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The Unpardonable Sin against the Holy Ghost

by Robert Russel

During the research for volume 4 of Halyburton's Works, a sermon was discovered on the Unpardonable Sin against the Holy Ghost. Several copies of this were found dating from around 1770, all clearly marked that they were by Thomas Halyburton. However, an edition dated 1700 was discovered which stated that this sermon was in fact originally preached in 1692 (before Halyburton went into the ministry) by Robert Russel, a minister in Wadhurst, Sussex. It will therefore not be published in the Works of Halyburton, but as it is a very useful sermon, we reproduce it here.

Published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue No. 34, April-June 2004.

"There is a sin unto death. "
– 1 John 5:16.

THERE is no mere man since the fall that can live without sin, for all are sinners. But yet there are some degrees of sins; some sins in their own nature are small, others more great, yea, heinous. Many sins there are that are great, yet pardonable; and one sin there is unpardonable, and whosoever commits that one sin shall have no forgiveness, but must forever bear the weight and punishment both of that and of all his other sins. There is such a sin as St. John speaks of here in my text, that it is a sin unto death. And now I come to the explication of the words from whence I shall raise this point of doctrine:

DOCTRINE – That amongst all the sins committed by fallen mankind, there is only one sin that is a sin unto death; and whosoever commiteth that, he hath no forgiveness, neither in this world, nor in the world to come.

Now for my further proceeding on the subject, I shall lay open to you,

1. What the sin unto death is;

2. That all our sins how great and heinous, may be forgiven;

3. That this sin alone shall never be forgiven;

4. The reason why that sin alone is unpardonable.

And then, Lastly, I shall conclude with a few words of application.

I shall begin first with the description of this unpardonable sin, where I shall endeavour to make as plain a description of it as possible I can; and in doing of it, I shall

I. Shew you negatively what is not this sin unto death: or in what degree a man may sin, and yet not commit that unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost.

1. It is not every quenching of the motions of the Spirit that is that sin. It is true, when the Holy Ghost comes with a still voice and knocks at the doors of sinners hearts for entrance, he often comes and strives with them, and secretly woos and beseeches them to leave their sins and be converted; yet they quench and stifle all his motions and bear up their hearts against him, and will not be obedient to his heavenly call. Now, such sin grievously against the Holy Ghost. But yet this alone is not the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost; for many who have stood it out a long time, and have often quenched and grieved the Holy Spirit, yet at last they have been wrought upon unto sincere conversion.

2. A man may commit many heinous and crying sins, and yet not be guilty of the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost. A man may be an idolator, a whoremonger, a fornicator, a murderer, and work witchcraft, and sin with a very high hand; nay, he may live in all manner of filthiness and lewdness, and yet not be under the guilt of the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost. Thus we read in 2 Chron. 33:6 that Manasseh "caused his children to pass through the fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom: also he observed times, and used enchantments, and used witchcraft, and dealt with a familiar spirit, and with wizards: he wrought much evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger." And Mary Magdalene had seven devils cast out of her, Luke 8:2, and both were pardoned.

3. Aman may sin presumptuously against great light and knowledge, and yet not commit this sin unto death; for Peter, when he denied Christ, he did it against great knowledge of Christ, he knew Christ to be his Lord and Saviour, he was one of Christ's beloved disciples, and for all that how strongly denied he Christ, and that with an oath too. And yet for all that, Christ looked upon him with a merciful eye, and he repented, and was forgiven.

4. It is not every malicious sin that is the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost, for St. Paul had certainly great malice in his heart when he went on so furiously to persecute the church of God, and yet was converted and became a preacher of the gospel of Christ, which before he persecuted.

5. And, lastly, it is not final unbelief, nor final impenitence that is the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost, though some be of the opinion that it is, because that sin is unpardonable; and Christ himself hath said, Matt. 12:31, "All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men." But you are to take the words of our Saviour in their true sense and meaning: it is all manner of sin and blasphemy committed within the compass of a man's life that shall be forgiven, except the sin against the Holy Ghost; for the sin of final impenitency and final unbelief is not completed until the very moment of a man's death; and then you all know that there is no repentance, and consequently no pardon after death, for Christ saith, "whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come," Matt. 12:32. Now, why should Christ say "in this world" if there be no space to be forgiven in this world? But a man may commit the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost, even many years before his death. Besides, there are many thousands that die in impenitence and unbelief, and are damned, and yet never committed the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost.

Thus I have shewed you negatively what is not this unpardonable sin; none of these sins in particular is that sin.

II. I come now to shew you positively what this sin unto death is, and wherein this unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost doth consist.

Now there are several opinions in the world about it, some hold one thing some another. I have no time nor room to dispute concerning others opinions about it, but I will endeavour, through God's help, to lead you to the plain sight of it by the light of Holy Scriptures.

Now in the first place, you must know that there are two sorts of people that cannot commit this unpardonable sin.

1. The true believers cannot commit it, though many times for their trial God suffers them to fall foully into many grievous sins; yet they being rooted in Christ, they are upheld by free grace and mercy that they cannot fall into this unpardonable sin.

2. The grossly ignorant cannot commit it, because it is a sin against great light and knowledge. Indeed the greatest part of the world shall be damned, yet amongst that great part, there are but few of them that can commit that unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost.

Some have both light and grace, these shall not commit that unpardonable sin. Again, some have neither light nor grace, these cannot commit it. But there are some again that have light and no grace, these are they that are liable to commit that unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost. Now there must be two ingredients to make up this unpardonable sin; that is light in the head and malice in the heart. Without these two, the sin against the Holy Ghost cannot be committed; for to sin against great light and knowledge is not that sin alone; nor yet to sin ignorantly out of malice is not that sin; but they must join both together to make up this unpardonable sin. Thus we see by the example of St. Peter and St. Paul. Peter, he denied Christ and foreswore himself too, and that grievously against light and knowledge for he knew Christ to be the only begotten son of God, he knew God in him, he was one of Christ's disciples, and one of his beloved disciples too; he was taught of Christ, and had experimental knowledge of his love and favour, and yet he wickedly with an oath denied him. Now if Peter had done this out of malice and spite, then he had committed that sin unto death, for which there is no forgiveness; but Peter had no malice in his heart all this while, even when he denied Christ, as you may see, Matt. 26:34, when Christ told him "before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice," he answered, "Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee" (v.35). And then denying him through infirmity and weakness of the flesh, when he considered what he had done "he went out, and wept bitterly" (v.75). And Paul, he had great malice against the ways and people of God, as you may see, Acts 9:1. Now, here was a great rage and malice in Saul, against the ways and people of God, but doing it ignorantly, he at last heard a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me," Acts 9:4, and received a light from heaven, that it was Jesus that he persecuted. He was pricked to the heart, and astonished said, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" (v.6). Now, by these two places of Scripture you may plainly see that Peter sinned against great light, and Paul out of great malice, yet none of them committed the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost; but whensoever light and malice meet together in one man, then there is a sin against the Holy Ghost.

Now as all other sins; so this sin against the Holy Ghost may be committed in thought, word and deed.

1. In thought, that is when a wicked man against his clear light and knowledge, doth but conceive a malicious thought or purpose towards persecuting the gospel of Christ or of the saints in Christ, to hinder the work of the Holy Ghost in them. This sin is thought to be the sin of the lost angels; for which cause they were lost without all hopes of pardon. Now, some dispute whether their sin was a sin of the thought; but I say, with all likelihood it was, for the angels being only spirits without bodies, and so have no use of bodily tongues, it could not be committed in word, nor yet could they commit it in action, because they were cast out of heaven before they could bring it into practice, therefore it must be a sin of the thought.

Now, their sin was this, their habitation being in the highest heavens next under God himself, they had exceeding great light and knowledge, they had more knowledge than all the men in the world ever had, and were happy above all other creatures, but then, not being contented with this estate, they thought to be as high as God himself, therefore maliciously sought to make war against the Son of God, and put him out of his throne; for which cause they were immediately thrust out of heaven, never more to see the face of mercy. Thus their sin being of the same nature with the sin against the Holy Ghost, they were excluded all hopes of pardon.

2. This sin may be committed in word too; that is, when a man speaks blasphemously and maliciously of Christ and his ways. This was the sin of the Scribes and Pharisees, Mark 3:22. Therefore Christ saith unto them as in vv. 28, 29. Now the reason of this speech of our blessed Saviour is shewed in v. 30, "Because they said, He hath an unclean spirit;" which plainly shews these Scribes had spoken blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. These Scribes were great learned men, and they could know no other but that Christ was the Son of God, and they knew that he cast out devils by the Spirit of God; and yet out of spite to Christ, maliciously and blasphemously said, "He hath Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils." Thus these Scribes committed the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost, and that in word.

3. This sin may be committed in action too; that is, when a man being once thoroughly enlightened, and entered upon a holy course of life, and tasted the comforts of God's Spirit and had some foretaste of the joys of heaven, and not only makes profession of the gospel, but teaches it to others; he at last takes a dislike of these holy courses, and through spite and malice utterly forsakes, opposes and persecutes these good ways of God which he before professed and taught. But to sum up this point, this unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost is fully described by the apostle to the Hebrews, 10:26-29 and 6:4-6.

Now the sin against the Holy Ghost is briefly this: It is a wilful and malicious opposing of the known truth.

This sin unto death is an opposing sin. Now to oppose a thing is to contradict it, or gainsay it. When a man says so and so, he denies it and says it is not so and so; when a man says a thing must be done, he says again it must not nor shall be done. But a man may be an opposing man and yet cannot commit this sin. Therefore,

1. It is the truth that he must oppose, that is he must utterly oppose and reject Christ who said "I am the truth," John 14:6. He opposeth all threatenings, and will not believe his promises, and counts him to be a seducer of the people and counts the blood of the covenant to be an unholy thing; nay, he also opposes the Spirit of Christ, who is the Spirit of truth, so that he will not obey his motions, and will not be led or guided by him. But a man may oppose the truth and yet do it ignorantly. Therefore,

2. It must be the known truth that he opposeth. He must be once enlightened. But you must know that it is only a notional knowledge and human learning. He may know much of God and of his will in the letter of the word, and yet not be capable of committing this unpardonable sin. But he must be so far enlightened as to see the evil that is in sin, and the excellency of Christ. He must "have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come," Heb 6:4,5, and have "counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing," Heb. 10:29. He must have sweet communion with God in his word and sacraments, he must have some taste of the love and favour of God and comforts of his Spirit, and be refreshed by it; and taste of the joys of heaven, and have some foretaste of the happiness of the world to come.

3. He must oppose the known truth wilfully, he must wilfully fall away after he hath received the knowledge of the truth. Other sins are committed through infirmity, but this sin is wilful, the will is the chief actor in it. And to complete and make up this unpardonable sin, there is,

4. Malice in the heart. Without this, this sin cannot be committed; it must be a malicious opposing of the known truth. Now, a man having gone this far, he comes in the last place to be an apostate.

Now for such a one, wilfully, spitefully and maliciously to fall away, he so falls as never to rise more. It is true, the children of God fall, and that often, and yet rise again; but then they fall through weakness of infirmity, and not wilfully and maliciously. But these wicked wretches fall wilfully and maliciously, and so fall finally. Against such the door of mercy is ever shut. Concerning such St. Peter speaketh, 2 Pet. 2:21, 22, "For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire."

Objection: But what is the reason then that this sin cannot be forgiven?

Ans. The reason arises from the nature of this sin; for this sin by whomsoever it is committed, hardens the heart and sears the conscience so that there is no place for repentance to be wrought neither for that nor any other sin. This sin is called a sin against the Holy Ghost, because it is a sin against the person of the Holy Ghost; so is all sin against his person, but it is called the sin against the Holy Ghost because it is against the office and work of the Holy Ghost. Now, every one of the three persons have their particular work. The work of the Father is to create; the work of the Son is to redeem lost sinners; and the work of the Holy Ghost is to enlighten, convince, sanctify and convert them. Now a man committing the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost rejects all this work of the Spirit. Now for a man to be thoroughly enlightened by the Holy Ghost, that he comes to know the evil of sin, and of his lost and undone condition without Christ, and that none but the merits of Christ can save him; then for him wilfully and maliciously to oppose him and the work of his Spirit, and will not be beholden of him for salvation; now for such a one to be forgiven is utterly impossible.

Objection: But why is it impossible, when nothing is impossible with God?

Ans. A man through ignorance may deny Christ, and maliciously fall from the profession of the truth into all wickedness, as did St. Paul, and the Jews that crucified Christ, and yet not fall against the light and knowledge. There is room for the Holy Ghost to work upon him to enlighten him to convince him of his folly, and so make way for conversion. And besides, a man after he hath been enlightened, and yet falls back through infirmity and weakness of the flesh, as Peter did, and doth not fall wilfully and maliciously, then the Holy Ghost may work upon him, and work in him a deep sorrow for abusing so much love and mercy, and so carry on his good work unto salvation. But for a man when he is once enlightened by the Holy Ghost, and has had some taste of God's love and favour and some foretastes of the joys of heaven; and then at last utterly opposing this illuminating work of the Spirit, and wilfully and maliciously to fall away and so to reject the Spirit's renewing work, Alas! then the Holy Ghost has done, he has nothing more than he can work for him, for this wretched creature has utterly rejected him, his enlightening work, his convincing work, his sanctifying work, he hath utterly rejected Christ's pardon, heaven and all; now this poor wretch is past all hopes of mercy, all hopes of pardon; nay, for such a one we are forbidden to pray, as we see in the verse wherein my text is a part. Now Christ prayed for such who maliciously crucified him, Luke 23:34, saying, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." Alas! they knew not what they were doing, for had they known it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory, 1 Cor. 2:8. But if they had known, and yet crucified him, Christ would not have spent his breath to pray for them, for it would have been utterly in vain for where a man has committed this unpardonable sin, neither the prayers in heaven nor on earth can do him any good, for as the text saith, "There is a sin unto death."

I shall conclude with a few words of application.

1. Watch very diligently against all sin. Above all, take special heed of those sins that come near to the sin against the Holy Ghost; and they are these: hypocrisy, taking only the outward profession of religion and so dissembling and mocking of God, sinning wilfully against conviction of conscience, and against great light and knowledge, sinning presumptuously and with a high hand. These sins though none of them are the direct sin against the Holy Ghost, yet they will come very near to it. Therefore take special heed of them lest they through time should bring you to the committing of this unpardonable sin.


2. Labour to be sincere in religion, and by a true faith ingraft yourselves into Christ for they that be with Christ can never commit this unpardonable sin; for know this, that among all the sins committed by fallen mankind, there is one sin that is a sin unto death, which is the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost, which whosoever commits it, hath no forgiveness; neither in this world nor in the world to come.

I desire you to take your Bibles and search the places of Scripture here cited, and the Lord give you understanding in all things.