Good News is Unconditional Too

 “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.


Powazki Fam said...

I believe we fear agreeing with this due to the role of priest in old vs new covenant. We see Jesus as our high priest, so Protestants fear putting ourselves back in that OT role.

Jay D. Miklovic said...

So you would have a priesthood of all believers, so long as it is a priesthood that is void of any priestly role? Priesthood in name only?

Daniel Wells said...

I think we have lost perspective on what forgiveness is. There is a long tradition likening sin to debt. In the Lord's Prayer, we are taught to pray "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." The parable of the ungrateful servant makes this clear. Peter asks about forgiving sins, and Jesus answers by talking about forgiving debt.

If we accept this parallel between sin and debt, it becomes obvious that when we sin, we sin against someone, just as when we are indebted, we are in debt to someone.

Likewise, if a man owes me money, of course I can forgive that debt. It would sound ridiculous to claim that only God can forgive loans.

So here is what I read from Jesus' teachings: From the parable of the ungrateful servant, I learn that we can forgive those that sin against us. Furthermore, I learn that we MUST forgive then, or else God will refuse to forgive our sins against Him.

"In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

But every sin against a man is a sin also against God. I believe anytime a man forgives his neighbor for a sin against him, God will forgive the sin against Him.

But this statement in John 20:22 indicates that we can forgive sins on behalf of God. Well, provided we are possessed of the Holy Spirit. Or maybe only if we are Apostolic successors. (I once heard a Catholic apologist explain that since protestants do not have a separate priesthood, we have retained the individual power to hear confession, forgive sins, &c. He felt this was generally a bad idea, because it is such an overwhelming responsibility.)
It feels strange. A power we don't deserve. Just as Jesus raised eyebrows and complaints when He forgave people's sins, so will we. Yeah, it IS going to ruffle people when we claim this authority. But its not an authority we have stolen or even one we asked for. It was given to us.

What really bothers me is that this statement in John 20 implies that sins can be forgiven only if one is forgiven by a man with the Holy Spirit. Luckily, this depends on the reading of the second half of the statement. If withholding forgiveness is something different from simply not forgiving, such as intentional condemnation --- like excommunication, then this implication dissolves.

Jay D. Miklovic said...

First, the linking of sin with debt is critical. We are reminded that sin is not merely some ethereal concept but there is some sense in which something is owed.

In the case of forgiving sins against God, we can do it because NOTHING is owed to God that has not already been given Him through Christ. So when we forgive someone one, we are doing it on the basis of the reality that they are really forgiven (not indebted).

Now as far as the Holy Spirit, and who has the authority to forgive... This text is clearly linked to the receiving of the HS (see the previous vs.) Yet it is also prior to pentecost. Frankly I am not exactly sure what to do with that as a theologian. Nonetheless the Spirit works in conjunction with the word, it is the word we proclaim when we forgive, so it seems to mesh fine for me. The other thing I think is worth exploring is the notion of 'individual' filling of the Holy Spirit... that seems to be a very Old Covenant idea, whereas in the New Covenant the Holy Spirit seems to fill more corporately. Or individuals are filled when they are baptized into the corporate church. In other words the one holy Spirit is associated with the one holy church, not the individual Christian. Ahhhh... man that could open a can of worms. If you extend that out, we could see this text as marking the church's authority to forgive sin, not the individual.

As far as withholding forgiveness, I haven't looked to closely at the greek, but I'd be interested to see the force of the verb withhold. If it indicates active withholding that makes sense. If it merely means 'neglecting to forgive' that would be strange.

Parallel passages, like Matt 18 seems to link this whole concept to church idea to church discipline, which would make excommunication a valid topic to bring into the conversation.

Kind of a ramble I know. Thanks for jumping in DJ.