One Apostolic Church, One Baptism for the Forgiveness of Sins

Part Six of The Holy Spirit in John

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)

On the Sunday I preached on this passage, the spring breeze was filled with what looked like small pieces of cotton. The air was so thick with them that it looked like it was snowing. What the wind was carrying was life. The small, cotton-like filaments were the seeds of trees that had fallen into the sleep of dormancy in the fall.  With the warming temperatures of spring, the trees had awakened from their sleep, blossomed and flooded the atmosphere with their cottony seeds. The wind took the seeds and spread them throughout the countryside, enabling the trees to propagate. By means of the wind, the trees reproduce and spread their own life throughout the land. It seems to me that is a useful image of Christ’s intent in giving the Holy Spirit.

In John, Jesus gives the church three directions after his resurrection:

  • Go: As the Father sent me, so send I you.
  • Be Inspired: Receive the Holy Spirit.
  • Forgive (or not): If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained

The command to receive the Holy Spirit may conjure up one image, largely based on Pentecostalism or the charismatic movement (with texts drawn mostly from the Acts of the Apostles).

Jesus’ sending of his disciples may point in another direction, to the missionary movement of an earlier generation or to the missional emphasis of the “emerging church.”

Finally, the words Jesus uses to speak about forgiveness might lead one to believe that Christians, either individually or communally, are supposed to sit around giving thumbs up or thumbs down to individual penitents.

These three instructions, however, are not three separate matters. They are three aspects of one larger idea. Those sent “as the Father sent me” are sent in the power of the Holy Spirit. Those offering forgiveness to others do so by serving as spirit-empowered witnesses to Jesus’ story, the response to which brings salvation or condemnation.

The Father sent Jesus into the world to represent the Father in word and deed, to make the Father “immediately present” to those Jesus encountered. In a similar fashion, Jesus sends his disciples into the world to make himself present to those who hear the disciples testimony and experience life in the community of faith. That’s only possible because the disciples have received the Holy Spirit.

And what people do with the Jesus they encounter in the disciples will make all the difference. In John 3:18, we find a contrast between “condemned” and “not condemned” that is very similar to the contrast “forgiven” and “not forgiven” in John 20:23:

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:18)

Salvation comes by faith in Jesus. Faith comes as a result of the encounter between Jesus and the individual in the church indwelled by the Holy Spirit.

Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)

The Nicene Creed is correct when, in its article of faith on the Holy Spirit, it includes articles on an “apostolic” church and the forgiveness of sins. An apostolic church is not simply one that is founded upon the apostles, but one that is sent (Greek, apostello) in Jesus’ name and the power of the Holy Spirit. Forgiveness or sins comes to those who are incorporated (or baptized) into the community of faith where Holy Spirit dwells and the life of Jesus is made real by the Spirit’s power.

This concludes the six-part series on The Holy Spirit in John. Thanks for reading.