Does Mark 3:9 contradict Acts 13:39 in regards to the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit? The solution to this problem is found by defining the concept of forgiveness in the ancient world.
I’m sure we’ve all heard the evangelist throw around the word “forgiveness” at least once. Whether it was an alter call on TV, a preacher in the street, or even a tract in the mail, forgiveness is quite the buzz word among evangelicals, and even more so the phrase “any sin can be forgiven”. But what about Mark 3:9, which describes a sin that cannot be forgiven?
“He that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness.”
Some have found confusion in this verse and have often wondered if they have committed this sin themselves. Furthermore, critics of the Christian faith have pounced on this verse by pointing out a tension between the verse in question and Acts 13:39, which says,
“And by him that believe are justified from all things.”
If one is justified in all things how could there be an unforgivable sin? To answer this we first need to define what this sin actually is.
The Holy Spirit is God’s active hand in the world. It is the effects of God’s power personified in one’s life. How does one go about blaspheming Him? By denying His divine authority and power. It is nothing more than unbelief. Note that I am not calling out a simple “lack of faith” or “hint of doubt” as something any Christian will tell you they’ve wrestled with. What I am pointing to is a complete and deliberate denial.
For example, note the context of Mark chapter 3. Here we see Jesus move with His disciples so they may have the power to “heal the sick and to cast out devils.” However, verse 22 documents the Scribe’s denial of this by stating, “He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils.” They weren’t just denying the Spirit, they were attributing His work to that of devils. What does that mean for us today?
Around ten years ago there was a movement on youtube called “The Blaspheme Challenge,” where atheists would stand before a camera and deny the Holy Spirit. Ironically, they never needed to go through such rigmarole to blaspheme the Spirit, they were already doing it by refusing the Spirit’s tugging and drawing by putting it down to guilt feelings or shame.
In regards to believers, one needn’t be worried if they have committed the unforgivable sin since Christianity presupposes belief in the Holy Spirit and His part in our lives. To say one cannot be forgiven if they blaspheme the Spirit isn’t so much describing how “big” the sin is, it is telling us the very act is a sign that one has broken off from the covenant Christ established with His people. One cannot be forgiven if they have refused any further association with the forgiver.
Indeed, this becomes even clearer when we define the act of forgiveness in the ancient world. Unlike today, where forgiveness is associated with feelings (such as abandoning anger or resentment), to the ancients, it was more along the lines of restoration. Sin wasn’t just an immoral act, it was also something that damaged the interpersonal relationship between God and man, thereby causing the sinner to be excluded from or reduced to a lower form of fellowship with the offended (this lines with the honor and shame precept of the ancient world). Forgiveness, therefore, meant that one was restored to their prior position in the community. But if one wasn’t a part of the community to begin with, how can one be “forgiven” in that sense?
An interesting take away from this is that, unlike the popular evangelism of today, each evangelical passage in the Bible doesn’t mention the “forgiveness of sins.” Salvation was defined in terms of being “born again” (1 Peter 1:23) or “crucified with Christ” (Romans 6:6) in a way that suggests we are in some way represented by Christ on the cross. The old man has died. When a non-believer converts their sins aren’t “forgiven,” they are “forgotten,” as if they had never been committed. Although modern evangelism isn’t wrong under the modern definition of forgiveness, it is worth noting that the ancients saw it another way.
Overall, this contradiction can be harmonized by pointing out that the verses represent two completely different groups of people: the unbeliever and the believer.