John 20:19-23: The Forgiving and Retaining of Sins

Office of the Keys (610x351)What brings to someone God’s forgiveness?  For example, why does baptism forgive sins but not watching a beautiful sunset?  Why does the Lord’s Supper forgive sins but not playing a round of golf?  And how can absolution give God’s forgiveness when it’s words spoken from a man?  How can God forgive in such ways?  It’s because God forgives how He chooses to forgive.  That’s why.

That’s what the Lutheran Church has always taught and believed.  Listen to what our Large Catechism says about baptism: “To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by men but by God Himself.  Therefore, although it is performed by human hands, it is still truly God’s own work” (LC, IV Baptism, 10).

Today, our Gospel reading is one of the Bible passages where Jesus tells the Church’s first pastors what they are to do.  One such passage is in Matthew 28.  That’s where Jesus tells the Eleven (remember Judas was no longer with them) to disciple others by baptizing and teaching.

Yet, that task of discipling was to go on until Jesus returned.  And so those first pastors, the Apostles, laid hands on younger pastors, that is, ordained them into the Office of the Holy Ministry, to carry out the tasks that Jesus had first given to them.

We also have Luke 24.  There, Jesus says that repentance and the forgiveness of sins are to be preached in His name.  And so, to this day, pastors preach to make you aware of your sin, so you turn away from sin and, instead, live in Christ’s forgiveness.

But today’s text is from John 20.  There, Jesus tells His Apostles not only to forgive sins, but also to retain sins.  It was Easter evening, and the Eleven (well, ten because Thomas was missing) were hiding, fearing for their lives.

It’s then that Jesus suddenly appears before them.  His appearance frightens them, for they think they see a ghost.  So Jesus shows them His hands and side.  He’s showing them that He’s not a ghost.  But He’s also showing that He has answered for all their sins.  For that’s what Jesus’ crucifixion wounds tell us.

And so it’s then that Jesus switches gears and tells them how they are to deliver His forgiveness to others.  For Jesus’ forgiveness on the cross does no good if it isn’t distributed and others don’t receive it.  It’s then that Jesus gives His Apostles another mandate.  And this is also to continue until Jesus returns on the Last Day.

Jesus tells His Apostles, “As the Father has apostled me, so also am I sending you.”  Then He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain them, they are retained.”

The Apostles received Jesus’ words and breath, His Spirit.  For Jesus’ Spirit fills His words.  His words are alive with His Spirit, whose work is to deliver what the words say.  The words that our Lord gives them to say are His lively words that go into the Apostles’ ears.  From there, they come out of the Apostles’ mouths–but they are Jesus’ words.  Jesus simply uses their mouths to speak them.

That’s what the Small Catechism teaches.  It reads:

When the called ministers of Christ use the keys according to His divine command–by absolving those who repent of their sins and are willing to change, or by excluding those who are openly unrepentant from the Christian congregation–it is just as valid and certain in heaven as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.

The tasks Jesus gave to His Apostles were to continue until He returns on the Last Day.  That’s why the Apostles, the Church’s first pastors, ordained others into the Pastoral Office.  We see this taking place in the New Testament when Paul told Pastor Timothy to ordain others, but also warning him not to be hasty or haphazardly doing so (1 Timothy 5:22).  We also see pastors co-author some of the Epistles, such Paul and Timothy for 2nd Corinthians, or Paul, Silas, and Timothy for 1st Thessalonians.

Our Lord’s gifts come to us from outside ourselves.  Baptism is that way.  So is absolution.  The Lord’s Supper is that way.  So also is the preached Word, the sermon.  But they also come to us from outside ourselves in more than one way.

First comes the gift of forgiveness itself.  Think about the Lord’s Supper?  That’s our Lord’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.  That comes from outside us.  Ah, but how is it given to us?  That’s also outside us.  It’s given to us through those put in place to do so: pastors called and ordained for such tasks.  That’s how Jesus chooses to do it.  For everything Jesus gives pastors to do originates from His words to His Apostles, not words that Jesus spoke to everyone in general.

Now why does that even matter?  It matters because it shows to us that when we receive our Lord’s gifts, they come to us from outside ourselves.  That strips away the idea that you somehow have something within you to cause Jesus to forgive you.  Jesus forgives you because of who He is–not because of who you are.

That’s why Jesus set it up that way, so His forgiveness would come to you from outside yourself.  God’s forgiveness always comes to you that way–outside yourself.  And Jesus even makes that clearer by the way He set up for you to receive His forgiveness.  For that also comes to you from outside yourself.

It all makes sense.  After all, the Church isn’t ours, but Christ’s.  We do not run the Church.  He does.  And so we are sure of that when what Jesus commanded the Church’s first pastors to do is still taking place.

And that’s comforting.  For then we know that baptism does what our Lord says it does when it is carried out according to His words and institution.  We are sure of the Lord’s Supper when it is carried out according to our Lord’s words and institution.  So also absolution.  So also the sermon.

That’s why our Lutheran Confessions boldly state: “The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught [or preached] and the Sacraments are correctly administered” (AC, VII, 1).  You have the Church where Jesus, the Word of God and what He did and does to save us, is preached.  But it is also more than that: the Church is also where you receive the Word Himself, Jesus, in His body and blood.  To be Church, you must have both Word and Sacrament, for that is how you get the fullness of Christ.

In Christ’s Church, pastors come and pastors go.  Each has his set of personal gifts; no pastor has them all.  But don’t love a pastor simply because you may like him.  Love a pastor because he is faithful in preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments.  For Christ puts a man into the Pastoral Office to be faithful, faithful in giving out God’s Means of Grace.

That’s why I could forgive your sins at the beginning of the service.  I’m allowed to do that because Jesus tells me to do that.  After all, you had just confessed your sins.  And I’m going by what you just told me, for I can’t look into your heart.  And you just told me how you had failed to meet God’s expectations of you.  That’s repentance.

Now, those words of confession are printed.  But if you’re honest, you also know those words are true.  And because you voiced them, I spoke God’s forgiveness to you, made real because of His Son, Jesus Christ.

But there’s also a harsh side to what Jesus has given us pastors to do.  It’s the retaining of sins.  For if there’s forgiveness of sins, then there’s also the retaining of sins.  For our Lord’s words cut both ways.  But what does it mean to have your sins retained?  That’s when I speak to you that your sins are still with you (for forgiveness is when God sends your sins away from you and they are no longer stuck to you).

Now why would I as a pastor retain sins when God calls me to be about the forgiveness of sins?  It’s because I am about the forgiveness of sins.  For if you are choosing deliberately to sin in some way and don’t care that you are going against God’s will, then you have fallen away from the faith.  As Scripture warns, “So, whoever thinks he is standing firmly should be careful so he doesn’t fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Now, most people won’t say that they’ve left the faith.  After all, we want our cake and we want to eat it, too.  Even more, we’ve spent our whole lives learning how to rationalize our sins.  And so Jesus says, “No!”  He does not forgive sins so you can deliberately choose to wallow in them.  When that happens, someone outside of you is to tell you.

Why outside of you?  It’s because you won’t tell yourself that, that’s why.  For you’ve convinced yourself that some sin is no big deal–when it is!  In such a case, I then retain your sins.  Why?  So you may know that your willful sinning, unbelief being lived out in such a way, has taken you outside the umbrella of God’s grace.  And this all has a God-ordained purpose: to bring you to repent and live in, not outside of, God’s forgiveness.

These are hard tasks, especially to do faithfully, especially when many will simply become angry, call you various names, and not repent.  They’ll simply go to another church.  But when such words come from outside of you, from those God has placed in His Church to speak them, you may be all the more certain that they are true.

So now delight in these words: Always live in the grace and light of our Lord’s forgiveness.  For in His forgiveness, eternal life and salvation are yours.  And that’s true because Christ is risen.  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  Amen.