Forgiveness for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and apostasy

In this post, I’ll look at two passages of Scripture that have troubled people for two thousand years. The first is found in Mark 3:28-30, and has caused many to fear that God will never forgive their blasphemy. The second is separated into two parts, the first in Hebrews 6:4-6 and the companion in Hebrews 10:26-31. These two sets of verses have caused people to fear that they can lose their salvation for committing apostasy. As we shall see, God forgives everyone who repents for their sins and believes in Jesus, no matter what sins they have committed.

We’ll start with Mark 3:28-30, which says:

28 “Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter;
29 “but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation” —
30 because they said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Here we have a riddle. First Christ says, “all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter.” This implies God will forgive any blasphemy. However, he follows that statement with, “but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness.” What are we to make of this seeming contradiction? Blasphemy is defined by Merriam-Webster as, “the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God.” Therefore, since the Holy Spirit is God, all blasphemy is against the Holy Spirit, (as well as the other two persons of the Holy Trinity). Our task is to find out what the special meaning is that Christ gives to what he calls, “he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit.” This must be more than simply to insult the Holy Spirit, otherwise it would fall under the statement “all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter.” So to what does Christ refer?

It is the Holy Spirit who does the special work of drawing people to God for salvation. John 15:26 says, “But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.” And John 16:7-11 says:

7 ¶ “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.
8 “And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:
9 “of sin, because they do not believe in Me;
10 “of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more;
11 “of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

The Helper is the Holy Spirit, and he testifies that Jesus is our Savior. The Holy Spirit is the one who convicts the world of sin and leads them to repentance. That’s the only way anyone ever gets forgiveness. So if you insult the Holy Spirit specifically by calling his testimony about Christ a lie, and therefore you refuse to believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, as Christ said, such a person “never has forgiveness.” It is not that saying something insulting to the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, Jesus explained that when he said, “all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter.” Rather it is when someone calls the Holy Spirit’s testimony a lie, and therefore refuses to accept forgiveness in Christ, that Jesus tells us, “but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation.” So what’s the remedy? If you have called the Holy Spirit’s testimony a lie, and therefore refused to believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, simply repent. No longer be a person who blasphemes the Holy Spirit, and you will no longer be “subject to eternal condemnation.” Believe in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins and the free gift of righteousness, as Romans 3:22-24 says:

22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference;
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

Notably, Augustine (354–430), reasons that (to paraphrase him), “many people who blaspheme the Holy Spirit, in the sense of making false, improper, or sacrilegious statements about his person or work, later come to be forgiven and become part of the church, so obviously this cannot be what the Lord had reference to in Matthew 12:32. Thus the blasphemy against the Spirit in Matthew 12:32 must be a special kind of blasphemy. And since all sins are forgiven when one receives the gift of the Holy Spirit in salvation, the blasphemy against the Spirit for which there is no forgiveness must be impenitence, an unwillingness to repent and be forgiven. However, because one may still repent as long as he still lives, the blasphemy against the Spirit may be more properly defined as impenitence persisted in to the end of one’s life.”

Now we’ll look at the two passages from Hebrews. As stated previously, people worrying about the passages in Hebrews fear that because they have committed apostasy, God will not forgive them. We can lay those fears to rest by quoting something the Apostle Paul wrote, namely, Romans 8:29-30:

29 ¶ For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.
30 Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.

Here Paul says that anyone who truly puts their faith in Christ cannot lose their salvation, the believer’s glorification in heaven is spoken of in the past tense, because as far as God is concerned, it is already accomplished. Once a person is justified through truly putting their faith in Jesus, they can never be lost. They may commit apostasy, but those who have truly believed in Jesus will always repent and return to Christ eventually.

Having said that, Hebrews 6:4-6 says:

4 For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit,
5 and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come,
6 if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame.

It is possible that the author of Hebrews is using hyperbole, stating that in his or her experience, it is very difficult to convince a person to renew their repentance after they have vehemently rejected Christ. Additionally, some see these verses as referring to people who seriously considered Christianity, (but never truly believed in Jesus), and then fell away. Thus, having rejected the greatest possible revelation of Christ, it is impossible for them to come to faith in Jesus.

Regarding Classical or reformed Calvinism, according to John Calvin (1509–1564), once the Holy Spirit brings a person to regeneration (i.e., gives them spiritual life) this experience cannot be lost and leads to final salvation with God. In Calvin’s theology, God has predestined to regenerate some (the elect) to eternal life and not to regenerate others (the non-elect) which ensures their eternal damnation (Calvin’s Institutes 3.21:5; cf. 3.2:15–40, 14.6–9, 18–20, 24.6f.). The elect may fall away from God’s grace temporarily, but the truly elect will eventually be restored and not plunge into final apostasy. Calvin believed that “The Lord uses the fear of final apostasy in order to safeguard true believers against it. Only the ones who ignore the threat are in real danger of falling away.” Calvin viewed the passages on apostasy found in Hebrews (6:4–6; 10:26–29) as applying to those in the church having a false faith—reprobates (i.e., unbelievers) who have never experienced regeneration. John Jefferson Davis writes:

Even though Calvin believes that regeneration is irreversible . . . he does not conclude that the Christian has any cause for spiritual complacency. Persevering in God’s grace requires, on the human side, “severe and arduous effort.” . . . The believer needs to continually feed his soul on the preaching of the Word and to grow in faith throughout the whole course of life. Since it is easy for the believer to fall away for a time from the grace of God, there is constant need for “striving and vigilance, if we would persevere in the grace of God.” Calvin thus balances his theological certitudes with pastoral warnings. . . . The believer must continually exercise faith and obedience to make “his calling and election sure.”

Others in the Reformed tradition followed Calvin’s theology on election, regeneration, perseverance, and apostasy: Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583); William Perkins (1558–1602); John Owen (1616–1683); John Gill (1697–1771); Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758); and George Whitefield (1714–1770). The Reformed confessions such as the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619) and the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) also express views parallel with Calvin’s theology.

Our second passage, Hebrews 10:26-31, says:

26 For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,
27 but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries.
28 Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.
29 Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?
30 For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The LORD will judge His people.”
31 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

This is another way of saying what was said in Hebrews 6:4-6. In verse 26 we see a professing Christian who rejects Christ for another faith. We are then told that such a person will not be renewed to repentance, but will suffer the vengeance of God. And again, the interpretation that a true believer in Christ can lose their salvation is proven false by the many cases of believers who have committed apostasy, and then later did repent. It is those who never really believed in their heart to begin with, who therefore turn away permanently, that will face judgment.

Christ’s death necessitates a life that, while not perfect, is characterized by a heart that is inclined toward the things of God and not the things of evil. Where the heart is bent toward evil there is no sacrifice for sin; that is, Christ has not made sacrifice for such a person. For, if He had, that person would be governed not by sin but by love for Christ.

John Calvin (1509–1564), and John Owen (1616–1683), both agree that the sin the author has in mind primarily in Hebrews 10:26, is the complete and final renunciation of the faith after being enlightened to it. This is not to say that the elect can lose their salvation. As we saw when we studied Hebrews 6:4-6, it is possible to come to a knowledge of Christ apart from faith. Those who commit a final denial of Christ are of the group that had never really placed their faith in Him to begin with.

The emphasis on deliberate, or final, denial is important because, as the life of the disciple Peter demonstrates, true believers may temporarily deny Christ and still be restored, (see Mark 14:66-72; and John 21:15-19). Final apostasy is not a sudden event but results from continuous unrepentant indulgence in sin, and can only be committed by those who never really believed in Jesus to begin with. However, it is possible for true Christians to struggle with continuing sin in their lives, (see Romans 7:14-25). What separates true Christians from false Christians, is that true Christians are sincerely sorry for their sins, though they may find themselves committing the same sins over and over. Once again, the idea that a sincere believer in Christ can lose their salvation is false because of what Paul wrote in Romans 8:29-30.

Finally, there is a response that encompasses the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and apostasy. As a Pauline Christian, I believe salvation is through faith alone, it does not depend on works. Christians do not have to keep any law or commandment perfectly in order to enter heaven, all that matters is our faith in Jesus. This teaching is stated clearly in Romans 3:19-24

19 ¶ Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
21 But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,
22 even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference;
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
24 being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

Clearly then, no blasphemy a person repents of can damn them to Hell, because that would mean they had to perfectly keep the law of the commandment not to blaspheme in order to enter heaven. Then salvation would be based on that law as well as the believer’s faith, entering heaven would be on the basis of law and faith, but Paul clearly teaches that salvation is by faith apart from law. The same applies to the passages in Hebrews, if apostasy was unforgivable, then believers in Christ would be under a law not to apostatize. But as Paul explained in Romans 6:14,15, we are not under law but under grace:

14 For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!

Again, if apostasy were unforgivable, salvation would be by the works of the apostasy law as well as by faith. But salvation is by faith alone, apart from any works of any law.

In conclusion, we have seen that God forgives everyone who repents for their sins and believes in Jesus, no matter what sins they have committed.