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23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”


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23. To all whose sins you shall remit. Here, unquestionably, our Lord has embraced, in a few words, the sum of the Gospel; for we must not separate this power of forgiving sins from the office of teaching, with which it is closely connected in this passage. Christ had said a little before, As the living Father hath sent me, so I also send you 207207     Our Author appears here to mingle two passages, John 6:57,
   As the Living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father

   and John 20:21, As the Father hath sent me, so I also send you. — Ed.
He now makes a declaration of what is intended and what is meant by this embassy, only he interwove with that declaration what was necessary, that he gave to them his Holy Spirit, in order that they might have nothing from themselves.

The principal design of preaching the Gospel is, that men may be reconciled to God, and this is accomplished by the unconditional pardon of sins; as Paul also informs us, when he calls the Gospel, on this account, the ministry of reconciliation, (2 Corinthians 5:18.) Many other things, undoubtedly, are contained in the Gospel, but the principal object which God intends to accomplish by it is, to receive men into favor by not imputing their sins. If, therefore, we wish to show that we are faithful ministers of the Gospel, we must give our most earnest attention to this subject; for the chief point of difference between the Gospel and heathen philosophy lies in this, that the Gospel makes the salvation of men to consist in the forgiveness of sins through free grace. This is the source of the other blessings which God bestows, such as, that God enlightens and regenerates us by his Spirit, that he forms us anew to his image, that he arms us with unshaken firmness against the world and Satan. Thus the whole doctrine of godliness, and the spiritual building of the Church, rests on this foundation, that God, having acquitted us from all sins, adopts us to be his children by free grace.

While Christ enjoins the Apostles to forgive sins, he does not convey to them what is peculiar to himself. It belongs to him to forgive sins. This honor, so far as it belongs peculiarly to himself, he does not surrender to the Apostles, but enjoins them, in his name, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, that through their agency he may reconcile men to God. In short, properly speaking, it is he alone who forgives sins through his apostles and ministers. 208208     “Par ses apostres et ministres.”

But it may be asked, Since he appoints them to be only the witnesses or heralds of this blessing, and not the authors of it, why does he extol their power in such lofty terms? I reply, he did so in order to confirm their faith. Nothing is of more importance to us, than to be able to believe firmly, that our sins do not come into remembrance before God. Zacharias, in his song, calls it the knowledge of salvation, (Luke 1:77;) and, 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. Paul accordingly says,

We exhort you to be reconciled to God, as if Christ besought you by us,
(2 Corinthians 5:20.)

We now see the reason why Christ employs such magnificent terms, to commend and adorn that ministry which he bestows and enjoins on the Apostles. It is, that believers may be fully convinced, that what they hear concerning the forgiveness of sins is ratified, and may not less highly value the reconciliation which is offered by the voice of men, than if God himself stretched out his hand from heaven. And the Church daily receives the most abundant benefit from this doctrine, when it perceives that her pastors are divinely ordained to be sureties for eternal salvation, and that it must not go to a distance to seek the forgiveness of sins, which is committed to their trust.

Nor ought we to esteem less highly this invaluable treasure, because it is exhibited in earthen vessels; but we have ground of thanksgiving to God, who hath conferred on men so high an honor, as to make them the ambassadors and deputies of God, and of his Son, in declaring the forgiveness of sins. There are fanatics who despise this embassy; but let us know, that, by doing so, they trample under foot the blood of Christ.

Most absurdly do the Papists, on the other hand, torture this passage, to support their magical absolutions. If any person do not confess his sins in the ear of the priest, he has no right, in their opinion, to expect forgiveness; for Christ intended that sins should be forgiven through the Apostles, and they cannot absolve without having examined the matter; therefore, confession is necessary. Such is their beautiful argument. 209209     “Voila leur bel argument.” But they fall into a strange blunder, when they pass by the most important point of the matter; namely, that this right was granted to the Apostles, in order to maintain the credit of the Gospel, which they had been commissioned to preach. For Christ does not here appoint confessors, to inquire minutely into each sin by means of low mutterings, but preachers of his Gospel, who shall cause their voice to be heard, and who shall seal on the hearts of believers the grace of the atonement obtained through Christ. We ought, therefore, to keep by the manner of forgiving sins, so as to know what is that power which has been granted to the apostles.

And to those whose sins you retain. Christ adds this second clause, in order to terrify the despisers of his Gospel, that they may know that they will not escape punishment for this pride. As the embassy of salvation and of eternal life has been committed to the apostles, so, on the other hand, they have been armed with vengeance against all the ungodly, who reject the salvation offered to them, as Paul teaches, (2 Corinthians 10:6.) But this is placed last in order, because it was proper that the true and real design of preaching the Gospel should be first exhibited. That we are reconciled to God belongs to the nature of the Gospel; that believers are ad-judged to eternal life may be said to be accidentally connected with it. 210210     “Cela luy est comme un accident.” For this reason, Paul, in the passage which I lately quoted, when he threatens vengeance against unbelievers, immediately adds,

after that your obedience shall have been fulfilled,
(2 Corinthians 10:6;)

for he means, that it belongs peculiarly to the Gospel to invite all to salvation, but that it is accidental to it that it brings destruction to any.

It ought to be observed, however, that every one who hears the voice of the Gospel, if he do not embrace the forgiveness of sins which is there promised to him, is liable to eternal damnation; for, as it is a living savior to the children of God, so to those who perish it is the savour of death to death, (2 Corinthians 2:16.) Not that the preaching of the Gospel is necessary for condemning the reprobate, for by nature we are all lost, and, in addition to the hereditary curse, every one draws down on himself additional causes of death, but because the obstinacy of those who knowingly and willingly despise the Son of God deserves much severer punishment.




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