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Can We Really Grant People the Forgiveness of Their Sins? (John 20:23)

When I approach the scriptures, I want to approach them not as a bomb that needs to be defused but rather as a teaching that needs to be expounded and applied to my understanding and behavior.

And, I think for many Christians, they do not want to meditate on a text like this. Rather they want a pat answer that defuses the bomb so their current paradigm is not upset. But God does require us to think deeply about His Word, to seek to truly understand what he is trying to communicate to us. To meditate.

To understand this text (John 20:23), I think we need to employ (at the very least) the context of the preceding verse.

22 And when he had said this [this = “Peace be with you.”], he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

 

Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” He desires to comfort his disciples who have been on an emotional roller coaster for the last few days. Perhaps, he is simply trying to calm them after the fright of his post-resurrection appearance. Or, perhaps there’s more to it.

In some way, they all denied him (with the possible exception of John). They are feeling unworthy. Possibly feeling like God could never or would never use them after what they had done. They may be thinking that Jesus is appearing to punish, to threaten or at the very least to strongly rebuke them. They are confused and anxious. They are lacking peace. So, Jesus starts there.

“Peace be with you.” I’m not here to rebuke you or punish you. Just like that night on the Sea of Galilea, Jesus speaks to the storm, and he says, “Peace be still.” Jesus calms the tumultuous storm raging in the hearts of his disciples.

“Peace be with you…. Your sin against me is great. But I forgive it all I grant peace to you.”

“You are unworthy of my love. You are unworthy of being my disciples. And, yet I will call you my apostles. You have been despicable followers and yet I will make you mighty leaders.”

“You doubt me? Then, listen very closely to what I am about to say.”

But before he speaks, Jesus does something. He blows. This reminds us of God breathing the breath of life into Adam. It’s a reminder of the deity of Christ. It’s a reminder of the authority of Christ.

He breathes and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

What is Jesus doing to this motley crew of washed-up disciples? He’s breathing new life into them. He’s speaking against all their fears and assuring them that they are forgiven, accepted, loved and useful for the kingdom of God.

Yes, they are still useful. They are not just broken toys in need of mending. They are being transformed into powerful machines that when driven by the Spirit of God will accomplish great and wonderful things.

And, if there were any doubt, Jesus clears that up with the next sentence. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain (those) of any, they are retained.” (William Hendriksen translation)

Their hearts must have leaped within them. “He will lift up our countenances and shine his face upon us. He will mend our broken hearts. He will strengthen our weary bodies. And, he will USE us for his good purposes. We are not washed up. We’re not out yet. He still has plans for us. He still wants to employ us in the building of his kingdom.”

“Grace.”

“Power.”

“Authority.”

“Transformation.”

“He gives all of that to us. To us who only deserve his scorn and his judgment.”

“And, what great authority he gives! What is more important than the eternal state of a soul…whether or not a person is forgiven or not forgiven of their sins? What can be more important than that for anyone on earth? Nothing.”

“And God would use us in this determination process? That is a task I would never have thought would be conferred on us even on our best days…much less after we abandoned him and denied him.”

“If YOU forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if YOU retain (those) of any, they are retained.”

In our individualistic American culture, I see the word “you” and we assume it is speaking directly to me. But Jesus isn’t speaking to me here; he is speaking to his apostles. And, he is not speaking to them individually. He is speaking to them as a collective group.

YOU, my apostles, are given this authority. Now, perhaps Jesus was saying, YOU, my church or my followers, are given this authority. Even still he is speaking of the collective group.

He breathes and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” So… In some way, God by his Spirit will use his apostles and possibly his entire church in this process of determining and declaring the forgiveness of sins or the lack thereof.

The grammar is important here. Jesus is referring to an action that was completed in the past and continues in the present. “If you forgive the sins of any, they have been forgiven and continue to be forgiven in the present; if you retain (those) of any, they have been retained and continue to be retained in the present.”

At this point, we come up against that great challenge that you spoke about where God’s sovereignty and man’s actions overlap. The choices of God and the choices of men.

“They have been forgiven.” The grammar indicates that they have already been forgiven before “you” forgave them. So, WHO has already forgiven them? Obviously, that would be God. God has granted forgiveness and “you” in your granting of forgiveness are acknowledging (with the authority granted you by Christ) what God has already done.

In that sense, the Protestants are correct in saying that we (the apostles or the church) are declaring a forgiveness that has already been granted by God.

The Catholics are right in saying that we (the apostles or the church) have real authority. You are a herald of the king. You are a truly important actor in the playing out of God forgiving sins. Protestants hesitate to admit this because we have seen the Catholics take this too far.

The selling of indulgences. The priest in a box (the confessional) who seems to think he has sole authority to determine who goes to heaven and who does not.

Excesses and abuses aside, we as Protestants must admit that Jesus gave real authority and real power to his apostles and to his church.

Matthew 16:19: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 18:18: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Admittedly, these along with John 20:23 are verses that make Protestants nervous and uncomfortable. We NEVER want to return to the ecclesiastical chaos of pre-reformation days!

However, there is another great evil to avoid. Namely, a church that has no authority on issues related to sin and salvation. A church that can only share opinions and feelings. A church that can only limply say, “I feel such and such…” Or, “My opinion on the matter is…”

This is a church that will fall into another state of chaos. A church without walls. A Church without a foundation. No doctrine. No backbone. A church un-managed and un-shepherded. A church with no overseers. No elders. No leadership. No doctrine. No authority.

A church that refuses to say, “Thus sayeth the Lord!”

Yes, we will never return to the tyranny of pre-reformation days. We will not embrace a pope or a priest who claims that on his own authority he can forgive sins or he can damn. For his own selfish ends he sells salvation like another product in the marketplace. Another piece of merchandise on ebay.

Though the church is not God, it does have a divine authority granted by God.

Ephesians 2:19-22

…You are … members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Yes, men are highly involved. The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. But do not forget that Jesus is the cornerstone. Do not forget the role of the Holy Spirit, and that God dwells in his church by the Spirit.

Yes, we have authority… as we are led by the Spirit. As we walk in conformity with God’s Word.

Perhaps much of the difficulty in interpreting John 20:23 is that Jesus was walking a fine line when he spoke. He was giving his apostles and his church real power and real authority. And at the same time, he was protecting the church from the abuse of that power and the abuse of that authority.

He gave these three protections. Three things we must know related to the authority Jesus gives:

  • Jesus Authority: Know that the authority is given by Jesus.
  • The Holy Spirit’s Work: Know that it is given through the Holy Spirit and you are to utilize this authority as you are led by the Holy Spirit.
  • The Fact that God’s Work Precedes Your Involvement: Know that you are granting forgiveness to those who have already been forgiven by God. Though you are an agent in this process, the ultimate authority belongs to God alone. Ultimately, it is God alone who forgives sin.

Yes, there is a sense in which John 20:23 is a bomb that needs to be defused. Not because Jesus said anything harmful but because we can so easily misinterpret this verse and take it to one extreme or another. It is a text that can easily be misinterpreted. Jesus is saying so much with so few words. And, there is great danger of this verse leading to a totalitarian church or leading to a spineless church.

Jesus carefully avoids both of these extremes. And, we are called to do the same.

We must meditate deeply on God’s Word and seek to understand what he is saying. We must not be too quick to cry “mystery”. To say I do not understand, and I will not understand. Christ has spoken. He desires to communicate with us. Let us not be too hasty to wave the white flag of mystery. But, rather may we seek diligently to understand what he is saying. To gain the knowledge that he desires for us to acquire.

With that said…

There is still great mystery. Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:12, “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” We struggle to understand spiritual mysteries like the trinity, the freedom and sovereignty of God, and the authority of the church as it acts on behalf of God as it is led by the Holy Spirit.

But praise Jesus for the great revelation that we do have. Praise him that we have church leaders that possess real authority, which is needed for the proper shepherding of souls. And praise Jesus that he has put safeguards in place. His own authority. The leading of the Spirit. And the Word of God!

Iron sharpens iron. Please let me know if you feel I have misinterpreted this text in any way.

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