If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
Most Protestants have a hard time understanding John 20:23. Roman Catholics think of penance when they read it. But is that what it’s talking about? The standard Protestant explanation is that the disciples are not being given authority to forgive sins; they are to proclaim the forgiveness of sins through the gospel. But the text doesn’t say “proclaim”; it says “forgive”. So, did the disciples have authority to truly bestow forgiveness where they willed? Were they “little gods” in that respect?
Let’s quickly survey all references of the term forgive/forgiveness/remission in the book of Acts. That’s the best place because that’s where we see what the apostles actually did.
Here they are (from the American Standard Version):
Acts 2:38 And Peter said unto them, Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 5:31 Him did God exalt with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, to give repentance to Israel, and remission of sins.
Acts 8:22 Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray the Lord, if perhaps the thought of thy heart shall be forgiven thee.
Acts 10:43 To him bear all the prophets witness, that through his name every one that believeth on him shall receive remission of sins.
Acts 13:38 Be it known unto you therefore, brethren, that through this man is proclaimed unto you remission of sins:
Acts 26:18 to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive remission of sins and an inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith in me.
- Jesus gives forgiveness (a.k.a. remission) of sins (Acts 5:31).
- Repentance is twice listed as a condition of forgiveness (Acts 2:38; 8:22).
- The apostles proclaim forgiveness of sins (Acts 13:38).
- Belief/faith is listed as a sole condition of forgiveness (Acts 10:43).
- The apostles did not directly forgive or retain sins as God. That’s nowhere to be found.
But, why would Jesus speak directly of the apostles forgiving and retaining sins?
My hypothesis: the apostles forgave and retained sins through baptizing. In the preaching of the gospel, the preacher is not forgiving or retaining anyone’s sins. But the apostles are doing so, in baptizing others. Before you gasp at this “heresy”, take a look at this illustration:
Picture an adult being baptized in a church gathering, making a profession of faith.
Imagine the following Q&A that two observers have:
Q. Does this person receive forgiveness for their sins?
Q. How do you know he is forgiven?
A. He is forgiven because of his faith expressed through baptism.
Q. What if his faith is not sincere? What if he is a false professor?
A. Then, he is not truly forgiven by God.
Q. But, how do you square that with the fact that he is being admitted into the church and has all the privileges that a member has?
A. Well, no one has absolute knowledge that another’s faith is valid.
This conversation illustrates the dichotomy we are talking about. Only God truly forgives sin against himself, but the church through baptism communicates forgiveness to the baptized. This is why the practice of absolution is not as off-base as you think. I believe it should be perfectly legitimate to say to the baptized after they rise from the water: “You are forgiven of your sins.” In baptism, from the perspective of the church, forgiveness of sins is presumed and declared, although the baptized may not be a genuine believer. This is entirely consistent with the image presented of the kingdom of God in the parable of the sower. Thus, the devil may take away that which was “sown in the heart”. The message may be apparently received by someone whose heart is not of the right soil.
- Before we filter Jesus’ words through our own systematic and cultural grids, we should be ready to receive them in full force. With that in mind, we can appreciate that Jesus truly gave the apostles the authority to forgive and retain sins.
- However, I understand forgiveness in two senses: (a) direct, authentic forgiveness from God; (b) provisional forgiveness declared by the church. This explains why saving forgiveness from God endures, but, at the same time, the church has the authority to excommunicate someone and treat him as an unbeliever. It is not that the excommunicant necessarily went from being a believer to an unbeliever, “losing” their forgiveness. From the outward perspective, forgiveness was presumed at baptism.
- This should elevate the importance of baptism. When the church baptizes, she is communicating something to the baptized: “You are forgiven.”
- Please, please, please don’t make baptism something small, casual, inconsequential. When someone has felt the physical touch of the waters of baptism, there is no better time than at that very moment for them to hear God’s grace spoken to them personally, by name: “[Jack, Sally, Tom…] you are forgiven.”
So, for you evangelicals, is what I am communicating here counter to evangelical faith?