John 20:22, 23.
J. A. Trench.
Article 50 of 55 from 'Truth for Believers' Volume 2.
The setting of the verses in relation to other truths in the passage is important. It is into the midst of the disciples, found together within closed doors for fear of the Jews, that the Lord Jesus came, that memorable first day of the week upon which He rose from the dead. He greets them with the peace He had made for them through the blood of the Cross, and shows them His pierced hands and His side. Then He sends them forth to carry that peace to others. Next he breathes on them and says, "Receive ye the Holy Spirit." This recalls to us the action of God with Adam in Eden, when He "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." Now, He who had ever given life to whom He would, stands forth as the "last Adam" in all the triumph of His work accomplished for the glory of God, to bring them into the possession of life in a new way, in which it never had existed before; namely, in a risen Christ, past every question of sin, death, the judgment of God, and the power of Satan. He breathes on them — not giving them the Spirit — they had still to wait for Him as the promise of the Father till the Day of Pentecost, as we know. It was the Holy Spirit as the power of life (as Rom. 8:2). For we must distinguish the Spirit as the power of "life in Christ Jesus," from the Spirit indwelling; though now that He has come, both are made good in fact to the believer at the same moment, that is, when he receives the Spirit. This was the more abundant life of which the Lord spoke in John 10:10, "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" — a life of peace and liberty and power then, and of conscious association with Christ in the position and relationships into which He has entered as Man risen from the dead.
There is nothing official in all this. It brings before us so blessedly the individual Christian position, which is true of all who are in Christ. It is the same in the following verse, which is our subject. Neither is it here the assembly of the two or three gathered to the Name of the Lord with authority to act as such. Here it is individual, and gives us the Lord's sanction for the testimony of the forgiveness of sins in His Name, and for following it up in the care of those who receive it; not leaving them in half-fledged condition, but seeking to lead them to peace, and to confession of the name of the Lord Jesus. When satisfied that there has been a true work of God in the soul, the servant of the Lord would receive them as Christians. This is called remitting, or putting away their sins. When all was in normal order, this would no doubt be done by baptising them. But if on the other hand there was doubt as to the reality of the profession, and fear that the conscience was not reached, the faithful servant would be careful not to own them as Christians, until the work of God should be more manifest in their souls. This would be retaining their sins.
What could be better calculated to give sobriety and seriousness to the workman, than to realise the importance the Lord thus attaches to dealing with souls? If in His grace He deigns to entrust His servants with a work so near to His own heart, and to sanction their acts — which, be it remembered, only affect the condition of souls in this world — this is totally different from pretending to confer or to withhold eternal forgiveness, which God alone can do.
The ordinary evangelical interpretation of it seems to fail through not recognising that there is such a company of the Lord's forgiven ones upon earth — the Church, or "Assembly" as it is really — amongst whom those who are reached by the individual labours of His servants can be introduced when there is proof of a real work of God wrought in their souls, and whose sins are thus remitted: with the opposite result in the case of those of whom there may still be the question whether there has been any true work of God in the conscience. They are not thus given the place of Christian recognition and fellowship, their sins being retained. Ordinary evangelicalism that leaves the soul uncertain as to its own relations with God till a supposed day of judgment (into which the Christian never shall come) leaves no room for this very important work in caring for souls by seeking to bring them on to Christian ground. Of course, all this has only to do with the present service of His people, and has nothing to do with the soul's eternal relations with God. This is what Romanism has imported so falsely into it, knowing nothing of a gospel that would bring the soul into present assured forgiveness with God, which is eternal; and assuming to do this by officialism, of which there is nothing in the passage, either here, where all is individual or in Matthew 18, where it is the Assembly of the two or three gathered to Christ's Name who are given authority to act In the same way. I may be used in blessing to someone, and baptise him, giving him my right hand of fellowship as a believer, but the Assembly may still have to be satisfied as to the proof of God's work in order to receive him into their midst. The first is John 20:23; the second is Matthew 18:18. They differ only in this that, in the last case, there is the presence of the Lord in the midst to guide the two or three in the exercise of the authority committed to them.