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The Power of Binding and Loosing

Question: What does the Bible teach about forgiveness, especially in the light of Jesus’ commission to his apostles to bind and loose?

Answer: Sin is primarily an offence against God; it also disrupts personal and social relationships. There are three related, yet distinct, aspects of forgiveness that should be kept in mind.

1. God’s forgiveness
2. Human forgiveness
3. Church discipline

Regarding the forgiveness of sins by God, the Bible teaches that we receive this grace through personal faith in the Lord. “To him (Jesus) give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). The Christian minister can take the sinner, as it were, in the presence of the Lord Jesus by the proclamation of the Gospel. But that is as far as the preacher can go. It is then up to the individual to reach out for the mercy of Christ by faith.

The believer remains justified despite his daily faults. His legal standing before God is not lost each time he sins, because justification is based on the perfect righteousness of Christ and not on the believer's imperfect works -  'God imputes righteousness apart from works' (Romans 4:5). Whenever a Christian sins, he is not thrown out of God's house; he remains God's child, and God remains his Father. Thus the apostle Paul assures all Christians that "being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1) even though he knew full well that none actually leads a perfect moral life.

That is not to say that sin is not most serious in the Christian life. God is offended whenever His children are disobedient, and He disciplines them as a Father. Whenever a Christian sins, the sweet communion with God is replaced with sadness and a sense of guilt. That's why our Lord taught us to pray to our heavenly father to "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." It should be noted that Jesus never instructed His disciples to confess their sins to a priest. For many centuries Christians knew nothing of the late invention of auricular confession; they simply confessed to God directly, just as Evangelical Christians do today.

Now, let's turn our attention to the "horizontal" dimension sin, i.e. the effects of sin between Christians. Our Lord also instructed His disciples how to deal with sin within the church community. He said:

Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them (Matthew 18:15-20).

The Lord wants His disciples to forgive each other, just as God also forgives us. Peace should reign among the brethren, and when someone offends another and disrupts that peace, both should take steps for reconciliation. We are told in the Bible to confess (admit) to each other, forgive, and to make restitution. (See James 5:16; Matthew 6:12; Ephesians 4:3; Numbers 5:6,7).

Some Catholics have hastily applied James 5:16 - 'Confess your faults to another' - to support the sacrament of confession. "See," they say, "We should not confess to God alone, but also to man." But James' words prove too much for the Catholic. If the sentence 'Confess your faults to another' is a command to confess to a priest, then it must also mean that the priest should confess to you as well (because James says "to another") - which is hardly what the Catholic Church teaches! We should confess our sins to the person we have offended.

Most problems and quarrels can be solved quietly and quickly between the parties involved, or occasionally, by the help of another Christian (Matthew 18:15,16). The church only comes into the picture in the case of persistent impenitence and public scandal (Matthew 18:17-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1ff). The elders, together with the church, have the responsibility to maintain discipline and order. If a member remains obstinate and unrepentant, the church has the unpleasant and solemn responsibility to ‘excommunicate’ him, that is, to exclude him from the church community. “Let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector”

Who has the courage and authority to take such a drastic step? The authority is based squarely on the command of Christ. It was in this context that the Lord told his disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). In other words, the Lord in heaven approves and sanctions such disciplinary actions.

The church also has the happy privilege to forgive and restore to fellowship the person who, having been disciplined, repents of his sins (2 Corinthians 2:5-11). As soon as the sinner repents, the Lord forgives him; and therefore it follows that the church should also forgive him. In other words, when the disciplined person repents, he seeks God’s forgiveness by praying to the Father in heaven (Matthew 6:12); and since he also offended his church, he should also seek forgiveness from the church, just as he is required to do even if he had sinned against a single individual (Luke 17:3).

It should be stressed that the binding and loosing by God in heaven precedes the binding and loosing on earth by the church. Theologian Wayne Grudem explains: ‘Both Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 use an unusual Greek verbal construction (a periphrastic future perfect. It is best translated by the NASB, “Whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”’ (Grudem W, Systematic Theology, Zondervan, 1994, p. 891).

Therefore the sequence of events is as follows:

1. Sin and obstinacy; 2. God’s binding in heaven; 3. Church’s binding on earth.

And in the case of repentance, the sequence is:

1. Repentance; 2. God’s loosing in heaving; 3. Church’s loosing on earth.

The church’s action on earth reflects God’s judgment in heaven. It is the church that follows God, and not the other way around.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi