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We understand that since Jesus taught the law from the perspective that no one can actually keep the law, we know that some of His teachings were not intended to raise the “good works bar” higher but rather to confront the Pharisees with their sin. The Pharisees always denied their sin since they maintained they kept the law.

eg, Matthew 5:20: “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

We understand from this verse that Jesus is not teaching that in order to get into heaven you must be more holy and do more works that the scribes and Pharisees, rather it is intended to put righteousness by works out of the reach of every human.

Given this premise, could Jesus teaching on the unpardonable sin be in the same vein?

eg: Matthew 12:32-37; verses 36 and 37 seem to indicate the same premise of “put good works out of reach”.

32 And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come. 33 Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit. 34 O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. 35 A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. 36 But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. 37 For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.

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  • Good question alb. +1. I believe Jesus was the sacrifice for sin. But before he was offered, he told us about the limits of his sacrifice. So it wasn't just for the Pharisees but for all people. That's why the NT was written in Greek. – user20490 Dec 30 '17 at 20:07
  • This prompts the question of exactly what Jesus meant by "the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees." Alb insightfully points out that the scribes and pharisees would have known. – Dieter Dec 30 '17 at 20:22
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With due respect, I don't think that the interpretations you offer are correct. Matthew 5:20 and 12:36-37 are both calls to perfection. It seems that you are trying to put the passages into the context of some of the teachings in Romans regarding works of the law (since Jesus in both passages is dealing with Pharisees), but I don't think they really fit here.

A hidden premise in your argument, I think, is that man cannot possibly be expected to be perfect in anything. But this premise is itself not really supported in Scripture. I lay out my reasoning below.


Interpretation of Matthew 5:20

For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

You stated:

We understand from this verse that Jesus is not teaching that in order to get into heaven you must be more holy and do more works that the scribes and Pharisees, rather it is intended to put righteousness by works out of the reach of every human.

I think you are reading a lot into Matthew 5:20. If you include the previous verses, it can be construed to mean exactly the opposite of what you suggest:

Matthew 5:18

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven

Regarding "works", in the same passage Jesus says:

Matthew 5:19

Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Elsewhere Jesus makes it clear that man will be judged according to his works. Matthew 25:36-41 is one example. Another is Matthew 16:27:

For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.

This same teaching echoes the Old Testament (e.g. Psalm 62:12, Job 34:11) and is echoed by the Apostles (e.g. Romans 2:6, Revelation 20:12, Revelation 22:12).

The point of Matthew 5:20 is not, I think as you suggest, "to put righteousness by works out of the reach of every human", but rather to prescribe "works" - if we can call commandments "works" - that are still more demanding than those found in the law. This is clear from the verses that follow:

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment ... (Matthew 5:21-22)

Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (v.27-28)

It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. (v.31-32)

Again, ye have heard that it hath been said ... But I say unto you ...(v.33-34)

Ye have heard that it hat been said ... But I say unto you ... (v.38-39)

Ye have heard that it hath been said ... But I say unto you ... (v.43-44).


Interpretation of Matthew 12:36-37

But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.

You stated,

... verses 36 and 37 seem to indicate the same premise of “put good works out of reach”.

If I understand you correctly here (which I may not), you are saying that since it is unreasonable to expect that one not speak a single unrighteous word, Jesus must be teaching that it is unreasonable to think that good works are within our reach - in other words, that man cannot be expected to be perfect.

But this directly contradicts another teaching of Jesus recorded by Matthew: Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48).

Furthermore, what Jesus is teaching here is nothing new. It was recorded in Job and echoed in Ecclesiastes:

Job 15:6

Thine own mouth condemneth thee, and not I: Yea, thine own lips testify against thee.

Ecclesiastes 10:12

The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious; but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself.

One Greek commentary on this passage reads:

Here He strikes fear into our hearts, that we will give an account for even a careless word, that is, any lying, slanderous, indecent, or mocking word. Then He brings forth testimony from Scripture, lest He appear to be speaking His own words: "By thy words thou shalt be deemed righteous, and by thy words shalt thou be condemned."1

The connection with the "unpardonable sin" is that if simple men (Gr. ἄνθρωποι) will be held accountable for each idle word at judgment, all the more so the Pharisees. Jerome comments:

This, too, goes with what was said before, and the meaning is that on the day of judgment each person must render an account of his or her words. If an idle word which by no means edifies the listeners is not without harm to the speaker, how much more will you Pharisees, who criticize the works of the Holy Spirit and say that I cast out devils by Beelzebub the prince of devils, have to render an account of your criticism? An idle word is what is spoken without benefit to the speaker and the listener. We overlook serious things and utter frivolous things and tell old wives’ tales. One who acts like a buffoon and makes mouths drop with boisterous laughter and who utters disgraceful things—that person shall be held to account, not for an idle word but a slanderous word.2

You will find a similar understanding of this verse in the writings of virtually all of the early Church Fathers, including Irenaeus (130-202)3, Cyprian of Carthage (200-258)4, and John Chrysostom (c 349-407)5.


1. Theophylact, Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew (tr. from the Greek; Chrysostom Press, 1992), p.107
2. Commentary on Matthew II.XII.36
3. Against Heresies II.XIX.2, IV.XVI.5
4. To Quirinius III.13
5. Homilies on Matthew XLII, LXXXVI

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  • Wow, calls to perfection, really?!? You do realize that Jesus taught the law right? The purpose for the Sermon on the Mount: to get the Pharisees (and everyone else watching) to finally admit that even though they attempted righteousness by keeping the law, they fell well short of the perfection demanded by the law. Remember, law required that you keep “everything” written in the law (Deut 28:1) but James tells us that “if you offend in one point, you are guilty of all”. – alb Jan 1 '18 at 20:21
  • Also, you pull scripture out of context. You quote Job 15:6; you do understand that God rebuked Job’s three friends for their bad counsel? That means that Job’s friends were wrong about Job sinning by his actions, for God declared Job’s outward actions as righteous. However, God was not dealing with Job’s actions; He was dealing with his inherent self righteousness. Please see Job 32:1. Based on your poor understanding of context, I’m going to have to vote down your response. Sorry. – alb Jan 1 '18 at 20:21
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The Question covers quite a number of subjects and I wanted to comment on just three of them.

    1. The Matter of Righteousness and Justification

Matthew records the words of Jesus (Matthew 5:20) :

Λεγο γαρ οτι εαν μη περισσεσυση η δικαιοσυνη υμων πλειον των γραμματεων [TR - Stephens 1550]

For I say unto you that unless shall abound righteousness your above of the scribes [...] [EGNT*]

Jesus does not say that the scribes possess any righteousness. He says that unless your righteousness exceeds what they have, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Speaking to the scribes and Pharisees again, later, Matthew 23:28, he says to them

Woe unto you [...] ye outwardly indeed appear to men righteous but within full are of hypocrisy and lawlessness. [EGNT*]

What they had was a pretence. Their religion was a mask; it wasn't real. And Jesus advises us not to follow such an example. Such religion is worthless.

But Jesus' words make it clear that having no righteousness is not a satisfactory alternative to being a hypocrite. Far from advising his disciples that they should not pursue after righteousness at all, he says

Take no thought for your life , what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink [...] but seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, Matthew 6:25 and 33. [KJV]

Paul speaks in greater depth of that righteousness in Romans and Galatians, particularly, as a matter of justification 'out of faith and unto faith', [ek/eis] Romans 1:17.

    1. The Matter of The Ultimate Blasphemy

Jesus' words in Matthew 12:32 are

whosoever speaketh against the Holy Spirit it shall not be forgiven him neither in this world, neither in that to come [KJV minus italics and with Pneuma translated 'Spirit']

These words are very straightforward and mean exactly what they mean. I cannot see that any other meaning can be attributed to them than the plain meaning as it appears.

If certain words are uttered they shall never be forgiven - ever.

    1. The Matter of Good Works

The two quotations - 'good works bar' and 'put good works out of reach' are not quotations from scripture and do not express any scriptures that I know of, so I cannot comment on them, but I think one scripture is very apposite, Ephesians 2:8-10

For by grace are ye saved through faith and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.

The word 'ordained' is proetoimazo which Thayer's lexicon explains as 'to prepare beforehand in mind and purpose' [4282]. Strong gives 'ordain before', 'prepare afore' [4282].

Salvation is not by works; but they who are saved walk in good works as a consequence.


[EGNT*] is the Englishman's Greek New Testament (1877) and I am quoting the interlinear, literal translation.

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  • I see you have the typical evangelical response, I was hoping for a little more insight. I don't disagree with your point number 3;point 2 is the typical evangelical position. I don't disagree with the beginning of your point 1 until you get to: Take no thought for your life , what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink [...] but seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, Matthew 6:25 and 33. [KJV] – alb Jan 1 '18 at 18:38
  • Here's the corrected comment. I see you have the typical evangelical response, I was hoping for a little more insight. I don't disagree with your point number 3;point 2 is the typical evangelical position. I don't disagree with the beginning of your point 1 until you get to Matthew 6:25 and 33: Your interpretation speaks to the nature of my question. How do you seek God's righteousness? You seek it only by grace/faith in Jesus Christ, for no man can be righteous by his own power "for all our righteousness are as filthy rags". I believe you may have a law bias in your reading of scripture. – alb Jan 1 '18 at 18:47
  • @alb I have not interpreted anything here. Hermeneutics in general - and this site in particular - are about the actual text of scripture. I have simply stated what is on the page. Your opinion about a 'law bias' is just that : an opinion. – Nigel J Jan 1 '18 at 20:31
  • Understand your point but we all apply what the text says; you added your opinion in your response: eg "These words are very straightforward and mean exactly what they mean. I cannot see that any other meaning can be attributed to them than the plain meaning as it appears.If certain words are uttered they shall never be forgiven - ever." Don't disagree with the words, just questioning the intention and application of the words. – alb Jan 1 '18 at 20:43

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