The unforgivable sin

Fr. Earl Meyer, Special contributor
Fr. Earl Meyer

We receive ashes to begin Lent with the admonition, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  Or the alternate, “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Both solemn reminders of our accountability for our failures and our need to amend our life. But not messages of despair. We are encouraged to atone for the wrong we have done with full confidence in the infinite mercy of God. Scripture tells us, and theologians teach, that God wills the salvation of all. 

Yet Scripture says repeatedly that there is an unforgivable sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Letter to the Hebrews and the First Letter of Saint John refer to this sin as fatal. The gospel of Mark says, "All sins and blasphemies will be forgiven. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” 

Many wonder what this sin against the Holy Spirit is, and why it cannot be forgiven. In the context of the gospel passage it was the sin of the Pharisees in attributing to Satan the power of the Holy Spirit which enabled the miracles of Christ. That was their blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. That sin is now repeated by anyone who denies the power of the Holy Spirit, limits the reach of God’s grace, or refuses to accept forgiveness. In a word, the unrepentant.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “There are no limits to the mercy of God. But those who deliberately refuse to accept his mercy by repenting, reject the forgiveness of their sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.”

St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica gave three examples of this unforgivable sin: despair, which consists in thinking that one's own malice is greater than God’s mercy; presumption, expecting pardon without repentance or glory without merit; obstinacy, hardened resistance to grace.  

The unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit does not consist of sacrilegious words or actions, although those are grave offenses. The essence of this unforgivable sin is the refusal to accept the mercy which God offers through the Holy Spirit. This sin is intrinsically unforgivable because it is the rejection of the grace of God which enables forgiveness. 

God does not deny forgiveness to any repentant sinner, but an obstinate sinner can refuse to accept God’s mercy. It is not something that God does to punish the unrepentant, but a fate they choose for themselves. On a human level, you may have encountered someone who does not want to be forgiven for an offense, but relishes the harm he or she has inflicted. In brief, is unrepentant.

The Bible records the behavior to two prominent kings, Herod and David, who illustrate the necessity of repentance and the unforgivable sin of the recalcitrant. King Herod beheaded John the Baptist to justify taking his brother’s wife. King David had Uriah murdered to hide his affair with Bathsheba. Both were guitly of the same grave sins of adulty compounded by murder. Yet David is honored while Herod is despised. David repented; Herod relished his crimes. 

The traditional practices of Lent - prayer, fasting and charity - are expressions of a sincere desire for God’s mercy. To express his repentance and to inspire ours, King David wrote Psalm 51, the Miserere, “Have mercy on me, O God, in your kindness. A humble, contrite heart you will not spurn.”

Fr. Earl Meyer, a regular contributor to The Hays Daily News, is at the St. Fidelis Friary in Victoria, and can be reached at earl.meyer@capuchins.org.