The Forgiveness of Sins by the Church.

When the forgiveness of sins by the Church is spoken of some get alarmed, and think it is Popery. They say, Who can forgive sins, but God only?"

Now in a sense no doubt this is true. Eternal forgiveness belongs only to God. And in one very real sense all sins are against Him, and against Him only, as David said by the Spirit (Ps. 51:4); and who but He can forgive them? And here I would wish to say a word about the Christian doctrine of the forgiveness of sins. This is set forth in the epistle to the Hebrews, in the entire putting away from God's memory of all the believer's sins. Whether past, present, or future is not the question; all are gone. "Their sins and iniquities will I remember no more." (Heb. 10:17.) The judicial ground of this is the sacrifice of the cross, where all were expiated. The Jew knew forgiveness in a sense. The sin he had committed was forgiven when the appointed victim was brought and offered. Not that the blood of bulls and goats could ever take away sin; but it was the picture of one whose conscience was cleansed up to a certain date, not purged for ever. Now Christians are apt to get a thought of forgiveness like this, and to run in their minds to the blood for fresh cleansing from fresh sins. The truth is, that the cross has already answered for that fresh sin. The moral character of the sin is aggravated by the fact that it is done against the Holy One, who has died that it might not be imputed. Now although sins are never imputed to the believer, yet sin interrupts communion with the Father, and the one who sins has to be restored in his soul. How is this done? Not by faith in the blood, but by his confession, as far as he is concerned. The confession is the fruit of Christ's advocacy on high, and the action of the Word on the conscience of the sinner. But the moral ground on which such a person is restored to communion is his repentance and confession, on which his sin is forgiven. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9.)

But besides divine forgiveness, Scripture distinctly recognizes, a forgiveness which is vested in the hands of men while Christ is away in heaven. A Scripture which plainly shows this is John 20:23: "Whose soever, sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained." All mast. admit, therefore, that there was once a company on earth who, having received the Holy Spirit, were empowered by the Lord Jesus to forgive or retain sins. But it is said, "That was apostolic." Let us admit it for the moment, the fact remains that it was men who acted thus. No doubt they acted for God, but still men remitted sins. But if we look at the chapter we see that there is no ground for saying it was apostolic. It says the disciples were assembled, not apostles. And that disciples in these last chapters of John does not mean exclusively apostles John 21:2 shows; for there Nathaniel is said to be one of the disciples, and we know he was not an apostle.

The only Scriptures I know for saying that the forgiveness of sins was apostolic are Matt. 16 and 2 Cor. 2. In the first we find the Lord giving to Peter authority to bind and loose on earth, and stating that it would be ratified in heaven. But this authority is not given to the apostles as such, but to Peter in particular. Then in 2 Cor. 2 we find Paul saying that he has forgiven on behalf of the assembly at Corinth. It appears that he had anticipated the action of the Church towards the wicked person whom, in the first epistle, he had directed the assembly to put out. But this apostolic forgiveness was not independent of the assembly (" for your sakes forgive I it "), nor did it render Church forgiveness needless; for he says of this person, "Ye ought to forgive him." (v. 7.) We do not, I think, know of any other apostles binding or loosing sins.

But whatever the apostolic power was, it is not of practical importance to us now, for the apostles have gone. The Church however remains; and we have to see what scriptures authorize the Church or assembly to remit sins. The first is Matt. 18:18-20. At the time the Lord Jesus uttered these words the Church was a future thing; for in Matt. 16 the Lord speaks of it as a building which He would build. The constitution of the Church is described in verse 20 - two or three gathered to His name, and Himself with them in their midst. Now it is in direct connection with such a gathering that the Lord says, "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Thus the power that was given to Peter in chap. 16 was given to the Church in chap. 18. Peter has passed away, but the assembly remains, and the Lord is with those gathered to His name. And it is His presence and word which gives authority to their acts. We must notice that the Lord does not say that those so gathered are infallible in acting, but that they have authority. Their acts are ratified in heaven.

The next Scripture we come to is John 20. Here we find the power of remitting sins given to a company of men. This company is characterized by two things - first, that they stand in the known place of an accomplished redemption; and, secondly, that they possess the Holy Spirit. Now there is such a company, through grace, still on earth, and it is the Church. These people are called in John 15 disciples, and these characteristics are those of all who are such, and are not in any sense peculiar to apostles and elders, or pastors or teachers.

If now we turn to find in the historical record illustrations of the exercise of this power of forgiving and retaining sins, we have a distinct case in the epistle to the Corinthians. In the first epistle we read that there was a wicked person in the assembly; and the saints are commanded to put him away from amongst themselves. He was put outside, and he was there among the unrighteous, not now recognized as a saint, but as a wicked person. "His sin was retained." Then grace worked in his soul, and he repented. The assembly, which had been slow to judge him, was now slow to forgive him; and their slackness becomes the occasion of the apostle's word in 2 Cor. 2, "Ye ought rather to forgive him, and to comfort him." Here we see an assembly forgiving sins. This clearly has nothing to do with the eternal forgiveness of Heb. 10, which no sin in the saints can, thank God, disturb. Nor does it have anything to do with the restoration of the soul to communion with the Father. (1 John 1) But it has to do with bringing back the erring one into the communion of the saints on earth. He has been put out as a fornicator, and now he was forgiven; and he was no longer recognized as a wicked person, but as a saint - one of "ours." His sin was gone from the mind of the assembly by the act of the assembly. It is interesting to notice that the word used here is, freely or heartily forgiven,* the same as in Ephesians. Does not this speak of the perfect restoration of the poor sinner back amongst the company of those who themselves are but blood-washed sinners.

* charizomai. The ordinary word translated forgive or remit is aphiemi.

Now we see from this case at Corinth that in every act of restoration, as we commonly call it, there is the thought of the forgiveness of the sin for which the person has been put away. Restoration, in our ordinary sense, means that the assembly forgives the sin and receives back into its midst the repentant saint. In Scripture the word "restoration" is not used in this sense. We find it in Gal. 6:1. The spiritual saints are told to restore in a spirit of meekness a man who is overtaken in some offence. They are to bring him back into communion with God, and into happy working with the saints. This, I believe, is the force of the word (katartizo) here used. It is a word applied to mending nets. (Matt. 4:21.) The broken ends are joined and restored to their proper place and function in the whole. So with the failing saint as a member of the body of Christ. Excommunication is severance from that which on earth expresses the body of Christ. The one who has been "put out" needs to be brought in again, not merely readjusted, so to speak.

Finally we may notice that the thought of human forgiveness is really familiar to us all, and owned of God in the common relationships of life. "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him." (Luke 17:3.) So, on the other hand, if I sin against my brother, I am bound to obtain his forgiveness; it is a point of godliness to do so. (Matt. 5:24.) The case stands, I believe, thus: First, if I have sinned against God only, I have to confess to Him and be forgiven, and He also practically cleanses in grace. Second, if my sin has been also against my brother, I must confess to him, and get his forgiveness, as well as confessing to God. Third, if my sin has been of such a character that it has been open wickedness, and brought what Scripture calls "leaven" into the loaf or assembly, I must get the forgiveness of the assembly as well as God's forgiveness. Discipline and excommunication most commonly precede this forgiveness by the assembly, and are the means used of God to produce that true self-judgment upon which forgiveness both from the Lord and His people depends. This we see strikingly illustrated in the case at Corinth. (Compare 1 Cor. 5 and 2 Cor. 2) But there is no reason why repentance should not precede excommunication, in which case forgiveness might be granted without the putting away of the one who has sinned and repented.*

C. D. Maynard.

*The doctrine of this paper will scarcely be disputed; but there might be a difference of judgment as to the mode in which "administrative" forgiveness should be exercised. While the authority may indeed be vested in, and exercised in humility by, those gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the assertion, or the proclamation of the possession of the authority, in the broken condition of the Church, might well raise many solemn questions. - [ED.]