Again he said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
-John 20:21-23, NLT (emphasis mine)
This authority Jesus bestows on His followers to forgive or not is an odd authority.
It contrasts greatly with traditional Christian “forgiveness” teachings. Those teachings suggest a person never withholds forgiveness upon pains of becoming “bitter” and going to Hell, essentially.
In the Gospel that talks so much about God’s love, we have this strange passage where Jesus is empowering His disciples–i.e. those with the Holy Spirit–to forgive or not forgive others per their own discretion, oddly. Plus, this passage tells us that God from Heaven will back their choice whether or not to forgive someone. I find that incredible!
This tells us a few things:
- The command to forgive is not as straightforward as some suggest. I fail to see why Jesus would bestow the authority to not forgive if He never envisioned a time when said authority could be used properly. In other words, if not forgiving someone is always a sin, then Jesus just offered and instructed His Disciples in a way to sin without an accompanying warning.
- Withholding forgiveness is actually a godly stance under some circumstances. This passage suggests as much by Jesus granting His followers such power. Can you imagine a situation where God would allow a sin to stand in Heaven as this verse suggests? That suggests withholding forgiveness under some circumstances cannot be sin.
- This passage fits well with Jesus’ teaching to only forgive those who demonstrate repentance first. Luke 17:3 teaches us that godly forgiveness only follows after repentance from the sinner. Without such repentance, one is simply enabling or being permissive of sin, and thereby, such “forgiveness” is ungodly.
By sharing this, I still believe we, faithful spouses, need to hand the offender over to God for His justice. It is not our place to take revenge as Scripture teaches (see Romans 12:19). Handing them over to God might be the furthest some of us get regarding forgiveness with an unrepentant cheater.
Also, I do not think it is our place to tell someone literally Hell-Bent that they are okay when they are clearly not (see Hebrews 10:26-27). This is where not too quickly forgiving them comes into play. The loving thing to do is to insist that they stop sinning first. As Hebrews 10:26-27 says, individuals who deliberately continue sinning will get God’s hell fire.
To tell someone they are forgiven while they continue to deliberately sin–e.g. continue committing adultery–is to sell them false assurance. Hebrews is clear that such “forgiveness” will not save them from God’s fiery judgment. Only repentance does that.
I do not see this power or authority given by Jesus as a license to damn. What I see Jesus doing is empowering His followers to shepherd souls to healing salvation. This sort of salvation requires humble repentance and a cessation of the sin prior to forgiveness. That is godly forgiveness (see Luke 17:3), and anything less is distorted “forgiveness.”