About Jesus Steve Sweetman
Is Pronouncing Forgiveness On God's Behalf Too Catholic For Protestant Evangelicals?
In John 20:23 Jesus said, "if you forgive anyone their sins, they shall be forgiven". I think that Protestant Evangelicals have watered down the meaning of Jesus' words as stated by John. As a youth in an Evangelical church I was told this verse meant that I should forgive and love people who wronged me, even if they didn't want me to forgive them. I'm not convinced that is what Jesus was saying in John 20:23.
In Luke 17:3 Jesus also said, "if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him". Jesus is saying that one must repent in order to receive God's forgiveness. If there is no repentance, there is no forgiveness on God's part. If this isn't the case, then everyone would be automatically forgiven and on their way to Heaven because nothing needs to be done on their part. By the same logic, we cannot personally forgive the unrepentant brother even if we wanted to. This is why we are told to rebuke a sinning brother first. How we rebuke a brother is a topic for another day.
If we rebuke a sinning brother that leads him to repentance, we can extend forgiveness to him by pronouncing him forgiven by both us and God. This means more than saying, "I forgive you". It also means, "I forgive you on the behalf of God". We are acting in God's place as an agent in this pronouncement.
The key to forgiveness is repentance. We can only pronounce forgiveness of sin if the sinning brother repents, and not before. We can act lovingly towards the sinning brother and deal with our resentments against him, even if he doesn't repent. But don't confuse the issue. Acting lovingly and dealing with our resentments is not forgiving. Forgiving is canceling the debt of sin. We cannot cancel the debt of sin, either on a personal level, or on God's behalf to anyone who doesn't want his sin canceled. God doesn't do that, so how can we.
Let me say this another way. The word forgive applies to someone who owes a debt. For example, if someone owes you $100.00, you can "forgive him of the debt" by renouncing any claim to that debt. You tell the debtor that he no longer owes you the money. Dealing with your feelings of resentment because of the debt is not canceling the debt. Forgiveness is actually removing the debt. If the debtor does not want to give up the debt, then the forgiveness of the debt does not take place. By his own choice he is still under the burden of debt.
Another point to make clear is that any feelings like resentment resulting from a debt is a separate issue. Forgiveness is canceling the debt of sin. Dealing with resentment is something else and should not be confused with the actual act of forgiving. Whether the sin is canceled or not you still have to deal with resentment.
So do I sound like a Catholic? Maybe just a little bit. Catholics may or may not have a more accurate theology concerning forgiveness than Protestants, as long as repentance is part of the process. Where Catholic theology fails is when they say that only a priest can pronounce forgiveness of sin. In both Luke and John I believe Jesus is speaking to ordinary believers, not to priests. Besides the New Testament clearly teaches that we are all priests. Pronouncing forgiveness of sin to a repentant person on God's behalf is the responsibility of any ordinary believer. This is what the term "in the name of Jesus" means, that is, we act on the behalf of Jesus in everything we do. We are His representatives and therefore have the authority and responsibility to pronounce people forgiven in the name of Jesus when they repent.
So is pronouncing forgiveness of sin on God's behalf too Catholic for Protestant Evangelicals to believe in? It shouldn't be. The truth on this subject lies somewhere in between Catholic and Protestant thinking. Forgiveness of sin is more than personal forgiveness and letting go of resentments. It is more than saying "I forgive you". It is pronouncing, on God's behalf, that a repentant person is in fact forgiven by God and is no longer indebted to Him. As Jesus said in John 20:23, "if 'you' forgive anyone their sins, they shall be forgiven".