Who can forgive sins but God alone?

Jesus and the paralysed manWhen Jesus declared that a paralysed man’s sins were forgiven (Mark 2:5), some people were not happy:

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Mark 2:6-7 (NIV)

Their final question was of course intended as rhetorical: on their understanding, only God can forgive sins, and anyone else who claims to do so is blaspheming. But I want to look at it as a real question, one which came up while I was working on my post Cross or Resurrection 2: Greater than John the Baptist.

So what was Jesus’ response to the Jewish legal experts’ criticism? Well, he healed the paralysed man, but first he said that by doing so he would demonstrate, not that he was God, but that

the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.

Mark 2:10 (NIV)

Now as orthodox Christians we believe that Jesus was not only the Son of Man, the representative Human One, but also the Son of God, himself God and the third person of the Trinity. But it is interesting that Jesus did not suggest that this was why he was able to forgive sins.

The point is clarified in Jesus’ teaching after the Resurrection, when he breathed on his disciples and said to them:

Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.

John 20:22-23 (NIV)

In other words, the authority which Jesus already had to forgive sins has now been passed on to those who believe in him, to his continuing body on earth.

Similarly James wrote that as believers we should confess our sins to each other, not as a weekly ritual but when we have something specific to confess, and expect to be “healed” which surely includes being forgiven (James 5:16).

In churches within the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, including Anglican churches, only ordained priests can pronounce the absolution, which is generally presented and understood as the priest not forgiving sins but declaring that God has forgiven them. But in the biblical material it is the believer, not God, who forgives the sins, and there is no hint of a restriction to a special priestly caste.

So the answer to the question is not “Nobody except for the three persons of the Trinity”, but “Anyone to whom God has given authority to do so”. And he has given this authority not just to Jesus, and not just to a few selected priests, but to his whole new “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9) consisting of all Christian people.

0 thoughts on “Who can forgive sins but God alone?

  1. OK I said I might wade in here!

    I would certainly agree that Jesus is very clear; we can and should confess to each other (especially to those who we have sinned against?). We can then assure each other of the biblical truths of forgiveness (I John 1, Rom 8 etc).

    As discussed on the other post I do not feel this precludes a general confession and assurance in appropriate form as we gather for worship.

    As to who pronounces the assurance of forgiveness. I have no problem in principle with that coming from anyone. I note James writes of summoning the elders in Chapter 5, which suggests that there is a particular place for those entrusted with leadership . But Jesus words are clear, we are all called to share assurance. I wonder if confession and assurance of forgiveness is an area where we can bring into play the debate between the Regulative v Permissive principles. I have a strong leaning to the latter. So unless a practice is explicitly forbidden in, or implicitly inconsistent with, Scripture then I would normally consider it acceptable to follow it. There is a difference between unscriptural and non scriptural.

    So I do not see the CoE (and others) practice in public worship as forbidden. To the extent that such cionfessions are led by “Elders” broadly defined, it is implicit in James. I am as yet unconvinced about sacramental confession, though would gladly hear from someone with a current Catholic perspective on that before being dogmatic. Bear in mind that, perhaps influenced by the fact I grew up in a Baptist church but was saved via the CoE in my 20s, I do not hold a “Catholic” understanding of ordained ministry. I minister within an episcopal context as that is what we are, but when visting elsewhere I will gladly affirm and receive according to local practice.

    Sorry I have rambled. My 11 month old grand daughter has been on my lap and very interested in the computer. hopefully you can work out my drift.

  2. Thank you, Colin. You managed to be clear despite the distractions.

    I have no problem with the person leading the service making a declaration of forgiveness. My issue is more with this being restricted to priests, and not permitted to lay leaders who are otherwise authorised to lead the service. But then that is one aspect of the much broader issues I have with the catholic understanding of ordained ministry.

    I would argue that even under your permissive principle parts of the Anglican practice should not be permitted, because they are based on an unbiblical understanding of the status of Christians, as sinners begging for forgiveness rather than as saints, forgiven but not yet completely perfect.

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