More than a few Christians, who read that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come, live in fear that they may have committed such a sin. But just what might it mean to say that God will never forgive or pardon a given sin? Does it mean that God no longer loves the person who commits the sin in question?--or that he no longer seeks to reconcile this person to himself?--or that his attitude towards this person is no longer one of forgiveness? Nothing like that follows at all. When Jesus speaks of pardoning or forgiving a sin, he has in mind something utterly different from an attitude of forgiveness, which in God never ceases; he has in mind instead a release from some obligation, or a canceling of some debt, or a setting aside of some prescribed punishment. It is very close to our idea of forgiving a debt or pardoning a criminal. If a debt is unforgiven, then it must be paid; and once it is paid, it no longer exists. Similarly, if a criminal is unpardoned, then the criminal must serve his or her sentence; and once the sentence is served, there is no longer any need for a pardon. An unforgivable or unpardonable sin, therefore, need not be an uncorrectable sin at all; it is simply one that God cannot deal with adequately in the absence of an appropriate punishment.

To put the whole thing in perspective, we might observe that most people probably have committed sins that are unpardonable in the relevant sense; indeed, Jesus elsewhere indicates that one of the most widespread of all sins--the refusal to forgive others--is so unpardonable that it renders all other sins unpardonable as well:  “if you do not forgive others, neither will your father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). That is hardly surprising. God could hardly be for forgiveness and, at the same time, tolerate our refusal to forgive others; he could hardly be for reconciliation and, at the same time, tolerate our refusal to repent of that which separates us from others; and similarly, he could hardly be for our ultimate perfection and spiritual regeneration and, at the same time, tolerate our willful opposition to the work of the Spirit within. Accordingly, God does not withhold punishment--that is, a harsher means of correction--when we sin in this way.  As the author of Hebrews put it:  “For if we willingly persist in sin after having received the knowledge of truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (10:26-27).

If we adopt a Pauline perspective, however, then we must regard all punishment, even the harsh punishment to which the author of Hebrews alludes, as an expression of mercy. When we nurse old grudges, refuse to forgive others, and willfully oppose the Spirit within, we become adversaries--not only in our relationship to God and to others, but in our relationship to ourselves as well. We undermine the very conditions of our own happiness and, in the end, make ourselves utterly miserable. It is as if we thereby launch an attack upon ourselves and fling ourselves into a fiery pit. Only in this modern scientific age, perhaps, are we beginning to understand in full the devastating physiological consequences of refusing to forgive those who have wronged us. But God’s mercy, according to Paul, consists in just this: He will continue to hold our feet to the coals until the adversary--that is, the false self--is utterly consumed. Like the failed Christian leaders of which Paul speaks in I Corinthians 3:15, we “will be saved, but only as through fire."

A point worth re-emphasizing here is that God’s refusal to pardon a given sin--for example, his refusal to pardon blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, whatever exactly such blasphemy might be--in no way implies a lack of compassion or mercy on his part. When we speak of forgiveness, we typically have in mind an attitude or state of mind in the one who forgives; that is, a state of mind that exists when a person gives up all resentment towards an offender. But when Jesus speaks of forgiveness in the present context, he has in mind, as we noted above, the canceling of some obligation, debt, or prescribed punishment. A little reflection will reveal that the two kinds of forgiveness are utterly different. A governor may pardon a criminal for reasons, such as political expediency, that have nothing to do with a forgiving attitude; alternatively, loving parents, despite their forgiving attitude, may judge it best to hold their rebellious child to a given punishment. Precisely because the parents do love and do forgive their child, they may refuse to forgive the punishment in the sense of setting it aside. And that, I want to suggest, is exactly how we should understand the idea of a sin that God will not forgive or pardon as well. Because a refusal to forgive others, a refusal to repent, and a willful opposition to the work of the Spirit within undermine the very possibility of reconciliation and are so contrary to the conditions of our own future happiness, God will require that we experience in full the painful consequences of, and hence the punishment for, such sins as these. He could not express his love for us--his concern for our future happiness--in any other way. For when mercy itself requires severity, or a harsh means of correction, that is just what we can expect, says Jesus, either in this age or in the age to come.