“Seeing their faith, Jesus told the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’ But some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts: ‘Why does he speak like this? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever prayed for someone else? I suspect you have. Even as our culture seems to grow more secular all the time, a sizable majority of people still claim prayer is something important in their lives in some form or fashion. And when we pray, we pray for ourselves, yes, but we also pray for others. But do those prayers really accomplish anything? Can they? We don’t necessarily get an answer to that question here, but we get some important evidence that prayer just may be a whole lot more powerful than we imagine.
Now, we started talking about this scene on Friday. What we talked about then was the fact that Jesus’ love drove Him to reward the faithfulness of this man’s friend by offering him the forgiveness of his sins. This broke a very important mold for the Pharisees and they didn’t handle it well.
That’s all well and good, but something else here really catches my eye, so I wanted to look at it again. Specifically, what Jesus says here raises a couple of questions worthy of our attention. One was asked by the Pharisees and we can see it right in the text. The other is one that a little bit of thought on the scene forces us to ask. One question is this: How can He do that? The other is this: Can we really do that?
Let’s take each of these in turn. The question the Pharisees asked was whether or not Jesus had permission to say what He said. Can He do that? Well, actually, it was more of an assertion in the form of a question. In their view—and ours too, by the way—only God can forgive sin. This is because all sin is ultimately against Him.
I can forgive you for sinning against me, but you’ve still got to deal with the One against whom your sin was really directed. When you chose to sin, I may have been hurt, but your real choice was to rebel against the character and authority of the one whose character made that action and the attitude behind it sinful in the first place. The universe is governed by His character, you violated it, and now you’re liable to Him.
For Jesus to look at this man who had done nothing to Him at all—at least as far as anyone there knew—and proclaim his sins generally to be forgiven was not just a bridge, but an ocean too far. He was claiming a prerogative that belonged singularly to God.
With a nod to C.S. Lewis, there were really only three options for how to interpret what Jesus said. Either He was a liar on par with the devil, He was crazy, or He really did have that authority. We know now, of course, that the third option was correct. As far as they were concerned, though, only the first or second, and probably a combination of the two, made any sense.
In their worrying about Jesus’ identity, though, they completely overlooked something that fairly jumps off the page—or screen, I guess—at me. That’s the second question. Can we really do that?
Here’s what I mean: Think about the details of the text here. Scroll back up and click through to the full passage and read it again. These four guys bring their friend to Jesus, and seeing their faith, Jesus forgives his sins. Say what, now? Their faith resulted in his forgiveness? How does that work? Or, like I’ve already put it, can we really do that?
Can we seek God’s forgiveness on behalf of someone other than ourselves? That seems like a strange idea. I mean, doesn’t God forgive those who are repentant? How can I repent for someone else? If I’m not guilty of the offense, what can I accomplish on their behalf?
Here are a couple of thoughts. First, there is precedent in the Scriptures for this kind of thing. Several times in the story of the Exodus, Moses repents on the part of the people even when they weren’t particularly repentant themselves, and God accepted his offering. The whole idea of the sacrificial system in the first place rests on the assumption that one thing (an animal) can pay the price for another (us). Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is absolutely dependent upon this being the case.
Second, and on the other side, while God may grant situational forgiveness of one person based on the confession of another, if the first person does not have a repentant heart, the forgiveness isn’t going to do a whole lot of good. They’ll go and sin again and again and again and eventually our intercession isn’t going to matter. What’s more, if the other person doesn’t make himself right with Jesus, God’s temporary forgiveness in such a way as might stave off their sin’s immediate consequences won’t do them any good either. They’re still going to pay the ultimate price.
So then, does it matter or not? Are we wasting our time or accomplishing something meaningful? The simple answer? It depends. Our prayers are ultimately no substitute for personal repentance and faithfulness. But they can help create a context in which those things are a whole lot more likely to develop than they will without our prayers.
That means it is not only right, but wise to actively intercede for those around us with the Father through Jesus. We seek His forgiveness of their sin because of what Jesus did on their behalf. And He will answer this prayer. They’ll get another chance to walk in the light as He is in the light. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking this is enough to save them (I’m looking at you parents of unbelieving children). It isn’t. They still need to come to faith on their own. Our doing intercession for them needs to be accompanied by our doing discipleship with them. That will create a context for the Spirit to move in their hearts which will make their eventual coming to faith all the more likely.
In the end, know this: Our prayers matter, but so does our Gospel involvement. Make sure you’re pursuing both.