What is the relationship between apostasy and blasphemy of the Holy Spirit?

Introduction

In our recent sermon entitled “Whiteness is not the unforgivable sin,” (which can be found by clicking here) we defined blasphemy against the Spirit, AKA the unforgivable sin, as attributing to Satan the work of the Spirit. We also saw that blasphemy against the Spirit is more than a rejection of the gospel. It is the obstinate refusal to acknowledge that Jesus’ power comes from God, even after seeing the truth of Jesus.

A common question is: What is the relationship between the unforgivable sin (Mark 3:22-30) and the apostasy described in Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-29? Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is distinct from apostasy. Apostasy is deliberately turning against God and renouncing the faith. It presupposes that the individual was once a sincere believer. Yet, there are at least three similarities between apostasy and the unforgivable sin (Mark 3:29), even as the sin spoken of by Jesus in Mark 3:29 is not apostasy in the ordinary sense.

Similarities between apostasy and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit

First, the unpardonable nature of the sin.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is said to be an “eternal sin” for which someone “never has forgiveness” (Mark 3:29). In the case of apostasy in Hebrews 6:4-6, “It is impossible … to restore them to repentance.” In the case of apostasy in Hebrews 10:26-31, “There no longer remains a sacrifice for sin.”

Second, neither can be done accidentally

Jesus’s teaching about blasphemy of the Holy Spirt is applied directly to the Scribes (Mark 3:22, 30). After watching Jesus’ authority to preach, heal sickness, forgive sins, and cast out demons, the Scribes attributed Jesus’ power to Satan rather than the Spirit. This was done after they watched Jesus carefully (Mark 3:2) for some time. Their sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is a thoughtful, willful, and circumspect rejection of the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a settled condition of the soul. It is not an isolated act done accidentally.

The same is true for apostasy, which is when someone goes “on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth” (Heb. 10:26). This person has tasted the heavenly gift (i.e. participated in the Lord’s Supper), partaken of the Holy Spirit, and tasted the goodness of the word of God (Heb. 6:4-5). The clearest example of individual apostasy in the Old Testament is Saul, whom Samuel anointed as king over Israel. He was filled with the Spirit and prophesied (1 Sam. 10:6, 10), yet eventually fell away from the Lord and committed suicide.

Neither blasphemy of the Holy Spirit or apostasy is a one-time event done accidentally. It is when someone deliberately and actively hates Christ while knowing the truth. This condition doesn’t develop overnight. There is a difference between active and passive sin. Some sin in ignorance (Heb. 5:2) and Yahweh made provision for the person who commits unintentional sin (Num. 15:28). No such provision is made for the person who sins with a high hand (Num. 15:30f), which leads to our final similarity.

Third, each is sinning with a high hand.

Numbers 15:30-31 describes sinning with a high hand when it says, “But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the Lord, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. 31 Because he has despised the word of the Lord and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” Sinning with a high hand has three parts: (A) reviling the Lord (The Hebrew word gā·ḏǎp̄ means blaspheming), (B) despising the Word of the Lord (The Hebrew word bā·zā means showing contempt), and (C) breaking his commandment (the context indicates that the person sins presumptuously). In sum, it is an “evil heart of unbelief” that results in “deserting the living God” (Heb. 3:12).

Both blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and apostasy are “sinning with a high hand.” The Scribes, in Mark 3, desert the living God by rejecting his Christ. The apostates in Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-30 desert the living God by renouncing Christ. In both cases, they spurned the Son of God in a way that goes beyond mere rejection. Each has, what James Moffatt describes as, “contempt of the most flagrant kind.”

Conclusion

So we see that even as blasphemy of the Holy Spirit and apostasy are different things, they are of the same quality. It is a difference in degree rather than a difference in kind. Apostasy is more common than blasphemy against the Spirit. It always has been. The question people have about apostasy is: When is someone ‘too far gone?’ While that is a natural question given the subject, we should be slow to answer it. Ordinarily,it is not our job to pronounce people ‘too far gone.’ We know the sinner excommunicated in 1 Corinthians 5 could have repented and been saved (1 Cor. 5:5). We know in the story of the prodigal son he repented and was saved (Luke 15:31).

Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-30 are teaching that first, human beings can develop a hard heart (like the Scribes) such that they can no longer repent, and second, those who intentionally forsake Christ after sharing in the privileges of the covenant community are the most difficult people to restore to the faith. Apostates are like the sour grapes of Isaiah’s vineyard song (Is. 5:1-7). Even after receiving the farmers’ care (Is. 5:1f), harvest time yielded nothing but sour grapes. Some plants don’t respond to nurture. Instead, they become a field of “briers and thorns” (Is. 5:6).[1] To repudiate salvation through the cross is to find no salvation elsewhere. There are times when God gives sinners up to their sin (Rom. 1:24), “sends … a strong delusion” (2 Thess. 2:11), returns “your deeds … on your own head” (Obad. 15), and no longer mediates for them (1 Sam. 2:25). That is not to deny that God welcomes all repentant people. Jesus said, “whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37).

The author of Hebrews has not written these things so we can judge whether or not others have irrevocably backslidden. Judgments about who is beyond the pale are outside ordinary human wisdom. At his betrayal, Jesus told Judas, “Friend, do what you came to do” (Mt. 26:50). Jesus didn’t preach repentance or reason with him. Satan had entered into Judas’ heart (John 13:27) and Judas fell away from Christ. But when it came to Peter rejecting Christ, Jesus welcomed him back. In the case of Acts 8:22-23, Peter called on Simon the Magician, whose heart was “in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity” to “Repent … of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.”

Sometimes the heart is hardened beyond repentance, like Saul, Judas, and Simon the Magician. And sometimes the apparently hardened heart repents, like Peter and the Prodigal Son. We must leave final judgment about these things to God and God alone. It is our job to point out the straight, high road that leads out of the Slough of Despond to the City of God.


Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.


[1] F.F. Bruce, Hebrews, The New International Commentary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s, 1990), 144-150.