The Ministry of Forgiveness
The core of the Christian ministry is the forgiveness and retaining of sin. While puzzling to some; Jesus says as much in John 20:2 If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” These words seem odd. After all no one can forgive sin but God. Jesus is assuming here the authoritative role that the church plays in determining whether God has forgiven a sinner or not. Jesus is referring to the faithful exercise of the keys of the key (Matt. 16:29, 18:18). When the church according to the Word of God affirms that a person is forgiven, that person may be assured that his sins are not remembered because Christ speaks through the agency of churches’ ministry.
We see the apostles applying this teaching, for example, on the Day of Pentecost. Peter preached the gospel to those gathered. Many who heard urgently asked: “Brothers, what shall we do(?)” (Acts 2:37). Peter responded “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). Then those who believed and repented were baptized. Now when the apostles admitted these believers into the church through baptism, they were effectively declaring that God had forgiven their sins. The apostles did not forgive their sins, God did. However, they authoritatively declared those forgiveness of sins, because these folks evidenced real repentance. Conversely, if the apostles and the Elders judge that person is not repentant and withhold either baptism or the Lord’s Supper, then such is the ministry of retention (see Acts 18:5-6).
This shows the importance of the ministry in God’s administration of grace to sinners. It speaks to three types of conditions.
1. The independent Christian. This person judges himself to be a true believer but sees the church as incidental to the preaching of the word. In other words the church accompanies the Word but is not a major part of it. I have seen visitors leave right after the sermon ends. They want the Word but not the church. But Christ’s authorizing of the ministry means that it is not negligible and can be ignored only at great risk. Independent Christians how do you know you are forgiven if you ignore the church?
2. The tender Christian. Many believers are not assured of salvation because they have a vivid awareness of their remaining sins. Jesus gives the ministry to help with gaining assurance of salvation. He is effectively saying that when the church according to the word of God declares a person forgiven, Christ is giving that assurance. Doubting brother or sister, you are not to go it alone. Go to the Elders.
Calvin writes: “Nothing is more important to us, than to be able to believe firmly, that our sins do not come into remembrance before God. Since God employs the testimony of men to prove it, consciences will never yield to it, unless they perceive God himself speaking in their person.”
3. The hypocritical Christian. The church sometimes baptizes those who are or will eventually become hypocrites. Yes true believers struggle with sin and sometimes fall. The hypocrite, however, leads a double life of sin. This second life is who he or she really is. The hypocrite keeps his real life hidden from the elders. Such a person should not think that this ministry of assurance applies to him.
Yes the Elders can be in error. But this does not diminish the importance of the ministry of the keys. The ministry is Christ’s gift to his people. He works through it to bring salvation and the assurance thereof. Therefore, let us avail ourselves therefore of this good gift.