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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:Jesus Warns against Committing the Unforgivable Sin
Text:Matthew 12:31-32 (View)
Occasion:Pentecost
Topic:Repentance
 
Preached:2020
Added:2020-05-17
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 95:1,2,3                                                                                      

Ps 139:11,12,13                                                                                                         

Reading – Matthew 12:9-42

Ps 95:4,5

Sermon – Matthew 12:31-32

Hy 51:1,2,3

Hy 70:1,2,3,4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in Jesus Christ, there’s a sin which is sometimes mentioned with a deep sense of fear, even a shuddering terror: the sin against the Holy Spirit. A child of God may become tormented by the thought that he (or she) has committed this sin, and that for him there is surely no hope left—they cannot be forgiven, and they’re doomed forever. So what is the sin against the Holy Spirit? What does it mean to commit this, and why can’t it be forgiven?

For a long time, these words of Jesus have been disputed. Already in the early church, around the years 200 and 300, there were differing views on this. For many back then, this text was about falling away under persecution. If the authorities demanded that you renounce your faith, and they perhaps threatened you with torture and death, and so you did deny Christ—this was considered unforgivable. You could never come back to Christ.

In later times too, this text gave rise to a lot of anxiety among Christians. In the 18th century there was the well-known case of a Puritan named John Child who actually took his own life because of it. In deep despair he was convinced that he’d committed this unforgivable sin, so his life wasn’t worth living.

And it remains a text that troubles people today. For one reason or another, someone might conclude that they’ve blasphemed the Holy Spirit and that for them all hope is lost. When you offer such a person the assurance that God freely forgives all who repent and believe in Christ, they’ve got an answer ready: There is one sin that’s an exception to that rule, and they’ve committed it! Isn’t that what Jesus said? “Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven” (v 31).  

Maybe you’ve never struggled with this text. Maybe it’s never even occurred to you that you might’ve committed the unforgivable sin. But it remains an unsettling text, and one that we all need to understand. Some people find it amazing that the “meek and mild” Jesus should speak words so harsh, and they try minimize it. But there is a clear warning here, one to carefully consider. I preach God’s Word to you from Matthew 12:31-32 on this theme,

            Jesus warns against committing the unforgivable sin:

                        1) this warning’s timing

                        2) this warning’s meaning

                        3) this warning’s teaching

 

1) this warning’s timing: I’m sure we’ve all heard many times about the importance of context when studying Scripture, working out the relation of one passage to the events or teachings around it. That context is essential is clear in our text too, for it begins with one of my favourite words, “Therefore…” This word connects to what’s already happened in this chapter, specifically, the healing of the man with a withered hand and the healing of a demon-possessed man. Both of these incidents have aroused an ugly reaction from the Jewish leaders, who could not accept that Jesus had authority from God to do such things.

Their hostility is especially clear after the second healing. The people have brought to Jesus a man “who was demon-possessed, blind and mute” (v 22). At once Jesus casts out the demon and heals the man, leaving the crowds utterly astonished. They’ve already seen many miracles from Jesus, but this belongs to a different category. To drive out a demon shows that Jesus has effective power even in the realm of Satan. And so the crowds ask, “Could this be the Son of David?” (v 23). In other words: Is Jesus the Messiah, the one God promised?

The common people are getting near the truth, but the religious leader aren’t so sure. Do they not see it? Or do they not want to see it? And so at this moment they need a way to explain what Jesus is doing with all his signs and wonders. Casting out a demon is clearly supernatural, the work of powers outside the human realm. But the leaders don’t want to attribute it to God, because if they did, then everyone will definitely run after Christ.

This then is their verdict: “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons” (v 24). You can tell the leaders are done with disagreeing politely. It’s time to pull out the heaviest contempt possible, for they say that the works of Jesus are actually being done in the power of Satan!

Notice that they don’t actually say Satan, but they use his mocking name, “Beelzebub.” In the Old Testament, the devil’s name is sometimes found as “Beelzebul,” which means something like “lord of heaven.” But the Jews liked to change one letter and twist Beelzebul to Beelzebub, which means “lord of the flies,” like the flies you would see buzzing around a rubbish tip or on the dung pile behind the barn. That was Satan’s kingdom: he was “lord of the flies.” Not a very flattering name for the devil, but that’s OK.

But the leaders are saying that Satan and Jesus are in league with each other, that the dramatic miracles of Christ have been done through the power of Beelzebul, the ancient prince of evil. Jesus is darkness, not light! He is against God, not for him! It’d be hard to come up with a more serious blasphemy.

Jesus knows what they’re thinking, and He is quick to reveal how wrong are their thoughts: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand” (v 25). At any level of society, division is deadly. If you’re a family, or a church, or a nation, and there’s a sharp disunity among those who belong, then trouble looms. A kingdom or household can only prosper by living in harmony.

So Jesus says, “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?” (v 26). If Jesus is working for Satan, but He’s busy undoing Satan’s work by casting out demons, then it means there’s a civil war and Satan’s empire is doomed. Quite easily Jesus shows that the Pharisees’ accusation is illogical.

Instead, if demons are being cast out, then this must be by God’s power. Says Christ, “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you” (v 28). For now, underline that reference to the Spirit of God: it was in the power of the Spirit that Jesus was waging war against the devil. And if demons were running for the hills, surrendering their prisoners, and crying out in terror, it can only mean that Satan’s kingdom is already in retreat—and God’s kingdom is advancing.

Jesus was busy tackling the strongest, nastiest adversary the world had ever known. And it had to be done, “How can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house” (v 29). Jesus had started binding Satan, “the strong man,” and shattering his power so that soon He could ruin him completely.

This is what’s going on in Jesus’ ministry: it’s a war of two worlds, a clash of kingdoms. So how wrong to put Christ in the enemy’s camp! It shows that the Pharisees are rejecting him completely. And this has serious consequences.

Says Christ, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters abroad” (v 30). The image of gathering or scattering is from farming, probably harvesting. When a farmer is focused on bringing in his crops, all his workers have a very simple task: get the grain into the barns before the rains. If a worker decides that he’d rather start ploughing or pulling weeds than harvesting, then he’s actually working against the farmer. As Jesus says, those who aren’t working with are working against.

In the same way, you cannot be neutral on the question of Christ. There’s only two sides: his side, or Satan’s. And the Pharisees have just announced publicly which way they’re leaning. It’s ironic, isn’t it? They will oppose Christ, even to the point of putting him in the same camp as the devil. But in so doing, they reveal that they’re the ones in the devil’s camp!

This is the timing of Jesus’ warning about the sin against the Holy Spirit. And from it we can already hear how Christ challenges his believers to be whole-hearted. In the life of faith we may not be neutral or undecided!

Perhaps we like the idea of neutrality, when we don’t want to over-commit. Maybe a person is fearful about all the work and sacrifice that’s involved in following Christ. Perhaps it’s attractive for us to keep up some of our worldly pleasures, or it just seems easier to shuffle along in a state of indifference. But if we do this, are we really working for Christ? Are we gathering with him, or scattering?

Beloved, realize that we’ve already been called to be on God’s side. By baptism, God has already chosen each of us for himself. We don’t enter life as spectators or neutral observers, but we enter on the side of God. And this truth calls us to lead the life to which we’ve been set apart—to answer God’s gracious command.

From your life, it should be very clear which side you’re standing on. We’re not trying to find the middle ground, where we have a kingdom-side of our life, and a world-side of our life, or some place in between. That’s impossible. We’re either for Christ, or against him. And there’s an urgency to this, as we learn in Jesus’s warning.

 

2) this warning’s meaning: And so we come back to the “therefore” of our text, “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men…” (v 31). Pause a moment and appreciate the richness of God’s grace here. Everything will be forgiven! Every sin, every blasphemy, even the worst sins that others have done, the worst sins that we’ve done, can be forgiven, for God’s mercy in Christ is immensely deep and wide.

Now, from other parts of Scripture, we know that there is a condition attached to this amazing truth. If a sinner will be forgiven, then he must repent truly from his sins—put them away—and believe in Christ. But it’s a powerful reminder of God’s grace, all the same.

“Every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men.” First of all, let’s be reminded what is blasphemy. From the third commandment of God’s law we know that to blaspheme is to misuse God’s name, or to speak offensively about holy things.

And this is what the Pharisees have just done. They’ve said that Jesus, who was casting out demons “by the Spirit of God,” is actually doing this work in the power of Satan. They have uttered vile things about Christ. It seems that they’re blinded by their pride, desperately scared of what it means if Jesus is the Christ, and so they speak words of terrible unbelief. It’s this unbelief which Jesus calls the sin against the Holy Spirit.

But it’s not an easy text. Look at verse 32: “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.” Does this mean we are allowed to curse Jesus and disregard his work, but not the Holy Spirit? That doesn’t seem to make sense, since Jesus and the Holy Spirit are one, united with the Father in their plan to save sinners.

When He says “Son of Man,” Jesus refers to his human nature, his life on the earth as a man. The Pharisees (and others) were offended by the humble ways of Jesus: He had lowly parents, an insignificant birth, a poor upbringing. Even his ministry was carried out in modest ways, as Jesus was homeless and was followed around by fishermen, prostitutes, and tax collectors. The identity of Jesus was veiled in his humility. Many people failed to recognize him for who He was, and they spoke against “the Son of Man.”

In a sense, this was understandable—for now. Jesus was still teaching, He was still revealing, and He had not yet entered into his glory. People were still making up their minds about him. But it was different for the Pharisees. They should’ve known better. When they saw his great works and yet accused him of being on the side of the devil, this could not be forgiven.

For the Pharisees knew what the Scriptures said about the coming Messiah. They knew his coming would be marked by signs and wonders performed in the power of the Spirit. They knew all this, yet they were stubbornly looking the other way. They refused to see.

See how Jesus rebukes their “evil and adulterous generation” in the following verses (v 39). He points to how the people of Nineveh repented at Jonah’s preaching, and how the queen of Sheba travelled across the world to hear God’s truth through Solomon. Someone far greater than Jonah or Solomon is here, yet the Pharisees were resolutely denying the Christ. In fact, they’ve already made up their minds, for Matthew has told us that they’ve begun to plot “how they might destroy him” (12:14).

The Holy Spirit was busy revealing the Christ in those days through his deeds and his words, just as it’s the Holy Spirit who reveals God’s truth today. But when the Spirit’s influence is deliberately and knowingly refused, then the unforgivable sin can be committed. It is the willing and informed and persistent act of unbelief.

So can the sin against the Holy Spirit be committed as easily as opening your mouth and saying a terrible thing against Christ, like the Pharisees did? This is why some Christians fear that they’ve stepped over that eternal line. Perhaps they were drunk and they cursed God. Or perhaps they went through a period in their life when they scorned the church and its message. These are terrible things to do, of course, and they must be repented from. But the point is, they can be repented from!

We see this in Scripture. Think of some of the stories of repentance we find, even among the apostles of the Lord. There was Peter who followed Jesus for three years, even received special instruction and privilege from him, yet in one terrible hour denies Christ openly. He even blasphemes, calling on God’s name to prop up his own fearfulness. But Peter repents, and he is restored, not only to forgiveness but leadership in the early church.

Or consider the example of Paul. When he comes to faith in Christ, he had been living in hardened opposition against the Lord and his followers for some years. Yet this grievous sin was forgiven, and Paul was restored in a marvelous way.

These examples reveal how the sin against the Holy Spirit is not something that can be committed in a moment of weakness, when you say or do something really godless. It might not even be committed in a period of rebellion, when you do some really awful things against the honour of the Lord. As we said, the sin against the Holy Spirit is the sin of consistently refusing to believe and listen to God’s will as He has revealed it through his Spirit.

And this doesn’t happen all at once, but gradually. Think about how a person can lose an ability if he stops putting it to use. Maybe you’ve had that experience with some of your muscles after an operation. You were on crutches and you couldn’t use one leg for a while, and so the muscles in it began to weaken. You could even see some of the muscle tone begin to fade. Then when it’s time to start walking again, you’ve got a lot of work to do.

In a similar way, a person can slowly lose the ability to receive the message of Christ. Perhaps for a long time he shuts his eyes and ears to God’s Word. He turns his back on the preaching, and he plunges into a life of sin—then he might come to a stage when he can no longer recognize God’s truth. A person may even come to the point when God’s goodness seems to be evil—not the work of the Lord, but of Satan.

This is the stage to which the Pharisees have come. Years of proud resistance have made the Pharisees what they are. They know the Scriptures, yet for so long they’ve chosen to be blind and deaf. Now they’re not able to see God’s truth and goodness when it finally appears in Christ. They looked on God’s goodness in the flesh, and they called it incarnate evil.

This sin, says Jesus, “will not be forgiven… either in this age or in the age to come” (v 32). Not now, and not ever—an emphatic statement. This is what the apostle John describes as “the sin unto death” (1 John 5:16). It leads to death because a person can become so hardened that repentance is impossible. If he’s no longer able to recognize what is good, then he cannot desire it. And if he can no longer recognize evil, then he cannot be sorry for it. He is lost in his sin and unbelief. It’s a fearful text. So what application can we take from it?

 

3) this warning’s teaching: We said that our text has caused fear in the hearts of many Christians over the years. What if I’ve done this? What if I can’t be forgiven and there’s no more hope of grace?

Beloved, let’s first be reminded of a few things. The blasphemy against the Spirit is not a one-time specific act, where you blurt out some wicked words against God or Christ. We have God’s promise: if a person turns away from sin and they seek God truly, they’ll be freely forgiven. It’d save much heartbreak if people realized that the one person who cannot have committed the sin against the Spirit is the person who fears that he has, for the sin against the Spirit involves the loss of all sense of sin!

So of course, you don’t just decide one day to commit this sin. What the Pharisees have said and done is part of a long process—a long road of choosing to ignore Christ, choosing to twist the Scriptures, choosing to look the other way. Likewise for us, you might not even notice this kind of deadly process happening. It’s like the slow atrophy of muscles of a bed-ridden person. You still feel fine, you’re still breathing, still eating—but then you try to stand up one day, and you fall over.

And beloved, that’s where each of us must take a warning from this text. We are people who know the Word of Christ, we are people whom the Spirit is teaching through the Scriptures. In so many respects, we’re like the Jews to whom Jesus ministered, people who knew their Bibles, who were included in the covenant, who went to church every Sunday. Yet it was some of these people who ended up missing the real truth of Christ! Could that happen to us too?

No, it’s hard to picture ourselves in the sandals of the Pharisees, speaking blasphemous accusations against Christ and his Spirit. But faith and unbelief aren’t on a spectrum, with the Pharisees being really bad unbelievers, and others less so, and still others getting close to real faith, and others living as bona fide Christians. Remember how Jesus draws a line down all of humanity, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters abroad.” It’s one or the other. Think about the question we asked earlier: What side do show ourselves to be on?

And one of the best ways to know the answer is by considering what we do with the Word of Christ. Are we opening ourselves up to the ongoing influence of the Holy Spirit? Are we giving him space to work within us?

Or are we quenching his work, stifling it by sin that we don’t repent from, or hindering it by our lack of prayer? We may not realize it, but these things can eventually lead to a terrible place, to a condition of being hardened against the Lord. 

Instead, listening to God requires a sensitivity of heart. Isn’t it true that so often we’ll hear only what we’re listening for? We’ll hear what we’ve prepared ourselves to hear. So are we ready to hear the gospel every day? Are we getting ready to know Christ better?

Knowing and believing and doing God’s will takes the regular effort of being in his Word. Day by day we must listen to God, so that his voice becomes clearer to us and louder and truer. Then the Holy Spirit will be able to continue his powerful work in us, and we will know the Christ, and through him we will receive forgiveness for every sin.  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2020, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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