We know it’s important. We KNOW that. It’s a key line in the Lord’s Prayer–forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. It’s not only something we’re commanded to do, we confess in that prayer that we will only expect forgiveness in the measure in which we’re willing to give it.

We hear that Jesus gave the power to forgive sins to His disciples after His resurrection, along with the Holy Spirit. John 20:22-24 (ESV) says:

22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

But have we ever really pondered what that means? If you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.

I mean, whoa. Wait a minute. Is Jesus really saying here that we can choose NOT to forgive, and He won’t either? That God won’t? That someone’s sins can be held against him eternally because WE refuse to forgive?

I’m sure this is something theologians debate–and I’ll leave them to it. Whether He was speaking there to all believers or just His disciples, who became the Fathers of the Church, its first bishops, and so had authority that the common lay person did not. But even so…even so. Let’s consider.

And let’s consider with one particular example.

During the Twelve Days of Christmas, the Church celebrates the life and death of its first martyr, Stephen. We get his story in Acts, and I imagine it’s one we all know–he’s being questioned by the Jewish leaders and gives a stirring confession of Jesus as the Christ, he looks up and sees a vision of Heaven with Jesus sitting at the right hand of God…and that so infuriates everyone that they stone him to death then and there…and a certain man called Saul watched over the cloaks of those doing the stoning.

But there’s another portion of that story too. Stephen does exactly what Christ did in His final moments, exactly what Christ instructed us all to do: he forgave.

He forgave the people who were murdering him. He forgave the people who hated him. He forgave…Saul.

Saul, who of course we know went on to become Paul, the most prolific apostle, without whose writings the New Testament would be pretty short. Paul, who went on to bring the Good News of salvation through Jesus to the Gentiles. Paul, who was arguably one of the most influential Christians of all time.

So…what if Stephen hadn’t forgiven in those final moments? What if he–an ordained deacon in that earliest Church, appointed to service by the Apostles themselves–had instead “withheld forgiveness.” Or as other translations render it, what if he had “retained the sins” of his persecutors? If he had, therefore, withheld eternal forgiveness from Paul?

Would God still have called him…or would He have chosen someone else instead? What would the Church, the very Bible have looked like if Saul had never been blinded on the road to Damascus and converted to Christianity? I believe that the work would have gotten done, yes, through another person. God still would have given the spiritual instruction to His followers…but the words would be different. Biblical writers are God-breathed, but the character of the human author is still seen in them. They put their own touches, their own personalities into them. We even see Paul speaking in some of his letters from his own wisdom, not as a heavenly mouthpiece, per se, which he readily admits. So those instructions certainly would have been different.

The entire course of human history, of Church history, could have been changed if one man–Stephen–hadn’t forgiven.

Who are WE refusing to forgive? What bitterness are we clinging to? What grudges do we refuse to let go of? What people are we therefore hindering from some eternally significant task? Ouch, right? We know how clinging to unforgiveness hurts us…but have we ever considered that our unforgiveness could hurt everyone? That it could have an impact so far-reaching? Have we considered that, because God graciously invited us into His work, gave us authority through the Holy Spirit, our decisions can hold real authority over the spiritual well being of others?

Again, I’m no theologian. I’m not stating definitively that God wouldn’t have called Saul if Stephen hadn’t uttered those words. But I am saying that asking the question should make startlingly clear what Jesus tells us very plainly: forgiveness is inexorably linked to eternity. Forgiveness determines forgiveness. Forgiveness unites us with God. Forgiveness is powerful, for our own souls and for others.

So let’s take Jesus’s words in John 20 at face value: if we don’t forgive someone, they will be condemned for their sins. God will not forgive them.

Is our argument with them worth their soul? Are we willing to answer for that judgment?

Love is hard. Forgiveness is hard. But part of being called to the communion of saints, part of being a true part of the Church, means putting off our sinful natures with all their bitterness and embracing the heart of Christ–the heart that forgave even up until the last minute. An example we see His first martyr following in his last moment.

Don’t wait for your last moment, friend. Embrace forgiveness. Embrace it because it will help you heal; embrace it because it could lead them to salvation; embrace it because  we can’t know what sinners God will use to build a key part of His kingdom…but it could be them.

Embrace it because Christ did.

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