In Matthew 9:6 it is said that only “the Son of Man has the authority on earth to forgive sins.” But in Matthew 16:19 Jesus says that he will “give the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven” to Peter. And, he adds, “Whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.”
How do we sort out what seems like a contradiction? Either Jesus does, or does not, have all authority in these matters of grace and forgiveness. My Catholic friends believe that he gave this authority to Peter, and then through his leadership to the apostles. Through these bishops this power was passed along through the Catholic church as the sacramental body of Christ. This is one of those areas where I profoundly disagree with my brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church but my disagreement is often one of nuance more than irreconcilable doctrinal differences.
The ambassadors of Christ are given the power to proclaim the transcendent Word of God; yet in and by themselves they are totally incapable of this task. Similarly, these Spirit-given ambassadors are given the authority to actually forgive sins; i.e. to bind and to loose. But apart from the gospel and the Holy Spirit they are completely unable to bind and loose. So far I think most Christians would agree.
But Christ tells his disciples that they have the authority to forgive sins (John 20:23). He means that they will be enabled through the power of his Holy Spirit to utter his Word of forgiveness with his power. But this power and possibility are never their own in themselves. It becomes their possession only when the Spirit grants them illumination and moves them to declare God’s Word with Spirit-anointed power. Learning how to do this, in a mechanical and perfunctory way, simply will not do.
We thus conclude that in one sense only Christ can forgive sins, just as only Christ can proclaim the gospel with saving grace and power. My Catholic friends are prone to forget this in the midst of their sacramental wonder regarding their church. But evangelicals are just as prone to forget that the gospel and God’s forgiveness is granted on the basis of God-sent ambassadors being used by the Spirit as his ministers and priests.
Let me put this another way. A confessor has the power to convey the forgiveness of Christ; but he has no power to create forgiveness. Both Catholics and evangelicals could actually agree on this point but I am not holding my breath at the present moment.
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That’s why I am Anglican!
I am trying to nuance this matter with you John.
On the one hand, I do think of the Church, being the body of Christ, as the reality that extends Jesus’ incarnate ministry into the world, a ministry in which Jesus clearly demonstrated his authority to forgive sins. On the other hand, the Church does not receive this authority as an autonomous spiritual deposit that it can just mete out as it sees fit. This authority is intimately bound to the resurrected Jesus, who continues to be present in the Church through the Spirit, and I think we can say that this authority functions when the Church bears holistic witness to the work God has done in Jesus.
In having just written the above, I suppose the last part sounds very Protestant. So, I am feeling a bit unbalanced and I want to provide a corrective. To do so, I will focus on the word holistic. We bear holistic witness to the work of God in Christ through the whole of the Church’s liturgical life at the heart of which is proclamation through word and sacrament.
Okay, I am still not satisfied, but that’s enough for now.
Oh, and by the way, that is why I too am Anglican.