What is the “Unforgivable Sin?”

When I was preparing for Confirmation, we only briefly heard about the “unforgivable sin” against the Holy Spirit. No one really explained to us why it was unforgivable, since God, in His mercy, always forgives a repentant sinner who is humble and contrite. We read in Mark 3:28-29, “’Amen, I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an everlasting sin.’”

Only recently did I discover something more specific about this unpardonable offense:

“The sins against the Holy Ghost are commonly said to be six: despair, presumption, impenitence, obstinacy, resisting truth, and envy of another’s spiritual welfare.” Clearly, all of them are rooted in hardness of heart without any indication that the person desires to amend his or her life.

Despair

At first glance, we might assume that despair is simply giving up hope. This is only partially true, however. The full definition of despair includes a “positive act of the will” (as opposed to a passive acceptance or acquiescence), in which a person intentionally concludes that “salvation is impossible.”

A person who has truly giving in to despair does not believe that God wants to pardon us or even cares about what we do or why. There is, as I mentioned before, a definite hardness of heart. One cannot be forgiven if s/he does not desire forgiveness or believe it is possible.

Presumption

Pertaining to the unforgivable sin, the person committing the sin of presumption believes s/he can attain, without the aid of God, salvation. In addition, s/he lives as if God will always extend mercy without the person ever intending to truly repent of sin. Think of the “bad Catholic” who parties every Friday night and thinks his Saturday afternoon confession will be enough to blot out his offenses.

We can’t live a life of debauchery and faintly hope that one day we still might make it to heaven.

Impenitence

Quite simply, one who is impenitent is unrepentant. S/he has no intention of compensating (which, by justice, we owe to God) for his/her sins. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, impenitence is “the absence of contrition.” The person is not sorry for his/her sins and does not plan to make reparation for them.

This is why praying for the Holy Souls in Purgatory is so urgently needed. We beg God to appeal to those who, for whatever reason, have become impenitent, so that they will not die with final impenitence staining their souls and permanently separating them from God.

Obstinacy

You might think of stubbornness when you see the word obstinate. This is an accurate, but again incomplete, description. The sin of obstinacy is far graver than the occasional demand that one is right and will not budge on one’s opinion. Obstinacy becomes the unpardonable sin when it is a persistent pattern of behavior, in which a person “closes his heart to the promptings of grace” or “shuts his mind to known truth” and divine authority.

This kind of stubbornness means one must always be right and is not persuaded to change his mind when he has already accepted some error, be it in ethics, morality, or religion. Instead, he stands his ground and will not open himself to the possibility of being wrong and the need to amend his way of thinking. It is yet another form of pride.

Resisting Truth

We know that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (see John 14:6) and also that the Word of God is truth (see John 17:17). In this instance, resisting truth means rejecting Jesus Himself and the inspired Word of God. This worldview is rampant in our culture that embraces tolerance of all world religions, minus Christianity. So many who claim to believe in God select what they accept and ignore the hard truths contained in Scripture.

May we not fall prey to the many forms of lies and deception that are ready to lead us astray from pursuing truth and remaining in Jesus.

Envy of Another’s Spiritual Welfare

In our competitive society, many of us adopt the fallacy that to rejoice in one person’s success automatically means we wallow in our own failure. In this case, envy is not merely sporadic bouts of jealousy. It’s unpardonable in this instance, because the person is deeply distressed, saddened, and even spiteful at another’s spiritual growth.

The envy then becomes malice, a mortal offense against the virtue of charity.

In every case analyzed above, we can determine that the only way any sin is truly unpardonable is if the person remains unrepentant. The reasons, as we have sorted through, vary from envy to despair. Each is caused by a hardness of heart, which is directly opposed to meekness. Meekness is that beatitude that mollifies and softens what has become calloused by deep, unhealed wounds. Our models for meekness, of course, are Jesus and Mary.

If we unite ourselves and consecrate our lives to them, grace will shatter the walls of hardened pride to reveal cracks and crevices where light can, once again shine through.

By

Jeannie Ewing believes the world ignores and rejects the value of the Cross. She writes about the hidden value of suffering and even discovering joy in the midst of grief.  As a disability advocate, Jeannie shares her heart as a mom of two girls with special needs in Navigating Deep Waters and is the author of From Grief to Grace , A Sea Without A Shore , and Waiting with Purpose.  Jeannie is a frequent guest on Catholic radio and contributes to several online and print Catholic magazines.   She, her husband, and three daughters live in northern Indiana. For more information, please visit her website jeannieewing.com.

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  • Der Hundsturm

    Jeannie, (As a Catholic) I’ve seen this list before and am not sure where it comes from. From the cathecism to papal pronouncements, the official definition of the unforgiveable sin seems much simpler and more limited. Specifically, as stated in the cathecism:

    “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss (CCC 1864).

    I certainly would appreciate some pointers on where the longer list comes from and what official weight it has. To my thinking though, the longer list does a disservice to the faithful as it turn one sin into six, it presents a list that seems unconcise and overlapping, and it convolutes conventional definitions terms used (e.g. Despair, envy, obstinacy, etc), leading to confusion and unnecessary angst.

    Per most writings on the subject, the unforgiveable sin is best defined as in the cathecism.

  • Tom W

    “The person is not sorry for his/her sins and does not plan to make reparation for them.
    This is why praying for the Holy Souls in Purgatory is so urgently needed.”

    This is confusing to me. Are you saying we pray for the souls in Purgatory to adopt a repentant heart ? If that’s the case, how does one receive God’s Mercy and thereby arrive in Purgatory and without a prior repentant heart ?

  • dtcomp95

    For what it is worth, NewAdvent’s Catholic encyclopedia has a similar list in its description of the various characteristics of the Holy Spirit. Whether accurate or not, I don’t know, but the reason these are broken down there, is that several Church Fathers have equated blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as any sin where we reject or oppose (by action, word or deed) a characteristic of the Holy Spirit. St. Augustine held that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit entailed remaining in mortal sin until death – final impenitence.

    The CCC only describes the rejection of the Holy Spirit’s leading in general terms, and would seem to take St. Augustine’s interpretation. I see the six categories presented above as the means by which we could reject him. In my opinion (which could be wrong of course), both descriptions are complementary rather than contradictory.

  • Patrick

    As far as I’m aware, this particular list comes from St Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. here: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3014.htm

  • Camilo C. Tierro

    Mark 3:29 should be read in the context of Jesus’s parable (Mark 3:22-33). But the key verse is Mark 3:30.

    Mark-3
    28.Amen, I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them.
    29.But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an everlasting sin.”
    30.For they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

    Chap 3 “I Believe in the Holy Spirit” of CCC quotes in par 683 the following verses in St Paul’s Epistles
    1 Corinthians-12
    3.Therefore, I tell you that nobody speaking by the spirit of God says, “Jesus be accursed.” And no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
    Galatians-4
    6.As proof that you are children, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!”

    St Paul is saying that the spirit of Jesus is the Holy Spirit Himself whom the scribes in the parable called an unclean spirit (Mark 3:30) or Beelzebul, the prince of demons (Mark 3:22).
    The scribes therefore blasphemed the Holy Spirit, which blasphemy Jesus says is a an unforgivable sin!

  • Pax

    No, a person can still have sins that are not deadly to the point of damnation ( aka mortal) , for which they had no intention of seeking forgiveness. Perhaps a person is otherwise quite holy , but is blinded to the fact that they are indifferent to certain people. Or the opposite blinded to the fact that their spontaneity of spirit is sometimes and excuse to be irrelevant and a cause of scandal to others. Many people have ‘this one vice’ they are unrepentant of , it often stops there progress in holiness, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are damned for it. Instead they remain in pain until they let it go and are purged of it , so they can enter cleanly into heaven.

  • Pax

    I’m not sure where this list comes from, scripture pretty clearly says ‘blasphemy against the holy spirit’ is the unforgivable sin.

    That being ‘the act of speaking or acting towards the sacred with contempt or profanity’.

    So, it would seem like the unforgivable sin , is the act of seeing the spirit of God and his mercy as bad / evil, something to be profaned. In other words ( and traditionally as far as I know). The unforgivable sin is the the sin of rejecting God’s mercy.

    The list looks like it might be a pretty good attempt of looking at ways people can reject God’s mercy, but as was pointed out with the purgatory reference , some of these things can be done to a greater and lesser extent and can therefore be forgiven ( in purgatory if nowhere else). Any sin that was NOT forgiven would have to be mortal by definition as you cannot enter haven with sin still present within your soul.

  • Tom W

    I hope you’re right. It sounds reasonable.
    Source? -Catechism, other ?
    …. Thanks

  • dtcomp95

    To add to Pax’s explanation, I also think these lines you quoted from the article are separate thoughts. The first line quoted refers to impenitence itself. The second line is the start of a new paragraph. It is about praying for souls in Purgatory; and the sentence after that refers to praying for those who have not yet died. i.e. as I understand it, we can’t change our true disposition after death, but we can die with unrepented sins, either by circumstance, or impenitence as Pax suggested.

  • independent_forever

    I agree…the teaching is that souls in Purgatory will go to heaven but only after purification. We pray for them to hasten that purification. Like for you, that statement didn’t make sense to me either. You cannot continue to sin after death because you are now judged…a priest I heard once likened us to CLAY…where God molds and shapes us during our lifetime so we can change and grow and either choose him or the wrong paths, etc. But once death comes that ‘clay’ is fired in the oven and set and whatever person we were on Earth is now set and we are judged accordingly. If we go to Purgatory then we must endure whatever purification God deems appropriate before we can be with him in eternal life. As Scripture says “nothing unclean will enter Heaven”. But our teaching is that no one in Purgatory ever goes to Hell…once there “we will be saved but only as through fire”….like you said, maybe the article simply “miswrote” on that point…

  • froshea21

    Hi Pax, for souls in Purgatory, just look the apparition at Knock in Ireland. Understand it happened following one hundred masses offered by deacon Cavanagh, parish priest at the time. He was motivated by the fact that so many had died due to the famine without receiving the last rites; Extreme Unction, vital for souls unprepared.
    The immaculate Mother of God responded, along with St.John and St.Joseph and tellingly, the lamb positioned on the altar.
    At Fatima our blessed Lady also spoke of the souls needing our prayers.
    The ways of God are not understood by men, this is a truth.

  • froshea21

    Hi Ravi Raja, the Immaculate Mother of God is co-mediatrix with Jesus.

  • Pax

    sorry, were you responding to something I said? I 100% agree with what you wrote but don’t see how it related as a response to anything I wrote.

  • froshea21

    Pax, just confirming the statement you put as truth.

  • Pax

    oh , good 🙂 thanks 🙂

  • Adrian Johnson

    In terms relevant to the culture of death we live in today, The Sin Against the Holy Spirit is to call “Good evil, and evil good”. This is how our culture and our governments by means of seductive media and communications technology “institutionalise” the sin against the Holy Spirit (Who is, in the words of the Credo, ‘Lord and giver of Life’): they call contraception, abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, sodomy and transgendering “normal, merciful and good”.

    And our political and cultural leaders and institutions now treat as criminals those who are pro-life, and legally persecute –by means of “equality laws” which destroy free speech and freedom of religion–those countercultural Christians who say they reject these perverse and depraved sins.
    This is the blasphemous popular culture foisted on us by the NWO, and is preparing the way for the last Antichrist, who will “with false miracles and diabolic power rule the world as a self-proclaimed god.” It won’t be long now, at this rate.

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