Therefore I say to you: Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men,
but the blasphemy of the Spirit shall not be forgiven.--Matthew 12:31
The Holy Ghost and the sin against Him
by Bishop Otto Zardetti, 1888
Man was created free, and free also he remains under the dispensation of divine grace and the ministration of the Spirit. Whilst the union of the Holy Ghost with the mystical body of Christ is indissoluble, the mystical union of the Holy Spirit with the individual soul is liable to be broken as long as man has not yet consummated his pilgrimage on earth. Man in virtue of his free will, even under the dispensation of divine grace, can resist God. He can slight and neglect the inspirations of the Holy Spirit and hereby "grieve the Spirit." He can go farther and by mortal sin he can "extinguish the Spirit," destroy the temple of the Holy Ghost, reduce his soul to the state of darkness and death, from which by regeneration and justification it was redeemed. He can go farther yet and by direct rebellion against the Spirit commit the sin which the Lord emphatically styles "the sin or blasphemy against the Holy Ghost" and which is the consummation of man's infidelity to the merciful condescensions of infinite love.
Our short explanations of the transcendent office of the Holy Spirit in the whole plan of salvation would be incomplete, should we pass over in silence, the "sin against the Holy Ghost." Sin is a great mystery, the "mysterium iniquitatis," and it is only by the illumination of the Spirit that man, viewing the transgressions of the divine law from a supernatural standpoint, can understand something of this great and awful mystery, of the nature and evil consequences of sin, of the hideous character it shows when studied in the light of faith. Our Lord in His farewell discourses explicitly declares that by the Holy Ghost's coming we should learn what sin is, saying: "When He is come, He will convince he world of sin." (St. John, XVI.) Both in the old creation and in the new, both before the Incarnation of the Son of God, and after His Ascension into heaven, it has been, it is, and it will be to the end of the world, the work and the office of the Holy Ghost, to convince the world of sin; that is to say, to convince the intellect, and to illuminate the reason of man to understand what sin is, and also to convince the consciences of men of their sinfulness and make them conscious that they are guilty before God. As in the beginning, before the fall of man, man in the light of the Holy Ghost, knew God, His perfections and holiness, so after the fall, God in His mercy has by His Spirit taught men to know, in some measure at least, His perfections and their own sinfulness; but it was only like the twilight preceeding the noonday. We are in the noonday and if in the noonday we are blind to the perfections of God and to our own sinfulness, woe to us in the day of judgment.
Now, in a general sense, every sin is a sin against the Holy Spirit, as far as sin involves neglect of and resistance against the Holy Ghost's operation by divine grace. As there exists the most direct and intimate relation between the Holy Spirit and divine grace, so also has sin in all its forms and degrees a direct relation to this divine Spirit. Again, we must say that in our judgment no man has brought this truth to the front, and shown sin and its direct opposition to the Author of grace, God the Sanctifier, more clearly than Cardinal Manning in his book: "Sin and its Consequences." (London. Burns and Oates. 1874.) Viewing sin in its direct reference to the Holy Ghost, we will here mention some classes of sins. We can according to the inspired Text either "grieve the Spirit" (Ephes. IV. 30), or "extinguish the Spirit" (I. Thess. V. 19), or finally sin "by blasphemy of the Holy Ghost." (Matth. XII, 31.) Here the three classes of sin, as an act of opposition to the Holy Ghost, are distinctly given: venial sin, mortal sin and the sin against the Holy Ghost.
1. W e can first "grieve the Spirit," and by this we mean to say, we can oppose, slight, neglect in the most various ways and degrees the incessant work of the Holy Ghost for our salvation and perfection. The Apostle writes to the Ephesians: "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God: whereby you are sealed unto the day of redemption." (Ephes. IV, 30.) The Holy Spirit has been given us, has been "poured into us," is dwelling in us as in a temple, and His presence, indwelling, inhabitation is not passive, but unceasingly active, so much so that just as the sun never ceases to dart forth its rays, He never desists to shed on us His light and grace. We can, however, at will, neglect or oppose His benignant suggestions. They are the clouds of sinfulness and worldliness that obscure His illumination and neutralize His prolific warmth. The various forms of sin that involve a direct opposition against the Holy Ghost will best be understood when considered in their opposition to the attributes of the Holy Ghost Himself.
The Holy Spirit of God is styled a Spirit of truth. (St. John, XIV, 17.) It is therefore very grieving and vexing to Him, to have a light esteem of divine truth, to be indifferently affected towards it, to be slow in striving to understand more fully the doctrine of Holy Church. Even without directly denying faith, we can be guilty of infidelity. Divine truths are in our days obscured before the eyes of men, because "there is none that considereth in the heart." (Jerem. XII, II.) Faith comes by hearing, but our age which has an open ear for the news of this busy world pays but little attention to the glad tidings of salvation, as preached the year round in the power of the Spirit. Christians themselves hear the word of God, but by not cooperating with the Spirit's power in them, they only verify by their own life the Lord's parable of the seed sown "by the wayside upon stony ground," and "sown amongst thorns." (Matth. XIII.) "Blessed are those," says Jesus Christ "who hear the word of God, and keep it." (Luke XI, 28.)
The most Blessed of all creatures was the Spouse of the Holy Spirit who "kept all the words, pondering them in her heart." (Luke II, 19.) We grieve the Holy Spirit by our light-mindedness and distractions, by not allowing the word of God to take root in our soul, and prove its power "more piercing than any two-edged sword: reaching unto division of the soul and the spirit," (Heb. IV, 12) and by not relishing those things which the animal man does not understand and God has revealed to the little ones.
The Holy Spirit of God is styled a Spirit of grace and holiness (Rom. I, 4.) It is therefore vexing to this blessed Spirit when that grace, of which He is the Author, is rejected, when there are few that express any regard, show any desire or manifest esteem for the Divine boon. A cold heart towards God, a heart that is disaffected to God, that keeps at a distance from Him, that will not be engaged in sweet communion with Him, is a vexing thing to the Holy Spirit. The grace of the Holy Ghost in us ever increases by any faithful use we make of it, and nothing more grieves the Spirit of infinite perfection and holiness than lukewarmness, tepidity and wordliness on the part of those who are called unto His special service; separated from this world, honored by higher vocations, singled out from this wicked world, and consecrated to His ministry.
The Holy Spirit of God is furthermore called a Spirit of power and life. "It is the Spirit that quickeneth," says our Lord. St. Paul tells us, that God hath given us the "Spirit of power." (II. Tim. I, 7.) It is therefore vexatious to this Spirit, when we allow ourselves to be ungenerous, lukewarm, disinterested in things that are of God, when we burn not with apostolic zeal, nor are anxious to fulfil our mission to propagate God's kingdom.
The Holy Spirit of God is especially a Spirit of purity, chastity and virginity. Chastity is one of the fruits of the Spirit. Both the shape of a dove and the form of a fiery, luminous tongue, the two emblems under which the Holy Ghost visibly appeared on earth, suggest the angelic purity of which He is the Author and the Lover. Spirit and flesh have been antagonists from the day of the first rebellion. When God saw that man was flesh, then He said: "My Spirit shall not remain in man forever." (Gen. VI, 3.) Hence, all who wish to live according to the Spirit will first have to endure the struggle with the flesh; for, no sin grieves the Spirit more keenly and directly than sensuality, and yielding to the passions and lusts of the flesh: "The flesh lusteth against the spirit; and the spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary one to another . . Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are, fornication, uncleanness, immodesty, luxury . . . . but the fruit of the Spirit is charity, joy, peace . . . chastity" (Gal. II, 19,) and "for he that soweth in the flesh, of the flesh, also shall reap corruption: but he that soweth in the spirit, of the spirit shall reap life everlasting." (Gal. VI, 8.)
We have almost touched upon transgressions by which we do not only "grieve," but "extinguish " the Spirit. Even the smaller and slighter faults, by which we "grieve" the Spirit cannot be considered small or slight by those who in the Spirit view the things of God, and bind themselves to war against the "mysterium iniquitatis." It is a general rule that no man sees the nature of sin so clearly as those who are freest from sin; just as no intelligence knows sin with such intensity of knowledge as God Himself. On the other hand, no one is so blind to his own sins, as the man who has most sin upon him. No men know so little of the light of God's divine presence as those whose are covered with sin; and the more sin they have upon them, the less visible it becomes. Sin stupefies the intellect and the heart; it draws a veil and a mist over the brightness of the intelligence, and it darkens the light of the conscience. Sin, like hemlock, deadens the sense, so that the spiritual eye begins to close, and the spiritual ear becomes heavy, and the heart grows drowsy. (According Card. Manning.)
Secondly, we can not only "grieve" the Spirit by venial sin or slighter resistance to His operation, but we can, alas, by the commission of mortal sin even "extinguish" the Spirit, destroy His temple, ruin His work, reduce our souls to the darkness from which they were freed and bring on them that spiritual death which, in line, begets the second death of everlasting doom. It is an article of faith that there are venial sins and mortal sins, and that by committing the latter we lose sanctifying grace and all the great blessings of which it is the source. "If any man shall see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and life shall be given unto him that sinneth not unto death: I do not say for that any man shall ask. All iniquity is sin, and there is a sin unto death." (I, St. John, V, 16-17.) Mortal sin especially is, what we call the "mysierium iniquitatis." Mortal sin, extinguishing the Spirit and utterly destroying His temple, is a mystery as great and incomprehensible here on earth as grace, regeneration and sanctification. It is, however, only by the light of the Holy Ghost that we can somewhat realize the hideous character and evil consequences of this sin, the extinction of the Spirit. It first strikes the soul dead. The grace of God is the life of the soul, as the soul is the life of the body. One mortal sin separates the soul from God. Secondly it destroys all the merits the soul has acquired. One sin unto death, unless afterwards repented of, utterly cancels the merits of a whole life. All the merits are gone as if they had never been.
Thirdly it crushes and kills the very power of serving God and of bringing forth works of supernatural merit. Not all that the sinner does in the state of sin is sin, but he is incapable of bringing forth works unto life eternal. "Just as a tree that has life bears living fruit, and a tree that is dead has nothing but fruit that is also withered and dead, so a soul that is planted in God, as we are all in baptism, strikes its root as the tree by the rivers of water, and increases continually in Faith, Hope and Charity, and in the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, which expand themselves like the leaves upon the branch, and the twelve fruits of the Holy Ghost unfold themselves and ripen. On the other hand, a soul that is separated from God is like the tree that is cut asunder at the root, and as the severed tree withers from the top most spray and every fruit upon it dies, so the soul in the state of mortal sin is separated from God and can bear no fruit unto salvation." (Card. Manning, Sin and its consequences, p. 50, ff.)
Fourthly it involves a man in a double debt with God--it involves him in the debt of guilt and the debt of pain; and he will have to pay both. The debt of guilt he must answer for on the day of judgment. The debt of pain he must suffer for before he can see God, either here, or after death in the state of purification: or in hell for all eternity. Every substance has its shadow in this world. You cannot separate the shadow from the substance. Where the substance moves the shadow follows, so every sin has its pain; it matters not whether we think of it or no, whether we believe it or no." (Card. Manning, Sin, p. 53.) All these things, however, can only be perceived in the light of the Spirit. Though we are the children of God, and yet it has not appeared what we are; so it has not appeared what those of iniquity are who have extinguished in themselves the Holy Spirit and have wilfully returned to the bondage of the evil one. Hence we must earnestly entreat the Holy Ghost, that we may never extinguish Him and that the horror of sin may be increased in our souls.
The world does not know sin and calls those transgressions of the divine law merely the necessary results of human weakness. Men have gone so far as to speak of an independent morality, that is a law of morals separated from the Lawgiver, a proud philosophical claim to account for right and wrong without reference to God. This is, says our Cardinal, the stupidity as well as the impiety of our days. For morals are not the dead, blind, senseless relations that we have to stocks and stones, but the relations of duty and of obligation we have to the living Lawgiver, our Maker and Redeemer. Yet here we strike the last degree of sinning against the Holy Ghost. When man by trespassing on divine law not only forfeits grace and extinguishes the Spirit, but directly fights against the Spirit, then he commits the "blasphemy against the Holy Ghost" mentioned in Holy Writ. Of those the words of Isaias will be verified in the fullest sense: "They rebelled and vexed His Holy Spirit. Therefore He was turned to be their enemy, and He fought against them." (Isaias, I, XIII, 10.)
3. By sin against the Holy Ghost in the strict sense of the term, we signify a special class of sins. To this sin, mentioned on the same occasion by three Evangelists refer the classical words of St. Matthew: "Wherefore I say unto you, all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him, but whosoever speaketh a word against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come." (St. Matth. XII, 31, 32.) These are the words that have vexed so many interpreters by the combination of difficulties involved in their exegesis. What is the meaning of this divine utterance? What is this "blasphemy of the Holy Ghost?" What does it mean to say: "Speak a word against the Holy Ghost?" Why does our Lord in seeming contradiction to His promises of a forgiveness of all sins, beyond exception, declare this sin unpardonable, both in this world and in the world to come? We do not here enter upon a detailed exegesis of this famous passage of Scripture. Although interpreters differ in secondary explanations, they more or less all agree as to the nature of this sin and the sense in which it is declared unpardonable.
The occasion on which these words of Christ were spoken was the casting out of a devil that was both blind and dumb, so that the people amazed at the great miracle when witnessing the man who had been blind and dumb, see and speak, concluded from this fact that Jesus must necessarily be the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. The Pharisees, however, to blind themselves and others, to counteract the evidence of the fact and proof of Christ's Messianic dignity, to prevent the people from becoming the disciples of Christ, gave out maliciously, that though Jesus did cast out devils (a fact, which they had to acknowledge), yet it was not by any divine power, but merely by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of the devils. The casting out of the devils is here emphatically ascribed to the Holy Ghost. St. Matthew, before giving the narrative of this fact, introduces the Lord, saying: "Behold my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved, in whom my soul hath been well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon Him, and He shall show judgment to the Gentiles." (St. Matth. XII, 18.) Our Lord Himself in His reply to the remonstrances of the Pharisees says: "But if I in the Spirit of God cast out devils, then is the kingdom of God come upon you." (Matth. XII, 28.) According to St. Luke, chap. XL, v. 20, the Spirit of God is called "the finger of God," just as we now address the Holy Ghost in the beautiful Hymn of the "Come Spirit Creator" as "Digitus paternae dexterae." There can consequently be no doubt as to the very nature of this sin or blasphemy against the Holy Ghost. What our Lord in His words, burning with divine wrath, objects to in the inveterate malice of the Pharisees, is their wilful and malicious blindness, their perversity in ascribing a work evidently divine to the enemy of God, the evil one, and their satanic efforts to prevent others from believing in Him and bowing to the evidence of divine truth revealed. Saint Thomas of Aquinas (2a 2ae 9, 14, art. 1), sees therefore the nature of this blasphemy of the Holy Ghost in this wilful blindness of mind and obstinacy of the will, in virtue of which we directly resist divine truth revealed to us, and strive to prevent others from receiving it. Thus is also solved the question as to its incapacity of being ever forgiven.
Because our Lord has explicitly declared to His Apostles that they could forgive all sins and loosen whatsoever is bound, some, to evade the difficulty of this saying, take refuge in the assumption that our Saviour here makes use of an Hebrew form of speech which is frequently met with in Scripture, when the difficulty of a thing coming to pass is expressed; so that, then, the words have to be taken not in an absolute, but in a comparative sense with the meaning: all other sins and blasphemies shall sooner be forgiven, then this blasphemy of the Holy Ghost. Nevertheless, the common and surely the most certain way of explaining it is this, that, although from God's mercy no sin is excluded, if the sinner truly repent of it, still this sin carries in itself such a perversity of mind and heart which ordinarily excludes the spirit of repentance; hence precludes forgiveness, and consequently as a rule is final impenitence anticipated.
This kind of sin is usually accompanied with such obstinacy and such wilful opposition to the Spirit of God, the known truth, that men who are guilty of it are seldom or never converted, and therefore are never forgiven because they will not repent. St. Thomas of Aquinas, (2a 2ae 9,14 a 3), expressly adds that divine omnipotence and mercy can heal this deadly disease, yet only in an almost miraculous way. By no means, however, was this sin confined to the wicked Pharisees of old; on the contrary, it has been propagated by their very seed, nor would we exaggerate in saying, that it has called forth most disastrous results in the history of the Church, and is the prominent sin of our days of infidelity and apostasy from truth divine.
For the Grace of the Holy Ghost
Come, Holy Ghost, Sanctifier all powerful, God of love, Thou Who didst fill the Virgin Mary with Grace, Thou Who didst wonderfully transform the hearts of the Apostles, Thou Who didst endow all Thy martyrs with a miraculous heroism, come and sanctify us. Illumine our minds, strengthen our wills, purify our consciences, rectify our judgments, set our hearts on fire, and preserve us from the misfortune of resisting Thine inspirations. Amen.
(Indulgence of 500 days.)