When Grace Doesn’t Work: The Unpardonable Sin

Don: The idea that we are saved by undeserved grace is made easier to accept and act upon when “through faith” is added, as it was in Ephesians 8. The judgment is also about the actuation of grace:

This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light,… (John 3:19)

Light is a metaphor for God. Jesus was called the light of men, “full of grace and truth.” So the above quote could be read as saying: “This is the judgment, that grace came into the world, but men preferred their works to the grace of God.”

The power of grace is nowhere more explicitly detailed than in Romans 8, whose summary conclusion is:

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

The power of grace is overwhelming, and underwrites all we do. But what happens when it doesn’t? What is the “unpardonable sin”? The notion of such a sin reminds us of the “irresistible force meets immovable object” paradox—could God create a stone too large for Him to move? Can there be a sin so venal, so egregious, that God cannot forgive it?

The concept of unpardonable sin has plagued Christians ever since Christ mentioned it. Here is that mention, along with its context:

Then a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute was brought to Jesus, and He healed him, so that the mute man spoke and saw. All the crowds were amazed, and were saying, “This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?” But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.”

And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges. But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can anyone enter the strong man’s house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.

He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters.

“Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12:22-32)

How is it that blasphemy against the Spirit cannot be overcome by grace? What exactly is the unpardonable sin? Is it an event, an occurrence, or a thing? Or is it a condition, an attitude, a posture? The lone intruder at the Wedding Feast ended up in outer darkness, so what was his unpardonable sin that grace would not let him stay?

Jesus further defined the unpardonable sin in the Sermon on the Mount. After teaching the disciples how to pray and the Lord’s Prayer, He told them:

For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Matthew 6:14-15)

What is it about grace that prevents it from covering the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? What is it about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that prevents it from being covered by a grace we know to be lavish? Is it because it is an insult, as Paul said in the third of the three quotes below, all of which may have a bearing on these questions:

Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. And this we will do, if God permits. For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame. (Hebrews 6:1-6)

For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, (Hebrews 2:1-3)

For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:26-29)

What does it mean, to “insult the Spirit of grace”? Does the parable of the two sinners enlighten us?…

Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35)

The extreme difference in the amount of the two debts is key to the parable. Ten thousand talents versus 100 denarii is the equivalent of about $10 million versus about $10,000 (3 months’ average worker’s wages) today. The lender is clearly undisciplined and careless in his lending. That is a metaphor for God’s lavish disbursement of grace, because no ordinary worker would ever be able to repay a $10 million debt—itself a metaphor for how hopeless is the task of atoning for our sins. What is unpardonable is the first slave’s insult to the Spirit of grace in failing to pass on even a tiny fraction of the grace he received to the second slave.

Jay: The rejection of the Holy Spirit is common to our understanding of the unpardonable sin. Some of us were taught that it is the rejection of the conscience, when we no longer accept the declaration, by our conscience, of something as evil. When we lose our conscience we have no more regret, sorrow, empathy for the effects of evil. But to me, this does not fit the narrative in which Pharisees questioned the source of the forgiveness—the grace—that Jesus bestowed upon the “demon-possessed” man. They saw it as originating from Satan.

To me, their sin was in trying to validate grace (or not) by assigning an origin to it. They claimed to know the source of grace well enough to understand who deserves it, who has the authority to pass it on, and whether an act is the result of grace or of evil.

The more one thinks one knows about grace, the more difficult it becomes to act as a neutral conduit for it. The unpardonable sin is to get to the point where one has poisoned the concept of grace so much that one can no longer pass it on. But it remains possible for one to receive grace.

The Bible has many injunctions against judging others. When we try to judge good from evil, when we try to establish ourselves and our religious institutions as judges of who deserves (or not) grace, we are in danger of denying ourselves grace.

Donald: It is made to sound as though there is no worse thing than to commit the unpardonable sin, but is it a single sin, a particular act; or is it a pattern of not passing on the grace over time? If it is a particular sin, and if all sins are equal, is there not a paradox? It seems more logical to think that it is a gradual numbing of our sense of the need to pass on grace. As we grow less able to forgive, do we grow less able to be forgiven?

Mikiko: All humans are sinners. We inherited the condition from Adam. But we are saved by grace through faith.

Don: Perhaps we can only be saved by grace and can be lost by our works!

David: I am struck by the statements of Jesus that He does not care what we say about Him—that blasphemy of Him is forgivable but failure to forgive our fellow human being is not. The unpardonable sin is the human interpersonal sin of failing to forgive one another. I think the notion of lack of conscience, which Jay mentioned, is right on. To me, the Holy Spirit is the inner light or voice inside everyone that shows and tells what is right and wrong. Our common word for the Holy Spirit is thus “conscience.” If you are divided against your conscience, you are a house divided against itself.

Donald: Do we hold all people to the same standard? Is it harder for us to forgive some people than others? Why? Who might be held to a higher standard? Are they those who say they represent the Spirit—the church, the elders, the pastors—those who profess to represent God in this world? Should we hold them to a higher standard when they make mistakes? There is a hierarchy within the church, so is there a corresponding hierarchy of expectations and does that make it harder for us to pass grace forward to them?

Kiran: C.S. Lewis said to a friend in need of some grace: “Think of me as a fellow patient in the same hospital who, having been admitted a little earlier could give some advice.” We are all in the hospital, spiritually, and come to it (i.e., to church) for healing. Is there a hierarchy? Am I sicker than you? We are all sick. If, because of my position in the hierarchy, I claim I am less sick than ordinary patients (church members) then I am only distancing myself from the physician, from God. The closer I am to God, the more aware I am of my wretchedness and the more humble I should be. It is an opportunity to align with the will of God and pass on the grace I receive. I suspect that many churchgoers are more inclined to assume they are less sinful than non-churchgoers, and more inclined to expect more of one another, but really, we are all held to the same standard.

Don: Perhaps the question is: Are there people who do not deserve our grace? What about those in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and the sports coaches, accused and found guilty of abuse of children—especially those not showing remorse and repentance? We seem to have reservations about sharing grace without some sign of contrition, some mea culpa, some apology. Does God expect that too?

Kiran: No. God has already extended his grace to them all, and it is hard for us to accept that.

Michael: I think they should be held accountable. I want to tell the bad priests that they are not fit to proclaim the message of God. I want to tell them to their faces that they are hypocrites. It seems odd that I should feel this way when they did not abuse me personally. But don’t we have an obligation to speak up, if only to stop it happening again? I think we do.

I am not sure how the unpardonable sin against the Spirit of grace can be connected to other people.

David: The issue is between the sinner and God. That means it is between us and the Spirit of grace—the Holy Spirit, God—inside us. So it is not a matter of our judging the guilt or expressing our opinion about how to make people accountable for their guilt. I don’t know the guilty Catholic priests in Ireland, but I am with Michael in feeling outraged at their behavior and am not prepared to forgive it at a distance. If I could meet them face to face, it would be different, I believe. Jesus has told us to try to resolve our disputes face-to-face with one another first, and only seek more distant intervention if that fails. It is sinner vs. sinner. It seems to me qualitatively, significantly, different to judge a fellow human being face-to-face versus judging him or her at a distance. It seems to me that what we are really condemning at a distance is not so much the individual (whom we do not know) but the individual’s action; not so much the sinner, but the sin.

Michael: In the end we may need to forgive, but I don’t think we should let people off the hook.

Kiran: Grace is transforming. It gives the recipient a chance to redeem him- or herself. The bad priests should be put in jail for what they did, even if we forgive them, to prevent further harm to children. We live in a sick society and we must do everything possible to protect our children. Yet we should forgive their abusers.

Donald: To ask for forgiveness is to admit one’s sinfulness. But we are saying that some sins are worse than others. We seem to be saying that the sin of child abuse is a worse sin if committed by a priest than it would be if committed by someone else. The revelations of sexual abuse on the part of the revered founder of the Willow Creek Community Church was spiritually devastating to its congregation but it did not tear the church apart. Since it did not involve children we seem to treat it as misbehavior more than as sin. What are we to do?

David: I think we are expected to separate the sin from the sinner. The parable of the two debtors surely is meant to show that the enormity of the sin (the size of the debt) is irrelevant to God: He is only concerned for the sinner, and will forgive any sinner except the sinner who refuses to forgive. I see judgment of the sin as being like the coin of Caesar—necessary for life on Earth but irrelevant, meaningless in the kingdom of heaven.

Mikiko: Grace and mercy are not the same. To summarize the difference: Mercy is God not punishing us though we deserve to be punished; grace is God blessing us despite the fact that we do not deserve it. Mercy is deliverance from judgment. Grace is extending kindness to the unworthy.

Don: Does God forgive un-confessed sin?

Anonymous: Rather, He brings it to our consciousness and waits to see what we do. Sometimes we forget forget what we’ve done and don’t realize we’ve sinned until, in a moment of prayer or meditation, it suddenly comes to mind.

Don: Suppose it comes to mind when we are at the point of death? Is it then too late? Are we lost?

Anonymous: My awareness is not a sin, to me.

Jay: I don’t think there are levels of sin, but I do think that there are different consequences—different humanly, but not spiritually. The human consequences of murder are great compared to those of telling a small lie. Some sins seem graver than others because the human consequences are graver. But we tend to commingle the human with the spiritual consequences. In the end, if grace is free, unconditional, and from God, it covers everybody—abusive priests, Adolf Hitler, Larry Nasser. The real question is what those people do with the grace offered to them, but the fact is that it is none of our business. As a parent, I want it to be my business at least so that I can teach my children about the impacts of sin.

I have always encouraged my children to be nice to people and to help people, and as they get older I encourage them to be nice, and helpful, even to people who are hard to be nice to, people they might not want to help. I think this is grace, but I also think it is exceedingly difficult to do in practice and our failure to do it leads us dangerously close to the unpardonable sin.

Michael: It’s easy for God to forgive people; it’s not so easy for us. Our whole concepts of law and morality are based on judgment, are they not? The concept of no punishment is interesting but would seem to be outside the law.

David: Can we not simultaneously punish and forgive? “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”

Jay: In society, consequences matter. Forgiveness does not necessarily pre-empt consequence, and it does not wipe the slate clean for you just so you can go and dirty it again.

David: Jesus told sinners he forgave: “Go, and sin no more.” There was a condition.

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