“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” –John 20:23
I have found that the vast majority of commentary that I’ve read on this text goes to great lengths to explain away the plain reading of the text. While none of the commentators would be so brazen as to say they have a complaint with the text itself, the undertone of each of them is indeed a complaint. The common thread of these commentaries sounded something like this; “we know that only God can forgive, therefore this text means that the disciples were charged with proclaiming the good news about how someone may be forgiven.” Yet that is not what the text says at all. The text clearly says ‘if you forgive… they are forgiven… if you withhold… it is withheld.’
For reasons unknown to me we have a real problem with the idea that someone can forgive sin on behalf of God. The vast agreement of commentary surrounding this passage proves our discomfort with that idea. We claim to also have a problem with the other side of the equation as well. We ask, “who are we to withhold forgiveness from anyone?” However, in practice we can see that we don’t have a problem with the second side of the equation at all.
How many times have we heard a preacher boldly claim that ‘there is none righteous no not one’ or that ‘all have fallen short of the glory of God?’ We hear these things, and we collectively say ‘amen’ as we should. God has indeed said that we have all fallen short, and when the preacher declares that to us we should hear it as God speaking because it is true. We have no problem with the preacher condemning us from the word of God. This is not some fundamentalist only thing, progressives too have their own way of doing this. ‘We have failed to bring justice’ ‘we have failed to be open-minded’ ‘we have failed to serve the marginalized’ and so on. Again this is all to say the same thing, ‘we have all fallen short’. We are used to this sort of preaching, and we readily accept it.
The problem that we have is when a Christian says the words ‘you are forgiven’. We get all bent out of shape and say ‘only God forgives! No one can forgive sin in heaven other than God!’ We are fine with the preacher saying all are condemned, but as soon as someone says ‘ALL are justified freely by his grace’ we respond saying ‘whoa back up, there is no way that ALL are justified. You can’t just tell someone they are justified until they have examined themselves to see if they are in the faith.’
Can you see our blatant inconsistency here?
When I look at you and tell you that in baptism you were buried with Christ and risen with Christ, or say the words ‘baptism saves you’, or say ‘you are forgiven’ people will line up to insert various caveats as to why or why not that may be true for you. Yet all I have said are the words of scripture themselves, it is someone else who is adding or taking away from it.
Why is it that we have not embraced the idea that we can pronounce actual and effectual heavenly forgiveness with our human mouths from God’s word, yet we are comfortable with speaking actual condemnation from the scriptures? Why is it that we wrongly insert ‘if’ somewhere in the message of forgiveness but rightly leave out ‘if’ in the message of condemnation from the law?
These are questions worth consideration.