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The meaning of our Lord's words
in St. John xx. 22,23,
and in St. Matt. xviii, 18

Henry Wace (ed.) Confession and Absolution: Report of A Conference held at Fulham Palace on December 30 and 31 1901. and January 1, 1902, London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1902, 3-5

1. Beginning with the second of these pasages, which is first in order of time, and appears to contain the larger promise, we are thrown back by it upon a still earlier declaration closely akin to it., viz. Matt 16,19.

The promise to St. Peter turns upon two metaphors. As a “faithful and wise steward” the Apostle is entrusted with the keys of the kingdom of Heaven. It would be natural to expext that the gift of the keys would be followed by such words as, “Thou shalt open and none shall shut, and shut and none shall open” (cf. Isa 22,22; Apoc 3,7). But instead of this Christ passes to antoher metaphor — that of binding and loosing: “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth.” &c.

In Matt. 18,18, when the promise is given not to an individual officer of the Church, but to its members generally, the gift of the key disappears, but the power of binding and loosing is bestowed as before.

To bind and to loose is a well known Rabbinical formula, meaning prohibit and to permit. It is used in connexion with the judgments pronounced upon questions of religion and morality by individual Scribes or by great schools of Rabbinical teaching.

It is noteworthy that in both the contexts in St. Matthew's Gospel where the phrase occurs, the “Ecclesia” is mentioned, and that these are the only two contexts in the Gospels where the word occurs. Our Lord, it appears, is committing to His Chuch, the new Israel, the office which was claimed by the synagogue of acting as arbiter and judge in all questions of religious truth and error, right and wrong. The Church is to exercise on earth a judicial authority in spiritual things, which so far as she is true to Christ and guided by His Spirit, will be ratified in Heaven. And the Church may exercise this authority either in her corporate capacity or through duly qualified officers.

2. In John 22,22f it seems that we have a particular application of this power specified, viz. that of passing judgment in reference to the sins of men. To forgive sins is one form of loosing (Job 42,9 lxx <note 1> Apoc 1,5 <note 2>; to retain them is one form of binding. Authority to remit and retain sins was delivered by the risen Lord to the Eleven and those that were with them (Luke 24,33), when He appeared to them in the evening of the first Easter Day. At the same time He endowed them with power to use this authority rightly, by the gift of the Holy Spirit. That gift was of course presupposed in the earlier promises of Matt 16 and 18: it could now be actually bestowed, since the Sacrifice and the Resurrection were accomplished facts.

Thus the Lord ended His ministry by delegating to His Church the authority which at the beginning of the ministry He had claimed for Himself as the Son of Man (Mark 2,10). In the Old Testament to forgive sins is reserved for God in Heaven (1 Kings 8,39). But since the Incarnation it has been exercised on earth — in the instance by our Lord as Man, in virtue of authority committed to Him by the Father; and, after His resurrection and ascension, by the men who are members of His Body and partake of His Spirit.

Like the wider authority to bind and loose, the forgiveness of sins is committed to the Church collectively. But presumably it may be exercised, like the larger power, by individual members of the Church who by official position or character, or both, are qualified to speak in the name of the Christian Society.

Note 1: ἔλυσεν τὴν ἁμαρτίαν αὐτοῖς διὰ Ἰώβ.

Note 2: τῷ … λύσαντι ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν.