ist2_514311_absolution“In the Bible, we hear Jesus talk about “loosing and binding”. What in the world is he talking about?”

This question came up when Matthew 18:1-20 was the Gospel lesson for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost. Here’s some context.

Matthew 18:1-20 English Standard Version (ESV)

Who Is the Greatest?
18 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

Temptations to Sin
7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep
10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.

If Your Brother Sins Against You
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

While there’s so much to talk about in this passage, we’ll try to focus on that last underlined, bolded, and the italicized portion of text above. I do want to note as we think through this passage that this is all being said in response to the question, “Who is the greatest?” So who is the greatest? The one who is weak and needs the most help. Rather than the one with power and money needing the most attention, it’s the one who is the weakest and most vulnerable to be led into sin. They’re the ones who are in the greatest need of attention and care.

With regards to “binding and loosing,” the short answer is: “Jesus is talking about forgiveness.”

Dr. Jeff Gibbs does a great job laying this out in his commentary on Matthew. This is only a small portion of his fuller treatment of this section.

Accordingly, the binding or loosing of which Jesus speaks in 18:18 is precisely the retaining or the forgiving of sins. When concerned and loving Christians reprove one of the greatest in their midst and that brother repents and gain believes, his sins are loosed from him, released and forgiven. The word of forgiveness that the Christians speak together will be the earthly enactment and bestowal of what has already taken place in God’s own presence. In similar but sorrowful fashion, if the congregation finds that it must bind upon someone his or her sins and announce that the unrepentant sinner is no longer a Christian nor a member of the church, then that word that binds sins is a true word, fastening on earth what God has already done in heaven.

It needs to be said, of course, that in all of these matters, the promise in 18:18 applies only when Jesus’ disciples carry out their loving reproof and outreach in accordance with the truth. There is no basis for thinking that people can force God’s hand. In that sense, every word of loosing/forgiving or binding/retaining sins is contingent upon the truth, as the words of the absolution with which I was nurtured as a child make clear.

“Upon this your confession, I, by virtue of my office, as a called and ordained servant of the Word, announce the grace of God unto all of you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the father and othe Son and other Holy Ghost.”

If there has been no true confession, there is no forgiveness. On the other hand, if Christians have wrongly concluded that a brother or sister has left the fatih, then their word of exclusion is invalid. The necessity of uttering the appropriate declaration (“getting it right”) ought always and ever to add even more caution, care, and diligence to the task of urgently caring for one who is the most important in the congregation, the sinning brother or sister. – Concordia Commentary: Matthew 11:2-20:34, Jeffrey A. Gibbs pp. 922-923

Hopefully, that brief explanation regarding the loosing and binding language of the book of Matthew was helpful

If you have questions, feel free to let me know.

Blessings on your day!