April 27, 2014
“Forgiving and Retaining Sins”
St. John 20:19-23
Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, "Peace be with you." When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, "Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send 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 retain the sins of any, they are retained." St. John 20:19-23
They call him doubting Thomas. Jesus said he was faithless. Thomas didn’t believe the other disciples when they told him that they had seen the Lord Jesus. He wanted to see for himself. Jesus showed himself to unbelieving Thomas and he became a believer. Then Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Have believed what? Have believed what the apostles said. Jesus sent out his apostles so that we would believe what they say about him.
The Father sent his Son into the world to redeem the world. The Son did what his Father sent him to do. He set the whole world free from sin, death, and the power of the devil. The first word out of Jesus’ mouth on the Sunday that he rose from the dead and appeared to his fearful disciples was the word peace. “Peace to you,” he said. This was not just a friendly greeting. It was a divine pronouncement. Peace is a present reality. It is more than a wish or a hope for a better future. Jesus gave those fearful men the peace of God. He did it by speaking to them. The Father sent his Son to establish peace on earth. The angels announced it when he came as an infant. They said, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace goodwill toward men.” Jesus fought the battle to secure it, as he bore the sin of the world, confronting all the powers of darkness on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” he cried out as the damned, and so he cast damnation into the depths of the sea. The Bible says: “God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” (1 Corinthians 5:21)
His resurrection is God’s absolution of this entire world of sinners. He died for them to take away their sins. He made peace between them and God. He rose from the dead. It happened in space and time. Christ’s resurrection is history. Bible-doubting theologians have it precisely backwards when they call Christ’s resurrection a “faith event” as if it happened only in the experience of faith and then this faith became the foundation for the preaching of the risen Christ. Nonsense! Thomas did not believe until he saw. Jesus permitted him to see and to touch. Thomas validated the apostolic testimony with his own senses. The peace that Jesus speaks is genuine peace from God. God is at peace with you. Look! See the wounds. See the scars on his hands and his side. Here is the evidence that he who died for your sins is alive. He speaks the word of peace and thereby gives it. He gives his church the power to forgive and to retain sins.
Jesus gave to his church on earth the power to forgive and to retain sins. This is called the office of the keys. Jesus said he would give the keys of his kingdom to his church. He said, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Listen to these words from Luther’s Small Catechism:
The power to forgive sins belongs to Christ. He earned it. He died for all. All sins are forgiven. But Jesus does not cast his pearls before swine. He does not offer his forgiveness to those who would trample it in the mud. He does not forgive those who are secure in their sins and refuse to repent. He tells those who refuse to admit their sins, or who think they don’t need his forgiveness, or who believe that they can earn forgiveness by their own good deeds that their sins are not forgiven. They are retained. Their sins remain on their souls and they are guilty before God. They are manifest sinners. That means their sins are clear and public. They are impenitent sinners. That means they are not sorry for them. The gospel is not addressed to manifest and impenitent sinners. They will only twist it into license to sin. They need to hear God’s law. They need to be shown their sins. They need to be told that they are in danger of going to hell and if they do not repent they will be lost forever.
Jesus has something different to say to those whose sins burden their conscience, who are sorry for what they have done wrong, and who want to live a holy Christian life. He tells them that their sins are forgiven and so they are. But Jesus is not visible to our eyes and we don’t see him as Thomas and the other apostles did. We must be content to listen to those that Jesus sends to speak on his behalf. We call them ministers because they administer the gifts Jesus has given to his church on earth. We call them pastors because they feed the church with God’s gospel and sacraments. Jesus speaks through these men and we should listen to them.
What did Jesus say? “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” God doesn’t tell his ministers to share their insight, to pontificate with their superior wisdom on the mysteries of life, or to impress the crowds with their eloquence and erudition. He tells them to forgive and to retain sins. So then, we are to go to church and listen to the preacher. We are to find a church that is devoted to the pure teaching of God’s word, where the law and the gospel are rightly distinguished, and we are to attend that church faithfully and listen intently to the one Jesus has sent. Jesus forgives and retains sins through his ministers.
It is not only the pastor who has authority to forgive sins in Jesus’ name. Jesus said:
Those who have the Holy Spirit have the authority of the keys. Jesus gave it to his church on earth. Wherever the church is, there is the authority to forgive and to retain sins. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” The office of the keys is a church power. It belongs to the church. In cases of need, any Christian may forgive the sins of penitent sinners. Any Christian may warn those who live openly impenitent lives of the danger to their soul.
Christ has established the ministry of the Word or the pastoral office for the purpose of forgiving and retaining sins. This is done by the pure preaching of the law and the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments. Pastors are to bind the sins of manifest and impenitent sinners. God’s law – not human tradition, prejudice, popular opinion, or the politically correct orthodoxy of the day – is the standard for what is right and wrong. When Christ’s ministers bind the sins of manifest and impenitent sinners, Christ is doing so. Those sinners are not forgiven.
Pastors are to forgive the sins of the penitent. Falling into the same sin again and again does not necessarily make a person impenitent. It makes him weak. Weak sinners need God’s forgiveness! Christ never rejects the penitent sinner. Never! There is no sin too severe or too frequently committed for Christ to forgive it.
Christians fall into sin. They do things incompatible with their Christian confession. They fall into patterns of behavior that trap them. By following their own selfish appetites they become their own worst enemy, binding themselves to sin by their continual disobedience of God’s law. They enslave themselves. But deep down in their miserable hearts they know they are offending God. They want to be reconciled to God but they are afraid. So they remain paralyzed in their fear, trapped in their sins, and estranged from God.
Jesus is full of compassion for poor miserable sinners. Look at how gently he treated the disciples. They ran away and denied him, leaving him to suffer alone. How does he respond? He greets them with words of peace and forgiveness. Jesus receives sinners and forgives them. This is why he gave the office of the keys to his church on earth. This is why he sent out the first ministers to preach the gospel and why he’s been sending out ministers now for nearly two thousand years. He wants sinners to receive absolution. He wants them to receive the peace he purchased for them by his bitter suffering and death.
We can receive absolution or forgiveness in the general confession and absolution at the beginning of the Divine Service on Sunday morning. When the pastor says, “I forgive you all your sins” it is Jesus forgiving you all your sins. When a particular sin wars against us, with the devil using it to cause us to doubt the grace of God and to rob our heart of the peace that Jesus gives and we need to hear Jesus forgive us of that specific sin, we can go to our pastor and ask him to speak to us the words from Jesus that we need. We can do so with confidence that he will never tell a soul what we confess, because we aren’t confessing to him, but to God. He is but the voice God uses to absolve us.
The ministry of the keys is not all we have. We have the Holy Scriptures. St. John said his Gospel was written that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and through such faith have life in Jesus’ name. Reading the Bible and going to church may appear to be rather mundane activities. If we look at them as our activities they just might be. But this is how Christ chooses to appear to us, not visibly as he did to the apostles. We, who do not see, are more blessed than they. God blesses us when he insists that we find Jesus in the speaking of sinful and mortal men and in the reading of an old book. Our senses would deceive us. But the word of God cannot deceive us.
Rolf D. Preus