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.