Just for Catholics

Forgiving and Retaining Sins

Question: In John 20:23, Jesus told the disciples, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." You stated that it is clear that Jesus gave them power to forgive. This verse has never been a clear statement to me. What is the meaning?

Answer: I appreciate your difficulties and problems in understanding John 20:23. I also struggled with its interpretation because I honestly wanted to know its correct meaning. The issue - forgiveness of sins - is absolutely vital to all of us, whether Catholic, Evangelical, and indeed all people. All of us are sinners, all of us need to know how to receive God's gracious pardon.

You write that it has never been a clear statement to you. Oftentimes our religious preconceptions dull our vision. To a Roman Catholic the meaning is "obvious" - Jesus commissioned the priests to perform the sacrament of penance. He does not even realize that the essential aspects of the sacrament such as confession, or hearing confession by a priest, absolution, or performing penance, are not even mentioned. Similarly, an Evangelical sees the power to forgive linked to the preaching of the Gospel. He too does not notice that there is no mention of believing in Jesus or the preaching of the Gospel.

Forget for a moment your preconceptions, and ask yourself: Did Jesus give the apostles the power to remit sins? I trust that you would agree that, yes, a straightforward understanding of "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them" implies that Jesus gave the disciples power to forgive sin.

That leads us to ask another question. He gave them power to forgive, but what KIND of power did he give them? Or to put it in another way, He told them to forgive, but did He also tell them HOW they should forgive?

I don't think it is possible from this verse alone to answer that question. Yes, He gave them power to forgive, but in this context He does not state what kind of power He entrusted to them. We cannot simply assume that it is by absolution or by the preaching of the Gospel. The issue must be decided by referring to other portions of Scripture that deal with the same subject. Specifically we want to know how the apostles remitted sins.

Did the apostles hear confessions and prescribe penance? Did they assume the role of Judges and give judicial sentences in the Name of God (as the Catholic church teaches)? Or did they proclaim the Gospel and assure believers that their sins are forgiven (as Evangelicals teach)?

If you are familiar with the Acts of the Apostles, and the rest of the New Testament, you should have no problem to identify which interpretation is consistent with the rest of the Bible.

In conclusion I say that Jesus gave the disciples power to forgive. This we know from John 20:23. Whether He gave them DECLARATIVE or JUDICIAL power; and whether He made the apostles PREACHERS or JUDGES must be established from the study of the New Testament. For further discussion, please read the following article: The Forgiveness of Sins.

Copyright Dr Joe Mizzi. Permission to copy and distribute this article without textual changes. < BACK TO Q&A