What is the Unpardonable Sin?
Dr. Jim Denison
For three weeks during the presidential campaign of 1988, two California whales gained more global attention than candidates Bush and Dukakis. “Bonnett” and “Crossbeak,” as they were named by marine biologists, had become trapped in Alaska as an early winter iced them in. Eskimos were the first to notice their plight, and to try to help with chain saws and poles. The media publicized the problem. An Archimedean Screw Tractor was next on the scene, breaking up the ice between the whales and open water. But it was too slow, so the National Guard flew in two CH-54 Skycrane helicopters with five-ton concrete ice bashers. Next came a twenty-ton Soviet icebreaking ship, eleven stories tall. $1.5 million was spent to help two whales move sixty miles to open water and freedom.
What the world did for those whales, God has done for every one of us. And at even greater cost, giving his only Son to die on a tortured cross. To break through the sin which trapped us and lead us to abundant, overflowing, joy-filled eternal life.
Tragically, not everyone knows that story. Probably the most common single question I’ve been asked in 25 years of ministry is, “What is the unpardonable sin?” So many people are afraid that they or those they love have committed this sin.
So what is the “unpardonable sin?” What isn’t it? And why are the answers so important to us today?
What is this sin?
Let’s begin by understanding Jesus’ words on our subject.
Our Lord has healed a demon-possessed man, the crowds think he might be the Messiah, but the Pharisees say that he drives out demons by the devil himself.
So Jesus responds, “the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (v. 31). He repeats his warning: “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” (v. 32).
Peter could deny Jesus, Thomas could doubt him, and Paul could persecute his followers, yet they could be forgiven. But “blasphemy against the Spirit” cannot be forgiven, now or at any point in the future. This is the “unpardonable sin.”
So, what is this sin? Let’s set out what we know. We know that Christians cannot commit this sin. 1 John 1:9 is clear: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” “All” means all. No sin is unpardonable for a Christian.
We know that this sin relates to the work of the Holy Spirit in regard to unbelievers. Jesus is warning the Pharisees, those who rejected him, that they are in danger of this sin. So what does the Spirit do with non-Christians?
He convicts them of their sin and need for salvation (John 16:8-9).
He tells them about Christ their Savior (John 15:26).
He explains salvation (1 Corinthians 2:14).
When they confess their sins and turn to Christ, the Spirit makes them God’s children (Romans 8:9, 11).
In short, the Holy Spirit leads lost people to salvation.
So we know that it is the “unpardonable sin” to refuse this salvation. To be convicted of your sin and need for a savior, but refuse to admit it. To be presented the gospel but reject it.
Why is this sin unpardonable? Because accepting salvation through Christ is the only means by which our sins can be pardoned. It is “unpardonable” to reject the only surgery which can save your life, or the only chemotherapy which can cure your cancer. Not because the doctor doesn’t want to heal you, but because he cannot. You won’t let him. You have rejected the only means of health and salvation.
The unpardonable sin is rejecting the Holy Spirit’s offer of salvation, and dying in such a state of rejection. Then you have refused the only pardon God is able to give you. Don’t do that. Be sure you have made Christ your Lord, today.
What about suicide?
Now, this question inevitably raises a second and very difficult issue: what about suicide? So many people mistakenly believe that suicide is the unpardonable sin. What does the Bible teach about this tragic subject?
God’s word consistently warns us that suicide is always wrong. Deuteronomy 30:19 is God’s command, “Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” Job knew that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, that life and death are with God and not us (Job 1:21). Paul teaches us, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). And the sixth commandment is clear: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).
God gives us life and he alone has the right to take it. It is always too soon to give up on life. God can always intervene, and often does. You’re not done until God says you’re done.
That said, why is suicide so often thought to be the “unpardonable sin?” Not because the Bible ever teaches this, for nowhere does God’s word make this connection. Here’s the story in brief.
Eventually the Church came to separate “mortal” from “venial” sins. “Mortal” sins would condemn a person to hell, “venial” to Purgatory. Only by confessing a mortal sin could a person avoid hell.
Murder, including self-murder, was one of these mortal sins. And of course a person could not confess this sin after committing it.
So, by logic, suicide was defined as the unpardonable sin. But nowhere does the Bible teach that this is so.
Suicide is always wrong, always a sin, and always a tragedy. It places far more grief and pain on family and friends than life would have. It takes into human hands a decision which is God’s alone. It leads to judgment and loss of reward by God in eternity. But it is not the unpardonable sin. Those you care about who committed this sin are not in hell for having done so. Rejecting Christ is the unpardonable sin, and the only one.