What happens when a person becomes a Christian? Sins are forgiven and the person enters into a relationship with God. Where they were lost in their sins (Eph. 2:1,2), now they are restored to God. This is amazing and wonderful and makes me want to share it with others. Sins that were retained against the person are now forgiven.

There is something else that happens when a person becomes a Christian. The church is expanded. The kingdom of Christ is larger by the number of one soul. The Christians enjoy the reality of having a new Brother or Sister. This is the other thing that happens. God’s forgiveness of the sinful person means that we too must forgive the person. If there were sins and hard feelings before, they are no more because the sinner has repented of all of his or her sins. With the repentance of the sinner and the forgiveness of God, the Christians throw open their arms to embrace a new soul. Acts is filled with examples of God’s forgiveness and the loving acceptance and forgiveness that followed in Christians who embraced the new Believers. If the person has repented, no one in the church has a right to withhold his forgiveness of the person.

When a person becomes a Christian is an important application of Jesus’ words on forgiveness. But His words apply also to dealing with Christians who lapse back into sin. The sin must be dealt with so as to keep the church pure (1 Cor. 5).

In John 20 in the same section where Jesus reveals himself to Thomas and the disciples, Jesus said “23 If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” (John 20:23). What is Jesus saying and what does it say to us about forgiving or not forgiving others?

It is in the power of each Christian to forgive or not. If we don’t forgive, if we unjustly withhold forgiveness to others, how can we expect for God to forgive us? If we hold sins against a person who has repented and has been forgiven by God, we can’t hope to be forgiven because we are sinning. God alone forgives sins in heaven, but down here earth, people to people, we forgive too.

We also withhold forgiveness or retain sins, just as Jesus said. The withholding must be just and correspond to what happens in heaven. “If you retain the sins of any, THEY HAVE BEEN retained in heaven.” Jesus is saying that our forgiving or retaining of sins ought to reflect what God does in heaven.

Examine the comparison between the words in John 20:23; Mt. 16:19; Mt. 18:18 (from NASB)

“and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven,” Mt. 16:19
“whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven;” Mt. 18:18
“if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained” Jn. 20:23

The Greek that is reflected here in the words “have been” or “shall have been” proves that the decisions are made in heaven and the action of the church is only to reflect the will of God on earth. Just as we pray, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

If we forgive someone, God forgives them. If we do not forgive, God does not forgive them. This teaching relies on the understanding that one, Christians act with justice and two, that the person is repentant and and three, that God first is the one forgiving or withholding and we Christians follow His lead. On that third point, we know from what Jesus says to the disciples in Matthew 16 and 18 that loosing and binding of sins on the part of the church is in actuality only following what has already happened in heaven. If the church is only forgiving unconditionally, and is not retaining the sins of the unrepentant, it is not doing the will of God on earth.

When Jesus is talking about church discipline, he says, “18Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 18:18).

When it is taught to Christians that they must forgive and may not retain sins of the unrepentant, an undue and unchristian burden is placed on them. God does not place such a burden on Christians. We are in the business of forgiving sinners because we have a forgiving God. The Scriptures show that we must be the most forgiving people on earth, period. But it is flat out wrong to portray the misconception that forgiveness, that which we or God gives, is to be given unconditionally. Jesus gave a very clear path to receiving forgiveness and for giving it as well.

In Luke 17, when Jesus is talking about people who are stumbling blocks, causing others to stumble by their sins, Jesus did not say to forgive them without qualification. Jesus said, “3 Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4 “And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Lk. 17:3,4). Jesus gave a clear path for giving and receiving forgiveness. It goes like this and no step may be left out.


Jesus’ instructions are clear, but here is how it often presented:


What’s wrong with this? Some very important things are left out. Namely, actually addressing the sin and holding people accountable. To forgive the unrepentant is to extend a kind of forgiveness not known in the Bible. For one, it does not heal or restore a relationship as Biblical repentance does. And two, it lets the Christian off of the hook by completely glossing over the responsibility of addressing the sin. It takes bravery and love to confront sin, but it is the easy path to just unconditionally pronounce forgiveness.

I have wrote about this on my blog and invite you to do a search on forgiving or forgiveness (use the search box). From Jesus’ words in John 20 it is clear that the disciples would withhold forgiveness. If the sinner is NOT repentant, to withhold is not unchristian, it is being responsible and it is being like God. We Christians ought to be the most forgiving people on earth, and we are I believe. But let’s not buy into the false idea that forgiving the unrepentant accomplishes anything except sweeping the problem under the rug.

Let me address one more thing. Withholding forgiveness is NOT the same thing as being vengeful or angry, hateful, bitter, or some other way unchristian. A Christian has no business letting themselves be consumed with bad feelings because someone has sinned against them. When we withhold or “retain sins”, to use Jesus’ words, we can and must go on with our lives. We cannot let the unrepentant people in the world ruin our spirit. If we are filled with worry or angry or something else because of a person who has not been forgiven, that is a separate issue. Forgiving them unconditionally, without following Jesus instructions, solves nothing. And if you feel better after forgiving an unrepentant person, you have to ask yourself why. The unrepentant person is not closer to you or to God. The unrepentant person isn’t suddenly brought closer into fellowship with you. The trust of the relationship is not restored.

The proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand comes to mind when discussing giving forgiveness to an unrepentant person. The problems are still present, but the ostrich chooses to hide and not see. The ostrich with his head in the sand is pretending things are better than they are. If he feels better by pretending, that’s a serious problem. When Christians choose not to retain the sins of the unrepentant, and instead decide to forgive unconditionally, besides the problem of ignoring their responsibility to rebuke and hold responsible the sinner, sin is being glossed over and at best one can only pretend that things are better.

Jesus said, “if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.” Don’t tell people that they have to forgive the unrepentant. It just isn’t Biblical. But when people are repentant, embrace them and love them as God does.

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3 replies

  1. Congratulations on a sensible and well-balanced presentation of the material.


  2. This was so helpful. I'm glad I found it. Thank you.


  3. Well stated and accurate reading of scripture. God has revealed this truth to me from recent studying and from scripture reading


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