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Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age of come (Matthew 12:31-32).

I’ve wrestled with this bit of Scripture for a while.

When you think about it, Jesus represents a huge paradigm shift for the world. Prior to him, mankind is condemned under original sin and the “wages of sin” (i.e., death). Sin was tied to human nature, and as the Old Testament shows us time and time again, God is often wrestling with His Children over their attraction to worshipping other deities, sacrificing to idols, and being generally in love with the world and not with Him alone. So, of course, when the Son of Man arrives to wipe away sin and overcome death, he does so for the entire world and not just the Children of Abraham.

Think about that. We’re talking a lot of sins that he’s redeeming. Christ doesn’t simply die on a cross for petty thieves and liars, or for people who don’t keep holy the Sabbath. He’s offering salvation for everyone. For every vice, for every crime, for every humiliation, for every degradation. No sin, small or great, will withstand the power of his love and mercy in this momentous act of sacrifice, which his death and resurrection make manifest.

But then there’s that line from Scripture. The one time Jesus says a sin won’t be forgiven. This coming from a religious preacher who, even as he cries woe to the Pharisees and those who persecute his disciples, still teaches to love one’s enemies and bless those throw out nothing but curses and insults.

So what is the unforgivable sin?

Jesus says, “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him.” He already forgives those who are going to denounce him. He knows Peter will deny him on the eve of his Passion, that Pilate will wash his hands of his execution, that the people who praise him today will turn on him tomorrow. He promises them all forgiveness. But then he insists that “Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age of come.”

Perhaps the better question to ask is this: what sets the Holy Spirit apart?

The Spirit, in the New Testament, never appears as a distinct voice in the same way that Jesus or God does. Rather the text describes the way it descends onto those who believe:

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you (John 14:26).

Jesus opens the door to salvation by redeeming humanity in his sacrifical act and triumph over death. The Holy Spirit, then, holds the door open for all generations to come, reminding followers of Christ of their innate virtue and their call to holiness.

But to not forgive yourself, to see that salvation and change in life, and to reject it, is effectively slamming the door shut.

Forgiveness of sins, then, is a two-way street. God offers forgiveness and healing to the whole world. It is up to all of us, then, to step closer to Him in turn. And if we don’t, then we literally can’t be forgiven because we turn away from even the hope of salvation. And the same goes for anyone else whose path we might turn away from God. Whether because of our greed, our indifference, our anger, our fear, our pride, or our jealousy, when we make an obstacle of ourselves to real, meaningful changes in life, then we seal our own misery.

For my own part, the reason I know I wrestled with this passage from Scripture has to do with my own doubts. Not about God or the Christian faith, but about my own worth. I lived for a long time with depression and anxiety, and when those two emotions worked against me, day after day, I felt like I lacked so much to be a good person, let alone someone who could carry the cross as Jesus did. I never spoke against the Spirit, but at times, I failed to see that light within myself. Others had it, sure, but would I?

Today, after a long road of counseling, medication, new experiences, and prayer, I know better. I’m better able to see the Spirit, both in myself and in others. And even as the world seems cold and dark around us, I still pray daily that the Spirit awakens in others. Not that they should all cast off their titles and go preach the Gospel necessarily, but that our leaders and our neighbors and our families might see beyond apathy, despair, and so-called practical thinking. Whether we’re talking about preserving families, teaching children, serving the poor, freeing the prisoner, or nurturing the environment, we need to stop relying on our own wisdom and listen a little more to the Spirit within.