Are You Guilty of the Unpardonable Sin?

Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come. (Matthew 12:31-32, KJV)

Have you ever thought about what specifically was involved in sinning the unpardonable sin? What did the Scribes and Pharisees do that caused Jesus to lay into them as He did? Can one still sin that way today?

Whatever it is, the Roman Catholic Church must be pleased that Jesus said what He did, for these verses are used to support the wonderfully imaginative doctrine of Purgatory. One of the earliest Catholic figures to voice this doctrine was Pope Gregory the Great (590-604):

"1031…As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoeveer utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in the age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come. (St. Gregory the Great, Dial. 4,39:PL77, 396; cf Mt 12:31)" -- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., © 1994/1997, United States Catholic Conference, Inc.

We'll get to that suggestion that some offenses can be forgiven in the age to come a bit farther down this post. Before that, let's take a look at what led Jesus to say what He said and what His words mean.

In Chapter 11, we learn that the Pharisees were planning to destroy Christ (v. 14). Jesus knew of this and left the area, with a crowd following behind Him, seeking to be healed. Christ healed them all. Then a man was brought to Him who was blind, mute and demon-possessed and Christ cured him as well. This really amazed the crowd, who began murmuring that He might be the Son of David they had been waiting for.

Well, the Pharisees weren't at all happy to hear what the folks were saying. They began their own muttering (Verse 24), saying that Jesus was casting out demons by the power of the ruler of the demons. Jesus knew what they were thinking and set the record straight. Then He spoke the words quoted at the head of this article. What did the words mean?

The sin that Jesus confronts in verses 31 and 32 was the Pharisees' deliberate rejection of what they knew to be of God (Cf. John 11:48; Acts 4:16). They had seen what Jesus did and could not deny the reality of what the Holy Spirit had done through Him. So they gave credit to Satan for what they knew was of God.

Christ is not here saying that someone who has never been exposed to Christ's divine power and rejects Him out of ignorance cannot be forgiven – assuming the unbelief gives way to saving faith. The experience of Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee, is ample proof of that. As a Pharisee, Saul often spoke against the Son of Man, and even persecuted His followers, yet Saul surely was forgiven because his unbelief was the product of ignorance.

Those who know His claims are true and reject Him anyway are sinning against the Holy Spirit because it is the Spirit who testifies of Christ and makes His truth known to us (John 15:26; 16:14-15). No forgiveness was possible for those Pharisees who witnessed His miracles first-hand and knew the truth of His claims. They blasphemed the Holy Spirit because they rejected the fullest possible revelation.

Is it still possible to blaspheme the Holy Spirit now that Jesus is in Heaven and seated at the right hand of the Father? Now that we cannot get eyeball evidence of Him personally healing the halt and the lame? There is a school of thought that argues this sin is not now possible. I subscribe to that school.

Not everyone believes as I do, however. The Roman Catholic Church certainly does not.

1864 Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven." (Mt 12:31; cf. Mk 3:29; Lk 12:10). There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. (Cf. John Paul II, DeV 46), Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss." -- Catechism of the Catholic Church, Op. cit

There it is, that RCC works thing again. Once again, we see that, in Roman Catholic theology, God is not sovereign. Oh, He might wish to be merciful and offer forgiveness, but He apparently is powerless to sovereignly save anyone unless they first demonstrate a willingness to accept it by repenting. To make matters worse, it would appear that this unwillingness to repent in order to accept God's mercy can lead to the RCC version of the unpardonable sin.

I didn't see any mention of the Sacrament of Baptism in the quoted paragraph. Now I am getting confused. Sometimes it seems as though different people, working in separate areas, put together the Catechism without consulting one another before going to press. Does repentance result in forgiveness of sins or is it baptism that results in forgiveness and regeneration? Could it be that one must repent before he might be baptized? That would preserve baptism as the means to forgiveness, regeneration and admittance into the Body of Christ. Was Saul of Tarsus repenting or had he been baptized when he encountered our Lord on the road to Damascus, or was he saved by a sovereign act of God? (Acts 9:1-5) Something to think about.

REMISSION OF SINS: The forgiveness of sins, which is accomplished in us through faith and Baptism, as the fruit of the redemptive sacrifice of Christ on the cross. . .Christ gave the power to remit sins to his Apostles , and through them to the ministers of the Church . . .The remission of sins committed after Baptism is effected sacramentally through the Sacrament of Penand (or Reconciliation). -- Catechism of the Catholic Church, Op. cit.

Anyway, back to the unpardonable sin. Though many people rejected Jesus as Messiah, the Son of God, during His earthly ministry, these can be forgiven, for Jesus' divinity was obscured by His human condition. However, when He accomplished public miracles such as feeding a multitude of thousands with just a few handfuls of food, or raising the dead from the grave, or giving sight to the blind, it could only have been by the wonderful power of God, in these cases, the Holy Spirit. To deny that these were the works of God and, instead, attribute them to Satan was blasphemy, pure and simple.

"Fine," you might say, "but why can't this sin be forgiven? Isn't God all-powerful?" Sure. God is all-powerful and His mercy is without limits, but there is a catch. Those whose hearts are so hardened that they reject the evidence of Divine action right before their eyes, that they can look God in the eye and say that His miracles were done by the power of Satan, are spiritually dead and cannot call upon the name of the Lord and be saved. Clearly, these spiritually dead Pharisees had not been, nor would they ever be, quickened by the Holy Spirit and never would receive God's gift of saving grace.

The Catholic view of this is, as expressed by two priestly apologists, is similar – with some noteworthy exceptions.

Man's sins are forgiven only by his receiving and accepting the grace of God, which is bestowed upon him by the Holy Spirit. Man sins against the Holy Spirit when he deliberately, persistently, and maliciously rejects grace. Forgiveness is a gift of God. The man who rejects the Holy Spirit refuses forgiveness. Should he cease to oppose the Spirit, his sin could be forgiven. But from the forcefulness of our Lord's words we judge it is not very probable that the sinner who maliciously rejects the Spirit will ever reform. -- Kenneth Ryan & Msgr J. D. Conway, What Would You Like to Know About the Catholic Church?, Carillon Books/Catholic Digest (1976), pp. 274-75)

The exceptions? Well, the sin that Jesus referred to in verse 32 was not that the Pharisees rejected or opposed the Holy Spirit, thereby refusing forgiveness. Their sin was that, though they knew Jesus to be Messiah and, therefore, that the miracles He performed were done by the very power of God, they attributed these miracles not to God the Holy Spirit but to a demon, Beelzebub. In other words, they blasphemed against God the Holy Spirit. Yet the Romish teaching is that they rejected grace and opposed the Holy Spirit. This is a significant difference.

The other noteworthy exception is the assertion that "man's sins are forgiven only by his receiving and accepting" God's grace. This smacks of Arminian theology; that it is ultimately man who, cooperating with God, determines whether or not to accept the offer of forgiveness and salvation that God tenders. In this line of thinking, God is not sovereign, at least when it comes to soteriology, and is limited by the exercise of man's will. If this were so, then God would not be almighty. If He were not almighty, would He indeed be God at all?

As I mentioned above, I do not believe it is possible to commit the unpardonable sin now that Jesus is returned to Glory and is seated at the Father's side.

The question that may be asked is, Can the sin against the Holy Spirit be committed today? To commit the sin of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit would require the physical presence of Jesus Christ in which He would teach and perform miracles while the hearers and onlookers would reject His ministry saying He is working by the power of Satan. The sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not the same as unbelief. There is no indication in Scripture that if a person has once refused the gospel that he will never again have an opportunity to believe nor is there a particular sin today that cannot be forgiven. Who has not refused the gospel the first time they heard it but later came to believe in Christ? Of course unbelief will not be forgiven if a person permanently persists in unbelief. -- Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, Moody Press (1989), pp. 265-66)

But the Roman Catholic Church disagrees. According to the folks who write the rules at the Vatican, there are several ways to sin against the Holy Spirit, but there is something unusual in how they list them:

29. Which are the Six Sins against the Holy Spirit?

1. Presumption of God's mercy; 2. Despair; 3. Resisting the known Christian truth; 4. Envy at another's spiritual good; 5. Obstinacy in sin; and 6. Final impenitence… -- Joseph DeHarbe, S.J., A Complete Catechism of the Catholic Religion, 6th American Edition, Schwarz, Kirwin & Fauss (1924), p. 229; has Nihil Obstat & Imprimitur

There you have it. The Scriptures teach that the unpardonable sin the Pharisees were guilty of was that of knowing Jesus was the Son of God, yet attributed His miracles He did before their eyes to the power of Satan. It is no longer possible to commit this sin. Catholic teaching, on the other hand, holds that there is a multitude of ways to sin against the Holy Spirit even today.

Oh, well. I suppose the more sins there are, the more dependent one is on priestly intervention. But can a priest forgive sins against the Holy Spirit? Christ said the sin against the Holy Spirit would not be forgiven in this world or the next. It gets so confusing, doesn't it?

As I mentioned earlier, the passage at the head of this article is often used to justify the imaginative Catholic doctrine of Purgatory – particularly the words (from the Douay-Rheims this time): "It will not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come."

1030 All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. (Cf. Council of Florence (1439):DS 1304; Council of Trent (1563):DS 1820; (1547):1580; see also Benedict XII, Benedictus Deus (1336):DS 1000) The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire: (Cf. 1 Cor 3:15; 1 Pet 1:7).

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come (St. Gregory the Great, Dial. 4,39:PL 77,396; cf. Mt 12:31)

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: "Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin." (2 Macc 12:46) From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. (Cf. Council of Lyons II (1274):DS 856) The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them. (St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in 1 Cor. 41,5:PG 61,361; cf. Job 1:5) -- Catechism of the Catholic Church, Op. cit.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a source document for use by priests, bishops and laity. It is not intended to replace all other catechisms; simply to augment them and form a basis for doctrinal training. In other words, it is not THE single source of Catholic catechetics. Let's see what other Catholic educators have to say concerning Purgatory.

The Catholic Church has defined the existence of purgatory in the Decree of Union drawn up at the Council of Florence in 1439, and again at the Council of Trent which says: "The Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Spirit, has from Sacred Scriptures and the ancient traditions of the Fathers taught in Sacred Councils, and very recently in this Ecumenical Synod, that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar. -- Bertrand L. Conway, C.S.P., The Question Box, Paulist Press (1962), pp. 315-16; has Nihil Obstat & Imprimitur)

Wow! Defined by two ecumenical councils. That means that the existence of Purgatory is a dogma established by the infallible Extraordinary Magisterium. If you are Catholic, there can be no doubt concerning the existence of a place called Purgatory. Or can there?

Catholic theologian and church historian John Deedy writes concerning Purgatory:

"…There's a lot about a Heaven and a Hell in the New Testament, but nothing specific about a Purgatory. In fact, Catholic exegetes must go to the Old Testament for their strongest scriptural support of such a place – to 2 Maccabees 12:42ff. And the taking up there of a collection as an expiatory offering for soldiers who had been slain in sin.

Thus it is Jewish belief in the efficacy of prayers for the dead that underpins Catholic teaching in favor of a condition of temporary punishment in a spot called Purgatory for those who have died in God's grace but are not entirely free from so-called venial sin…Purgatory remains very much a Catholic doctrine, as the Feast of All Souls on November 2 makes abundantly clear. But at the same time Purgatory is really a pious Catholic tradition. It is not an article of faith. -- John Deedy, Facts, Myths & Maybes, Thomas More (1993), pp.96-99

Actually, Florence and Trent did not "define" Purgatory in the sense that Vatican I explained concerning infallible teachings. However, Roman Catholic dogmatic writings are liberally salted with mention of Purgatory; e.g., Denzinger 456, 570s, 693, 777, 998, etc. Deedy says Purgatory is a pious Catholic tradition and not an article of faith. On the other hand, the 5th Lateran Council produced the Bull Exsurge Domine (promulgated by Leo X on June 15, 1520), signed off by Popes Hadrian VI and Clement VII, which condemns the errors of Martin Luther, among them four concerning purgatory (Denzinger 777, 778, 779, 780) The list of errors ends with this paragraph:

Censure of the Holy Pontiff: 'All and each of the above mentioned articles or errors, so to speak, as set before you, we condemn, disapprove, and entirely reject as respectively heretical, or scandalous, or false, or offensive to pious ears, or seductive of simple minds, and in opposition to Catholic truth.' -- Denzinger 781

Okay. Maybe we should look at what some other Catholic catechists have to say about Purgatory.

The traditional Catholic translation of Matthew 12:32, is similar to that quoted above from the King James Bible. The Douay-Rheims version ays of the man who speaks against the Holy Ghost, "It will not be forgiven hiim, neither in this world, nor in the world to come."

In past centuries many Catholic scholars thought they had found in these words a proof of the existence of Purgatory. My Douay-Rheims Bible, in a footnote, names St. Augustine and St. Gregory the Great among those who held this opinion. Here is the usual argument: Jesus, when He says that this particular sin will not be forgiven in the next world, implies that other sins may be forgiven there. But in hell there is no possibility of forgiveness, and in heaven there is nothing to be forgiven; so there must be a third place, intermediary between heaven and hell, where some sins will be forgiven.

But there is probably no reference to purgatory here. We have just a translation of a Semetic idiom which is simply a forceful way of saying never. The Greek word which we translate as age or world is aion, which means a period of time: a lifetime, an eternity. Our word eon, or aeon, is derived from it. Both St. Matthew and St. Mark use aion in the verses we have quoted. Matthew says the sin will not be forgiven either in this age or the future one. Mark uses aion twice: 'He will not be forgiven in eternity, but is guilty of eternal sin.' -- Kenneth Ryan & Msgr J. D. Conway, Op. cit., pp. 275

And Catholic polemists like to point to conflicting and confusing non-Catholic doctrines and interpretations of Scripture. Looks to me like the Catholic doctrinal closet could use some cleaning as well. After reading the foregoing, is it any wonder that Catholics so often appear to be confused about the teachings of their religion?

The truth is in the Scriptures. Seek it there.

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