Engaging with the Holy Spirit: Real Questions, Practical Answers

Engaging with the Holy Spirit: Real Questions, Practical Answers


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781581349726
Publisher: Crossway
Publication date: 05/28/2008
Pages: 128
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

Graham A. Cole (ThD, Australian College of Theology) is the dean and professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. An ordained Anglican minister, he has served in two parishes and was formerly the principal of Ridley College. Graham lives in Libertyville, Illinois, with his wife, Jules.

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I RECALL AS A YOUNG theological student doing pastoral visitation on Friday afternoons. One person on whom I called was very uneasy at my presence. She had been trained at a sister institution to my own theological college and ordained as a deaconess. She ministered until one day she was so angry with God — she did not tell me why — that she cursed him. Having done so, she was convinced that she had committed the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and had fallen irrevocably from God's favor. She was now eternally damned. She left her ministry and her church and had lived in misery over the years since. The question of whether we have blasphemed against the Holy Spirit and thus have committed the unpardonable sin troubles many.

Sometimes preachers and writers discuss the question in ways that make this anxiety, especially for young Christians, very understandable. For example, Edwin H. Palmer writes:

Every sin and blasphemy may be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven (Mt. 12:31). If any reader of these lines commits this sin, he can never be saved. He will never have a second chance. He may read the Bible or hear the gospel preached, but entrance to heaven is eternally closed to him. It is too late. God will never pardon. The whole church may pray for him, but it will never help because he has sinned a sin unto death (1 John 5:16). As a matter of fact, the church should not even pray for such a person (1 John 5:16).

Given such forceful language, the question we are addressing then is pastorally a very sensitive one. It needs careful handling. How shall we proceed?

We will look at what has been said about this sin in past times and also some suggestions found in the present. We next turn to the biblical testimony. In doing theology the pastor or theologian ought never to bind the consciences of others with less than the Word of God responsibly interpreted, taught, and applied. There is a moral dimension to doing theology. After that I will offer a theological reflection before concluding the chapter.


According to Bruce Demarest, generally speaking, the term blasphemy "connotes a word or deed that directs insolence to the character of God, Christian truth or sacred things." However, with regard to the Holy Spirit in particular, Augustine thought that the biblical texts concerning the blasphemy against the Spirit raise "one of the greatest difficulties for theological understanding" to be found in Holy Scripture. Each of the Synoptic Gospels makes reference to this sin. In broad terms, blasphemy against the Son of Man may find forgiveness in this life (cf. Matt. 12:31; Mark 3:28; Luke 12:10), but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit finds forgiveness neither in this life nor in the life to come (cf. Matt. 12:32; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10). It is an eternal sin. Hence it has become known as the unpardonable sin. Some other biblical texts have also been identified as describing unpardonable sins, if not the same one on view in the Gospels. These texts include the warning passages found in Hebrews 6:4–8 and 10:26–31, which speak of falling away and "sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth." Also 1 John 5:16 is adduced by some as further evidence of an unpardonable sin ("sin that leads to death"). References to this kind of sin, when read in the Gospels (or Epistles), have made many a sensitive Christian conscience very alarmed. What then is on view in these accounts, according to church leaders and theologians past and present?

A Sin No Longer Possible

One view, championed by some major figures in the early church, argues that since Jesus no longer walks the earth performing exorcisms, this sin is no longer a possibility. It was only possible before the ascension of Christ, but not after. Chrysostom (c. 347–407) and Jerome (c. 342–420) held this position. This ancient line of interpretation has some contemporary advocates. A dispensational variation of this view is that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit was a specific sin of unbelieving Israel in the time of Jesus. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, for example, argues that: "The unpardonable sin, or the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, is defined, therefore, as the national rejection by Israel of the messiahship of Jesus was while He was present and claiming He was demon-possessed" (the strange syntax is in the original). He claims further that: "The consequence for Israel is the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, fulfilled in A.D. 70" (the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans).

A Sin Still Possible but Not in Every Aspect

According to Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof, there are a number of New Testament texts that are thought to refer to the unpardonable sin "or blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Savior speaks of it explicitly in Matthew 12:31–32 and parallel passages; and it is generally thought that Hebrews 6:4–6; 10:26, 27 and John 5:16 [sic., actually 1 John 5:16] also refer to this sin." After briefly examining the relevant New Testament texts, he concludes:

It is evidently a sin committed during the present life, which makes conversion and pardon impossible. The sin consists in the conscious, malicious, and willful rejection and slandering, against evidence and conviction, of the testimony of the Holy Spirit respecting the grace of God in Christ, attributing it out of hatred and enmity to the prince of darkness.

He maintains that the Gospel texts about sinning against the Holy Spirit and Hebrews 6:4–6 and 10:26, 27, 29 and 1 John 5:16 are referring to the same sin. However, he offers a qualification; namely, that the warning passage in Hebrews 6 "speaks of a specific form of this sin, such as could only occur in the apostolic age, when the Spirit revealed itself [sic.] in extraordinary gifts and powers."

A Sin Still Possible

Edwin H. Palmer's approach largely comports with that of Berkhof's own. However, there is a major difference. Palmer, writing also as a Reformed theologian, sees Hebrews 6:4–5 as the grid through which to understand blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. He carefully distinguishes what is not the unpardonable sin: "Final Unbelief," "Denial of Christ," "Denial of the Deity of the Holy Spirit," "Grieving the Holy Spirit," and "Falling Away of the Saved." The last sin on the list is impossible, since in his Calvinist theology the saints persevere to the end. Consequently, the blasphemer against the Spirit is not a Christian, but someone who has experienced the Holy Spirit's working "though in a non-saving way." This blasphemer has been enlightened (received a knowledge of the truth, as in Heb. 10:26). His example is Judas. The blasphemer has tasted of the heavenly gift (the gift is the life and work of Christ). Such persons have partaken of the Holy Spirit, but not in the sense that the Spirit has indwelt them. Rather they have experienced the Spirit's influence. His examples are Balaam, Saul, and Judas. This person has tasted the Word of God. Affection for the Word has been shown, yet that Word has not been embraced (e.g., King Herod). The powers of the age to come have been tasted (miracles have been seen as in Heb. 2:4) and yet these persons have fallen away and denounced Christ willfully (Heb. 10:26).

So, unlike Berkhof, Palmer argues that Hebrews 6 and 10 apply as they stand to today's world. (Palmer links Hebrews 6 and 10 together.) He writes:

This same sin can happen today as much as it did in biblical times. Although the age of miracles has passed, it is possible for modern man, enlightened by the Spirit of God and tasting that the Word of God is good, to rebel against Christ openly, brazenly and without remorse. This is especially true of those reared in orthodox Christian homes and churches where they have heard the gospel fully, plainly and properly over the years. It is possible for them to be warmed to the clear presentation of the gospel and then willfully, hatefully and openly to renounce Christ completely.

Like Berkhof, Palmer is convinced that the elect child of God cannot commit such a sin. The biblical warnings about it then are addressed to the outsider.

Arminian theologian J. Kenneth Grider is not convinced that 1 John 5:16 is relevant to the discussion. According to him, the Johannine text refers "to a sin which carries the death penalty in civil law." The church is not necessarily to pray for someone so condemned, if such praying aims at the alleviation of the penalty. How Grider arrives at this view is not clear. As for the Gospel texts, these refer to that sin where a person knowing full well that the Holy Spirit is the source of Jesus' ministry attributes it to an evil spirit instead. Grider's Arminianism becomes especially apparent when he suggests that such a sin "is unpardonable because the person himself sets himself into this kind of stance and will not let God transform his mind and forgive him. It is therefore unpardonable more from man's standpoint than from God's — for we read elsewhere in Scripture that God will graciously forgive anyone who asks for pardon." Miroslav Volf argues similarly: "There are no unforgivable sins. There are no unforgivable people." A reviewer of Volf's book on grace, John Wilson, rightly raises the question: "What about the sin against the Holy Spirit?" Volf's answer is: "That is the sin of closing oneself off to the One through whom God forgives all people and all sins." However, this approach seems to turn the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit into the sin of unasked-for forgiveness. Also writing from an Arminian stance, John B. Nielson maintains that the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not to be confused with the sin leading to death of 1 John 5:16, nor with the apostasy referred to in Hebrews 6 and 10. He argues: "Jesus limits the unpardonable sin to the intention of attributing the work of the Holy Spirit done in Christ to the power of Satan."

As can be seen in this brief survey of opinion past and present, there is much variety in interpretation. What then are we to make of the biblical testimony?


In Matthew, Jesus warns the Pharisees about this sin. He has just cast out a demon. But their response is to attribute the exorcism to Beelzebub, the prince of demons. In the Matthean account Jesus counters: "But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Matt. 12:28).18 The pericope ends with Jesus issuing a generalized warning which is addressed to "whoever [hos] speaks a word ... against [kata] the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 12:32). In Luke, Jesus warns the disciples — not the Pharisees this time — about the sin. The warning is applicable to "the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit" (Luke 12:10).19 Mark does not name the Pharisees but refers to "the scribes who came down from Jerusalem" (Mark 3:22). The Markan account is more specific: "but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin — for they had said, 'He has an unclean spirit'" (Mark 3:29–30). For readers who are also preachers the differences are no surprise. The same teaching may allow multiple applications depending upon audience and occasion. Likewise here. There is no need to postulate one of these accounts as more primitive than the other or merely a reworking of the other by a redactor. What is common to the accounts is the rejection of Jesus and its consequences. But what does that rejection of Jesus entail exactly?

A common interpretation has been to suggest that on view in these accounts, whether addressed to Pharisees (outsiders) or scribes (outsiders, perhaps also Pharisees) or disciples (insiders), is unbelief or impenitence. In the patristic era Augustine held this view, as did Melanchthon in the Reformation period. The unbelief reading has had, then, a long history in the church. But is this interpretation too general in attempting to cover outsiders and insiders?

Another interpretation is that the sin refers to a specific deed: knowingly attributing Jesus' miraculous works to Satan rather than to the Spirit of God. In contrast to blasphemy against the Son of Man (Jesus), which may flow from ignorance, this sin is malicious in intent. Good has become evil. Louis Berkhof championed this reading, as we have seen. The person who so describes Jesus is so locked into the abyss that the sin is unpardonable, either because God will not forgive such a blasphemy, or because such a person will never embrace the proffered grace of God.

A still further interpretation maintains that Luke 12:10 has the specific sin of apostasy in mind. Unlike the Matthean and Markan accounts, this text is unconnected to the Beelzebub controversy. Jesus addresses disciples (his philoi, "friends") in this context. The backdrop is a warning concerning the Pharisees: "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees" (Luke 12:1). (Is this leaven their false view of Jesus?) Then Jesus warns the disciples still further about not fearing those who can kill only the body as opposed to the soul (Luke 12:4–7). Against that background the disciples are encouraged to acknowledge Christ before others in contrast to denying him (Luke 12:8–9). Speaking a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be (Luke 12:10). Next, Jesus speaks of the disciples having to face the authorities for their faith, but the Holy Spirit will teach them what to say (Luke 12:11–12). Because of these elements in the context some have suggested that for Luke apostasy under hostile pressure is tantamount to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. However, it is difficult to account for Jesus' intercession for Peter, Peter's denial of Christ, and Peter's subsequent reinstatement on this view (cf. Luke 12:8–12; 22:54–62; 22:31–34).

Yet another possibility has been suggested by H. A. G. Blocher. He argues that Christ was incognito in his earthly ministry. Consequently, failing to recognize his glory did not merit the culpability it would attract subsequent to his glorification. However, to ascribe the Spirit's works to demonic power is fatal. The Spirit is the one who draws us to Christ without whom there is no forgiveness. Blocher contends: "To oppose the Spirit, refusing to be convinced by his witness to the only way of salvation, it [sic., is?] to deny oneself access to salvation."

Still another suggestion, that of Graeme Twelftree, is that the incident narrated in Acts 5:1–5 concerning Ananias and Sapphira is a Lukan example of the unpardonable sin or blasphemy against the Spirit. The suggestion is an interesting one. A specific deed is on view in the text. Ananias and Sapphira sin against the Holy Spirit by misrepresenting how much they had donated to the needs of the community. However, the sin is never described in situ as blasphemy; rather it is described as a lie. Furthermore, there is no hint in the text that this is an unpardonable sin. Luke has a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit story in his Gospel, so that category was known to the writer. But he does not employ it in Acts. A better analogue perhaps is the Corinthian situation, where some had died because of their abuse of the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:30). There are sins, it seems, that are worthy of removal of the perpetrator from this life. This does not mean necessarily that such persons are lost for ever.

One further suggestion is worth noting. Michael Welker contends that the blasphemy against the Spirit is nothing less than "disregarding God's already experienced intervention [through Jesus] in the world of human beings. It means, contrary to better experience, not taking either God or oneself and suffering and liberated people seriously — and to do one is always to do the other." The Pharisees disregarded "the undeniable experience of diverse deliverance out of distress from which there is, by human standards, no escape." Jesus' warning then is "directed against those who take the last hope away from others [because the Pharisees and scribes are religious authority figures their judgment of Jesus will be listened to by the poor], and who obstruct their own access to a last hope."

A verbal blasphemy against the Son of Man may be forgiven. Paul, in his former life as Saul of Tarsus, is a case in point. Paul describes himself to Timothy as "a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent" of the faith (1 Tim. 1:13). However, he also writes of his acting "ignorantly in unbelief." As history shows, his was not a fixed, unalterable hostility to Christ. The grace of God transformed him (hyperpleonasen, grace "overflowed," 1 Tim. 1:14). But the settled rejection of the Spirit's testimony to and through Jesus is eternally freighted in its consequences. What is clear in the various Gospels' accounts is the nexus between Christology and pneumatology in blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But as we have seen, the Ananias and Sapphira story in Acts 5:1–6 does not exhibit such a nexus. Moreover, there is no suggestion in the text that their sin resulted in more than physical death. However, there may well be other sins — in addition to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit — that are unpardonable ones. For example, 1 John 5:16–17 may refer to such a sin. However, there is no hint in the text that either Christology or pneumatology or both are in mind. So although some (e.g., Edwin Palmer and Louis Berkhof) would like to link the Gospel texts with 1 John 5:16, it is too much of a stretch to do so (e.g., so Grudem rightly argues).


Excerpted from "Engaging with the Holy Spirit"
by .
Copyright © 2007 Graham A. Cole.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword   David Peterson     9
Acknowledgments     11
Abbreviations     13
Introduction     15
What Is Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?     19
How May We Resist the Holy Spirit?     35
Ought We to Pray to the Holy Spirit?     51
How Do We Quench the Holy Spirit?     67
How Do We Grieve the Holy Spirit?     83
How Does the Holy Spirit Fill Us?     99
Conclusion     115
Glossary     119
Scripture Index     121

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"I cannot imagine that there are many pastors who have not heard each of the six questions that Graham Cole raises. Here are serious, careful, practical, theologically alert answers. This book deserves the widest circulation."
D. A. Carson,Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; Cofounder, The Gospel Coalition

"Pneumatology has been sadly neglected in recent evangelical theology, and when it has been touched upon, it has trended toward either the speculative or the sensational. But here is a book on the Holy Spirit that is practical, relevant, balanced, and useful in the lives of God's people everywhere. This book provides important grounding for a fuller theology of the Holy Spirit, and I commend it to all believers who are serious about the Christian life."
Timothy George, Dean, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University; general editor, Reformation Commentary on Scripture

"Drawing from the well of his extensive and rigorous study of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Graham Cole gives refreshingly clear answers to six crucial questions that earnest Christians invariably ask. The answers are sure to grace the church, because what Christians believe about the third Person of the Trinity will determine how they live. This is an important, accessible, life-giving book."
R. Kent Hughes, Professor of Practical Theology, Westminster Theological Seminary

"When churches wrestle with division over contradictory views related to the work of the Holy Spirit, this book will provide lucid and succinct guidance. When individuals fear they have grieved the Holy Spirit, Dr. Cole's teaching will provide clarity and encouragement. When church leaders long for their congregations to know the filling of the Spirit of God, they will find wisdom in this book. I recommend it highly."
Greg Waybright, Former President, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; Senior Pastor, Lake Avenue Church, Pasadena, California

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