Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” John 20.21-23 NIV.
Oh my! How we stumble over (or perhaps try to skate over) the last thing that Jesus says in this short passage from John’s gospel …
Forgive sins? Me? You cannot be serious. How can a mere mortal forgive sins – unless, of course, they are sins that someone has committed against me personally? I mean, I can forgive you for stealing a fiver from my wallet but I can’t forgive you for stealing a fiver from your workmate’s wallet, can I? It just doesn’t make sense. Even more bizarre, how can a mere mortal withhold the forgiveness of sins? It’s crazy talk, isn’t it? As the Pharisees once put it: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5.21).
Well, no – I don’t think it is crazy talk, but it does take some understanding; and those Pharisees are perhaps a good place to start if we want to get to grips with this “hard saying” of Jesus. The background is the familiar story of the villagers who have brought a paralysed friend of theirs to Jesus. Unable to get through the crowd into the house where Jesus is speaking, they have the bright idea of making a hole in the roof and lowering their bed-ridden buddy to the feet of Jesus. When they have done so, Jesus looks deep into the man’s heart and, seeing there perhaps the spiritual cause of his paralysis, tells him: “Your sins are forgiven.” And that, of course, is what provokes the Pharisees’ ill-concealed outrage (Luke 5.17-21).
The verb “to forgive” is aphiēmi and it is formed from the two words apo, meaning “from” or “away” and hiēmi meaning “to send”. So to forgive sins is to put them away, to get rid of them, to dismiss them. Indeed, aphiēmi is used of Jesus dismissing the crowds in Matthew 13.36, of a man divorcing his wife in 1 Corinthians 7.11-13, and of a creditor writing-off a debt in Matthew 18.27.
But what we need to note carefully is that, neither in this passage nor anywhere else in the Gospels, does Jesus himself do the “sending away”. What he says is that the sins in question “have been sent away“. The word is aphēontai (“have been forgiven” rather than the NIV’s “are forgiven”) which is parsed grammatically as the perfect, passive, indicative, third person, plural of the verb aphiēmi “to forgive”. In other words, someone else has already done the writing-off and it has been done as a completed action in the past. All Jesus is doing is declaring that that is the case. And that, presumably, is the full extent of his meaning when he says a little later in the same conversation: “But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Luke 5.23). He can legitimately describe what he is doing as “forgiving sins” because, by declaring sins to have been forgiven, he is making the forgiveness effective in the life of the one to whom the pronouncement is being made and is thus, as it were, completing the forgiveness by bringing it home to roost in that person’s heart.
So who has already done the forgiving? The Father. All forgiveness comes from him. Note that, even as Jesus dies on the cross, he doesn’t say “I forgive you”; instead he prays: “Father, forgive them.” And here’s the thing that we really do need to get clear in our heads and hearts: the Father’s forgiveness is absolute, universal and totally unconditional. Some would say that it depends on true repentance. It doesn’t. (If it did, we would be saved by that “work” rather than by the mercy and grace of God.) Repentance is in fact our response when the truth of our unconditional forgiveness dawns upon us and we receive it and embrace it. As Paul Tillich has written: “Forgiveness creates repentance … and this is the experience of those who have been forgiven.”
So it is against this backdrop – that, for Jesus, the forgiving of sins was the pronouncement to people of the absolute, already-offered, unconditional forgiveness of the Father – that we must understand the forgiveness of sins that he now commissions his followers – including you and me – to carry out. Our job, like his (“as the Father has sent me, I am sending you”) is to tell folk that their sins have already been forgiven and thus make that already-on-the-table forgiveness effective in the lives of those to whom we tell it and who are willing to receive it. (“If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins will have been forgiven” is what it says in the Greek.)
And if we don’t? Well then “they will not have been forgiven” – but in just the same way. The forgiveness that is awaiting them on the table will be left there (for the time being, anyway) and not be picked up and enjoyed. It will remain ineffective. If the people concerned are carrying guilt then they will continue to carry it, and if they are paralysed in one way or another because of that guilt, they will continue to be paralysed. But that will not be because God will not forgive them unless we take the initiative in doing so. He has forgiven them anyway. He has forgiven them regardless. As the late Dr Merrill C Tenney said in his commentary on these verses in John: “God does not forgive men’s sins because we decide to do so nor withhold forgiveness because we will not grant it. We announce it; we do not create it.”