Friday, October 26, 2007

The Unforgivable Sin?

Friday, October 26, 2007 -- Week of Proper 24
(Alfred the Great, King of the West Saxons, 899)

"Morning Reflections" is a brief thought about the scripture readings from the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer according to the practice found in the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.

Morning Prayer begins on p. 80 of the Book of Common Prayer.
Evening Prayer begins on p. 117
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Today's Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer p. 988)
Psalms 31 (morning) 35 (evening)
Ezra 3:1-13
1 Corinthians 16:10-24
Matthew 12:22-32

Someone came to visit me the other day deeply afraid. She was afraid that she had committed the unforgivable sin. The event that troubled her had more of the characteristic of a dream than a willful act of rebellion toward God. And she had lived her life in fear of God, serving and following the Lord. Yet she had been raised in a church that preached the fear of God -- be saved, saved in the one right way, or be damned forever. She feared she was damned forever.

Some of her fear comes from this passage and its parallels in Mark and Luke. There is another reference to a sin that is beyond redemption in Hebrews. The Hebrews passage focuses on the act of denying the faith and intentionally rejecting Jesus after having become a member of Christ. Later in Hebrews the message is softened by a quick reassurance, "Beloved, we are confident of better things in your case, things that belong to salvation."

This story in Matthew targets those who see Jesus healing one who was deaf and mute. They condemn Jesus' act, saying, "It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out demons." In Matthew's version Jesus closes his rebuttal saying, "Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come."

The New Testament assurances about God's free, abundant and unqualified gift of forgiveness are to numerous to mention (The Bible has over 50 such references).

It seems obvious that anyone who is troubled in Spirit that he or she might have committed the unforgivable sin has already met the condition of repentance and forgiveness. The troubled conscience is a sign of the presence of God's Spirit and an assurance of God's forgiving love being with us.

But these passages have been the source of a great deal of speculation and have been used as something of a template for preachers to attach their favorite sins. The web site lists 33 different interpretations of the original sin, including not accepting the literal truth of the Bible, worshipping in churches, playing religious music, the New Age movement, criticizing speaking in tongues, being gay, taking your own life, and not forgiving others.

Protestant theologians tend to emphasize that once one is saved there is no threat from an unpardonable sin; Catholic theologians offer the sacraments as the means to forgiveness and release from all sin; liberal theologians tend to dismiss such notions as inconsistent with the dominant understanding of God as just, compassionate, merciful and forgiving.

I do not know what if anything might be considered unpardonable. I do take seriously my responsibility to declare God's love and forgiveness to those who come to me in fear with a troubled conscience. And I believe that those who profess to know what God judges to be unforgivable and those who scare people with their certainty are creeping close to that border themselves. The Holy Spirit is God's presence in the power of compassionate love; do not blaspheme the Holy Spirit.


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The Rev. Lowell Grisham
Paul's Episcopal Church
Fayetteville, AR

The Mission of St. Paul's Episcopal Church is to explore and celebrate
God's infinite grace, acceptance, and love.

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Our Rule of Life:
We aspire to...
worship weekly
pray daily
learn constantly
serve joyfully
live generously.


At 12:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think it's so much the dark that I'm afraid of... it just might be the light.

At 3:45 PM, Blogger Doug said...

I remember being terrified that I might accidentally blaspheme the Holy Spirit and be lost forever. It is sad to me that there are parts of the church that let this paranoia stand. It is on subjects like this that we so desperately need to know the back story. Thanks, Lowell, for providing it on this and so many other subjects.


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