The Church and Forgiveness
“When [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on [the disciples] and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld’” (vv. 22–23).- John 20:19–23
Church elders are tasked with the safety of their flocks, and they are required to protect their congregations from dangers both within and without the covenant community (Acts 20:17–37). Certainly, this means that elders must keep false teachers out of the pulpit. Yet elders are also called to prevent the leaven of unrepentant sin from taking root in the church. Professing Christians caught in sin are to be disciplined, and they are to be excommunicated if they remain impenitent. Still, the goal of church discipline is always the restoration of sinners, who must be received with open arms when they show true repentance (Matt. 18:15–20).
As we have seen, Christ grants church elders the right to open and close the doors to His kingdom through the exercise of the keys (16:13–23; 18:15–20). This does not mean that elders have power and authority in themselves to dispense salvation. God alone provides redemption; besides Him there is no savior (Isa. 43:11; John 14:6). But the Lord saves His people through the preaching of the gospel and the incorporation of believers into Christ’s body, the church (Eph. 2). Because faithful elders preach this gospel and guard the peace and purity of the church, they are among the means through which our Creator works to save His people. As such, insofar as they follow Scripture, church elders have the authority to confirm the spiritual state of the souls under their care—to declare, as far as they are able, that their congregants are resting in Jesus and, thus, have been forgiven of their sins.
This is what our Savior means in today’s passage. He does not transfer the right to forgive sins that is His by virtue of the fact that He is God Himself (Ps. 103:1–3; Matt. 9:1–8). Instead, He gives church leaders authority to discern the life of a professing believer and proclaim, insofar as they can tell, that such a person is in a state of salvation. When they hear a credible profession of faith and see Christian fruit in a person’s life, they can with confidence confirm that the person has been forgiven by God. In the case of impenitence, church leaders have the authority to discipline the offender, to let the professing believer know that he is actually proclaiming himself an unbeliever by his lifestyle. They can tell the sinner that Christ has not forgiven his sins because there is no evidence of repentance.
John Calvin comments that Christ “does not convey to [the Apostles and their successors] what is peculiar to himself. It belongs to him to forgive sins… . [Instead, He] enjoins them, in his name, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, that through their agency he may reconcile men to God.” Those under discipline must take it seriously indeed, for discipline that is faithful to Scripture is God’s way of warning us that we may not be truly converted.
Passages for Further Study