The other day I had one of those light bulb moments, when something you’ve wondered about and puzzled over for years suddenly resolves itself and comes into sharp focus. I thought I’d share it with you today.

John 20:23 is one of the numerous strange, hard-to-understand sayings of Jesus:

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

I’ve never heard or figured out a satisfactory explanation of what Jesus meant here.

Now, consider this:

“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19)

This verse appears to say that in Christ, God was reconciling the whole world to himself. Think about that for a moment. God was not merely reconciling to himself the appropriately penitent, the sufficiently religious or the adequately enlightened. He was not only reconciling those who have prayed the sinner’s prayer and filled in a church membership form. He was reconciling the whole world to himself. If that doesn’t mean you, me and everybody else, then what does it mean?

The above verse goes on to say that not only was God reconciling the whole world to himself; he was not counting their trespasses (i.e. their sins) against them. If this means what it appears to mean, there are huge implications: namely, there is nothing left for God to forgive! If God in Christ has already decided that our sins are no longer counted against us, this means that sin is no longer an issue to God. He has dealt with it, done and dusted, once and for all, finito, tetelestai!

(For those of a nervous theological disposition, and to avoid being immediately branded a heretic, let me insert a couple of disclaimers at this point:

1. I’m not saying there’s no need for repentance. What I’m saying is that from God’s side, the work of forgiveness and reconciliation is done. If there are any remaining barriers between ourselves and God, they are barriers that we erect and maintain. All that’s left for us to do is accept the gracious gift of forgiveness that God freely offers.

2. Nor am I saying that sin doesn’t matter. What I’m suggesting is that sin is not an obstacle from God’s perspective. Here’s how one of my favourite theologians, the late Robert Farrar Capon, put it:

“[No one can] take grace too far. That is, not unless he claims that sin doesn’t matter. If he claims that, he’s abusing grace, because sin does matter. It matters to me, the sinner. It matters whether I leave myself stuck in it.

Suppose a mother has a kid who comes in all muddy. She just washes off the mud. She loves her child and doesn’t wait to see whether the kid decides if he wants to live with mud all over him. She just washes it off. And if she is a faithful, true mother, she will continually take that mud into herself and say, ‘Well, this is my son, and I will stick with him.'”

Here endeth the disclaimer.)

Now, back to our original hard-to-understand saying of Jesus in John 20:23. I always used to think that perhaps this verse meant that our forgiving someone would somehow “unlock” God’s forgiving them. But if God has already decided not to count anyone’s sins against them, how can that be so?

Let me suggest that if God, from his perspective, has already completed the work of forgiveness, all of a sudden this verse begins to take on a new meaning.  And so I am led to one conclusion…

The only forgiving that is left to be done is by us! The only “debt” of sin we still bear is the pain and sorrow we inflict upon each other through our misguided, broken ways. God has already forgiven us; all that remains is for us to accept that forgiveness and pass it on to others like the healing balm it is.

(Incidentally, this also explains why it was quite easy for Jesus to go around announcing the forgiveness of sins: he was simply proclaiming something the Father had already revealed to him as truth!)

Our sins don’t offend God: He’s already decided to cast them away as far as the east is from the west; they’re already buried in the unfathomably deep ocean of his infinite mercy. But our sins still have the capacity to hurt ourselves and each other. That’s why it’s up to us, not God, to release each other from the debt of sin. God has already forgiven us; now Jesus invites us to follow him in the way of forgiveness and to release one another from the captivity of sin and all the damage it entails.

Freely you have received, now freely give…

[ Image: Ross Griff ]