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Mark Naylor M.Th.

Bible Translation: the unforgivable sin

I was chatting with a friend of mine who works as a robotics engineer and I began to express my passion for Bible translation.  In fact, I got a little over-excited and exclaimed, “I have the best job in the world!”  He looked at me sideways and said, “I thought I had that job.”  Well, OK. Being a robotics engineer sounds pretty cool, too. 

Having recently come back from Pakistan after another month of translation, let me share with you one of the gems that I picked up along the way.  One of the joys of translation is the discipline it demands to understand what the passage means.  The act of representing the meaning of the original text in the forms of a different language does not permit the translator to “blip” over the phrases that don’t seem to make sense.  It is that search for the sense of the author’s original communication that provides those “aha!” moments, as the meaning of some apparently obscure or difficult passages is clarified.

For example, in Mt 12:30-32 Jesus speaks of the “unforgivable sin.” The context of this verse is the previous account of Jesus’ releasing a man from the bondage of demon possession.  The response of the Pharisees is not one of praising God – a reaction reflected in comments of the common people – but rather an attempt at political “spin” to disparage the miracle: “He is doing this by the power of Beelzebul, the king of the demons!” (Mt 12:24).

Amazed at such a blatant attempt to twist truth into falsehood, Jesus responds with the quote about the “unforgivable sin,” that is, “blasphemy against the Spirit will never be forgiven,” (vs 31). Essentially he is saying to the Pharisees, “You are hopeless! When you see God in action bringing salvation and healing in people’s lives and call it the work of Satan, then there is no possibility for you to take part in that salvation.  Any other sin can be forgiven, for the recognition and acceptance of the Holy Spirit’s working means that you are open to God’s rule, and that you have a desire for him; repentance and turning to life is possible.  But without that initial and sincere orientation to God, there cannot be repentance and salvation.  A denial of what God is doing because of adherence to religious norms is a blindness for which there is no cure.”

That is, the “unforgivable sin” is not a reference to a solitary act, as if there is one thing a person can do which dooms them forever, despite any change or repentance on their part.  Rather, it is an ongoing attitude of denial of the Spirit or essence of God’s work in bringing restoration and healing, a rejection of God’s action in making things right.

it is important to understand the context and point of Jesus’ teaching in order not to miscommunicate

When translating verse 31, it is important to understand the context and point of Jesus’ teaching in order not to miscommunicate.  That is, the translator must not only choose the appropriate words, but must also use a grammatical form within the target language that provides the reader with an equivalent understanding.  For example, when Jesus says, “blasphemy against the Spirit will never be forgiven,” (vs 31), the reader needs to make the connection between the Pharisees’ denial of the work of God described in the previous verses and the “blasphemy” referred to.  It is also important to make it obvious to the reader that Jesus is not speaking against one solitary act, but against an attitude of disregard for the action of God in bringing healing and salvation.  Taking care to communicate clearly in Bible translation prevents the spiritual harm that can occur through misunderstandings caused by an unclear translation.

And that was just one verse.  We completed most of Matthew’s gospel during that month of translation!

See also Sindhi Bible Translation

3 Responses to “Bible Translation: the unforgivable sin”


  • Thank you Jesus. and thank you for this teaching/understanding. This entire question has always troubled me.

    This translation makes perfect sense.

    Please keep on whatever mailing list exist.

    In Jesus Christ,
    John

  • The “unpardonable” or “Unforgivable” sin is obviously unbelief. Adam comitted it when he believed Satan rather than God. John the Baptist called Jesus “The Lamb of God which takes awayh the sin (singular) of the world — Unbelief, which will not be pardoned , but which is taken away when a sinner believes.(He is no longer guilty of unbelief now that he believes. Other sins are not taken away but are pardoned when the believer confesses them to God. We still must battle with sin, as taught by both Paul and John

    • Thanks for your comment Rob,
      While I am not sure that I fully understand the distinction you are making between sin being “pardoned” as opposed to being “taken away,” I would affirm that the key point Jesus is making when addressing the Pharisees is their stubborn insistence of refusing to believe and trust that Jesus was sent from God. To deliberately twist truth into falsehood for the sake of one’s biases is the height of unbelief.

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