THE forgiveness of sin is doubtless one of the most interesting subjects to a sinful creature; and if there be one sin upon which the Divine Being has thought fit to set a mark of peculiar displeasure, by declaring it unpardonable, it is worthy of the most serious inquiry to determine what it is. Perhaps the most likely method of coming at the truth will be by first taking a view of those passages of Scripture where it is either fully expressed or implied, and then making a few remarks upon them.
There is no express mention of the sin against the Holy Spirit under the former dispensation. It seems, however, that there was a period in the lives of Cain and Saul, and perhaps of some others, when they were given up of God to inevitable destruction. The first, or rather the only express mention that we have of it, is in the evangelists, where it is applied to the Pharisees, on occasion of their blasphemously asserting, "This fellow doth not cast out devils but by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils." Dr. Whitby thinks these passages were only designed to warn them of the sin, and that it was not possible to be actually committed till the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost; and assigns this as a reason, that Christ afterwards prayed for those very persons. But those for whom Christ prayed "knew not what they did" they were in the same situation with Saul while a persecutor; "they did it ignorantly, and in unbelief." This, however, was not true of all his murderers. Those who made answer to Judas, who confessed that he had betrayed innocent blood, "See thou to that, could not, I am afraid, have this plea alleged on their behalf. It is true the multitude did it ignorantly, and many of their rulers, as Peter candidly acknowledged; but this, I should think, is more than could be said of them all. It is pretty evident that some of them acted upon the principles suggested by our Lord: "This is the heir, come let us kill him." It is no objection to this that it is said, "If they had known him, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory;" for knowledge is not here put for a mere
conviction that he was the Messiah, but for that spiritual discernment which is possessed only by believers, being "revealed to them by the Spirit, who searcheth the deep things of God." From certain passages of Scripture it appears to me that some of the Pharisees were guilty of the unpardonable sin. See John ix. 41, and xii. 42, 43.
Perhaps the next intimation that is given of this sin is in Peter's address to Simon Magus: "Repent of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee." It does not appear that the apostle considered the sorcerer as having certainly committed the unpardonable sin; but it seems he considered it as a matter of doubt, and therefore, with a view to impress upon his mind the greatness of his wickedness, and the danger he was in, expressed himself in that doubtful manner which he was not used to do in ordinary cases.
The apostle Paul seems to have had an eye to this sin, when, speaking of himself, he says, "I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly and in unbelief." None will suppose that Saul's ignorance, much less his unbelief, had any thing in it meritorious, which could induce the Divine Being to show him mercy: on the contrary, it was sinful, and that for which he reckoned himself the chief of sinners. But it was not accompanied with such circumstances of aggravation as to exclude him from an interest in Divine mercy; it was not the unpardonable sin.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews there are several intimations of this sin; particularly in the following passages: "It is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame." "For if we sin wilfully, after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sin, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment, and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses's law died without mercy, under two or three witnesses: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite to the Spirit of grace?"
Peter also describes the same characters: "For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world, through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire."
Lastly, It must be with reference to this sin that John writes in his First Epistle; "If any man see his brother sin a sin not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life. There is a sin unto death; I do not say that he shall pray for it." "We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not."
The above are the principal, if not the only, passages in which reference is made to the unpardonable sin. From these, taken altogether, I shall offer the following remarks:
First, When the Scripture speaks of any sin as unpardonable, or of the impossibility of those who have committed it being renewed again unto
repentance, we are not to understand them as expressing any natural limitation of either the power or the mercy of God, nor yet of the efficacy of the Saviour's blood; but merely of a limitation dictated by sovereign wisdom and righteousness.
Secondly, It is not any one particular act of sin that denominates it unpardonable, but the circumstances under which it is committed. The act, in the case of the Pharisees, was uttering blasphemous language against the miracles of Christ; in the supposed ease of Saul, it was blasphemously persecuting, and otherwise injuriously treating, the church of Christ; in the case of the Hebrews, it was apostacy from the truth; in the false teachers described by Peter, it was not only perverting the truth, but returning to sensual abomination. These acts being various, the unpardonable sin could not consist in any one of them in itself considered, but in their being committed under certain circumstances.
Thirdly, The peculiar circumstances under which any of these acts becomes unpardonable seems to be the party being possessed of a certain degree of light; and that not merely objective, as exhibited in the gospel, but subjective, as possessed by the understanding. This light, which is attributed to the Holy Spirit, seems to afford the specific reason of the unpardonable sin being represented as committed against him. The distinction which our Lord makes between blasphemy against the Son of man and that against the Holy Spirit, declaring the one pardonable and the other unpardonable, seems to consist in this: the former, during his humiliation, might be the effect of ignorance and unbelief; but the latter (imputing to Satanic influence those benevolent miracles which were not only wrought before their eyes by the Spirit of God, but approved themselves to their consciences to be of God) could be no other than wilful malignity. And this would be the case especially after the pouring out of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, when such a blaze of light shone forth in confirmation of the gospel: a blasphemous opposition to it at that period would, where the light was not only exhibited, but possessed in the understanding, be a black mark of reprobation. The blasphemy of Saul was accompanied with a great degree of objective light; but it did not so possess his understanding and conscience but that he did it ignorantly and in unbelief. Had he committed the same blasphemy knowingly, or in spite of a full persuasion in his conscience that the cause he opposed was the cause of God, it is supposed, by his own manner of speaking, that it would have been unpardonable, and that he would not have obtained mercy. The case of the Hebrews turns entirely upon the same circumstance: they not only had the gospel objectively exhibited before them, but became the subjects of deep convictions, and powerful impressions. They were "enlightened," and had "tasted the heavenly gift;" were made "partakers of the Holy Spirit; tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come." None of these expressions, it is true, denotes that Divine change which accompanies salvation, being expressly distinguished from it, (and John also, in his First Epistle, intimates that those who are "born of God" cannot be guilty of this sin,) yet they undoubtedly express powerful impressions, and deep convictions, together with some extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit, which were common in those times. All this rendered a departure from the truth what the apostle, in the tenth chapter of the same Epistle, calls "sinning wilfully, after we have received the knowledge of the truth; treading under foot the Son of God, and doing despite to the Spirit of grace." It is also upon this circumstance of light that the case of those apostates mentioned by Peter turns. "After they have known the way of righteousness, to turn from the holy commandment" is that which seals their doom.
Fourthly, The impossibility of such characters being recovered and saved arises from two causes:
1. The only way, or medium, of a sinner's salvation is by the sacrifice of Christ; but the nature of their sin is such that they "wilfully tread him under foot, and treat the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, as an unholy thing." Now if the sacrifice of Christ be thus treated, there is no other way of escape: "There remaineth no more sacrifice for sin, but a fearful looking for of judgment." Hence it becomes a hopeless undertaking for the servants of God to attempt any thing for their recovery. What can they do? Nothing but what they have done already in vain. The grounds which they have ordinarily to go over, in saving sinners from the wrath to come, are, "Repentance from dead works; faith towards God; baptism" of water, and in the primitive times of the Holy Spirit, accompanied with "the laying on of hands;" exhibiting to them "the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment;" but these things have been known and rejected, have lost their force: why should they be repeated? No, saith the apostle, "leaving these first principles," and those who have rejected them, in the hand of God, we will "go on" with our work "unto perfection." "The ploughman doth not plough all day to sow" and "bread-corn is bruised, because he will not ever be threshing it."
2. The only efficient cause of a sinners being brought to repentance, and so to forgiveness, is the almighty and sovereign influence of the Holy Spirit; and the only hope that is left for such characters must arise from the exertion of His power, with whom all things are naturally possible "But of him they are given up! they have done despite to the Spirit of grace," and he hath utterly abandoned them to their own delusions! See Hebrews vi. 7, 8.
Fifthly, The cases which in our times appear to approach the nearest to this sin are those of persons who apostatize from the truth after having enjoyed great religious advantages, obtained much light, felt strong convictions, and made considerable progress in reforming their conduct. The apostacy of such characters, as of some among the Hebrews, is sometimes sentimental. Having long felt the gospel way of salvation to grate upon their feelings, they fall in with some flesh-pleasing scheme, either that of open infidelity, or some one of those which approach the nearest to it; and now, their conduct becoming equally loose with their principles, when reproved by their friends, they keep themselves in countenance by professing to have changed their sentiments in religious matters. In them is fulfilled what was predicted of some by the apostle Paul: "They received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusions, that they should believe a lie; and be damned."
The apostacy of others, like those described in the Second Epistle of Peter, is of a more practical nature. Having long felt the yoke of religion galling to their inclinations, they burst the bonds and let loose the reins of lust; and to ward off reproof, and keep themselves in countenance, they affect to treat all religion with contempt, raking together the faults of professing Christians, as an excuse for their own iniquities. Such characters are commonly the worst of all, and the most dangerous to society; nor do I recollect any instance of their having been "renewed again unto repentance:" "twice dead," they seem doomed to be "plucked up by the roots." In them is verified what our Lord speaks, of a man out of whom should be cast an unclean spirit, which goeth forth in search of a new habitation, seeking rest, but finding none, and at length resolves on a return to his old abode. "And when he cometh, he findeth it empty, swept and garnished. Then
he goeth, and taketh with him seven other spirits, more wicked than himself, and they enter in, and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first."
I am afraid that to the above might be added a great number of characters who, in early life, were of a decent and grave deportment; and who, possessing promising abilities, were encouraged by their friends to engage in the work of the ministry. Their main study being to cultivate their powers, they have at length attained the art of conveying truth and commending virtue in a style of pleasing energy. But as they have never loved nor lived upon the truth which they have communicated, so neither have they practised the virtues which they have recommended. Slaves to popularity, avarice, or lust, they pass through life under a disguise; and being conversant with Divine things as surgeons and soldiers are with the shedding of human blood, they cease to have any effect upon them with respect to their own souls. I would not presume to pass sentence on all such characters; but neither would I be in their situation for the whole world!
The chief difficulties which attend the account of the unpardonable sin affect ministers, in their praying for and preaching to sinners and dejected souls, who are apt to draw dark conclusions against themselves. With respect to prayer, we have directions given us on this head, 1 John v. 16. We are not to pray that God would forgive men this sin, because this would be contradicting the revealed will of God; but as we cannot tell with certainty who are the subjects of it, we may pray for sinners, without distinction, that God would give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; always submitting our petitions to the sovereign direction of unerring wisdom. But it may be asked, with respect to preaching, How can a minister proclaim the mercy of God to his auditory in an indefinite way? How can he invite them to a participation of the blessings of the gospel? How can he declare that if any one of them, even the greatest sinner among them, return to God by Jesus Christ, he will he accepted; when, for aught he knows, there may be persons in his presence who may be in the situation above described, and for whom no mercy is designed? To this I answer, The same objection may be made against the doctrine of election; and is made by the adversaries of that doctrine. Let a minister pursue his work, and leave the effect to God. What he declares of the willingness of Christ to pardon and receive all who return to him is true; and it might be said of any man, in truth, that if he returned to God by Jesus Christ, he would be forgiven. The impossibility, with respect to those who have committed the unpardonable sin, respects their repentance as well as their forgiveness; and even that is not a natural, but a moral impossibility.
With respect to dejected minds, let it be observed, that no person, let his crimes have been what they may, if he be grieved at heart for having committed them, and sincerely ask forgiveness in the name of Christ, needs to fear that he shall be rejected. Such grief is itself a proof that he has not committed the sin against the Holy Spirit, because it is a mark of that sin to be accompanied with a hard and impenitent heart. Such characters may feel the remorse of a Cain, a Saul, or a Judas; but a tear of godly sorrow never dropped from their eyes.
[From Joseph Belcher, The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, Volume I, 1845; rpt. 1988, pp. 612-616. Document provided by David Oldfield, Post Falls, ID. jrd]
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