Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Revisiting the Issue of Jesus Forgiving Sins

Sam Shamoun

Christophobe and taqiyyist extraordinaire Paul Bilal Williams has posted a link to a video by a so-called Christian unitarian who attempts to explain away the Gospels’ explicit testimony to Jesus’ intrinsic authority to forgive sins. Williams writes:

Who can forgive sins but God alone? An interesting take on this verse by a Unitarian Christian. Surprisingly the speaker does not mention Matthew’s version of this story: ‘When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.’ So Matthew 9 is clear that Jesus was not claiming divinity despite what Jesus’ enemies were falsely claiming: Jesus as a man had been given this authority by God. In other gospel passages the disciples also share in this same authority. (Mark 2:7 – Who can forgive sins but God alone?)

Williams never tires of raising the same old objections ad nauseam ad infinitum, even though he is fully aware that we have already addressed the issue of the crowds’ response, just as the following articles and rebuttals prove:

Now before we proceed to address William’s assertions one more time, we will post Matthew’s version of Jesus healing the paralytic so the readers can see the context for themselves:

“Getting into a boat, Jesus crossed over the sea and came to His own city. And they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, ‘Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven.’ And some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This fellow blasphemes.’ And Jesus knowing their thoughts said, ‘Why are you thinking evil in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up, and walk”? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—then He said to the paralytic, ‘Get up, pick up your bed and go home.’ And he got up and went home. But when the crowds saw this, they were awestruck, and glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” Matthew 9:1-8 – cf. Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:17-26

As we have already explained in our previous discussions, Jesus’ response to the charge of blasphemy, e.g. “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,” indicates that he was claiming to have the divine ability to pardon transgressors. In fact, Christ is depicted as possessing some other unique abilities which the OT ascribes to Yahweh alone, specifically healing diseases and knowing the inner thoughts of the hearts of men:

“Would not God find this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart.” Psalm 44:21

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, And forget none of His benefits; Who pardons all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases; Who redeems your life from the pit, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion;” Psalm 103:2-4

“whatever prayer or supplication is made by any man or by all Your people Israel, each knowing the affliction of his own heart, and spreading his hands toward this house; then hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and forgive and act and render to each according to all his ways, whose heart You know, for You ALONE know the hearts of all the sons of men,” 1 Kings 8:38-39

All of this establishes that Jesus is the One who is personally forgiving the man’s sins by virtue of being the divine Son of Man. Jesus is basically saying that just as God the Father has authority to forgive sins from heaven, the Son of Man also has this same ability to do likewise while he is on earth.

In the words of noted biblical scholar Robert H. Gundry:

“… Jesus addresses the paralytic with 'Man' for a wordplay with 'the Son of Man,' which he'll use for himself shortly (5:24). The point of the wordplay will be that as a human being Jesus has forgiven the sins of a fellow human being… Who has forgiven his sins, though? Jesus hasn't said. But the scholars and Pharisees take him to mean that he himself has forgiven the paralytic's sins and therefore consider his statement blasphemous, since in their view God alone can forgive sins. Jesus has made only one statement, so that we expect the scholars and Pharisees to accuse him of 'blasphemy' (singular). But they're so outraged that they accuse him of 'blasphemies' (plural), as though every word of his statement constituted a discrete blasphemy. Supposedly, these blasphemies consisted in Jesus' arrogating to himself an exclusively divine prerogative, that of forgiving sins. Such an arrogation slanders God, they reason, by verbally robbing him of an authority that he alone possesses. ('Blasphemy' means 'slander.')… So Jesus sets about to prove that as the Son of Man (about which self-designation see the comments on Mark 2:10-11) he has authority on earth to forgive sins just as God has such authority in heaven. In other words, Jesus agrees with the scholars and Pharisees that his saying, 'Man, your sins are forgiven for you,' meant that he, Jesus, had claimed to forgive them…” (Robert H. Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation [Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI 2010], p. 245; bold emphasis ours)

This is further confirmed by the fact that Matthew begins his Gospel by identifying Christ as the God who has come to dwell with his people:

“‘She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us (Meth' hemon ho theos).’” Matthew 1:21-23

Here, the angel explains to Joseph that the reason why the child shall be called Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew, meaning “Yahweh is salvation”) is because he has come to personally save his people from their sins, a divine function which the Hebrew Bible ascribes to Yahweh alone. More on this point shortly.

Matthew then says that this was to fulfill the OT prophecy that God himself would be with his people.

That Matthew believes that Jesus is God himself who has come to save his people can be easily demonstrated by what he writes at the conclusion of his Gospel:

“teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always (ego meth' hymon eimi pasas), even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20

Matthew ends his Gospel by reaffirming the point he made at the beginning, namely, Jesus is the God who has come to be with all his people till the end of the age.

Matthew also shows us how Jesus intends to redeem believers from their sins:

“just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:28

“While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.” Matthew 26:26-28

Jesus comes to forgive the transgressions of his people by offering his life as a sacrificial ransom.

Now the only way Christ could deliver people from their transgressions by dying as an atoning sacrifice is if he is Yahweh God, since not only does the Hebrew Bible say that Yahweh is the One who redeems his people from their sins:

“If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared… O Israel, hope in the Lord; For with the Lord there is lovingkindness, And with Him is abundant redemption. And He will redeem Israel From all his iniquities.” Psalm 130:3-4, 7-8

It also states quite plainly that no mere creature is capable of redeeming a single life, let alone countless numbers of lives:

NO MAN can by any means redeem his brother Or give to God a ransom for him—For the redemption of his soul is costly, And he should cease trying forever—That he should live on eternally, That he should not undergo decay… But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, For He will receive me. Selah.” Psalm 49:7-9, 15

And the only way that Jesus could personally be with all his followers at the same time, no matter where they happen to be, is if Christ is omnipresent and omniscient. Yet the only way he could possess such qualities is if he happens to be God.

This explains why Christ was given the name Yeshua, i.e. “Yahweh is salvation,” since it is apparent that the Evangelist is going out of his way to affirm that Jesus himself happens to be Yahweh God Incarnate (even though he is not the Father or the Holy Spirit) who has come to bring salvation to all who believe in him. As Gundry writes:

“… Joseph is to adopt him as his legal though not biological offspring. He must bring Jesus into David's line for Jesus to become the messianic king. Naming by Mary wouldn't avail. But to be a king one must act like a king by saving his people from oppression (compares 1 Samuel 10:25-27, especially 27a, with 1 Samuel 11:1-11), just as David did (2 Samuel 5:1-3). Jesus' Davidic kingship implies that 'he himself will save his people,' as indicated in the personal name to be given him. For according to popular etymology, 'Jesus,' Greek for the Hebrew name 'Joshua,' means 'the Lord [is] salvation.' To draw out this meaning, the angel quotes Psalm 130:8 but replaces the psalmist's 'will redeem' with 'will save' for a closer link with the meaning of 'Jesus.' Also, 'his people' replaces the psalmist’s 'Israel' because Jesus' people will turn out to be the ethnically inclusive church rather than Israel (see 16:18, where he says 'my church'; 3:12, where John the baptizer refers to 'his [Jesus'] wheat' [compare 21:43]). And 'from their sins' replaces the psalmist's 'from all his [Israel's] iniquities' to anticipate Jesus' forgiveness of sins (9:1-8; 26:28) and therefore deliverance from their oppressively judgmental consequences. The intensive 'he himself' accents Jesus as the Savior; and this accent will lead to an affirmation of his deity, since only deity can save from sins by forgiving them… In Psalm 130:7-8 it's ‘the Lord' who'll redeem Israel from all his iniquities. So here in Matthew it's Jesus as 'God with us' who'll save his people from their sins. He's 'with us' AS GOD, not in static presence, but in saving activity… 'Behold' calls special attention to Mary's virginal conception and birthing of Jesus. But Matthew replaces Isaiah's 'And she will call his name Immanuel' with 'And they will call his name Immanuel.' 'They' are Jesus' church, the people just mentioned whom he'll save from their sins. And he'll save them from their sins because they, unlike Israel as a whole, will confess that he is 'God with us.' The transliteration of the Hebrew 'Immanuel' enables Matthew to draw out its meaning, 'God [is] with us.' Jesus is with his people to save them from their sins, not merely on behalf of God, BUT AS GOD (compare the sandwiching of Jesus as 'the Son between 'the Father' and 'the Holy Spirit' in 28:19).” (Gundry, Commentary on the New Testament, p. 4; bold and capital emphasis ours)

With the foregoing in perspective, it is abundantly clear that Matthew’s Gospel doesn’t depict Jesus as a mere man whom God had given authority to forgive sins on God’s behalf. Rather, the evidence conclusively proves that the particular Evangelist wants his readers to believe that Christ is Yahweh God himself who became flesh in order to redeem his people from their transgressions.

Finally, the other major problem with Williams’ position is that, even if we were to adopt the assertion that Matthew 9:8 is claiming that God has given men the authority to forgive sins on his behalf, this still wouldn’t prove that Christ isn’t God. It is clear that from Matthew’s perspective the God who has given such authority to men is actually the Lord Jesus Christ himself! As Gundry explains:

“… Here, on their own, they imagine that Jesus is blaspheming. It's evident that they're equating his pronouncement of forgiveness with blasphemy. But to blaspheme is to slander someone. Matthew doesn't tell whom they imagined Jesus was blaspheming. For the moment, then, attention focuses solely on the imagining as such. 'On seeing their imaginations' portrays Jesus as a mind-reader and contrasts with 'on seeing their faith' in 9:2. In other words, the scholars' imagining that Jesus is blaspheming contrasts with the faith of those who brought the paralytic to him… 'But in order that you may know that the Son of Man ... has authority' contrasts with their 'imagining evil things.' See the comments on Mark 2:10-11 for the 'Son of Man.' 'Authority to forgiven sins' indicates that as 'the Son of Man on earth,' Jesus himself forgave sins rather than that he merely announced sins as forgiven by God in heaven. That is, the heavenly man-like figure of Daniel 7:13-14 exercised such authority on earth in the person of Jesus, for Jesus is that figure… As in 4:25-5:1; 7:28; 8:1, 18, 'the crowds' stand for Jesus' disciples who in contrast with the skeptical scholars fear God and glorify him (compare 10:28; 15:31; 17:6). Since Jesus forgave the paralytic's sins, we expect God to be described as the one 'who'd given such authority to the Son of Man,' that is, to Jesus. Instead, God is described as the one 'who'd given such authority to the human beings' (note the plural). Who are these human beings? They can hardly differ from Jesus' disciples, whom Matthew strikingly called 'the human beings' when Jesus calmed the storm (8:27). There, he called them such to make them a foil to deity. So too here. In other words, Jesus is the 'God with us' (1:23) who gives his disciples as human beings the authority to forgive sins. The disciples share HIS divine authority to forgive sins on earth (compare 16:19; 18:18; 20:23). And just as his healing of the paralytic demonstrated his authority to forgive sins on earth, so the authority he'll give his disciples to exorcise demons and heal the sick (10:1) will demonstrate the disciples' authority to forgive sins on earth. For Matthew, then, Jesus is the God whom the crowds of professing disciples fear and glorify; and Jesus' forgiving and healing the paralytic provides a model for their own forgiving of sins on Jesus' behalf and performing miraculous cures to substantiate the forgiveness. (But we shouldn't substitute the disciples' authority to forgive sins committed against God for their obligation to forgive those who've sinned against them.)” (Gundry, p. 35; bold emphasis ours)

That Gundry’s exegesis is correct can be easily proven from the fact that according to all three Synoptic Gospels Jesus is the One who gives his disciples the power and authority to perform miracles in his name:

“Jesus summoned His twelve disciples and GAVE THEM authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every kind of disease and every kind of sickness… These twelve Jesus sent out after instructing them: ‘Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you received, freely give.’” Matthew 10:1, 5-8

“And He went up on the mountain and summoned those whom He Himself wanted, and they came to Him. And He appointed twelve, so that they would be with Him and that He could send them out to preach, and to have authority to cast out the demons.” Mark 3:13-15

“And He summoned the twelve and began to send them out in pairs, and GAVE THEM authority over the unclean spirits; and He instructed them that they should take nothing for their journey, except a mere staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belt—but to wear sandals; and He added, ‘Do not put on two tunics.’ And He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave town. Any place that does not receive you or listen to you, as you go out from there, shake the dust off the soles of your feet for a testimony against them.’ They went out and preached that men should repent. And they were casting out many demons and were anointing with oil many sick people and healing them.” Mark 6:7-13

“And He called the twelve together, and gave them power and authority over all the demons and to heal diseases. And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to perform healing.” Luke 9:1-2

After one missionary journey, the disciples were so elated that they were able to subject and control unclean spirits in the name of the Lord Jesus:

“The seventy returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us IN YOUR NAME.” And He said to them, ‘I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning. Behold, I HAVE GIVEN YOU authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will injure you. Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.’” Luke 10:17-20

Nor were the disciples the only ones casting out demons in Jesus’ name:

“John said to Him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons IN YOUR NAME, and we tried to prevent him because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not hinder him, for there is no one who will perform a miracle IN MY NAME, and be able soon afterward to speak evil of Me.” Mark 9:38-39

“John answered and said, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons IN YOUR NAME; and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you.’” Luke 9:49-50

All of this proves that to Matthew, Jesus is the God who gives authority to men such as his disciples to perform miracles and pronounce forgiveness of sins in his name, by his authority, on his behalf, and for his glory!

So much for William’s tirade against the risen Lord and immortal Savior Jesus Christ, the Father’s beloved and unique Son.

Lord Jesus willing, more rebuttals to Williams’ rants are shortly forthcoming.