If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. – John 20:23
This is a great authority given to God’s holy church, an authority which no one can fully understand. And yet our Lord’s words are clear, and no misunderstanding is warranted. For if Christ speaks any word, what He says must necessarily be true, especially here because the He stands over sin and death as its conqueror. If He says, “Your sins are forgiven,” they must be forgiven, and nothing can change this. If He says, “Your sins are not forgiven,” then no angel, no pope, no saint or any other creature can forgive your sin, even should you torture yourself and do many good works or much penance.
Jesus’ bestowing of this great authority is easily abused, however, when mere men do not understand the difference between authority bestowed and power taken. No one — no pastor, no parent, no pope, no prince — has the power to forgive sins merely by their status, position, or worldly influence. No pious minister of the Word can forgive anyone sins or retain forgiveness merely because he has a title before his name. For our salvation is not dependent on the power of man but on the power and promises of God.
Yet our Lord’s words are not nullified by our misunderstanding. He says, “If YOU forgive…If YOU retain,” which is parallel to His words in Matthew 18:18 and Matthew 16:19. Jesus, who has been given all authority over heaven and earth, bestows this authority to His whole church (Matthew 28:16-20) — first through His Apostles, and then through all who believe. Inasmuch as He has given His church the authority to preach the Gospel, administer the Sacraments, to draw sinners to repentance, to use His Word to teach, admonish, correct, discipline, and the like, so too has He given His church the authority to say, “I forgive you,” and “I do not forgive you,” in order to bring consolation to the weak and bring the erring to repentance. For as God graciously and lovingly gives “all things” to His church (1 Corinthians 3:21-23, Romans 8:32) and because of His death and resurrection we have died to sin and death and now Christ lives in and through us (Galatians 2:20) then it is also true that when we speak His words and promises, that it is He speaking through us because His Word is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). Thus, should a Christian say, “I forgive you,” or “I do not forgive you,” what we say by Christ’s command and authority is also what is done in heaven.
The church, in turn, affords the Pastor this authority — to speak “in the stead and by the command of Christ” (John 20:23). He preaches the Word, not by his own power, but by the authority bestowed to him by God and His Church. He calls sinners to repentance by the same authority. He absolves sinners by the same authority. He disciplines by the same authority. None of the pastor’s work or office is by his own merit or power, but it is all by the authority given him from above.
But let us not abuse this authority and thereby speak on our own behalf. Instead, let us use this authority as the Lord wills it, to bring comfort to the troubled soul and repentance to the erring so that all who belong to Him glorify Him, seek Him, and wait for Him until the Day when He returns.
Gracious Father, thank You for bestowing such great authority to Your holy Church, that what we loose or bind on earth is loosed or bound in heaven. Thank You for giving us all things in Christ and most especially for giving us Christ Jesus. Keep us from abusing His Word or lording over His forgiveness. Help us instead to use these powerful gifts for the good of others and the edification of Your church. In His name, amen.