Sunday, February 21, 2010

Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit: What is the Unforgivable Sin?

I have a friend in prison who has recently come to know the Lord. As he studies his Bible alone in his cell, many questions come up. Via the mail, I am able to write responses to his many questions. What follows is one such response. I welcome any additional feedback that I may include in my next letter.

You've stumbled upon quite the brain teaser for any Biblical scholar. Over the centuries, Christians have disagreed sharply about what this text actually means. There is no shortage of different teachings you might hear about it. One such teaching that you've obviously heard is that to "blaspheme the Holy Spirit" means to say the words "God damn it." Let me start by saying: whatever blaspheming the Holy Spirit does mean, that isn't it.

How can I say that? Well, for three reasons. The first is simply context. One of the things we have to be careful about when reading the Bible is that the original authors weren't 21st century Americans writing to our culture. They were Jews living 2000 years ago under Roman rule where Greek was the universal language (like English is today). Their culture had its own unique set of moral problems, some the same as today (sexual immorality, greed, etc.) and some entirely different (pagan worship, child sacrifice, etc.).

So, if you consider their culture, the simple fact is that the expression "God damn it" didn't exist. People didn't walk around saying that whenever they were angry or surprised. So, it doesn't make any sense that Jesus would be referring to that phrase in 30 AD speaking to a crowd of people who would have no idea what he meant.

Second, the idea of saying "God damn it" is a very simple request: we are asking God to condemn some person or object to destruction because we are angry with it. You could argue that it is a prayer. Read Psalm 7:6, where David makes the same request of God in slightly different words: "Arise, O Lord, in your anger; rise up against the rage of my enemies. Awake, my God; decree justice" (Ps. 7:6). So, simply asking God to damn something is not a sin at all. However, what is a sin would be to do so "in vain"-meaning, for personal and selfish reasons rather than for reasons of God's glory. That is the meaning of the 4th commandment, "You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God" (Exodus 20:7), which is, by the way, forgivable.

And the third reason that I can tell you "God damn it" is not the unforgivable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is because the text itself (Matthew 12) tells us what Jesus was referring to.
"Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, 'Could this be the Son of David?' But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, 'It is only by Beelzebub, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.'" (Matthew 12:22-24)
Notice that all the people did not even consider that Jesus was himself a demon. In fact, they immediately began to consider that He might be the Messiah, the "son of David," whom Jews had been awaiting for a long time. However, the Pharisees-religious elite who were intent on discrediting Jesus altogether-made an audacious claim. They said that He did these works by the power of Satan.

Actually, they called it Beelzebub. Here again we have to understand cultural context of 2000 years ago. Beelzebub was the name that Jews assigned to the most evil and deplorable pagan god. It was for them a name which figuratively represented everything opposed to God. It could be compared to our concept of "the devil" with horns and a pitchfork. It was derived from the name of one of the pagan gods nearby, and suffice it to say that anything related to a pagan god was deplorable, sinful, and evil.

So, whereas the people who saw Jesus' works were quick to believe that He was not only doing these miracles by God, but that he may also be the Messiah, the Pharisees identified His miracles as demonic and something to be feared. And, so, Jesus said of those Pharisees:
"He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Matthew 12:30-32).
It was the Holy Spirit, not Satan, who did the miracles that this crowd had seen. So, the ordinary sins of the people-"every sin and blasphemy"-could be forgiven. But for those who blasphemed against the Holy Spirit by saying that the Holy Spirit's works were actually evil and demonic, they could not be forgiven that sin.

The word "blasphemy" means to tell a slanderous lie, like spreading a vicious rumor. So, to blaspheme the Holy Spirit was to lie to the people about the source of Jesus' power in order to persuade them not to follow Him. That is the sort of sin that won't be forgiven. But, Jesus goes on to explain that it was not that they had accidently misspoken and now were condemned forever. This was no simple mistake on the Pharisee's part. The Pharisees were deeply evil. Jesus was describing their real hearts:
"You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:34-37).

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Friday, March 13, 2009

The Devil Made You Do What?

This Sunday, I have the privilege of teaching from James 1:13-18. The title that was assigned to my lesson is "The Devil Made You Do What?" Although culturally iconic, I'm not sure it accurately represents the dilemma represented in the text. To anyone who has ever noodled on the topic of God's sovereignty, the issue that James addresses here could be more aptly stated as, "God made you do what?"

Having just introduced in the previous verses a counter-intuitive approach to trials in which the suffering reader should rejoice that God is producing character in such a way, James now moves on to a very strongly related matter. It's no accident, in fact, that the same word translated as "trial" in verse 2 is also translated "temptation" in verse 13.

In the many character-building experiences we endure through life, we have two options: follow Christ or follow our sinful nature. To react to any situation in a way unworthy of Christ is to sin. So, naturally, if God sends trials, is it God who tempts us to sin? James addresses this misconception head-on: NO!

As many of us logical creatures might desire a well-developed explanation of how this can be so, James instead appeals to a different argument: the character of God. He does not delve into dangerous re-definition of terms or create slithery distinctions of the permissive vs. active will. To James, there is no need. God's character alone answers the question, all that's left is our faith to accept it. Faith, that is, in who God has revealed Himself to be, not in how God has (or hasn't) revealed Himself to perform.

Once we accept God's character as the under-girding principle that answers our question, we're left with one shameful realization: who we are in contrast to His revealed character. The very next verse draws the damning conclusion that temptation does not, in fact, come from God but from our own sinful natures. We men, the ones created pure and yet determined to spoil it, stand inquiring of God, "why did you put me in the situation where I could sin?" when all along the ONLY one in the entire universe that is totally undeserving of any allegations is God Himself.

The fact is, we can't even face good times, let alone trials, without burning with sinful desires. We don't need God's help to find excuses to sin. It's not as though the trials that He brings us in any way deepen the effect of the fall in our lives. No, in all situations we are damned to sin. Praise be to God, the Father of the heavenly lights, who gives us a good and perfect gift in His Son.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Love the Sinner by Hating the Sin

This article comes in response to a question posted by anonymous on my open question forum, Anonymous writes:
"As a born again christian mother, how do I respond to my 24 year old daughter who has announced that she is in a relationship with another female, who is 18 years old? What do I say, what limits if any, do I set? Do I accept this other female into our home and family celebrations? I am overwhelmed with heartache and don't do much but cry. Just before she announced this, she had a boyfriend for 6 1/2 years."

This is indeed a difficult situation to be in for any parent, or any friend of a dearly loved fellow sinner. People do horrible things. We call them mistakes, judgment lapses, learning experiences, etc. God, however, calls it by an altogether less popular word: sin.

Whenever we talk about dealing with the sin of another within the body, and especially within our own nuclear families, it's an important first step to confess and realize that we ourselves are also sinners. That said, the distinguishing factor between our anonymous mother and her daughter is that (presumably) that the mother confesses her sin and is not embracing a lifestyle of sin. Meanwhile the daughter shares no such humility and repentance.

The oft quoted verse by liberals and relativists who despise the concept that one human can rebuke another is Matthew 7:3, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" But remember that I've already mentioned we are looking to the plank in our own. What do confessed sinners do to deal with the specks in their brother's eye. To continue the metaphor: once you finally did remove the plank from your eye, would you then go on pretending as though your brother or sister had no speck in theirs? No. Jesus warned against hypocritical judgment, but He by no means disallowed accountability within the body.

For the dilemma that anonymous finds herself in here I believe the most applicable passage is 1 Corinthians 5:11, which reads, "you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral.... With such a man do not even eat."

Oh, but there must be some other way. Surely there must be some more kind, gentle, unoffensive way to deal with a daughter, of all people. We long to see the cuddly image we've developed of our "grandpa in the sky" type of god simply dismissing the sin and saying, "I love you anyway."

The discomfort we feel, however great or little, with this proposed scenario arises within us for one simple reason: far too mild of an attitude toward sin. If we saw sin for what it really is, what God sees it as, then we would revile the thought of sharing a meal even with a child, sibling, or parent who marked themselves proudly and unashamedly with such a repulsive spirit. Sin is death. It should be to us the stench of rotting flesh. Would you dine and be merry with a ripe corpse in the room?

The purpose, of course, of taking on such an attitude and carrying forth the action prescribed is not to elevate ourselves in some manner of self-righteousness. That is the abuse and misuse of such teaching that has led our modern culture to reject the rebuke and even the mere concept that there exists such a thing as sin. But God is not fooled. The purpose and heart behind this course of this action is to love the sinner—as we no doubt realize anonymous loves her daughter—by hating the sin.

I prefer to rephrase the old adage, "Love the sinner but hate the sin," into a more Biblical application of the concept: "Love the sinner by hating the sin." If we do not show our neighbor the speck in his/her eye, how is that loving? If we spare one's potential angst over realizing sin in their life by allowing them to persist believing they are ok, that will prove to be most unloving on the day our Lord returns. As difficult as this action seems in our worldly wisdom, the most loving thing a mother could do for this daughter would be to love her by hating her sin. As a believer, we should hate such outward rebellion to God so much that "with such a man [we would] not even eat."

As an encouraging conclusion to this thought, jump to Paul's second letter to Corinth. In 2 Corinthians 2:6-7 we see the result of this course of action. The sinner repents and Paul instructs the church to forgive him, welcome him home, and celebrate with them. "I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him," Paul writes in verse 8. We have here a real example of the church discipline having the desired effect and we are witness to the joy it brings to all involved, not only the sinner but the entire church.

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