but of those who have offered outrage to the Spirit, it is said that God will never forgive them. Why is this, but because those only are blasphemers against the Spirit, who slander his gifts and power, contrary to the conviction of their own mind..."

Nick said...

Hello John,

You said the most plausible Reformed response is that the elect will not commit the unforgivable sin. Here is how I'd respond to that.

(1) If you mean the elect, after Justification, theoretically could commit the UFS but in practice they wont end up committing the UFS because God stops them short of doing so, this is impossible. That's because Christ's Imputed Righteousness precludes any sin, even only in theory, from impacting God's view of your righteous standing before him.

(2) If you mean the elect, after Justification, are simply unable to commit the UFS, as in it's impossible for them to sin that severely, then I think this reduces Christ's lesson/warning to nonsense. I'll come back to this in a bit.

(3) If the UFS only applies to the non-elect, then what's the point of a UFS? They're already condemned in virtue of original sin, there's nothing more that they need to do to get beyond forgiveness. God does not need a UFS in that situation; it's superfluous. And as I said in my post, it's impossible to equate the UFS with original sin, since even the elect start off in original sin.

For you to say "God has not chosen to regenerate any man who commits this particular sin" if you're talking about the non-elect is essentially nonsense because this (already) unregenerate person is already locked into a condemned state and doesn't need anything further to confirm this. The only way that statement could make sense is if you believe, as Catholics do, that the option of salvation is available to everyone, but that those who commit this sin have stubbornly refused God's genuine call to repent and God has 'run out of patience'. The problem there is that the Reformed deny salvation is open to all, and rather that God only regenerates those whom He wants to save, while everyone else is merely left in their unregenerate state.

(4) This takes us back to #2 above and having to conclude that those who are saved can quite possibly commit the UFS. This ties into what you said: "I don't see any textual reasons to take this passage as meaning someone can take sin too far." The context is that of the Pharisees who have repeatedly refused to heed the miracles and signs that Jesus really is the Messiah. This is contextual evidence that what Jesus had in mind was taking sin too far.

Astonishingly, John Piper has an article on his website on the UFS, and here is what he concludes:
"The fact that there is an unforgivable sin—that there comes a point in a life of sin after which the Holy Spirit will no longer grant repentance—that fact should drive us from sin with fear and trembling. None of us knows when our toying with sin will pass over into irrevocable hardness of heart."

Piper was speaking of himself and Christians, he was not speaking of non-believers. His conclusion is that there can come a point when toying with sin that you'll go too far, crossing some threshold, after which God will no longer grant repentance. Of course, while this exegesis makes sense, it refuse the doctrine of Eternal Security. I have no idea how Piper could say this and remain Reformed!

JohnD said...

Nick, I appreciate the response. Here's my reply.

1. The Piper article was very interesting. I also think it was interesting that you did not quote his definition of the UFS which was right above the quote you did cite. Piper says, "The unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an act of resistance which belittles the Holy Spirit so grievously that he withdraws for ever with his convicting power so that we are never able to repent and be forgiven." So, although Piper recognizes that a Christian who "takes sin too far" may fall into this sin, he still defines the sin as a particular action. However, I concede that the context could allow for the idea that persons who "take sin too far" risk cutting themselves off from God forever.

2. Now, since you have cited Piper's article, you should deal with his definition. I think it is consistent with the Reformed position that the elect will never fall into this UFS.

3. I was a bit confused by the 2nd paragraph of your 3rd point, but since you charged me with a nonsense statement, let me try to clarify. What I meant was, God would not plan for any of His elect to commit the UFS. So, it follows that anyone committing the UFS is condemned forever. People who commit all other sins might still be forgiven in the future. This also serves as a response to your first point, and I would stand by my previous that on a Reformed view "it is not unforgivable in the sense that Christ's sacrifice was insufficient."

Nick said...

Hello John,

(1) I don't think nor did I intend to distort Piper's definition. His view of UFS is very close if not identical to what I've been espousing this whole time. I'm glad you concede the context could allow for this interpretation, but I don't see how you can say that an remain Reformed.

(2) I don't think his definition (which is really a variation of the one I've espoused from the start) is consistent with the Reformed view for two reasons. First, Piper explicitly says Christians should fear this, since it (at least theoretically) can happen. Whether it actually does or not is irrelevant since (as I noted above) it undermines the Imputation of Christ's righteousness. Second, Piper says the Holy Spirit "withdraws for ever with his convicting power," indicating the Holy Spirit was trying to convert the person but the person resisted. This is ridiculous and blasphemous from the Reformed perspective, because the Holy Spirit cannot fail to regenerate when working on someone, and in fact that's why they say the Holy Spirit does not work on everyone but only the elect.

And this returns right back to the problem of why there is an UFS in the first place if it's really unnecessary. A non-elect person doesn't need to commit the UFS to be damned or be put under God's displeasure, they simply need to be left in their unregenerate state they were originally born into.

(3) Maybe this question can clear up the issue: What's the difference between a non-elect who commits the UFS and a non-elect who does NOT commit the UFS?

JohnD said...

Hey Nick,

Good question at the end. Here's an answer I think a Reformed Christian would give:

There is no difference in the non-elect who commits the UFS and the non-elect who does not commit the UFS in the sense that they are both non-elect and will die in their sins. However, the key difference is that God will pardon all kinds of sinners, but will NEVER pardon one who commits the UFS.

As to another point, the Reformed position makes room for common grace that works in all men to restrain their evil ways and do other stuff in a non-redemptive way. So, just because the Holy Spirit is working in someone does not mean the Spirit is working redemptively. Also, when Piper speaks of fearing the UFS and toying with sin, he also realizes the fact that we cannot objectively identify the elect, and thus those who toy with sin have reason to fear condemnation, etc.

Let me know if you want me to address one of your points more specifically.

Nick said...

As I said originally, the position you're logically reduced to is that the UFS only applies to some of the non-elect, and thus really is nothing to fear and doesn't serve any useful purpose. If I believe I'm elect, I have nothing to fear; if I'm non elect, I'm damned whether I commit it or not.

I don't think so called "common grace" has any good basis in Scripture, and in texts like this I don't think you can call the repeated and hard-hearted rejection of the Holy Spirit in this context a non-remeptive context.

JohnD said...


I fully agree that only some non-elect will commit the UFS. I don't mean to be repetitive, but it doesn't seem like you are acknowledging this point:

God will pardon all kinds of sinners, but will NEVER pardon one who commits the UFS.

Perhaps you have recognized this and your rebuttal is just that it's not much of a point. But, I think it is an important point.

Also, I didn't understand this statement of yours, {I don't think you can call the repeated and hard-hearted rejection of the Holy Spirit in this context a non-remeptive context."

Nick said...

Hello John,

I must have missed this comment in my inbox because I didn't notice it till now.

(1) The way I've tried to address your point that God "will NEVER pardon one who comments the UFS" is that I see your interpretation of the UFS as superfluous. By this I mean, why should the UFS be a concern to anyone if it only applies to a subset of the non-elect (none of whom will ever be forgiven anyway). It amounts to saying that a subset of the non-elect will become twice as hard-hearted as the rest of the elect, as if a doubly hard-heart meant something significant.

(2) When I said "I don't think you can call the repeated and hard-hearted rejection of the Holy Spirit in this context a non-remeptive context" what I mean is that I don't think you can call this a common grace context. The Holy Spirit is trying to get men to recognize Jesus as Messiah by His miracles. That's not what common grace is for.

JohnD said...

Hey Nick,

Thanks for the reply.

1. I understand your point about those who commit the UFS being a subset of the non-elect. However, we need also to keep in mind that we cannot objectively identify the elect. So, it is not a superfluous warning to tell people not to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, since then they will never be forgiven. Whereas in the case of all other sinners, the Reformed may exhort them to turn to Christ and repent, knowing that those who are called will do so.

2. I wasn't claiming the specific context of Matthew 12 was common grace. Rather, when you brought up Piper describing the Holy Spirit working, I wanted to point out that the Reformed say the Holy Spirit works on all people, but only in some redemptively.

Steve Finnell said...


What is the unforgivable sin?
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the unpardonable sin.
How is the unpardonable sin committed?


Mark 3:22 The scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, "He is possessed by Beelzebul," and "He cast out the demons by the ruler of the demons."
Mark 3:28-30 "Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"---30 because they were saying, "He has an unclean spirit."

These scribes were committing BLASPHEMY AGAINST THE HOLY SPIRIT because they said Jesus was casting out demons by the power of an unclean spirit, when in fact it was by the power of THE HOLY SPIRIT.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is proclaiming that Jesus was possessed by Satan and using Satan's power; when in fact Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit.