At the Sunday Eucharist a few days ago we read or heard the following utterance from Christ: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:22-23). This and its counterparts in the Gospel of Matthew can be rather contentious verses among Protestants today.
As jarring as this might be for modern evangelicals, Jesus meant exactly what he said. He invested his apostles with the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive and withhold (or retain) sins. In Matthew’s Gospel book this is expressed in the language of “binding” and “loosing” – people are bound to their sins or loosed from their sins by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is called The Power of the Keys (after how Jesus introduces it in Matthew 16), and is a feature not only of Roman theology but of classical protestantism as well.
“But only God forgives sins!” scoffs the pharisees and evangelicals alike. Naturally, this is a valid point, and the whole point of that objection in the Gospels is to highlight the true divinity of Jesus. However, Jesus unapologetically tells his apostles to forgive and retain sins. Saint James would go on to reflect on this in chapter of his epistle: “Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” So there must be a way to connect the dots.
Thankfully, as Anglicans, we have hard-wired our theological answer to this conundrum into our liturgy. In the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer the absolution read by the priest contains this sentence:
He has empowered and commanded his ministers to pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins.
That is the wording in the 2019 Prayer Book, but it’s essentially the same in all historic Prayer Books. The interpretation is clear: John 20:23 is a granting of authority to Christ’s ordained ministers. But what it also does is link the minister’s words to the power and authority of Christ, who
pardons and absolves all who truly repent and genuinely believe his holy Gospel.
Thus the forgiveness of sins is not a special power of the priest so much as it is the promise of God to all faithful penitents; the priest or bishop is merely the mouthpiece for God in the congregation for that role.
In the Communion service the words of absolution are different. But they are followed up with The Comfortable Words, which provide the Word of God as a more sure foundation of the absolution spoken by the priest. In short, it is God, in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit working through an imperfect priest, who forgives sins. The priest has a solemn and fearful duty and role in this, but has no magical or divine powers of his own.