As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
— Jesus to his disciples (John 20:21-23, NRSV)
In parts 1 and 2 of this series, we began exploring the meaning of that apostolic commission. As I argued earlier, given the importance of forgiveness in the gospels, this can’t mean that the apostles have the freedom to withhold personal forgiveness on a whim. They are as accountable to God for extending grace and mercy to others as any other Christian, perhaps even more so.
But what could it mean for them to “retain” the sins of others?
Some translations skirt the issue by making the two parts of the sentence parallel but opposite: “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (NIV). And that may be the force of it, at least partly: the latter half of the sentence may simply reinforce the first.
I remember, for example, being in a faculty meeting in which I became quite confused (unfortunately, that’s not a rare occurrence). We were given the report of some committee, and then asked not to approve the report but simply to receive it as information. The chair called for a vote. “But wait,” I objected. “I don’t understand what it means to vote to ‘receive’ something. Would it even be possible for us to vote not to receive it? (Snickers all around.) And if not, how can a vote to receive it mean anything?”
The gist of the answer I got back was: “Just go with it.”
The point is that forgiveness is only meaningful if there is a real possibility of not forgiving. Thus the second half of Jesus’ commission may sound redundant, but if that part isn’t true then the first is emptied of significance.
But I think there’s something more going on here. The word that the NRSV translates as “retain” usually means to hold fast to something, to hang on to something for good reason. What else might it mean, then, for the apostles to retain the sins of others?
The disciples became apostles by being given the Holy Spirit and being sent out to continue the mission of Jesus. Jesus had the authority to forgive sin, and died in our stead so that anyone who believed could be forgiven. That’s forgiveness on a cosmic scale, and only God can truly forgive sin in this way. But Jesus was giving the apostles the authority to declare the good news: I am empowered to tell you that if you believe, God will forgive your sins.
Jesus, however, did more than declare forgiveness. Yes, he prayed from the cross that those who crucified him would be forgiven their ignorance. But before that, he continually tussled with them over matters of justice and righteousness, calling them out on their hypocrisy, making people mad enough to want to kill him.
Just as the message of forgiveness for sin becomes meaningless if there is no possibility of not being forgiven, so too does it become meaningless if there is no accountability for sin, indeed, no way to honestly acknowledge the depth of human depravity. God can and will forgive sin if people turn and believe. But sin will not be forgiven otherwise, and the consequences are dire. Put positively, there must be two sides to the gospel message: the offer of forgiveness, and the call for justice.
The cosmic nature of divine forgiveness and the scope of the mission to which believers have been called is not, of course, separate from how we conduct ourselves as flesh-and-blood representatives of the mission of Jesus. Like it or not, people will judge Jesus, the gospel, and the church by what they see in us. We are to be people who are gracious and forgiving while humbly but courageously speaking out against sin and injustice.
It’s a high calling, and one for which we’d be ill-equipped in ourselves.
Good thing we have the guidance of his Spirit.