Buford Stewart and the unpardonable sin

I cursed God when I was twelve. I was delivering newspapers on my bicycle, and I remember the exact spot where it happened. By this time in my life, I was having serious misgivings about Christianity, and my recollection is that I let loose on God out of frustration. As I saw it, God had given Gideon not one sign but two really impressive ones, so I figured he could give me a sign too. Even a mediocre sign would do, I said, but the heavens remained silent, and my anger waxed hot. The curse was hardly out of my mouth before I remembered the Bible verse about the unpardonable sin, and there came into my heart an UH-OH feeling that would torment me for years.

“Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation” (Mark 3:28-30)

Now, you would think that God would have gone to great pains to spell out just what constituted the unpardonable sin so that nobody would stumble into it accidentally, but he did not. Some think the sin is apostasy because, as they argue, an apostate wouldn’t ask forgiveness, and that would be the reason the sin was unpardonable. Others think it’s cursing the Holy Ghost, but why would God forgive a person for cursing two-thirds of his august being but not the final third? And why hold this one sin above all the others anyway? If God can’t forgive it, then he is not all-powerful; but if he won’t forgive it, he isn’t all-loving—or so it seemed to me.

In any event, I spent the next several years in mortal terror. Not everyday to be sure, but a lot of days. I would go through periods when my own certain damnation was all I could think about, but just when I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, the fear would lessen. I couldn’t see living that way indefinitely, but I couldn’t see telling anyone what I had done either. When I was sixteen, I screwed up enough courage to drive out in the country to Buford Stewart’s house, Brother Stewart being a preacher whom I regarded highly. I posed my problem in what I hoped would pass for intellectual terms, something on the order of, “Brother Stewart, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the unpardonable sin, and I just sort of thought I would drive out to your house at nine o’clock on a Tuesday night in the hope that you might be able to tell me exactly what a person would have to do to commit it.” I don’t recall what he said, and I have no idea if he ever figured out where I was really coming from.

Brother Stewart died several years ago, and I miss him—or at least I miss knowing that he still walks upon the earth, for I hadn’t seen him since I was eighteen. He took me along on a revival to Kentucky once, to the area below Bowling Green. The families in whose homes we stayed were poor, and he and I were often obliged to sleep in the same bed. One night, he rolled over and put his arm around me. I knew he was sound asleep and thought himself home with his wife, so I lay real still—so as not to embarrass him—and he finally turned the other way. A poor man himself, he still turned down a pay raise so that the money could be used to “advance the gospel,” and I was mightily impressed by that since I knew there was no way I would have turned down more money, whether for the sake of Jesus or anyone else.

But what stands out in my mind most about him was how kindly and uncondescending he was to kids like myself—and how much he loved cornbread and buttermilk. As a boy, I could no more understand why a man would get all worked up about something so plain and omnipresent as I could understand why pigs loved slop. Now I too love cornbread and buttermilk, more than almost anything else, even more than things like lemon meringue pie and banana pudding made with vanilla wafers, and I often think of Brother Stewart when I eat them. Alas, like Father Abraham, I have moved to a heathen land where the people know not how to make cornbread the way God meant it to be made, neither do they know how to eat it, and I must therefore make my own. Selah.

May the Good Lord bless you, Buford Stewart, wherever you are, and may he be a far better God than your Church of Christ theology allowed you to imagine.