The ESV Study Bible and John 20:19-31


We are seeing an explosion of Study Bibles right now. The ELCA recently released a study bible, we have the new Orthodox Study Bible, the older Concordia Self-Study Bible, and the new ESV Study Bible. Of course, we also have THE Lutheran Study Bible. I’m very interested in study bibles, since they are so influential in how the typical pew sitter reads and understands the bible. So in the next few weeks especially I’ll be looking at the Gospel texts for the upcoming study in the context of these various study bibles.

Today’s note comes from the ESV Study Bible comment on John 20:23, often called the institution of the Office of the Ministry. Here’s what they say:

20:23 The expressions they are forgiven and it is withheld both represent perfect-tense verbs in Greek and could also be translated, “they have been forgiven” and “it has been withheld,” since the perfect gives the sense of completed past action with continuing results in the present. The idea is not that individual Christians or churches have authority on their own to forgive or not forgive people, but rather that as the church proclaims the gospel message of forgiveness of sins in the power of the Holy Spirit (see v. 22), it proclaims that those who believe in Jesus have their sins forgiven, and that those who do not believe in him do not have their sins forgiven—which simply reflects what God in heaven has already done (cf. note on Matt. 16:19).

The ESV Study Bible, which is published by Crossways Books, is a conservative evangelical study bible. It has a look of good features which I like very much. One of the awesome features about the ESV Study Bible is that it is available in Accordance, the awesome Mac bible software. But it is clearly Reformed in content and orientation, and it’s treatment of this text demonstrates this admirably.

In much Reformed thinking, the Office of the Ministry does not actually “do” anything. The believer is the active agent, especially in Arminian or decision theology type churches.

On of the ways this is handled is by undermining and underplaying the notion of authority in the New Testament. So here we see the ESV Study Bible say that “individual Christians or churches” don’t have the authority to forgive sins. Instead, the church/individuals proclaim a message of forgiveness. Forgiveness becomes information. The role of the church is simply to impart the information.

I’m not sure even where to begin to debunk this notion. Here are a few thoughts to begin with:

1) The Gospel is the “power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). In other words, the message actually DOES something.

2) St. Paul makes a direct connection in Romans 10 between the giving of the message and the sending of the messenger. “How can they hear unless they are sent?”

3) The text in John 20 does in fact say that the apostles are to forgive sins. “Whoever sins you forgive….” It doesn’t say tell about, or impart information. It does, however, hold up the reality that the forgiveness that the apostles are to deliver is not their own forgiveness, but it is the forgiveness Jesus won on the cross and which they not give out as Jesus “Sent ones” (apostles).

4) Matthew’s Gospel is filled with the understanding that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins (Matthew 9) and that He gives or delegates that authority to the apostles/the church (Matthew 16 & 28). That is the POINT of Matthew’s Gospel. God forgives sins, and that He uses earthly agents to do it.

5) If we rob the Church of the forgiveness of sins, then really the point of even having church becomes moot. If the Gospel is simply information, and isn’t transformative/creative, then I can simply read the book at home, or get the cliff notes at the library.

Now those are a few off the top of my head thoughts on this. I am looking forward to seeing what TLSB does with this text, because it is an important one for laying out what the purpose of the church really is.

Oh by the way, the ELCA bible (I refuse to call it either Lutheran or a study bible) has no mention of the forgiveness of sins, the office of the ministry, or authority at all. It says on John 20:31 that “the Gospel was written to bring others to faith and to help believers remain faithful.” How insightful.

So what have I missed here, people?

-Peperkorn (aka Lutheran Logomaniac)

One thought on “The ESV Study Bible and John 20:19-31

  1. Oh, that messy incarnational theology. It is so much neater and, well, ORDERLY, to have Jesus and God up there in heaven and us down here on earth, and only the twain shall meet in some spiritualized sense. You Lutherans, always getting your hands dirty…

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