When Jesus forgives sin, it doesn’t just vanish with a wave of his hand. He bears it—to the cross. Only he—God in the flesh—can do this. No one else can. That’s why he is proclaimed as worthy by the elders and the living creatures in the throne room of heaven in the Book of Revelation:
You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth. (Revelation 5:9–10)
It’s just not possible for human beings to forgive–to bear sin–permanently. And that’s why it is necessary—absolutely necessary, no alternative—for humans to forgive with the forgiveness of Christ, not human forgiveness.
Christ recognizes this in John 20:22 after he is resurrected from the dead, and that’s why he breathes his Holy Spirit on the disciples for the accomplishment of this task. They are to minister his forgiveness to others, not their own.
Their conflicts have become his conflicts. That’s why he says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” in Acts 9:4, when Saul is persecuting Christians. And in turn, the disciples’ forgiveness becomes Christ’s forgiveness, and his becomes theirs.
“We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us”—that’s what Saul says after he receives Christ’s forgiveness and becomes Paul. “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). “Imitate me as I imitate Christ,” he says in 1 Corinthians 11:1.
Look at me and catch a glimpse of him, says Paul. He forgives with the same forgiveness with which I am forgiving you.
But if we fail to forgive, the opposite message is conveyed: As I do not forgive you, neither does he. And that is wickedness on the part of the servant—character assassination of the master, our king Jesus.
This is why Jesus says in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins in the same way as we forgive those who sin against us.” The New Testament repeats the message over and over: “You have been forgiven. Now go pour out his forgiveness in his name so that others will be reconciled to him.”
Author Walter Wangerin Jr. has it absolutely correct in his short story called Ragman:
Even before the dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking the alleys of our City. He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new, and he was calling in a clear, tenor voice: “Rags!” Ah, the air was foul and the first light filthy to be crossed by such sweet music.
“Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!”
“Now, this is a wonder,” I thought to myself, for the man stood six-feet-four, and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed intelligence. Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the inner city?
I followed him. My curiosity drove me. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Soon the Ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into a handkerchief, sighing, and shedding a thousand tears. Her knees and elbows made a sad X. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was breaking.
The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly, he walked to the woman, stepping round tin cans, dead toys, and Pampers.
“Give me your rag,” he said so gently, “and I’ll give you another.”
He slipped the handkerchief from her eyes. She looked up, and he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. She blinked from the gift to the giver.
Then, as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her stained handkerchief to his own face; and then HE began to weep, to sob as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking. Yet she was left without a tear…