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The sin against the Holy Spirit

Understanding a difficult passage of Scripture

Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” Wikimedia Commons

The sin against the Holy Spirit

Tomorrow, Oct. 31, is Reformation Day, which led to preaching once again becoming central in church services. I had the privilege for three years of hearing in person the sermons of Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. Here, reprinted by permission, is the conclusion of “The Sin Against the Holy Spirit,” one of Keller’s sermons on hard Bible passages. For more Keller sermons, go to the “Gospel in Life” podcast. —Marvin Olasky

The only people Jesus ever really warns about blaspheming the Holy Spirit in this directly are religious people. If you go to the passage we are going to look at in Mark 3, or if you go to Matthew 12, or Luke 12, who is he talking to? He’s not talking to everybody in general. He’s talking to religious leaders. He’s talking to moral people. He’s talking to good people. He’s talking to people who know the Bible.

You say, “Yes, of course, but they don’t believe in Jesus.” Well, there’s another passage in the Bible that sounds awfully similar. It’s in Hebrews 6, and basically, it goes like this. I’ll just only read you a part of it. In Hebrews 6:4-6 it says, “It is impossible for those who shared in the Holy Spirit, tasted the goodness of the word, and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to be renewed to repentance.” Jesus says something very similar in Matthew 7:22: “Many will say to me on that day,”—many—“‘Did we not prophecy in your name, cast out demons, and do miracles in your name?’ and I will tell them, ‘I never knew you.’”

The Holy Spirit’s job is to show us who Jesus is. But why is he warning especially religious people against resisting the Spirit?

Think about the people Jesus encounters in his life. Do you realize that over and over and over again the New Testament records pairs of people that Jesus meets? There is Simon the Pharisee and the sexual outcast, the woman in Luke 7. There is Nicodemus, the Pharisee and religious leader, and the political and social outcast, the Samaritan woman in John 3 and 4. There are respectable people in the crowd surrounding Jesus, but he singles out Zacchaeus, the social outcast. In Luke 15 there is the brother who stays home and the younger brother who goes off and squanders his father’s money on prostitutes.

Every single place where you have a religious person and a nonreligious person—a good person, an upstanding person, a person who is in ministry, a person who believes the Bible; and a person who’s broken and outcast and who is living a licentious life—Jesus Christ calls them both in. In every case, the faster one, or sometimes the only one, to respond, is the irreligious person. You are more likely to miss the gospel if you’re religious and good than if you’re not. How in the world can that be? Well, actually, it’s quite interesting.

Jesus Christ calls them both in. In every case, the faster one, or sometimes the only one, to respond, is the irreligious person.

N.T. Wright, who is one of the best, one of the most prominent New Testament scholars today, says that we see the Pharisees are resisting Jesus’s redefinition of the kingdom. What does that mean? The Pharisees understanding of the kingdom of God was this: We’re going to live a good life, so good that it will force God to send the Messiah to get the Romans off our backs. That was the Pharisee’s understanding—we’re going to live a good life, we’re going to be really moral, because the reason God has abandoned Israel is that we’ve abandoned the law. So now we’re going to be completely holy, we’re going to be absolutely righteous, we’re going to go to worship all the time, we’re going to obey, obey, obey, and God will reward us by sending a Messiah who will put the good people back on top and punish the bad, evil people (meaning the pagans and the less-righteous than us). But Jesus Christ came and redefined the kingdom of God.

What was that redefinition? First of all, he himself came in weakness and in love and in service, which was not at all what they were expecting. Second, he said the real problem is not Rome, the problem is the sin and evil in all of your hearts, the “good” people and the bad. And finally, he said, therefore, it’s not the good people who are in and the bad people who are out; it’s the humble people who are in and the proud people who are out. The Pharisees could not handle that.

This is the context into which Jesus teaches about the sin against the Holy Spirit and “not knowing” those who had lived impeccable religious lives. More than other people, more than the non-religious, it is religious people who have trouble understanding the gospel.

Why? Well, religion is the opposite of the gospel. Religion is: I give God a good life, then God rewards me. But the gospel is: God through Jesus Christ gives me a perfect record. Jesus came to live the life I should have lived and die the death I should have died; now that we’re accepted, we will live for him.

Religion is outside-in. If I live a good life, God will come in and bless me. But the gospel is inside-out. In the gospel, I receive the acceptance I have because of what Jesus Christ has done, and that brings an inner sweetness into my life, and that flows out into my life and into a life of mercy and service.

Because of this confusion, religious people think they’ve heard the gospel, but they haven’t, and this is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. This is what Hebrews 6 is talking about that is so frightening. Hebrews 6 and Matthew 7: “Didn’t we do great deeds in your name?”

I’m really sorry that I have to give you such a sober statement here at the end. I really wrestled with this, but I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t unfold it. The blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is religious people who come into Christianity, who get baptized, who learn the Bible, who get very active in the church, rise up into leadership, and they think they’ve understood the gospel, but they don’t get it. Every other religion says, “If you live a good life, then God will reward you.” But the gospel is the opposite, and that’s hard to take in.

The gospel is you were saved by sheer grace. You’re no better than anybody else. Religion creates people who look down on others; the gospel creates love and respect, even for people with whom we deeply differ. Religion creates people who only say their prayers, but there’s no love and intimacy in their prayer life, whereas the gospel creates an intimacy in your prayer life—there’s as much adoration and love as there is petition. Religion creates people who don’t believe fully that they would ever do bad things, so they have trouble forgiving, but the gospel creates people who are forgiving because they are so aware that they have been forgiven.

When people say “I made a decision for Christ,” or they say “I’m living for Christ,” “I surrendered to Christ,” and they may believe that God has to reward them now because of something they’ve done. In that case, Christ isn’t really their savior, he’s their example, even if they think they’ve received him as savior. This is not what you want to hear if you think in those terms about your salvation.

Why do you think Hebrews 6 can say it’s possible to minister and know the Bible and see people’s lives changed by the Holy Spirit, just like the Pharisees were saying, and yet really miss the gospel? I’ve seen this happen many times: People who affiliate with Christianity and yet their lives aren’t really changed. They’re always a bit angry because they think God is not treating them as they deserve.

Do you feel like that? That’s because you really believe you’re saved by your works. If you’re always feeling, “I’ve lived a pretty good live, so why isn’t my life going very well? I deserve better,” that shows that you’re basically living as if you’re a Pharisee, as if you’re a religious person, no matter what you say on your gospel exam at church. You haven’t fully understood the way Jesus Christ has redefined the kingdom of God, so you are living as if you are saved by your works. That may mean that you’re always grumpy about God, or you’re having trouble being forgiving to other people, or you look down your nose at people you think are sinful, and inside there isn’t an intimacy with him.

You can be in the church for years and years and years, and inside you know you’re basically empty. You might like this or that pastor, you might like this or that sermon, you might like the fact that the church is growing, but you’re empty. You haven’t been changed. And what can happen over the years, or after many years, a temptation comes along, or after you move to another town and you don’t like any of the churches, Christianity becomes dead to you. And when you turn away from Christianity finally, after that experience, it’s not that you’re not forgivable. You’re not repentable.

Because no matter what people tell you, you think you tried Christianity. But you didn’t.

Because no matter what people tell you, you think you tried Christianity. But you didn’t. And you can’t be convinced, because you think you know what Christianity is all about. There is nothing worse than being in the church, being in a conservative evangelical church, as a Pharisee. But Jesus Christ has the audacity to say in Matthew 7, that at the last day, many, (what a horrifying word!), many will come to me that day and say we were teaching and preaching, planting churches, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked, all in your name—in your name—and Jesus will say, “I never knew you.”

Phariseeism inside the church is devastating for you. Not only for you, but it’s devastating for the people in the world, because they look at your life, and you look like everybody else. How can the world know the difference between religion and the gospel if the average person in church doesn’t know the difference between religion and the gospel?

Is there a word of hope? Let’s not forget the first point.

I listened to a series of tapes years ago by Dick Lucas, a British preacher, on the prodigal son. I was so struck by one sermon in particular. He entitled it, “Jesus Pleads with His Critics,” because what’s so interesting about the end of the parable of the prodigal son, as I’ve already suggested, is that the younger brother, the messed-up person, comes back to the father, repents, and he goes into the father’s feast, which means he’s saved, because that’s the heavenly banquet. But the elder brother, who has always lived with his father, will not go in, because he does not like the way the father is showing generosity to his messed-up brother. And as we see, the elder brother is further away from the father’s heart than the younger brother ever was. But he can’t see it.

Why? Because he didn’t realize he was spiritually gone as much as his missing brother had been. And that’s the reason why religious people are the most likely to miss the gospel and the most likely to resist the Holy Spirit. That’s what Jesus is saying here. It’s easy to miss it: At the end of the parable of the prodigal son, the father comes out and pleads with his older son. And Dick Lucas actually says, that’s Jesus Christ, pleading with religious people, with the Pharisees, the people he’d given the parable to. What Dick Lucas says is, “We must not be moralistic about moralistic people.” There are people who came to Redeemer partly because they were raised in a church with moralistic people and at Redeemer they heard a different message. Good. That’s good. I’m glad.

But we must never become moralistic about moralistic people. It’s never right to say we have the truth, and all these other churches don’t. We must never do that. Never. The father doesn’t just welcome the younger brother; he also welcomes the older brother. The father doesn’t just care about the visible sinner, like the publican and the prostitute, but also the Pharisee. The father doesn’t just go out for the visibly messed up, but also for the preacher, and pleads, because he loves his soul.

Here’s your word of assurance. If you’re afraid you’ve committed the unpardonable sin, you haven’t. That worry, even the worry that I might be missing God—I want him, I don’t want to miss him—you’re not capable of that kind of worry. Only the Holy Spirit can create that kind of worry, so celebrate your anxiety today. We have a God of grace who is so powerful, so powerful in his grace that your anxiety that maybe you’re missing him is a sign that he’s working. Pardon my sin, O Lord, because it is great. What a God.

Let’s pray.

Our Father, we thank you that this enigmatic and difficult saying about the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is very good news, though sobering good news. We pray that you would show us how to be a church that practices, and a people who take it seriously and avoid the pitfalls it warns against, and experience the transformation of character that the gospel of grace can create in us, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.


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