Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them 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.” (John 20:21-23)
Every once in a while, when people talk about Jesus’ words here about forgiving or withholding forgiveness, they speak as if they think Jesus is offering us two different options in how we might choose to respond to sin. It’s as if they hear Jesus saying, it’s up to us as disciples to evaluate whether someone is worthy of having their sins forgiven or not, and then apply our own judgment in what Jesus is calling us to do. Do we announce God’s grace and mercy in Christ, or do we refuse? Do we think it is up to us to decide?
In these words from the risen Christ, as he sent his disciples out with his peace, Jesus was not placing before us an option. Nor was he telling us to divide the world into different types of sinners or different degrees of sin in considering the message that he wants us to deliver. Rather, he was giving us a promise and a warning as speakers of his Word, showing us the blessing and the consequences of whether or not we, as Jesus’ disciples, carry out his calling.
Jesus is not giving us a choice on whether to forgive or not forgive, according to our scruples and sensibilities. He is calling us to forgive as we have been forgiven by God. He is also warning us of the dire consequences that will come from not heeding his call. To put it another way, Jesus is telling us that he has sent us into the world with the power of the Holy Spirit, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins in his name to a world overcome by darkness and evil — and he wants us to know that if we don’t do it, no one else will.
As I look at the current state of the world in which we live and the diminishment of faith in the public sphere, this is one of the things that troubles me most. The very concept of forgiveness has almost all but disappeared. When one looks at the modern phenomenon of “social justice” mobs piling on condemnation for whatever they deem to be the offense of the day, to the raging Cancel Culture that seeks to take out vengeance and destroy the lives of any who depart from the established and “accepted” narrative, what we are witnessing is a spiritual failure. Our society has lost all sense of the need to forgive.
And don’t be deceived, this is what it is — a need to forgive. Just as in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus shows our physical need for daily bread, he follows it up by showing that we have a spiritual need for daily forgiveness. If we know the Scriptures, we know that this is at the heart of what Jesus came into the world to do. It was his death and resurrection that addressed our need for forgiveness. This is not just the case for Christians who acknowledge themselves as sinners, it is a need shared by all of us as human creatures.
The truth is, without forgiveness, the very structures of society begin to break down. The bond that holds us together is destroyed. This is because all of human society is based on relationships, and our individual relationships with one another overlap in larger and larger networks with many other people. As each cord is broken, the net that holds us together becomes weaker, until there is no bond left and everyone we encounter becomes our enemy.
In giving us his Holy Spirit, Jesus not only entrusts us with the power and authority to forgive in his name, he lets us know what the world will become if we don’t. Scripture tells us, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). If we neglect the calling and command to bear his grace and mercy, our world itself will find the basis for life withheld.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, God has made us his instruments – his living means of grace. Through us, God is in the world, bringing to an end the legacy of sin, death, and the devil that hold all of us bound. In Christ, God is loosing the bonds of sin, one person at a time, by placing in our hands his Key of forgiveness – for he is the only One who truly has the power to set us free.
If you belong to Christ, you have no choice: you are an Ambassador for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). You are forgiven; you are set free, that you might make use of that same freeing power in the lives of those around you. This is the promise of Christ. You have the opportunity to do what the world cannot do, and to give a gift that this world cannot (or will not) give.
Christ has given you the Holy Spirit, with the promise that “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them,” trusting that God will “forgive us our trespasses, even as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
— Pastor Steven E. King