I was asked an interesting question at our most recent cultural evening. Before I get to it, it would probably help to give you the background. Our cultural evenings are regular monthly meetings that we hold in conjunction with our local Muslim friends in the neighbourhood. We pick a topic, both myself and a local imam present, followed by Q&A and then we eat together to carry on the conversation. It never fails to produce excellent gospel conversations and real engagement with the scriptures. We have purposefully set them up as a safe place to ask even potentially offensive questions and we make no bones about believing seriously different things. You can read more about them here.
The question I was asked most recently centred on an issue that frequently rears its head: the Trinity. Some of our Muslim friends are adept at reading the Bible and picking out verses that they think support the case they want to make. In fact, having conducted these meetings for a while now, my imam friend can give a fairly credible gospel presentation of his own these days.
Anyway, the question I was asked centred on Matthew 12:31.
Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.
The question, and I thought it a good and insightful one, was this: why the hierarchy within the Trinity? Specifically, if all the persons of the Trinity were really co-equal, why is blasphemy against the other two persons forgivable but not that towards the Spirit? Isn’t that just another way of saying the Holy Spirit is greater than the other persons of the Trinity?
I can see how they drew that conclusion though, we ought to recognise, lying behind the question was a belief that the Trinity is fundamentally illogical and here is a case in point. But, taken at face value, I can see how it might look like blaspheming the Holy Spirit seems more serious that blaspheming the Father or Son. I wonder how you would answer?
The issue almost melts away when we understand that there is one God who subsists as three distinct persons. As such, never does any one of the persons act alone. Whenever God acts, we rightly understand that the union between the three persons means each person simultaneously acts. So, in one sense, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is simply blasphemy against God, just as blasphemy against the Father or the Son is blasphemy against God. To blaspheme one is to blaspheme the others. If we recognise this, the problem almost disappears as we see there is no hierarchy but one God who may be blasphemed.
I say the problem almost disappears because we must still contend with the fact that there does appear to be a distinction made here between the persons of the Trinity. But the distinction doesn’t pertain to value, worth or authority. Rather, it relates to function. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit won’t be forgiven because of the nature of the Holy Spirit’s role within the Godhead. The question is, what does the Holy Spirit do that makes blasphemy against him unforgivable?
Our church happens to subscribe to two doctrinal statements, the first from the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches (FIEC), the other from the North West Partnership (NWP). Note how they speak of the Spirit’s work:
The Holy Spirit has been sent from heaven to glorify Christ and to apply his work of salvation. He convicts sinners, imparts spiritual life and gives a true understanding of the Scriptures. He indwells all believers, brings assurance of salvation and produces increasing likeness to Christ. He builds up the Church and empowers its members for worship, service and mission. (FIEC)
The necessity and sufficiency of the work of the Holy Spirit for the individual’s new birth and growth to maturity, and for the Church’s constant renewal in truth, wisdom, faith, holiness, love, power and mission. (NWP)
The NWP statement points out ‘The necessity… of the work of the Holy Spirit for the individual’s new birth’. The FIEC statement says the Spirit ‘has been sent from heaven to glorify Christ and to apply his work of salvation. He convicts sinners, imparts spiritual life and gives a true understanding of the Scriptures.’
The point here is that the Spirit is the one who applies the work of salvation. He is God’s agent in the world. So to blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to kick against his work of applying salvation. The reason such blasphemy is unforgivable is specifically that salvation is applied by the Spirit. If we reject the work of Spirit (that is to blaspheme him; to deny his essential character and purpose) then we are, by definition, rejecting the salvation that he would apply to us. To blaspheme the Spirit, to resist him and his work, is to reject salvation itself.
The Bible is quite clear – over and again – that salvation (humanly speaking) is applied to us when we repent of our sin, accept the gospel and believe by faith in Christ (these are all part and parcel of the same thing). All sin, no matter how heinous, may be forgiven if we repent and trust in Jesus. The only thing that cannot be forgiven is a stubborn will that refuses to repent and does not want forgiveness.
Elsewhere, the Bible is clear that we can only do such things as the Spirit moves us, as we are ‘born from above’. If we are convicted of the fact that we are sinners in need of a saviour – and recognise that Jesus Christ is that saviour – then the Holy Spirit is at work. Under such circumstances, to purposefully and actively choose to reject that salvation – to reject the conviction of sin that we know to be true and the saviour whom we know to be who he said he was – is to blaspheme the Spirit. This is a conscious, settled decision to turn away from the salvation that Christ offers. Under such circumstances, there can be no forgiveness because forgiveness requires repentance and turning to Christ.
It bears saying, if at some point we recognise the truth of such things and we later respond to it, then our original conviction wasn’t a settled one; it changed. The blasphemy of the Spirit is a settled, unchanging conviction that these things are true but that we, nonetheless, will reject them without wavering. That is the blasphemy being described.
That is why the blasphemy of the Spirit is unforgivable. It is not to do with authority within the Godhead but the different functions of each person of the Trinity. Blaspheming the Spirit is an active, settled conviction to reject the salvation that the Holy Spirit applies. It is a settled conviction that will not and cannot be changed. It is unforgivable because it actively eschews the forgiveness that is on offer.