“’Peace be with 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, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.’” John 20:21-23
I grew up in a tradition that took this verse to mean that there were some men who had the authority to forgive sins on this earth. The truth is that only God can forgive sins, but He has placed the authority to give the conditions of forgiveness to His people. This is John’s version of the great commission. Jesus is sending them out to preach the gospel which at its core is about forgiveness that God has made possible. The church has the authority to assure those who meet God’s conditions that they are forgiven, and the responsibility of being careful not to promise forgiveness when those conditions are not met.
The first condition is faith in Christ. The idea that I must be forgiven because God is a “forgiving God” is false. God is loving, and God is just, and in His love He sent His only begotten Son to pay the penalty His justice required, so that anyone who believed in Jesus would not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) There is no forgiveness outside of Christ, only justice for our sins.
The second condition for forgiveness is repentance. In the exact scene of our text above Luke records a more expansive version of what Jesus said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:46-48) The church has no authority to offer forgiveness without repentance which means both a confession and a turning away from sins committed.
In the tradition I grew up in I was regularly told my sins were forgiven when in fact, they weren’t. I was living for myself and adding a little religion; that is not repentance. If we don’t repent and live for God, it doesn’t matter how much religion we add to our lives, we won’t be saved in the end.
Does God want us to live in fear? Absolutely not! It’s His good pleasure to give us the kingdom. We just need to treat our forgiveness as something precious to be protected by a life that honors God, and not trampled on by a life that presumes that God has to forgive.