The unforgivable sin?

screamI have often been surprised by people I have encountered in pastoral ministry who worry that they have committed the “sin against the Holy Spirit”: a term which has stuck in their mind as a particular category of sin. It seems sometimes to particularly prey on the mind of those suffering from depression, or with other mental health issues. I’m not sure whether they’d be helped much by the sixteenth of the Anglican articles, but we need to treat this topic with some care.

XVI. Of Sin after Baptism
Not every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again, and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say, they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.

On a straightforward reading of this article there are a couple of things that may appear slightly surprising. The opening words “not every deadly sin” appear to accept and continue the old categorisation of sins as “mortal” and “venial.” (Not terribly helpful, because so non-relational in their cataloguing of sins.) Following that baptism appears completely coterminous in this article with “receiving the Holy Ghost”, raising other significant issues and questions, which must be laid aside for another occasion. Both are a reminder of how often the articles stand in continuity with, rather than disruption of, the medieval Church.

The central point of the article should not be obscured, however, which is that Christians remain sinners, and repentance and forgiveness are an ongoing dynamic in post-baptismal life. The article does not quite deny the possibility of perfection, but certainly seems to condemn those who say they have obtained it. That seems to me a position which does justice to the common run of human experience, although it was in many ways hard won, in respect at least of many types of sin, in the debates over post-baptismal sin in the early Church. There does seem to be a tendency from time to time for groups of Christians to lift one or more sins almost to the state of unforgivable ones, and for Donatism to rear its head in search of a pure Church. But the article represents the more general view that has obtained.

I remain both curious and disturbed by the sense of anxiety that some seem to have about “unforgivable sins.” Certainly many of those I’ve tried to help have also been suffering from depression, and this seems to be a specific point they latch onto. In such a state they are less likely to be helped by a reasoned exposition of scripture than they are by medicine, counselling, and defending on the context, an appropriate use of the sacrament of reconciliation. (For those who wonder about such things – hang on till I get to that article!). Nonetheless the biblical point seems worth outlining here.

Technically, the synoptic tradition at this point refers not to “sin against the Holy Spirit” but “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 12:31-23 || Mk 3:28-30 || Lk 12:10). I don’t think this functions here as a particular category of sin. Rather it is the inability to see what God is doing, specifically, in context, that God is inaugurating his kingdom through Jesus.

The signs of deliverance, healing and reconciliation demonstrated in Jesus’ ministry are the work of the Spirit. Only those who see Jesus as the bringer and agent of the kingdom, and accept his vision of its healing, forgiveness, and welcome of the sinner, can enter this new realm of the Spirit’s work. Those who deny that what Jesus is doing is the work of the kingdom turn their backs on God, the source of forgiveness and eternal life. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, in this context, is denying that God’s work is God’s work, but rather attributing it to the devil. While in that state they can’t be forgiven, because they are denying the work of forgiveness is available through Jesus’ ministry. It is a prophetic warning to stir repentance, and lead to forgiveness, rather than a statement that they cannot in the future be forgiven.

The article, despite its general balance, rather confuses this question by appearing to make it a one-off exception to the general dynamic of repentance and forgiveness. It is not. To those who find themselves worrying that they have committed this mythical unforgivable sin, I can only say this: “If you’re worrying about having committed it, then you certainly haven’t. Being sorry for what you’ve done shows it. Accept God’s forgiveness.”

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)