Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute; and he cured him, so that the one who had been mute could speak and see…. But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, ‘It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.’ He knew what they were thinking and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?… But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you… Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come’.(Matthew 12:22-32, abridged)
It’s not masturbation. I can tell you that much. And it’s not accidentally saying rude words about God in your head. But before I say what I believe the ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’ really is, first I owe you an apology. Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It is almost a month since my last confession… I mean blog post. I have two possible excuses: 1) in the first two weeks I was struggling with a memoir I’m trying to write, which is quite different from anything I’ve written before; 2) In the second two weeks I was writing Bible reading notes on part of John’s Gospel (look for them in BRF’s New Daylight next Spring), and who wants to write a Biblical interpretation blog at the same time as writing Bible notes?
Anyway, the sin against the Holy Spirit. Actually, that phrase doesn’t occur in the New Testament at all. What does occur, in the Synoptic Gospels, is a reference to ‘speaking’ or ‘blaspheming’ against the Holy Spirit. This is clearly a sin of speech, not behaviour. One might in fact call it a sin of definition, or even a sin of hermeneutics. Out of context, it could be almost anything. But in context, it seems perfectly clear to me that it consists quite simply of labelling what God calls good as evil, and vice versa. The Pharisees see what is evidently the work of God, and they call it the work of Beelzebul – a god of idolatry. It’s especially poignant that we are alerted to this sin of speech in the context of healing a man who is mute. Those who formerly had no voice, can speak, but those with the strongest voice, get it wrong.
Phew. What a relief. Teenage Christians (if there are any such reading this), you can stop worrying in the middle of the night about whether you have inadvertently committed the unforgivable sin and condemned yourself to eternal torment (not that I believe the Bible teaches any such thing as eternal torment…).
But maybe… maybe we shouldn’t let ourselves off so lightly. For this is the sin most likely to be committed by devout Christians. What if, when we see a change happening in the world or church, we automatically dismiss it as a falling away from our honoured traditions, a departure from Christian orthodoxy – when in actual fact, it’s a move of the Spirit of Jesus, an example of God doing a new thing? Could we be doing something unforgivable? (and why is it unforgivable? Is it because, when we believe our reaction stems from righteousness, we will never be in a position to ask for forgiveness?). It’s a hard, challenging question, especially when we think about it in relation to current controversies. Christians, beware. When voices are raised in support of radical changes in church or society, we have to be very careful how we respond. For we might just be calling unholy what God calls holy. And for that, there can never be forgiveness… because we will never know we need it.