Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Unpardonable Sin

I’m starting a new series this morning. I thought it would be good to look at some of the challenging parts of the Bible. Some of these are challenging because they are hard to understand and others because they are hard to obey. It would be good if you prayed for me as I study in preparation to preach. Pray that I would do a good job understanding and then explaining these passages.

Today, I’m going to start with what I’m guessing is a bit of Scripture that you all have found challenging. I’m going to talk to you about the unpardonable sin. This Scripture has been challenging for lots of people. After all, we’ve all been told that Jesus has come so that we can be forgiven our sins. And yet, there’s a sin that can’t be forgiven? What does that mean? And how should we respond to that? I have some answers to those questions.

Let’s start by reading what Jesus says about this sin.

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And [Jesus] called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house. ​Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”Mark 3.22-30

So, a person could respond to Jesus in some terrible way, might even have a hand in His murder, and yet be forgiven. But if a person responds to the Spirit in some terrible way he will never be forgiven. Is that what Jesus is saying? Yes, it is.

Let’s begin by being clear what this sin is not. Though Jesus refers to something that someone might say, there’s more going on than merely uttering the wrong words. The scribes who confronted Jesus said something pretty nasty about the Spirit. They called the Spirit unclean, that is, unholy. How wicked! But they are not yet beyond the reach of Jesus’ forgiveness. He actually appeals to them by the parables that He tells them. He’s calling them to repent so that they can be forgiven. Forgiveness is still a possibility for them. They have not yet committed this unforgiveable sin. From this we can say that this sin is more than blowing it once by saying the wrong words. It’s more than words. And that fits since our sin is always more than just some behavior. Our sin always finds its roots in our hearts.

That’s one clue about what this sin is. Here’s another. This sin is tied to the Spirit. It’s some sort of reaction uniquely to Him but not to Jesus or the Father. This sin is about something that the Spirit alone does. So, the next thing that we need to do is to consider the ministry of the Spirit.

Let’s take a look at the respective roles of the three Persons of the Trinity. The Father determines to rescue sinners. Redemption is His plan. Jesus, the Son, is sent by the Father to provide for that rescue. He comes to live among us to establish a perfect righteousness and to satisfy the just penalty for sin. And what does the Spirit do? He is the member of the Trinity who applies the benefits planned by the Father and acquired by the Son. Any good that you enjoy from the Gospel is yours only because the Spirit gives it to you. He, and He alone, grants the blessings of the Gospel to you. That is the heart of His ministry.

This is where it would be good to consider some things that are written about this ministry of the Spirit. These are warnings about how not to respond to the Spirit’s ministry.

First, some commands from the Apostle Paul.

Do not quench the Spirit. 1 Thessalonians 5.19

…do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Ephesians 4.30

Then, there’s this from Stephen’s speech before the Jewish council.

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Acts 7.51

It is possible to fight against the Spirit. And as what Stephen said makes clear, this is not something limited to after Jesus’ arrival.

As your fathers did, so do you.

Listen to the same issue from the days before His coming.

This is from a prayer of contrition found in Nehemiah.

Many years you bore with them and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets. Yet they would not give ear. Therefore you gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands. Nehemiah 9.30

And this is from Isaiah’s prophecy.

But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them. Isaiah 63.10

Here, we see how the Father tried to lead His people by His Holy Spirit. And what happened? They would not listen. No, instead they grieved the Spirit and rebelled against Him. And did you notice the consequence that both passages referred to? Listen again.

Therefore you gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands.

…therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them.

The people turned against their God by rejecting the ministry of His Spirit. So, their God turned against them.

What this looked like in the days before the Incarnation was that the people of God were invaded, conquered and exiled. Or we could say that they were excommunicated from God’s presence. It’s just like what happened to Adam and Eve. Alienation from God.

David is a good example of someone who understood the danger, who understood what God might do. Listen to a part of his prayer of confession.

Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Psalms 51.11

What is David afraid of? He’s afraid of being cast away from God, of forfeiting the presence of the Spirit. How does David know that this might happen? He remembers what happened to King Saul.

Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord terrorized him. 1 Samuel 16.14 [NASV]

David remembered and, as a result, he pleads with God lest he experience the same fate.

Nothing has changed now that Jesus has come. The threat is the same. Alienation from God. Forfeiting the presence of the Spirit.

There is something in Hebrews that shows the connection between forfeiting the presence of the Spirit and the unpardonable sin.

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance… Hebrews 6.4-6

There is much going on here. But here’s what I want you to see. This warning concerns those who ‘have shared in the Holy Spirit’. In some way or other, they have been ministered to by the Spirit. And yet, they ‘have fallen away’.

Another way that you can label their situation is that they have committed the unpardonable sin.

Why do I say that? If you set aside the qualifying phrases and just read the basic sentence of that passage in Hebrews, this is what you have.

It is impossible … to restore them again to repentance…

This is the key. It’s not that God refuses to forgive those who repent and come to Him seeking forgiveness. It’s that they don’t repent and come. They don’t repent because they are no longer able to repent.

It is impossible … to restore them again to repentance…

That will make sense when you remember that the ability to repent is something that the Spirit gives. It’s part of His ministry of applying the benefits of the Gospel to you.

Consider what happened when Peter reported to the church how he preached the Gospel to Cornelius, a Gentile, who then believed the Gospel. Remember that up to that point the church had been exclusively Jewish.

When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” Acts 11.18

Then, there’s Paul’s instructions to Timothy.

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth…2 Timothy 2.24–25

The ability to repent is a gift of God’s grace. It is something that the Spirit ministers. And you can see how that is fitting for the Spirit to do when you remember that He is the one who points out sin that needs to be repented of.

So, just as the Spirit grants the grace of repentance, He can deny that grace. And where there is no repentance there can be no forgiveness. This is what Jesus is warning about. This is the unpardonable sin.

And this is how that happens. There are those who enjoy something of the ministry of the Spirit. But then, in various ways, they refuse to listen to Him. They quench the Spirit, grieve the Spirit, resist the Spirit. Though the Spirit continues to call them to repentance, they continue to refuse. So, at that point, the Spirit abandons the person. At that point, the Spirit removes the ability to repent. And that is why such a person cannot be forgiven. That’s the unpardonable sin.

That explains what Jesus was talking about. Now, how should you respond to this?

Here’s the first thing I want you to see. God has expectations of you, His people. And if they are not met, He will act. There are consequences, sometimes even dire consequences, when His expectations are not met. The implications of that are obvious. You need to take His expectations seriously. You need to work at meeting them. Or to use the language of one of the membership questions, ‘in humble reliance on the grace of the Holy Spirit’, you need to ‘endeavor to live as becomes a follower of Christ’. All I’m calling you to do is what you already promised you would do. You need to work at this.

This is where it would be good to remind you of something that God said to Moses.

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness… Exodus 34.6

Your God is incredibly patient with you. Just a little reflection over how you have lived, how you have failed, how you have sinned, and yet are still accepted by Him - that is proof enough of His patience. He is gracious and slow to anger. That is something you need to hold on to. Without it, you’ll be crushed.

However, His patience is no excuse for anyone to think that it’s okay to ignore their sins, to fail to deal with their sins by repentance and faith in Jesus. No coasting! Such a person needs to grasp that there can come a point when forgiveness for sin will be impossible because repentance will be impossible.

This explains those warnings about quenching, grieving and resisting the Spirit. These warnings are a result of both God’s patience as well as His seriousness about His expectations. He warns because He is patient, giving time to repent. How gracious! But He also warns because He has expectations that He will enforce.

Take the warnings seriously. God means them seriously. Don’t quench, grieve or resist the Spirit. Obey Him quickly. No excuses for neglect or talk about postponing obedience. Obey the Spirit quickly. That’s something to pray about.

This is another place where you need to help each other. If you take seriously those warning for yourself, shouldn’t you take them seriously for the other people here? If you see someone here starting to drift away, if you notice a reluctance to repent of sin, say something. Warn that person. Remind them about arriving at a place where there will be no forgiveness. And if someone comes to you with a concern about how it appears that you are not responding well to the Spirit, listen to what they have to say. Yes, they may be wrong. But, then again, they may be right.

Now, last question. Why is this important? I have three answers.

Here’s my first. I want to see all of you in the age to come. I want us to have a glorious reunion then, complete with hugs and kisses and stories of God’s faithfulness to share. That’s why I’m telling you to be careful how you respond to the Spirit. So, this is what I want you to do. When the Spirit points out some sin, repent of it quickly. When He points to some command, obey it quickly. When He points to some promise, believe it quickly. If you work at this, you will flourish. If you don’t, you just might be excluded because of your unpardonable sin. And I don’t want that for any of you.

Here’s a second answer to why this is important. We live in a time when the knowledge of God is at a very low ebb. Churches are filled with people who get excited about God’s love. And they should get excited about that. There’s so much to be excited about when it comes to His love. But churches need to be filled with people who are also excited about God’s expectations and how He enforces those expectations. Failure here can be fatal. And actually, if you want to be excited about God’s love, you will need to be excited about His expectations. And the reverse is also true. It’s not either/or, but both/and. Each one feeds the other.

So, what I want is for all of you to grow in your understanding of God and His ways. I actually think that many of you will have an important role in the life of many saints in the future. There will tremendous needs, tremendous opportunities, as the lives of many fall apart. Far too many Christians are just not ready for the hard times that are coming. You can help to meet their needs because of what you understand about who God is and how He acts.

And that leads to my third answer to why all of this is important. The need of the day, and more so in the future, is for Christians who are wise. I want you to become very wise people. I want you to grow and grow and grow in your wisdom. That’s actually what this sermon is about, wisdom. My first answer to why this is important was about understanding yourself and my second answer was about understanding God. And what are they but two aspects of wisdom. I want you all to become wiser than what you think is possible. Remember, our God does exceedingly abundantly beyond. The need is great and will be greater, but I think that you can be used to meet it. Preparing you for that is one of my most important goals.

So, listen to the Spirit. Listen and be a blessing.