But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” – then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” And he arose and departed to his house.
When Jesus first brought up forgiveness for this man, He said, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” Notice the language. It’s passive in nature: “your sins are forgiven you.” As we’ve been contemplating, Jesus is declaring an cosmic truth true for all people, but here made specific for this individual. It is true: all sins are forgiven, because Jesus died on the cross for all sins and declares “every sin will be forgiven (but the sin against the Holy Spirit).” Therefore it is true for this man: “Your sins are forgiven you.” Jesus, being eternal, knows this cosmic truth, and so can give “insider” information about this truth which has been hidden from the beginning of time.
In that sense, anyone can declare that same thing. If anyone says to anyone, “Your sins are forgiven you,” that is not wrong. But, an interesting question is, is this an absolution?
An absolution is a bit different than what Jesus said at first. An absolution is not simply a declaration that someone’s sins are forgiven. An absolution is someone standing in God’s place and saying, “I forgive you your sins.” Our passage for today lifts what at first was a declaration to an absolution. Jesus says, “that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins.” The Son of Man can indeed say, “I forgive you your sins.” That’s an absolution, and Jesus claims that authority.
A declaration is something granted to any man based on the cosmic truth of the forgiveness of all people. Jesus assumed the right to say these words, as a man, because, well, because by His divinity He had this insider information on this cosmic truth. But now, He claims the authority to personally forgive sins because, well, because He’s about to prove that He’s not just a man, but God Himself. And that’s when He uses His divine power to heal the man. This lays the groundwork for Jesus’ mandate to the apostles, “If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven them.” As men are ordained to do so, they stand in Christ’s stead and by His command to forgive sins.
This passage is an interesting contemplation of the incarnation, given the language Jesus uses regarding His authority to forgive sins. If at first the scribes thought He blasphemed for declaring the man’s sins forgiven – declaring something only God could truly know – He ups the ante a bit, and demonstrates He has the power Himself to forgive sins, because He is God.
That’s all interesting, but we’re left with some questions. What’s the real difference between being told “Your sins are forgive you” vs. “I forgive you your sins”? In Jesus’ mind, in this context, especially given Who He is, the two statements are the same.
But what about in the context of regular old Christians. Is there a difference between me going to my friend Joe with a wounded soul and him saying, “Hey, your sins are forgiven you,” vs. me going to my father confessor and pastor, and hearing Him say, “I forgive you your sins”?
In a sense, there is no real difference. Jesus’ forgiveness for all sins is absolute. But going from absolute cosmic truths to specific truths for individuals is where pastoral care comes in, and so there is some difference. The pastor can warn a sinner if his repentance is lacking, or he can work with the sinner regarding sins he’s struggling with.
But on another level there’s a big difference, and there’s a good analogy we can use to explain this. Say someone is married. He has a marriage. Say he’s sinned against his wife. He’s in the dog house. He’s feeling down. So he goes to a friend, and the friend says, “Hey, you’re married. Your marriage is intact.” And indeed, that is absolutely true, is it not? That is part of the cosmic reality of truth: the man and the woman are indeed married. That may give the man some comfort, but something is still missing.
He needs to hear from his wife that he’s forgiven, or from someone his wife has authorized, so to speak. “Hey,” says the wife’s friend Jenny, “I got this word from your wife, ‘I forgive you.’ ” Though those words effectively state the same cosmic truth as “You’re married; your marriage is intact,” but yet they are so much more. They personalize the truth of that reality for the “sinner.”
So also with absolution vs. declaration. Absolution personalizes the cosmic truth that Jesus died for all sinners for the individual sinner. And sometimes we need that.
But whether it’s a declaration or an absolution, the foundation for both is that Jesus has the authority on earth to forgive sins, rooted on the cosmic truth that He Himself has died for the sins of the world.