Greg Carey: The Unforgivable Sin

This past Sunday I heard a strong sermon on the unforgivable sin (Mark 3:20-35). Pastor Timothy Mentzer maintained that the unforgivable sin amounts to condemning God's work as evil and naming that which is evil as good. I agree. Pastor Mentzer also reminded us that we all possess the potential to commit this sin, especially when we grow too confident in our own ideologies. Can't improve on that, either. Amen.

In Mark 3:20-35, Jesus' opponents attribute his ability to cast out demons as the work of Beelzebul. In other words, they take the work of salvation and liberation and call it demonic. What brings life to some people, others call sin. This is sounding way too familiar.

Like many good sermons, this one moved me to a place of personal reflection. In my case, committing the unforgivable sin lies close at hand.

May I begin with a complicated example? We're living in days of heightened religious and political tension. On those occasions, and they're not so rare, when notorious gay-baiting preachers get caught with their pants down, I have to confess that a certain delicious glee tingles my spine. I'm committed to Gospel inclusion of all people, regardless of how and whom they love, so I resent those preachers. What embarrasses the preachers of hate at once confirms my suspicions and helps out my agenda.

But what danger lurks in the pleasure of that tingle. No matter how cruel and insensitive a person may be, rejoicing in their downfall makes bad medicine for the soul. As my own great seminary professor Wayne Oates often said, "Don't think you're above it." No one is bullet proof when it comes to matters of passion and vulnerability, and just because I've not messed up too badly -- yet -- I'd best not count my chickens. Rejoicing in evil, that'll burn your soul. A better idea would be to pray and not rejoice. "Blessed are those who mourn."

Have you ever been close to someone whose life is a mess, and in a way that's convenient for you? If by God's help that someone were to pull things together and find a path to wholeness, that transformation could leave you with a lot of work to do. It's not rare for alcoholics and addicts to begin recovery with a spouse's help, only to find that the relationship itself cannot not adapt to the transformation that accompanies recovery. We're talking about deep, quiet places of the soul here, the ones we never admit to others and largely deny to ourselves. When I find myself tempted to disbelieve another person's good news, I'm sitting right there among the scribes who resist Jesus. Rooting for evil in the presence of good.

Why is the unforgivable sin, well, unforgivable? Though I'm a professional biblical scholar, I speak now out of no particular expertise. This is just my opinion. I do not believe any sin exceeds God's capacity for grace. But all sin is dangerous, and condemning God's work particularly so. When I see healing at work, but resentment and fear build up in my heart, I'm executing deep damage upon my own capacity to live by grace and hope. I'm bringing the power of death to my own soul.

The unforgivable sin certainly hurts other people. We can influence others to reject God's work, and we can curse people who are just beginning to experience grace and freedom. But this sin's primary danger lurks in its capacity to corrupt the self. This, I suspect, is why Jesus speaks so harshly when others credit the devil for his own lifegiving ministry.

Taken with permission from