Question: I need an answer for the following question: On September 26 my pastor gave a message titled "The Power to Forgive." I detected a strong reference that as a Christian I had the power to forgive those who had sinned directly against God (i.e., blasphemy). I got the CD of the message and listened to it twice, which verified my concern.
His message was based on several scriptures: Matthew:9:2-8, Mark:2:1-22 and Luke:5:17-26....My main problem, however, was John:20:21-23: "And Jesus said unto 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 saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained."
Here are some statements that my pastor made: "The purpose of us having the Holy Spirit is to forgive sin. We have been given the authority to say: 'I wipe that from the record.' [And] Jesus said: You are my representation. You have my spirit to forgive sins." The problem is that while being completely convinced that we have the power and the Christian obligation to forgive one another's sin towards each other, (Colossians 3:12-15), does that power include the ability to forgiving sins against the Holy Spirit? This is one of the problems that I have had concerning the priest in the Catholic Church.
Response: We share your concerns. In Mark:2:1-22 and the parallel accounts in Luke and Matthew, the Scriptures tells us: "Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? who can forgive sins but God only?" (Mark:2:7).
This is a rhetorical question with an obvious answer: Only God has the power to forgive sins. Sins are committed against the Lord. Though we may sin against others, our primary sin is against God first, who has revealed how we are to treat one another.
In Psalm:51:4, David wrote that although his sin was against another person, it was ultimately against God: "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight." Since sin is against God—because we have broken His laws—then it can only be forgiven by Him. Our forgiving someone for sinning against us, which God commands, does nothing to remove that sin. The only full payment for sin is that which Christ accomplished on the Cross, with the result that: "As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgression from us" (Psalm:103:12).
In Mark:2:8-10, we read, "And immediately when Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, he said unto them, Why reason ye these things in your hearts? Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy)."
The deity of Jesus was often in question by Israel's religious leaders. Jesus bluntly told them that His act of healing was so "ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins" (v. 10). Jesus didn't deny that only God had the power to forgive sins. The point was that He, as the "Son of man," also had that power. Simply put, Jesus is God. These exchanges happen throughout the Gospels (John:10:30-39, for example).
John:20:21-23 is given as support for the idea that we can forgive sins. It is also used as a "proof text" for Catholics to support their teaching that Christ instituted the power for "priests" to "sacramentally forgive" sins in His stead.
One must read one's own presuppositions into these verses to support this idea or the idea that believers forgive sins. Furthermore, the Lord Jesus says nothing about passing such a supposed authority on to a select group of individuals like Catholic priests. In fact, the Scriptures are consistent in testimony that only God can forgive sins (Luke:5:21). Finally, our mission is to preach the gospel. The message of the gospel is what makes it possible for someone to have his sins forgiven. Our proclaiming it is the only way that we play a role in the forgiveness of sins.
The Lord Jesus assured them that "he [everyone] that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father" (John:14:12).
In conclusion, it is a great presumption to say that we have been given the power of God to forgive sins. Our proclamation of the gospel to the unsaved and their receiving the same is what leads them to repentance, which brings forgiveness from the God of the Universe against whom they have willfully sinned.