Sinning Against the Spirit

In this month’s TV Broadcast on tv.jw.org, the speaker, Ken Flodine, discusses how we can grieve God’s spirit. Before explaining what it means to grieve the holy spirit, he explains what it does not mean. This takes him into a discussion of Mark 3:29.

“But whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit has no forgiveness forever but is guilty of everlasting sin.” (Mr 3:29)

No one wants to commit an unforgivable sin. No sane person wants to be condemned to eternal death. Therefore, properly understanding this Scripture has been of major concern for Christians down through the centuries.

What does the Governing Body teach us about the unforgivable sin? To explain further, Ken reads Matthew 12:31, 32:

“For this reason I say to you, every sort of sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the spirit will not be forgiven. 32 For example, whoever speaks a word against the Son of man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the holy spirit, it will not be forgiven him, no, not in this system of things nor in that to come.” (Mt 12:31, 32)

Ken acknowledges that blaspheming the name of Jesus can be forgiven, but not blaspheming the holy spirit. He says, “One who blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven, forever. Now why is that? The reason is that holy spirit has God as its very source. The holy spirit is expressive of God’s own personality. So saying things against, or denying, the holy spirit is the same as speaking against Jehovah himself.”

When I heard this, I thought it was a new understanding—what JWs like to call “new light”—but it appears I missed this change of understanding some time back.

“Blasphemy is defamatory, injurious, or abusive speech. Since the holy spirit has God as its Source, saying things against his spirit is the same as speaking against Jehovah. Unrepentantly resorting to speech of that kind is unforgivable.
(w07 7/15 p. 18 par. 9 Have You Sinned Against the Holy Spirit?)

For purposes of comparison, here is our “old light” understanding:

“So, the Scriptures make it clear that sin against the spirit involves acting knowingly and deliberately against the undeniable evidence of the holy spirit’s operation, as did the chief priests and certain Pharisees in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. However, anyone who may in ignorance blaspheme or speak abusively of God and Christ can be forgiven, provided that he is genuinely repentant.” (g78 2/8 p. 28 Can Blasphemy Be Forgiven?)

So we could blaspheme Jehovah and be forgiven under the old understanding, though even then it had to be done in ignorance. (Presumably, a willful blasphemer, even if subsequently repentant, could not be forgiven.  Not a comforting teaching this.)   While our old understanding was closer to the truth, it still missed the mark. However, our new understanding reveals how shallow our Scriptural reasoning has become in recent decades. Consider this: Ken claims blaspheming the holy spirit means blaspheming God because the “holy spirit is expressive of God’s own personality.” Where does he get that from? You will notice that in keeping with our modern method of teaching, he provides no direct Scriptural evidence to support this statement.  It is enough that it comes from the Governing Body via one of its Helpers.

According to the Organizations interpretation of the four living creatures of Ezekiel’s vision, Jehovah’s cardinal attributes are said to be love, wisdom, power and justice. This is a reasonable interpretation, but where is the holy spirit depicted as representing those qualities? It could be argued that the spirit represents God’s power, but that is only one facet of this personality.

In contrast to this unsubstantiated assertion about the holy spirit expressing God’s character, we have Jesus, who is called the image of God. (Col 1:15)  “He is the reflection of his glory and the exact representation of his very being.” (Heb 1:3) Additionally, we are told that he who has seen the Son has seen the Father. (John 14:9) Therefore, to know Jesus is to know the personality and character of the Father. Based on Ken’s reasoning, Jesus is far more the expression of God’s personality than is the holy spirit. It therefore follows that blaspheming Jesus is blaspheming Jehovah. Yet Ken acknowledges that blaspheming Jesus is forgivable, but claims blaspheming God is not.

Ken’s claim that the holy spirit is expressive of God’s personality stands in conflict to what our own encyclopedia has to say:

it-2 p. 1019 Spirit
But, on the contrary, in a large number of cases the expression “holy spirit” appears in the original Greek without the article, thus indicating its lack of personality.—Compare Ac 6:3, 5; 7:55; 8:15, 17, 19; 9:17; 11:24; 13:9, 52; 19:2; Ro 9:1; 14:17; 15:13, 16, 19; 1Co 12:3; Heb 2:4; 6:4; 2Pe 1:21; Jude 20, Int and other interlinear translations.

Ken’s view differs from what was once taught in the publications.

“By speaking abusively of the Son, Paul was also guilty of blaspheming the Father whom Jesus represented. (g78 2/8 p. 27 Can Blasphemy Be Forgiven?)

So why would the Governing Body abandon a perfectly good explanation for another that can so easily be defeated scripturally?

Why Does the Governing Body Adopt this View?

Perhaps this is not done consciously.  Perhaps we can put this down to a product of the peculiar mindset of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  To illustrate, on average, Jehovah is mentioned eight times as often as Jesus in the magazines. This ratio is not found in the Christian Greek Scriptures in the NWT—the JW translation of the Bible.  There the ratio is reversed with Jesus occurring approximately four times as often as Jehovah. Of course, if one drops the insertion of Jehovah into the text which the NWT makes as part of their policy of contextual emendation (the divine name does not appear in even one of the over 5,000 NT manuscripts in existence today) the ratio of Jesus to Jehovah is approximately a thousand occurrences to zero.

This emphasis on Jesus makes Witnesses uncomfortable.  If a Witness in a field service car group were to say something like, “Isn’t it wonderful how Jehovah provides for us through his Organization,” he would get a chorus of agreement. But were he to say, “Isn’t it wonderful how the Lord Jesus provides for us through his Organization,” he’d be met with an embarrassed silence.  His listeners would know that scripturally there was nothing wrong with what he had just said, but instinctively, they would feel uncomfortable with the use of the phrase “the Lord Jesus”.  To Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jehovah is everything, while Jesus is our model, our exemplar, our titular king. He’s the one Jehovah sends out to do things, but Jehovah is really in charge,  Jesus is more of a figurehead.  Oh, we’d never openly admit that, but by our words and actions, and the way he is treated in the publications, that is the reality.  We don’t think about bowing down to Jesus, or giving him our complete submission. We bypass him and refer to Jehovah all the time. In casual conversation when one might refer to how they have been helped through difficult times or when we express a desire for guidance or divine intervention, perhaps to help an erring family member back to “the truth”, Jehovah’s name always comes up.  Jesus is never invoked.  This is in stark contrast with the way he is treated in the Christian Scriptures.

With this pervasive mindset, we find it hard to believe that blaspheming Jesus or God are equal and thus both forgivable.

Ken Flodine next goes into some detail about the religious leaders of Jesus’ day as well as Judas Iscariot, claiming these sinned the unforgivable sin. True, Judas is called the “son of destruction”, but whether that means he sinned the unforgivable sin is not so clear. For example, Acts 1:6 refers to Judas as having fulfilled a prophecy penned by King David.

“. . .For it is not an enemy who taunts me; Otherwise I could put up with it. It is not a foe who has risen up against me; Otherwise I could conceal myself from him. 13 But it is you, a man like me, My own companion whom I know well. 14 We used to enjoy a warm friendship together; Into the house of God we used to walk along with the multitude. 15 May destruction overtake them! Let them go down alive into the Grave” (Ps 55:12-15)

According to John 5:28, 29, all those in the grave get a resurrection. So can we really say for sure that Judas committed the unforgivable sin?

The same goes for the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. True, he does rebuke them and warn them about blaspheming the holy spirit, but can we say that some of them sinned unforgivably?  These same ones stoned Stephen, yet he implored: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60) He was filled with holy spirit at that point, viewing a vision of heaven, so it is hardly likely that he was asking the Lord to forgive the unforgivable. The same account shows that “Saul, for his part, approved of his murder.” (Acts 8:1) Yet Saul, being one of the rulers, was forgiven. Additionally, “a great crowd of priests began to be obedient to the faith.” (Ac 6:7) And we know that there were even those of the Pharisees who became Christians. (Acts 15:5)

Yet, consider this next statement by Ken Flodine that demonstrates the level of reasoning that is pervasive these days amongst those who publicly proclaim they are God’s exclusive channel of communication:

“So blaspheming against the holy spirit is related more to the motive, the heart condition, the degree of willfulness, more so than to a specific type of sin. But that is not for us to judge. Jehovah knows who is worthy of a resurrection and who is not. Well, clearly, we do not even want to come close to sinning against Jehovah’s holy spirit as did Judas and some of the false religious leaders in the first century.”

In one sentence he tells us we must not judge, but in the next he passes judgment.

What Is the Unforgivable Sin?

When we challenge a teaching of the Governing Body, we are often asked in a challenging tone, “Do you think you know more than the Governing Body?”  This implies that the Word of God can only be sounded down to us from the Wise (discreet) and Intellectual ones among us.  The rest of us are mere babes.  (Mt 11:25)

Well, let us approach this question as babes, free from prejudice and preconception.

When asked how often he should forgive, one of Jesus’ disciples was told by the Lord:

“If your brother commits a sin give him a rebuke, and if he repents forgive him. 4 Even if he sins seven times a day against you and he comes back to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”” (Lu 17:3, 4)

In another place, the number is 77 times.  (Mt 18:22) Jesus was not imposing an arbitrary number here, but showing there is no limit to forgiveness except—and this is a key point—when there is no repentance.  We are required to forgive our brother when he repents.  This we do in imitation of our Father.

It therefore follows that the unforgivable sin is the sin for which no repentance is shown.

How does the holy spirit factor in?

  • We get God’s love through the holy spirit. (Ro 5:5)
  • It trains and guides our conscience. (Ro 9:1)
  • God gives us power by means of it. (Ro 15:13)
  • We cannot proclaim Jesus without it. (1Co 12:3)
  • We are sealed for salvation by it. (Eph 1:13)
  • It produces fruits for salvation. (Ga 5:22)
  • It transforms us. (Titus 3:5)
  • It guides us into all the truth. (John 16:13)

In short, the holy spirit is the gift God gives to save us.  If we slap it away, we are throwing way the means by which we can be saved.

“How much greater punishment do you think a person will deserve who has trampled on the Son of God and who has regarded as of ordinary value the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and who has outraged the spirit of undeserved kindness with contempt?” (Heb 10:29)

We all sin many times, but let a bad attitude never develop in us that would cause us to reject the very means by which our Father can extend us forgiveness.  Such an attitude will manifest itself in an unwillingness to acknowledge we are wrong; an unwillingness to humble ourselves before our God and beg for forgiveness.

If we do not ask our Father to forgive us, how can he?