In this age of Divine Mercy, we celebrate that “… God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8) and “If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing” (1 John 1:9). Nothing is outside of God’s mercy because God is love (1 John 4:8). No sin, no matter how great, is unforgivable.
But doesn’t Jesus say that speaking against the Holy Spirit is an unforgivable sin?
“And 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 12:32).
Why is speaking against the Son of Man (the Second Person of the Trinity) potentially forgivable, but doing the same against the Holy Spirit (the Third Person of the Trinity) unforgivable? Also, if God’s mercy is greater than our sins, why is this sin unforgivable? Why is God unwilling to forgive it?
The preceding context provides some answers. In Matthew 12, Jesus has three rather heated encounters with the Pharisees. The first encounter concerns picking grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1). The Pharisees objected, saying, “See, your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:2). Jesus replies that the priests work on the Sabbath without violating the Law (Matthew 12:3-8) and closes by quoting Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
The second encounter concerns healing on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9). They (presumably the Pharisees) asked, “Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?” Matthew adds: “so that they might accuse him.” Jesus replies that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath and heals not only the man but all who followed him (Matthew 7:12-15). Matthew adds that the Pharisees then took counsel against Jesus to put him to death.
The third encounter contains our passage. Jesus cures a blind and mute demoniac. The crowd was astounded and asked, “Could this perhaps be the Son of David?” The Pharisees heard this and retorted, “This man drives out demons only by the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons” (Matthew 7:22-23). Jesus replies that if Satan drives out Satan, his kingdom cannot stand (Matthew 7:25-26) and later concludes, “Therefore, I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And 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 7:31-32).
All three encounters surround Jesus performing corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and casting out demons (free the imprisoned). The Pharisees rejected the first two as a violation of God’s Law and the third as the work of the devil.
With these things in mind, let’s answer our two questions.
Why can blasphemy against Jesus be potentially forgiven? St. John Chrysostom answers by noting that blaspheming the Son of Man may be due to ignorance, which can be corrected and receive forgiveness. Why, then, is the speaking against the Holy Spirit unforgivable? Because such blasphemy is due not to ignorance, but an outright rejection of God’s acts of mercy.
But why is it unforgivable? Is it too great of a sin? 1 John 1:9 says, “If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins …”. If one comes to the point where he can look at God’s loving mercy and call it demonic, that person will never be able to acknowledge their sins because they’ll never see them as sins. They have come to the point of final impenitence, the refusal to repent by the end of one’s life. As the Catechism explains, “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 …” (CCC 1864).
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.