Tuesday, August 2, 2011


And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”  John 20:22-23

Do you have trouble with this passage?  Many probably do not know it exists and are blissfully ignorant.  Those of us who read our Bibles regularly tend to brush lightly over this passage without much thought.  It is enigmatic because we understand that only God forgives sins, yet here the Lord is plainly telling the apostles they have this authority.  Confusion ensues while traversing a treacherous mental pathway uncertain of the footing of what we read while also fearing a misstep and falling into that bottomless ravine of a mere man standing in the stead of God to forgive sin.  What curiosity which may have arisen quickly becomes suppressed through utter exhaustion and bewilderment of walking that thin line or avoided altogether by moving on to matters of the day.

Within Christendom, the ongoing application of this authority concerning those who hear confessed sin1 can align to one or more of the following broad categories:

Generally to the church catholic – The forgiveness is in the context of church reception and discipline with the authority lying in the group rather than an individual. Within the context of the local church, there may be cases of unrepentant sin that must be addressed (Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:1-6).  When the believer repents, he or she is received back into fellowship (2 Cor 2:5-11).

Specifically to individuals – This is not often considered, but application at this level is rather compelling and practical.  You and I as people interacting with others know there are times when one or both parties of a relationship will wrong the other(s). What is the proper response?  The Lord gave a specific example of a brother sinning against another (Matt 18:15-17). In each confrontation, Jesus states first explicitly, later implicitly that the expectation is forgiveness.  The offender is to be absolved by the offended of the wrong and guilt by virtue of confession and that without number (Matt 18:21-22).

Specifically to the apostles and their representatives – Christ gave the apostles specific authority for the foundation of the church and recognized to be so as in the following quotes from these 19th century authors:
The disciples thus delivered are invested with a blessed privilege and a solemn responsibility as regards others.  Those without are now viewed as sinners, the old distinction of Jews and Gentiles for the time disappearing in the true light.  But if it be the judgment of the world, it is the day of grace; and the disciples have the administration, the Spirit of life in Christ giving them capacity.  Hence the word of the Lord is, "whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted; whose soever ye retain, they are retained."  So repentant souls were baptized for the remission of sins, whilst a Simon Magus was pronounced in the gall of bitterness and bond of iniquity.  So the wicked person was put away from among the saints, and the same man after the judgment of his evil and his own deep grief over his sin was to be assured of love by the assembly’s receiving him back, obedient, yet taking the initiative in the act that it might be conscience work and not of bare authority or influence.  William Kelly

They were the administrators of [remittance] in the world; first in the preaching of the gospel if you like; but afterwards, in the proper administrative sense.  Here it is the apostles.  But Peter in a sense remitted Cornelius’ sins.  Paul says, "To whom ye forgive anything, I forgive also."  And yet, if such an one is a believer, he has eternal life and forgiveness all the while.  That is what I mean by administrative.  Not the forgiveness in which the soul is justified, but the present conferring the forgiveness in the ways and government of God.  James says, "And if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him."  If discipline is carried out, there the sin is bound upon the person.  John N. Darby

Contention arises around the question: to whom was authority ultimately delivered—the assembly as a whole or specific ordained individuals bestowed with the mantle of like authority?

God is recognized as the one against whom we ultimately sin.  When David infamously committed adultery with Bathsheba and had Uriah, her husband, killed in battle, the only one mentioned as having been wronged was God (Psalm 51:4).  This was not as a result of wrong thinking but an understanding that YHWH not only set the standard but was David's sole benefactor for his position and blessings.  God forgave David's sins and communicated that through Nathan (2 Sam 12:13).  For any sin or transgression not committed arrogantly or defiantly a sacrifice given in faith was required to atone (Lev 5:1, 4-5, 16, 18; 6:7) carrying the promise of forgiveness from God through the mediation of the priests.  Coupled with that was any possible restitution (Lev 5:15-16; 6:6) as an act of expiation to the wronged individual.  Later, while Jesus walked the earth, these laws were still in effect while he forgave sins as God incarnate (Mark 2:5), thus demonstrating the grace that would soon be shown in its fullness on the cross.  The scribes properly recognized this as the right of God alone, which attested to his true person veiled as it was having put on a human nature.

If God is the one against whom all sin is directed and the only one with the right to forgive sin, does someone have the authority to forgive another's sin against God? In other words, can a designated or recognized person act on God's behalf to utter words of absolution for Christ's sake in regard to confessed sin?  While the notion seems presumptuous, I have known several who have done just that in a roundabout way by going through scripture starting from the confessed sin(s) and turning to those promises of God that speak of his faithfulness to remove the iniquity and make a way of fellowship open.  The sinner is pointed to the sufficiency of Christ's work on the cross and the truth of his word.  So yes, we can act on God's behalf to absolve sin.  I can look at someone and say, “Your sins are forgiven, and here is why.”

Somebody reading this is saying, “OK, maybe I can see something in that in a fuzzy sort of way, but what about the part of withholding forgiveness?”  As believers we want to see others confessing the Lord Jesus and walking in the Spirit, so bestowing forgiveness is (or should be) a relatively easy endeavor, because it can be done based on the word of God.  Withholding forgiveness is no different.  The apostle Paul was acting in harmony with God's will as revealed in his word by seeking for Alexander's condemnation by the Lord (2 Tim 4:14-15).  Lest one think this was a special, non-repeatable apostolic pronouncement based on certain God-ordained authority, we find a similar refrain in several psalms such as the following:

Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
They speak against you with malicious intent;
your enemies take your name in vain!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies.
Psalm 139:19-22

Paul and David were acting within a purview available to believers—again based on the revealed word.  Still someone wonder if we can legitimately take such a harsh stand.  The Lord Jesus gave instruction to do so concerning the unrepentant where he says that what is being followed according to God's patter will result in heaven agreeing with the excommunication (Matt 18:17-18).

Lastly, can simply anyone go about haphazardly forgiving sins of some and not of others?  Certainly not.  Notice what has been said repeatedly “according to divine revelation.”  Without understanding what the Lord's mind is concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment, attempting a spiritual work on this order would be as ineffective as praying for something to use on our own pleasures: it will not happen.  The person must be knowledgeable in the scriptures and mature in the faith.

Perhaps we evangelicals need to stop being afraid of terms bandied about that invoke visions of misuse and outright heresy, so that they might be used properly again.  Or maybe I am wrong-headed and will get negative comments to that effect.  Share what you think.

1 These do not remove civil punishment that may need to be enacted. That is a separate issue.

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