The text is John 20:23:
- If you forgive someone's sins, they are forgiven
If you hold on to their sins, they are retained.
I want to thank Eugene Peterson for his translation of it in The Message. It opened up a world of meaning I had overlooked. “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”
How liberating is that! This is not about the Apostles going about determining if some person's sin record is going to save or damn them in eternal judgment. It is about the church living as Jesus suggested and practising forgiveness in ordinary life.
If someone does something wrong against us and we forgive them, that's the end of that. They are not punished, they are not excluded, they are not cut off from our church or friendship circle. But if we don't forgive them, they walk around wearing the badge of their sins in every context. We have cruelly and stupidly failed to forgive their sins, so they just hang around and pollute everything.
It's not a priestly function bestowed on a select few to forgive; it's an expectation of every Christian. Remember the story Jesus tells (Luke 7) about a bloke who owes a million dollars to some rich guy and pleads for leniency and is totally forgiven of the debt. Then he goes out and sees someone who owes him 5 bucks and wants to have him hauled off to prison. Jesus says the first creditor who forgave his million-dollar debt will reverse his leniency when he hears about it and catch up with him. He should have been so rejoicing in the forgiveness of his own debt that he was willing to resume friendship with the guy he'd loaned 5 bucks to and forget all about that minor debt. Because he didn't release (the literal translation of the Greek word used for forgiving) the little debt, it was 'retained'. It was a grudge between them; it was an elephant in the room, a blot on the ledger, a dark cloud over their heads. He should have forgiven it and it would have gone away.
At one level, only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7), because God can forgive sinners of their sinful nature. But if someone hits me, I can certainly choose to forgive or not - it is not something God has to do. I can walk away and forget it, or insist on revenge and punishment. The malicious act can either be forgiven or retained.
And Jesus wants his new community of God's people to be a forgiving movement based on grace not a condemning movement based on punitive action. If we 'retain' people's sins, then as Eugene Peterson put it, 'what are you going to do with them?' We will have to work out suitable punishments, penitential rites, reparatory obligations, public apologies, levels of shame and disgrace - it's better and easier to forgive, so 'they're gone for good'.
I know this is not that simple: there must be qualifications and processes and answers to 'But what about...?'. I think the principle still holds. We live in a particularly unforgiving culture at the moment. Morality is decided on something other than biblical norms: viz, human rights and equality. Which is a pretty good system but it lacks a tradition of forgiveness and a process for atonement. Once someone sins, they get labelled ('misogynist', 'bully', 'thief', 'rapist', 'alcoholic') and there is no shedding of such labels. They are 'retained'. The church has to give people a break. It starts (but doesn't end) with forgiveness.