This week, at Prince of Peace, we’ll be looking at John 20:19-23. And one of the things that stand out in this passage is the call that Jesus places on his followers. He tells them that, as the Father has sent him, so is he sending them. He then says, in verse 23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
This is what, in the Lutheran Church, we refer to as the Office of the Keys, which is drawn from a similar statement that Jesus makes in Mathew 16. It’s a troubling statement for many of us because we don’t believe that man has any power to forgive sins. And we really struggle with the thought that we have the authority to retain the sins of another.
However, Jesus isn’t saying that we can arbitrarily forgive or retain the sins of men. It’s not a decision we can make by our own authority. This is something we do according to his Word and under his authority.
We cannot forgive the sins of anyone that Jesus would not forgive. Nor can we retain the sins of one whom Jesus has forgiven. Jesus uses us to proclaim his gospel. He uses us to announce the forgiveness of those who repent and trust in him. And he uses us to warn those who are unrepentant and who fail to believe in him.
This ties in with a practice that has been largely lost in the church today. The practice to which I’m referring is confession. And the reason it’s been gradually lost is because of the abuses associated with it.
The practice of confession in the Catholic Church is often tied together with acts of penance. This has been shied away from because it promotes the belief that we can do something to earn the forgiveness of our sin. And we know from Scripture that God’s grace is a free gift received by faith.
However, even though there have certainly been abuses of confession over the years, this doesn’t mean that we should throw out the baby with the bath water. Confession, in itself, is a good thing. It’s even a Scriptural thing.
We can see this, for example, in James 5: 14-16: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
In the context of prayer, James calls on us to confess our sins to one another. He then reassures us that, if we have committed sins, we will be forgiven. And, in addition to this, he encourages us to pray for one another that we might be healed.
This is a struggle for most of us. It’s a struggle because we don’t want to admit our sins to others. We’ll make a general confession of our sin during worship. We’ll admit to the fact that we are indeed a sinner. But we don’t like to get specific. Instead, we like to put on a façade. We try to convince people that we’re good and that we have no struggles.
We fear that, if we reveal our weakness, others will look down on us. We fear that, if our brothers and sisters in the church know our sin, they’ll reject us. They’ll look down their nose at us because we’re not as godly as they seem to be.
We fail to realize that this mindset actually undermines the gospel. After all, the Church isn’t for those who are perfect. If this were the case, none of us would belong. It’s a place for sinners. It’s a place for those who recognize their sin and their need for the grace of God. Remember the words of Jesus, in Luke 5:31-32: "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."
I don’t know about you, but I’m in need of a physician. I am not well. I need Jesus. This is why I’m a part of the church.
For this reason, we can feel free to confess our sins to one another. We don’t need to share them from the microphone. But we can feel free to sit down with our brother and share with him our failures. Knowing that we’ve come in faith, and knowing that we’re seeking mercy, he can then offer us the reassurance of the gospel. He can announce to us that our sins have indeed been forgiven.