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Sin retention

John 20:23

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

This verse {along with James 5:16} has been used to promulgate the faulty notion that we are to confess our sins to elders in the church in order to receive forgiveness. As you can deduce from my tone, this application is unfounded in Biblical truth but that is not the issue I would like to discuss in this work. 

    What I would like to illustrate is something that you already know but are probably unaware that you do know it. It is the issue of forgiving sins against us as individuals. There are a great many writings and songs that promote either forgiving and forgetting or doing one or the other or doing neither. So just what are we to do when someone sins against us? No doubt the stock answer from most Christians is that we are to forgive - up to seventy times seven- as Jesus instructed us. But what if we don’t? Incidentally, that instruction, found in Matt 18:22, in reality means that for the same offense committed in the same 24 hour period, we are to forgive 490 times!!!! It is no wonder that the disciples asked for more faith at that precise moment! This seems radical and impossible to carry out. It is not of course and is an act of our will in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. 

    Owing to the necessity of unpacking our study verse, I would like to draw your attention to the word “them” as I have highlighted. Observe that the first half of the verse includes “them” as the recipients of the forgiveness yet in the second half of the verse, it is not included when indicating who will retain the sin. This is profoundly significant! What is being state emphatically here, then, is that if we obey our Lord Jesus and forgive anyone who has sinned against us then they are forgiven TO US. However, if we retain - or don’t forgive the sin- then we are the ones who retain it - against ourselves. I will explain further but first let us deal with the issue of forgiveness esoterically. 

    Jesus came to bring us forgiveness, and not only us but all humans who ever lived period. {Hebrews 7:27} Over and over in the gospels, we have examples of people who had sinned and yet the Lord says that their sins are forgiven. There is not one person who is saved or not saved that God has not forgiven. The only difference is that some have received their forgiveness and some have not, but they are all nevertheless forgiven from God’s perspective. Thus, the study verse {nor James 5:15} is referring to men offering forgiveness as God. What men offer is to make others aware that they are already forgiven by God.

    Thus, it is those who are sinned against who hold sins against people. This could be also understood as “holding a grudge.” Viewing our study verse from this perfective magnifies what we already know but maybe do not articulate. For example, if someone has stolen money from you, you may now have a check in your heart about giving money to other people. This is how you know that you have not only not forgiven the person who stole from you but that you are retaining their sin against you! What about those who have gossiped about you? When this happens, we have a tendency to either retract ourselves from societal interactions or to become prideful and boisterous. Both are an outward expression of an inward retention of sins committed toward us. In my own life, I suffered a robbery of a storage unit. The thieves plundered some of my most prized possessions and even though I spoke with my mouth that they were forgiven, suddenly every time I saw a person on the street near my storage unit, I would evaluate their character based on how they were dressed. I was stereotyping them and if they fell into the stereotype of someone I believed was capable of breaking and entering then I was suspicious of them and unloving. The Lord had to get ahold of my heart so that I would let the sin go and not retain it for not only did it become a small obsession, it also stifled the work that the Holy Spirit wanted to do through me to people less fortunate, and caused my heart to be hard toward certain “types” of people. This is against God and it is a precise and perfect illustration of our study verse.

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