Can we forgive sins committed against God? If you have sinned in your private or public life, can I offer you forgiveness? It is a difficult question, and please note; I am not talking about forgiveness in the sense of forgiving you for sinning against me, I am talking about actual forgiveness before the throne.
If you have an evangelical background your gut reaction to this question is likely the same as mine was, and sounds like this: “Of course we cannot forgive, only God in Christ offers true forgiveness, to think that a man or woman could utter the words ‘you are forgiven’ or even worse ‘I forgive you your sins’ is to blaspheme.” I understand that reaction. The question must be asked if that reaction is biblical, and consistent with the rest of our theology.
Before I go on to make the case for absolution, let me say this, I do not believe that a person must seek a priest in order to receive forgiveness, “There is one mediator between God and man, the Lord Jesus Christ”, this is the clear teaching of scripture. The notion of a requirement of personal confession before someone in order to be forgiven is bogus. Nonetheless, taking private confession out of the “required” column does not necessarily mean we take it out of the “available” column. We rightly want to denounce the Catholic version of the doctrine of confession and absolution, but that does not mean that we ought to denounce confession and absolution altogether. The reason for our aversion to Catholic confession is that we can see with clarity that it is a work, a law of the church, not Gospel that sets free, but Law that binds. However, if you take private confession out of the law category, and place it in the gospel category (unmitigated good news) it will be seen in an entirely different light.
The two most obvious passages that one would cite in order to make the case for absolution are from John 20 and Matthew 18, though the case can be made elsewhere as well, but let’s take John 20, focusing on what it says as opposed to wrangling out what it does not say:
21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, 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.”
On its face without any wrestling around with it, this text plainly states that when Jesus sent His disciples with the Holy Spirit they had the authority to forgive sin, and withhold forgiveness of sin. Spin it how you may, but that is what the text says.
Of course the objection will arise: “Only God can forgive!” I do not disagree, only God can authorize forgiveness, only God Himself in Christ has done the work required for forgiveness, only God has enacted the means of atoning for sin and purifying the believer. The question however is whether or not that objection negates the plain reading of John 20:23, I contend it does not.
Would we not all agree that it is only the monergistic action of the Trinity that can create a true disciple of Christ? If we agree there, then why do we not have the same problem with the great commission to make disciples that we have with absolution? “Only God can forgive!!”, I agree, and only God can make disciples, so I ask you ought we to quit with the disciple making endeavor? Making disciples is a function which God carries out through His church as they proclaim what Christ has done and baptize people. Yet in this passage of John, we see that not only is the making of disciples a function God carries out through the church, so too is the forgiveness of sin.
Allow me to continue to expose our inconsistency. We know from scripture that God cares for the poor, and that the poor indeed are fed by God himself. Yet God’s people are commanded to care for the poor. Do we negate care for the poor because we know that caring for the poor is a task only God is suited to do? Of course not!
We could go on and on about the monergistic works of God in making disciples, feeding the poor, his work in the sacraments, and so on, and we would all be in relative agreement, that God is the one who is at work, the Church is His means of performing that work. Yet we draw a line where the scripture does not draw the line, we draw it at the forgiveness of sin. We are comfortable with saying that God by himself spreads the Gospel and uses his church to do it, and God by Himself makes disciples and uses his church to do it, and God by himself feeds the poor, and often uses the church to do it… but for whatever reason we a scared to death to say that “God by himself forgives sin and uses the church to do it!”
We rightly have an aversion to the catholic idea of priest as intermediary, and the requirement of private confession before a Catholic priest to absolve certain sin for fear of torment. In the same way we rightly have an aversion to forcing the poor to eat from our hands by gun point. If they are forced by gun point, eating our food becomes a required work to save their life, as opposed to a grace received from Christ to give them life. In the same way confession and absolution as a grace offered (not as a law required) is something as a church that we (all believers, not just pastors) are authorized and commissioned to do. Yes it is ALL God’s work, we are not required to absolve with the mindset that God could not do it without us, but that does not change the fact that we are commissioned to offer that grace!
The final question that always comes up is this: “Why not just go to God? Why seek forgiveness from Christ through another believer?” I suppose it is a valid question. Yet if God has appointed confession and absolution from the Church as a means of forgiveness why bypass His means? Would the poor man walk past the soup kitchen and scoff saying “I will not take my food from you, I will get it from God!”?
Listen, I do not deny that we can go straight to God in confession and contrition and receive His grace and mercy because of the
finished work of Christ, I do not doubt that. Just like the poor man get a job and work to earn the blessing of food and we would still see that it is 100% by grace that he gets a job and has food. What I am saying is that there is a real grace offered from God that we can receive from one another, and that grace is the forgiveness of sins.