Forgiveness does not exist outside of the church. Both in concept and in practice, it only exists, is only possible, is only found, in the Church. Period. Allow me to define these terms.
The Church is all saints of Jesus Christ both living and dead, sometimes called “militant” and “triumphant”. The Church triumphant rests from their labors, and await the resurrection of the dead in peace—their bodies on earth, their souls with Christ in heaven. The Church militant, the still-living saints, gather together on a regular basis to receive the means of grace—the preached Word and the Sacraments. They offer their lives as living sacrifices in service to those around them the rest of the week. This is the design, and it is unimpeachable. Asking for clarification on “going to church vs. belonging to Christ” is like asking if you could be married to someone but not actually live together, see each other, or even talk. I guess … technically? Actually, asking a pastor for clarification on what “counts” as church attendance is like getting pulled over and asking the cop to pretty please not look in the trunk. I already got your number pal, and I’m smarter than I look.
Forgiveness is the cancellation of a debt. As when a loan is forgiven, you don’t have to pay the rest. However, someone has to pay—it just isn’t you. A cancelled loan means the lender eats the cost, or else spreads the cost to other lenders … or taxpayers (shh … no one tell Washington. Maybe they’ll keep photo-copying money into my bank account.)
When it comes to the forgiveness of your sins, they don’t just disappear into the ether. God doesn’t pretend they didn’t happen. Blood is still shed, it just isn’t your blood. Jesus Christ is the propitiation for your sin, and at your baptism all inherited and actual sin is transferred to His cross and empty tomb (Romans 6). In this way, forgiveness can be seen as more of a transferral than a cancellation, and the Church (the saints of Christ) are the only ones who experience this transferral. If this were not true, then there would be more than one way to the Father and Jesus himself would be a liar.
Put as plainly as possible, the world outside of the church just isn’t designed for forgiveness. Saying “forgiveness does not exist outside of the church” should be about as controversial and obvious as saying “a sea turtle cannot fly.” Of course that’s true. The world is broken. The world is cruel. The world is dangerous, retributive, and punitive. It will not swallow your debt to it because it has its own debts to swallow, and even if it could it doesn’t want to. Only Jesus cancels debt, and being a part of that fix eo ipso makes you a part of the church. Ergo: no church, no forgiveness. Period.
So why is everyone so surprised that the world is in bad shape right now? Why are we so incredulous at cancel culture, at political hypocrisy, at [fill in the blank]? I’m by no means innocent from outrage, but I’ve recently been thinking that my outrage at the world is sort of like getting mad at my dog because he howls instead of meows. Of course he howls … he’s a dog. Of course the world is unforgiving … it isn’t the church. I’m the idiot if I think it should be some other way.