The Church’s Authority and Responsibility to Forgive Sins

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by Johnathan Arnold with David Fry

God alone forgives sins on the basis of Christ’s finished atonement. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. However, modern Protestants (especially evangelicals) have sometimes failed to wrestle seriously with what Christians throughout the ages (including the Protestant Reformers) have believed from Scripture about the role of the church to represent Christ in forgiving or withholding the forgiveness of sins: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23). There is a logic to the Apostles Creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit: the holy catholic church: the communion of saints: the forgiveness of sins.” The Holy Spirit ordinarily applies the forgiveness of sins through the church.

An Illustration

When my now-wife Lexi and I were dating and wanted to tie the knot, we approached my grandpa: “Will you marry us?” As an ordained minister, my grandpa had the authority to marry us or to withhold marriage from us. I don’t recall exactly what he said on our wedding day, but it could have been something like this: “By the power vested in me by the State of Pennsylvania, I now pronounce you man and wife.” His signature is on our marriage license.

Of course, at the end of the day, it was the State of PA that determined whether or not Lexi and I were truly married. If we had failed to file the marriage license, or if Lexi had been already secretly married to someone else (gasp!), then my grandpa’s authority would have been overridden. Nevertheless, if someone asked me, “How do you know that you are really married?” I would probably say, “My grandpa Arnold married us.” I am confident that what my grandpa bound at a church in Schaefferstown, PA on May 12, 2017 was bound in the State of Pennsylvania.

The Illustration Explained

This is similar to what happens when someone wants to be forgiven of their sins. The commands to repent/believe and to be baptized by/into the church are not separated in Scripture. Peter is clear on how sinners should respond to the gospel: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Jesus taught, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk. 16:16). The church is the people brought safely through the waters of baptism (1 Pet. 3:20), even as the remnant in the ark was saved by passing through the flood waters (1 Pet. 3:20-21), and God’s enslaved people were delivered through baptism in the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:2). Those who want to be saved should certainly pray to the Father through Christ for forgiveness, but they should also approach the church and ask, “Will you baptize me?” As the body of Christ, the church has authority to represent Christ in forgiving sins or withholding the forgiveness of sins (Jn. 20:23). By baptizing someone, the church essentially says, “By the power vested in us by the Head of the Church, we pronounce you a saved one (one who is baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit).” As long as the church is faithfully exercising the office of the keys (Mt. 16:18–19; 18:18–20), what is bound on earth is bound in heaven.

By baptizing someone, the church essentially says, “By the power vested in us by the Head of the Church, we pronounce you a saved one.”

Of course, at the end of the day, it is God who determines whether or not someone has been truly forgiven (Mk. 2:7; Lk. 5:21). If someone has failed to trust in Christ from the heart, or if they have been secretly married to sin, then the body’s authority is overridden by the Head of the body (Mt. 13:30). Paul warns baptized Christians in 1 Corinthians 10:1–5 that many Israelites displeased God and perished in the wilderness despite their Red Sea baptism. Nevertheless, if someone asks, “How do you know that you are saved?” my answer will include, “My former pastor Jacob Martin (on behalf of the whole church where I attended) baptized me, I left that church on good terms, and I am a member in good standing with the church where I currently attend.” I am confident that what the church bound in the Susquehanna River was bound in heaven.

My right relationship with the body continues to be a vital source of assurance in my relationship with the Head of the body. The one who claims to love Jesus but not his church is a liar (1 Jn. 3:14); the one who goes out from the body of Christ is not of Christ (1 Jn. 2:19); the one who is put out of the church is consigned to the synagogue of Satan (1 Cor. 5:12). Sadly, many have been taught to think of forgiveness as something strictly between them and Jesus instead of them and Jesus and the body of Jesus. Therefore they lack the assurance of sins forgiven that comes from formally belonging to the church.

The Office of the Keys

After breathing the Holy Spirit on his apostles, Jesus said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:23). John 20:23 is best understood alongside other passages such as Matthew 18, where Jesus instructs his apostles to excommunicate a member of the church who sins but refuses to submit to church discipline: “if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Mt. 18:17; cf. 1 Cor. 5:5, 7, 11, 13). Then, he assures them,

18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

The language of binding and loosing refers back to Matthew 16:18–19, when Jesus tells the apostle Peter,

18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

In these passages (especially Matthew 18:17), binding and loosing is connected to exclusion from the body. The most concrete way that the church excludes an unrepentant and incorrigible sinner from the body is by excluding them from the bread of the Eucharist, for as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:17, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body.” By excluding them from the body, the church also exercises its John 20:23 authority to exclude them from the forgiveness which is offered in the cup: “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28). Paul asks, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). By excluding someone from the cup and the bread, the church declares that the obdurate and impenitent sinner is not a participant in Christ—not forgiven (Jn. 20:23). Ex-commun-ication literally means exclusion from communion.

By excluding someone from the cup and the bread, the church declares that the obdurate and impenitent sinner is not a participant in Christ—not forgiven.

If binding and loosing is connected to exclusion from the body, it is by implication connected to inclusion in the body, which happens through baptism. When a person is baptized by the church, into the church, that person is extended forgiveness from the church and brought into its membership (Acts 2:38, 41). The forgiven members of the “one body” of Christ are marked off from the world by “one baptism” (Eph. 4:4, 5). In his “Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed,” Augustine teaches the church’s historic consensus that baptism is the first and primary means by which the church forgives sins (16).

The Nicene Creed expands on the Apostles’ Creed, making the link between the church and forgiveness even more explicit: “I believe one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.” Baptism is the primary action by which the apostolic church exercises the authority which Christ first gave to the apostles to forgive sins (John 20:23; Mt. 18:18–20; 16:18–19). Note carefully that the authority to forgive sins or to withhold the forgiveness of sins has not been invested in any one person or group of persons. The church bears this authority and exercises it corporately (Mt. 18:17).

Baptism is the primary action by which the apostolic church exercises the authority which Christ first gave to the apostles to forgive sins.

Protestants have never simply believed, “I can go straight to Jesus, so I don’t have to go to a priest”; they have believed that the priesthood is shared by the whole church (1 Pet. 2:5), so we must confess our sins to one another (Jas. 5:16), submit to church discipline and restoration (Mt. 18; Gal. 6:1), and seek the church’s forgiveness (John 20:23), most concretely through the sacraments. It is primarily through baptism and the Eucharist, Protestants and Roman Catholics have agreed, that the church exercises the office of the keys. This is one reason why the right administration of the sacraments is one of two marks in the consensual Protestant definition of the church (Augsburg Confession 7; Articles of Religion 19; Belgic Confession 29; Compendium of Christian Theology).

A Call to Take Responsibility

Sadly, many churches which claim to be serious about holiness are neglecting one of the most basic, biblical ways in which the church is set apart from the world: by drawing a clear line around its membership via careful exercise of the keys through the sacraments. As church leaders, we will answer to God if we are careless in this matter.

Ultimately, God will separate the tares from the wheat; ordinarily, no one is saved outside the visible church.

The church has a solemn responsibility to carefully, prayerfully, lovingly, and corporately exercise the office of the keys. Ultimately, God will separate the tares from the wheat; ordinarily, no one is saved outside the visible church. Cyprian’s maxim, “Outside the church there is no salvation,” (Letter 72.21; Latin, extra ecclesiam nulla salus; cf. The Unity of the Catholic Church 6), has been affirmed in one form or another by Protestants and Catholics alike. Calvin, following Augustine, wrote, “To those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother.” (Institutes 4.1.1; cf. 4.1.4; Augustine, A Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed 1). Luther preached, “Outside of the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation” (“Sermon for the Early Christmas Service” 27). The Westminster Confession of Faith affirms, “The visible Church … [is] the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2).

Our work is weighty, but Jesus has given us the promise of his presence and authority. When two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus for the purpose of church discipline (the original context of Mt. 18:20), Christ is with them. Being gathered in Christ’s name includes having his attitude and motives: the loving restoration of the sinning believer. Even in cases of excommunication, the goal is final salvation: “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). In obedience to Christ and love for his church, let us embrace with trembling our authority and responsibility to forgive sins.

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.