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The Unforgivable Sins

David Miano

La Jolla, California


Unitarians (and most other Christians) are very familiar with Jesus’ response to a question that was posed to him regarding what he thought were the two greatest commandments in the Sinai covenant code: to love God completely and to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:28-31; Deut. 6:4-5; Lev. 19:18). For a change of pace, however, the present essay will explore the other end of the spectrum. What, in Jesus’ mind, were the two greatest sins? Mind you, Jesus was never directly asked that question, nor did he on one occasion make a declaration as to what the two greatest sins were. However, he did, in his sermons, single out two sins as particularly reprehensible and emphasized the absolute need to avoid engaging in them. Every now and then, it is worthwhile to focus on the negative in order to say something positive.

The Catholic Church, at least from the time of Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604), has distinguished seven “deadly” sins, which it believed were capital crimes and merited damnation. They are pride, envy, anger, avarice, sadness, gluttony, and lust. These sins could not be forgiven without the help of the sacraments and Confession. Interestingly, the two that Jesus highlighted, although connected potentially in some way, are not even on this list.

Now one might think that if Jesus singled out two great commandments, then it naturally follows that the two greatest sins would be the transgressions of those two great commandments. The sins would therefore be to hate God and to hate one’s neighbor (or at least not to love them). Yet it is interesting that both of the terrible sins that Jesus highlights have to do with one’s treatment of other people and are therefore related only to the second of his two great commandments. He does not discuss sins having to do with the first great commandment, the hatred of God, perhaps because all sins could be considered forms of hatred of God, or because it goes without saying that hatred of God is immoral. Either way, Jesus seems more interested in discussing how one should treat other people. The two sins are specific ways that a lack of love for one’s neighbor might be manifested.

These two sins are remarkable in that they are the only two about which Jesus says there can be no forgiveness. Most of us will balk at the idea that any sin could be unforgivable. After all, Jesus emphasized God’s mercy. Surely if a person is sorry for a sin, a loving and merciful God would forgive them. But Jesus does, in fact, speak of two unforgivable sins. Later on, I will address exactly what he meant when he said there would be no forgiveness for these sins, but for now, let us take a look at the sins themselves.

The first unforgivable sin is mentioned right after the Lord’s prayer (Matt. 6:9-13), in which Jesus shows that it is proper to ask God for forgiveness for our debts (sins), just as we forgive others. He explains further: “For if you forgive people their wrongdoing, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well. But if you don’t forgive people, your Father will not forgive you your wrongdoing” (Matt. 6:14-15). Now, it should be acknowledged that in this passage the wrongs for which God might not forgive someone are not specified. They are not important to the point. The emphasis is not on the wrongdoing that a person commits for which forgiveness might not be forthcoming. The emphasis is on the person’s treatment of others. Note that the wrongs committed would be forgiven if the person who committed them were forgiving of other people. Yet the fact that a person would not forgive others is cause for God to withhold his own forgiveness from that person. So the real sin here is the reluctance or refusal to forgive. In a word, those who do not forgive are committing an unforgivable sin.

The second unforgivable sin is highlighted by Jesus right after an interesting encounter he has with the scribes. When Jesus is performing miracles, some religious leaders of his day attribute his actions to the Devil (Mark 3:20-22). Here is one of the things Jesus says about it: “Truly I say to you that all things will be forgiven the sons of men, no matter what sins and blasphemies they blasphemously commit. However, whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit has no forgiveness forever, but is guilty of everlasting sin” (Mark 3:28-29). Here Jesus implies that the sin of the scribes (to attribute Jesus’ works to Satan) is an unforgivable sin. We know this for sure, because Mark says: “This, because they were saying: ‘He has an unclean spirit’” (Mark 3:30). The offense they committed was to take someone’s good actions and call them evil. This is what Jesus calls a sin “against the holy spirit.” Since it is by God’s spirit that all good comes forth from a person, then to impugn such actions and judge them to be evil is to blaspheme the spirit. The lesson here is not to be so quick to condemn. In other words, we humans are not to be the judges of a person’s spiritual or ethical status before God. By calling into question someone’s goodness, we are maligning God’s spirit and placing ourselves in the judgment seat that belongs only to God.

The sin against the holy spirit is a transgression against an instruction that Jesus gives in his sermons: “Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matt. 7:1-2). This formulation is very similar to the one he uses in reference to forgiveness and is in Jesus’ typical style. It is also reminiscent of his “golden rule”: “Whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same to them” (Matt. 7:12).

What did Jesus mean when he said these two sins would not be forgiven? In the case of the first, the message is clearer. People who do not forgive will not be forgiven. For as long as they withhold forgiveness, God will withhold his forgiveness from them. But as soon as they forgive, then God will forgive them. I believe the same principle holds true with reference to the second sin. Granted, Jesus says that those who sin against the holy spirit have “no forgiveness forever” and are “guilty of everlasting sin.” However, as he says, such applies not to those who commit blasphemy against the spirit, but to those who blaspheme the spirit. The verb is in the present tense. In other words, just as in the case of the first sin, the blasphemy is presented as an ongoing sin, rather than as a one-time offense. Thus, for as long as a person blasphemes the spirit (i.e., judges a good person to be bad), there can be no forgiveness forever. Such would be the case until the end of time. However, if that person ceases to blaspheme the spirit (i.e., if the judgment that they have made is retracted), I would venture to say that forgiveness would then be possible in Jesus’ point of view.

What is interesting about the second passage is that, in it, Jesus assures his audience that, apart from the sin against the spirit, “all things will be forgiven the sons of men, no matter what sins and blasphemies they blasphemously commit.” In this statement, Jesus makes no mention of the need for people to first repent before the sins can be forgiven. In the case of the two sins highlighted here, he does. Thus he is clearly making a differentiation between the one sort of sin that requires a person to cease doing it before forgiveness can come and another that God will forgive freely. This emphasizes the importance of the two sins discussed. If a person does not actually refrain from these sins, it is impossible for such a one to have a good relationship with God.

Thus we see that the two greatest sins, in Jesus’ mind, were the withholding of forgiveness of others and the negative or condemnatory judgment of others, particularly when they are in truth doing the will of God. Of all the possible sins to judge harshly, it is very interesting that Jesus would choose these. However, as we have seen, this is what we might expect from the person who called the love of neighbor the second greatest commandment and whose teaching often dwells on our treatment of fellow humans.  

© 2004 American Unitarian Conference