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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
What did Jesus have in mind when, according to John 20:23, He gave His disciples authority to forgive sins?
This passage has been debated for centuries, particularly during and after the Protestant Reformation. Forgiveness of sin is essentially an act of divine grace toward rebellious creatures made possible through the costly sacrifice of Jesus. Whatever conclusion we reach on the meaning of this text, we have to remain within that particular understanding.
1. Forgiveness and Personal Offenses: God’s forgiving disposition is expected to be practiced by human beings. Jesus said: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him” (Luke 17:3, 4).* This generous spirit is modeled after God’s infinite disposition to forgive us our sins: “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:32).
2. Forgiveness and Church Discipline: Although the verb “to forgive” is not employed in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18, the context of the last verse suggests that the authority to “bind” and to “loose” includes the idea of disciplining members or forgiving the offenses of those who repented. This responsibility was given to the church and not to a particular individual within the church. It is true that at first Jesus was addressing Peter (Matt. 16:19), but the same was said to the disciples (Matt. 18:18) and through them to the church. The text could be translated literally: “Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” The church’s decision must reflect a decision previously made in heaven. This is possible only through a knowledge of God’s will as revealed in the Scriptures.
3. Forgiveness and the Proclamation of the Gospel: John 20:23 does not seem to fit either of the two previous cases. Yes, Jesus is addressing the disciples, but they stand in the text as representatives of the church(es). Through them Jesus is instructing the church.
First, we must examine the context. After the Resurrection Jesus appears to the disciples, greets them, and says, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:27). Then He gives them the Holy Spirit. Jesus is commissioning the disciples, incorporating them into the mission the Father entrusted to Him. They are empowered through the Spirit: “If they forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (verse 23). They are to go out to the world and forgive or not forgive sins.
Second, there is nothing in the text to suggest that Jesus is instituting the ecclesiastical practice of auricular confession, or the absolution of postbaptismal sins by a church officer. Those are later developments in the life of the postapostolic church and should not be read into this text.
Third, John knows that when we confess our sins to God they are forgiven through Christ (1 John 1:9). Christ continues to be our atoning sacrifice before the Father, and the forgiving power of His sacrifice is not temporally limited in any way (1 John 2:1, 2; 4:10).
Finally, since Christ’s command to the disciples is in fact the evangelical commission, we can use other biblical passages dealing with that commission to interpret John 20:23. In other words, clearer passages should be used in order to understand a difficult one better. In this case Luke 24:47 is useful.
After His resurrection Christ appeared to the disciples and said to them: “Repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” The disciples and the church forgive sins in the sense that they confront humanity with the gospel of judgment and salvation (John 3:16; 12:31). Individuals react to that proclamation, and the church decides who is to join it and who is not to join it.
In other words, the authority bestowed on the church by Christ—to forgive or not to forgive—is the authority to preach the gospel and to decide who can or cannot be baptized. It is a tremendous responsibility that should not be taken lightly.*Bible texts in this article are quoted from the New International Version.