Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation — because they said, “He has an unclean spirit.” (Mark 3:28-30)
The unpardonable sin is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, which is to speak in insult of or to defame the work of the Holy Spirit.1 This is not a matter of mere words or a slip of the tongue. No one can unknowingly commit this profoundly serious sin. It is willful. Blaspheming the Holy Spirit means, as can be seen in Mark 3:30, to impute the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan. This can happen wherever the Holy Spirit is at work, as in Psidian Antioch, when Paul and Barnabas were preaching.
There, from one week to the next, the whole city was galvanized by the good news and came out to hear them speak again on the Sabbath. This prompted the same reaction in the Jewish leaders there as it had in Jerusalem when Yahshua was crucified — envy.
But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy; and contradicting and blaspheming, they opposed the things spoken by Paul. Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.” (Acts 13:45-46)
Who were those leaders, after this, to receive the message of forgiveness from? They had rejected the gospel, being unwilling to receive the messengers, whom they envied, or their message, which they contradicted. As Paul said, they had judged themselves unworthy of eternal life. They were then, while they yet lived, judged already:
He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.2
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit happens when Satan deceives people into thinking the work of the Holy Spirit is actually from him. Thus, the evil at work in someone with a bad conscience can cause him to listen to the liar.
Although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief...3
If one blasphemes the Son of God,4 as Paul did, the Holy Spirit still has something to reach in his heart. He was not completely given over to evil, even though he was doing evil. Yahshua knew what no one else did, that Paul was still troubled about what he was doing, even though he seemed so confident in the rightness of his course. That troubling sense Paul had that something was wrong, which never would leave him alone, was the very thing Yahshua appealed to on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”5
Saul had never been able to suppress the words of Gamaliel his teacher. They haunted him in his conscience, no matter how much he might try to suppress them.
And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it — lest you even be found to fight against God. (Acts 5:38-39)
The battle was ending for Paul. He’d found out whom he was fighting. The truth was still able to reach his heart. He could still hear the message of eternal life from Ananias, whom once he would have imprisoned or killed. When Paul was told by Ananias, “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name,” he finally surrendered to the greater King.6
When Paul's great darkness and ignorance was illuminated by the Savior, he was humble enough to admit he was wrong and had been profoundly misled. What he once condemned he now loved, to build what he’d once destroyed.
Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?7
It is the arrogance of the rich that leads them to blaspheme the Son of God, as James observed in his day. This places them perilously close to blaspheming the Holy Spirit, for they are the most likely to take what they see and hear in a derogatory way. The very drive and confidence that causes the wealthy to gain the world, or some part of it, places them also in danger of losing their own soul.8 This loss is not just a matter of comfort and pleasure, over which the rich and powerful often lose their souls.9 It is the loss from which one can never recover: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which is to call the work of the Holy Spirit the work of the evil one.
There are other groups of people in danger of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. They are mainly:
The third group — the “cult experts” — often fulfill the role of apologists for the fourth group by making theological excuses for their lack of love and commitment. They typically condemn any group more sincere and devoted than they. Not surprisingly, they work well with many journalists. They share with them a common excitement at lying and destroying others. Such cult experts are generally not recognized for what they are — the “Inquisitors” of today. It is the restraint of the secular state alone that holds them back from bloodshed.
The witness of history before them is plain. After her union with the Roman Empire, one group after another was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church — for twelve long centuries. Then along came the Reformers, who left unreformed this darkest aspect of historic Christian tradition: persecution for the cause of conscience. The Protestants shed the blood of the heretics, the Jews, and the Catholics with the same gusto the Catholics had shed the blood of the heretics, the Jews, and the Protestants. Since those dark and terrible times, many have seen in their deeds a literal fulfillment of James’ words about the tongue:
And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell. (James 3:6-7)
The witness of the truth in the Community of Jerusalem, which duplicated itself around the ancient Roman world,15 was regarded by most as “this sect... spoken against everywhere.”16 But it was in obedience to the gospel and its “many other words”17 that these men and women, most of them simple people,18 formed the vibrant witness of the kingdom of God. Then, as now, living together in community was reason enough to be classified as a “cult” by many people. In fact, the nations of Europe still use the term sect for cult today.
The people of Jerusalem and the other communities, though called a cult by the world around them, were made up of people willing to do the will of the Father.19 That was how they were able to know that the teachings of the apostles were from God and not man. Not one unwilling person can ever know that. Neither can anyone seeking his own glory. They can only receive one not sent by the Father, who seeks his own glory, who comes in his own name.20 They listen to the ones they are drawn to, who have their name in lights and are rich and famous, and who mingle with the great men of the earth. These are such as claim to see, and whose guilt therefore remains eternally.21
There are many answers to what a cult is, but the overriding one in most people's minds is simple. It is an evil group led by an evil “cult leader.” A cult connotes the control of an evil spirit. Calling the people of God a cult is perilously close to blaspheming the Holy Spirit. It ascribes His work to the evil one in gathering people together in communities and clans and tribes,22 just as the First Church did, when that is actually the witness of the kingdom of God.
The disciples served night and day then, as they still do now:
And now I stand and am judged for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers. To this promise our twelve tribes, earnestly serving God night and day, hope to attain. For this hope's sake, King Agrippa, I am accused by the Jews. (Acts 26:6-7)
And so, finally, a people will bear the fruit of the Kingdom, when they fulfill the promise made by God to the fathers, bringing about for the natural seed of Abraham what they could not bring about for themselves.23 This is not replacement theology, displacing the natural sons of Israel as the only “people of God.” Far from it: the true church, what the apostle Paul called the “Commonwealth of Israel” and the “Israel of God,” is “servant Israel”24 — doing for natural Israel what they could not do for themselves. The hope of the promise will be realized by the people who fulfill these words spoken to Abraham long ago:
For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him. (Genesis 18:19)