"If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them." (John 20:23)
One of the great errors of the Church of Rome is to teach that the priest has the actual power to forgive sins, that is, to grant "absolution." Only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7; Luke 5:21), and he can do that only because of the forgiveness secured in the blood of Jesus Christ, the glorious sacrifice for sin (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14). Jesus spoke the words of John 20:23 to the apostles, but nowhere in the New Testament do they do anything other than declare that the sins of those who repent and believe in Christ will be forgiven (e.g., Acts 2:38; 13:38; 26:18). Hence, we say that the church's authority is not magisterial and legislative, but only "ministerial and declarative." The church declares what God says in his Word.
This has immense practical significance when we come to the portion of worship following the prayer of confession of sin. We do not simply go on with our worship after the congregation is led in prayer by the minister. It would be utterly incomplete and even cruel to do that. After we have come before our holy and just God, and earnestly confessed our sins according to his Word, would we be encouraged at all if we just proceeded to the next element of worship? Not at all! How thankful we should be that God speaks to us after we speak to him in humility and contrition for our sins. God promises forgiveness and cleansing to those who confess their sins (1 John 1:9), and it is one of the minister's great privileges to declare that forgiveness to the congregation.
It is very important for worshipers to believe these promises. As surely as they are a faithful declaration of the Word of God, they are also a faithful declaration of forgiveness that comes specifically to you as one who repents and believes in Jesus Christ. Let that assurance of pardon encourage you as much as the preaching of the Word of God instructs, corrects, and admonishes (and encourages!) you. Then, and only then, can you proceed with worship in joy and in confidence of God's love for you.
The author is pastor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Franklin Square, New York. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2007. First article in series. Index.