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Reform Magazine | April 23, 2024

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A good question: Is there an unforgivable sin? - Reform Magazine

A good question: Is there an unforgivable sin?

One question, four answers


Greg Carey
‘The unforgivable sin is to condemn God’s work as evil’

My understanding of Mark 3:20-35 is that the unforgivable sin is to condemn God’s work as evil and name that which is evil as good. Jesus’ opponents attribute his ability to cast out demons to Beelzebul. 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. In my case, committing the unforgivable sin lies close at hand.

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 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. No one is bulletproof 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 will burn your soul. A better idea would be to pray and not rejoice. “Blessed are those who mourn.” …

Greg Carey is professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, an institution of the United Church of Christ in Pennsylvania


carla_grosch_millerCarla Grosch-Miller
‘Believing particular sins to be unforgivable is the unforgivable sin’

I shuddered when I read this question. As a minister, I am all too aware of the powerful and shaming effect of the very thought that there are unforgivable sins. I want to answer: “No!” full stop, but the fact that the question is still alive for some makes me pause to consider the matter more deeply.

When Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom, he says: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” This statement suggests that the Church has the power to proclaim that some sins are unforgivable. Certainly it points to the reality that Church pronouncements on sin have far-reaching effects. For Jesus, though, only one sin is unforgivable: Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:29).

I think that believing particular sins to be unforgivable is the one unforgivable sin because it blasphemes the Holy Spirit. It is saying that God’s power is not strong enough and God’s love not broad enough to overcome the most heinous of harms. The Resurrection proclaims otherwise…

Carla Grosch-Miller is minister of Cumnor and St Columba’s United Reformed churches in Oxford and a theological educator in the area of sex and ministry

dwight_longeneckerDwight Longenecker
‘Self-righteousness won’t be forgiven’

The unforgivable sin is self-righteousness. Why is it unforgivable? Not because it can’t be forgiven, but because it won’t be forgiven.

It is unforgivable because the guilty person cannot ask for forgiveness because he really, honestly doesn’t think he is to blame. This is like a person with cancer refusing to go to the oncologist because there is nothing wrong with him. The oncologist cannot cure him. It’s impossible. God can forgive any sinner except the sinner who does not think he is a sinner.

Forgiveness then has two parts: Repentance and being forgiven. If a person does not repent they cannot be forgiven. It’s common sense: You will not find if you will not search. You cannot get an answer if you do not ask the question. You cannot be forgiven if you do not recognise your need for forgiveness. You cannot quench your thirst if you do not know what thirst is.

Ash Wednesday is the big repentance day. It’s the day when we all must say: “It’s me. I’m the one. I admit it. I did wrong. I’m in need of healing. It is nobody else’s fault but mine. I’m sorry. I really am.”

Dwight Longenecker is an author and Catholic priest. His blog and books are available at


Nimmi_HutnikNimmi Hutnik
‘It is to live outside of an awareness of the spiritual dimension of reality’

Had Hitler been the one on the cross to the right of Jesus asking that Jesus remember him, what would Jesus have said? He expects us to be able to forgive 70 times seven times, and even in the midst of excruciating suffering he was able to say: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”, so my guess is that Jesus would have said to Hitler: “This day you will be with me in paradise.”

From a psychologist’s point of view, forgiveness is an essential ingredient of happiness, wellbeing and flourishing. The kernel of unforgiveness is anger, hate and resentment. When we hold these emotions, our bodies are in a state of extreme alert and we are ready to fight. We can dissipate the physiological sensations by taking revenge, yet, as Os Guinness says in The Dust of Death (Crossway Books, 1994), we know that violence begets violence; it leads us into a spiral of escalating aggression in which we will eventually be the losers.

The spiritual economy of Jesus is unique. Because God forgives us, all necessity to keep accounts is bypassed, purgatory becomes unnecessary and we escape our bad karma by a simple act of repentance. This is indeed grace! We inherit the Kingdom of God, not by merit but by an awareness of our common fallenness.

Nimmi Hutnik is a counsellor and reader in mental health at London South Bank University


This is an extract from the December 2015/January 2016 edition of Reform.

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