If You Forgive The Sins…


April 24, 2015

“Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And 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; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” -John 20:21-23, RSV


In Jesus’ Easter appearance to the apostles, he empowers them with the Holy Spirit and gives them the power to forgive or not to forgive sins. In The Message, Eugene Peterson’s contemporary paraphrase of the Bible, the verse about forgiveness reads, “If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them? (John 20:23, MSG)” Yes, that is the question. If we choose not to forgive, what will be the effect?

Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, was a leader in the fight against apartheid. As it became clear that apartheid could not be sustained in the face of protests both within and outside South Africa, many of us wondered if social transformation could occur without a bloodbath. After the fall of apartheid in 1994, new President Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned for 23 years by the old white regime, asked Tutu to head the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose job was to investigate and reveal the crimes that had been committed under apartheid. That was a gruesome task, but Mandela and Tutu both knew that for South Africa to move forward as a democracy, there would have to be freedom for all the residents of the country and that healing of the past was essential.

So many extremely violent crimes had been committed by both the government and by those protesting. What allowed the country to move forward in a positive direction was that the Commission based its work on a restorative justice model. The perpetrators and the victims of crimes were brought together so that the victims could give statements about their how they had been harmed that the perpetrators could hear, and perpetrators of violence could also give testimony and request amnesty from prosecution. Often amnesty was granted to those who truthfully told what crimes they had committed. Where possible, reparations were made.


Desmond Tutu wrote the book No Future Without Forgiveness, knowing that without putting a stop to the violence and allowing people to start over, there would never be an end to the cycle of retribution—one act of violence inciting another. In another book, God Has a Dream, Tutu wrote,

“Forgiveness gives us the capacity to make a new start… And forgiveness is the grace by which you enable the other person to get up, and get up with dignity, to begin anew… In the act of forgiveness we are declaring our faith in the future of a relationship and in the capacity of the wrongdoer to change.”

While no process works perfectly, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was no exception, the turnaround in South Africa to becoming a democracy without violence is nothing short of a modern day miracle, no doubt inspired by the Holy Spirit as it worked through leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

If the new leaders of South Africa had pursued a policy of revenge and retribution against those who had sinned against the disenfranchised majority, what would South Africa be like today?

If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?

Prayer: Gracious God, help us to be aware of our shortcomings and in humility to forgive those who have harmed us. May we work together to usher in your Kingdom of love and grace. Amen.

Mary Beth & Bill Mankin
Pine Street Church
Boulder, Colorado      

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