Withholding forgiveness?

It’s not often that I get direct and detailed feedback from sermons, most of the time it’s the usual; “Great sermon pastor! Very convicting! Challenging!” But this week I received direct feedback from something I said in a sermon at our missions weekend. Because I was convicted and challenged I thought it best to write this down for my benefit and yours.

My text was from John 20:19-23 and my main points were how Christians are forgiven by Christ, sent out by Christ and empowered by the Spirit for His mission. The trouble came with verse 23: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld”.

I believe this verse gives a great sense of responsibility in our evangelism. We must be discerning in our evaluations and understand the full anatomy of the gospel. There is no middle road, either you are forgiven, or you are not, and it all hinges on someones response to the gospel. Consider 1 John 5:12 “Whoever has the Son, has life, whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life”. 

It is not within our power to forgive anyone, I feel like that must be made absolutely clear. However, our authority…or should I rather say stewardship lies in the content of the gospel that was passed on to us. We can discern someone’s spiritual state based on how that person has responded to the gospel. In fact Paul had the authority to declare any false gospel preacher to be anathema. Then there’s this shocking Scripture in 1 Tim 1:19-20: holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme”. Yikes!

This means that there ought to be some kind of line drawn in the sand between truth and error. What this means practically is that we need to be careful, very, very careful in our judgments. Not to write off the doubting or struggling seeker, but also not to give false affirmation when there has not been a proper response to the gospel.

If we have any grammar Nazis reading this then it might be helpful to know that the words “they are forgiven them” and “if you withhold” are written in the perfect Greek form. It communicates a past completed action. Practically then, we have no right to say to someone who has responded to the gospel “You are not forgiven!” nor do we have any right to say to someone who has not responded to the gospel “You are forgiven!”. We affirm on earth what has already been confirmed by God. Along with that we must learn the lesson Jonah had to learn: “Salvation belongs to the Lord”.

In the sermon I used the real life illustration of when a man came to visit me to ask questions about God. I explained the gospel but this gentleman refused to accept that he has ever sinned. I then proceeded to use these words in my sermon: “I had to withhold forgiveness, not because I have the power to forgive, but because he did not see himself as a sinner before a holy God which is a critical aspect of the gospel”. I am willing to eat humble pie and say it was perhaps a mistake to word it this way. Perhaps some thought this was arrogant, unloving and not a gracious response, I do apologize. Preachers are human, I phoned a close pastor friend who heard the sermon and talked about it some more. I never, ever want to come across as  a Jonah, harnessing God’s compassion for myself and those I deem worthy. What a disaster of a missionary and pastor would I not become if that’s my attitude. I am willing to learn from this and so maybe to summarize:

The gospel is good news!

The gospel is for everyone!

Those who respond are forgiven, those who refuse remain condemned.

I must learn to be truthful and gracious in discerning where people are at.

I may not personally withhold forgiveness from anyone, but can warn people about the consequences of not surrendering to Jesus as Lord and Savior.

I am grateful to people who give me loving and pride breaking feedback. (You know who you are)

Jesus is not yet finished sanctifying me 🙂



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: