Did Jesus give His apostles authority to forgive or not forgive sins? If so, did that carry over to His ministers today? Who is really able to forgive sins?
After His resurrection, 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” (John 20:23).
The majority of Bible translations use similar wording here, making it sound like God has given the ministry of the Church the authority to forgive or retain sins. This perception has been more prevalent in the Catholic Church.
The proper translation of John 20:23
One of the few translations that reflect key Greek nuances here is the New American Standard Bible: “If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained” (emphasis added throughout).
The NASB Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible adds the following marginal note: “have previously been forgiven” (Spiros Zodhiates, Th.D.).
Therefore, the NASB better reflects the fact that these individuals’ sins will have already been forgiven or retained by God before the apostles’ recognition of the same. This is not just a matter of picking a translation that says what we want it to say. The word forgiven is in the perfect tense.
Glossary of Morpho-Syntactic Database Terminology explains the perfect tense as follows:
“The verb tense used by the writer to describe a completed verbal action that occurred in the past but which produced a state of being or a result that exists in the present (in relation to the writer).”
Jesus’ words in John 20:23 were stated immediately after alluding to a tool in this process that that would be new to them: “He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (verse 22).
Of course, they didn’t have God’s Spirit dwelling in them until several weeks later on Pentecost (John 14:17).
Nevertheless, this tool would allow the apostles to make Spirit-led judgments. Christ’s breathing on them was symbolic of their receiving God’s Spirit. And verse 23 represents the fruit of God’s Spirit, that is, they will be inspired to either pardon or discipline people according to what has already been bound by God.
At the same time, God never binds anything that truly contradicts His will or approval.
For example, Paul determined that Church members in Corinth shouldn’t have tolerated the man involved in sexual immorality with his stepmother: “Your glorying is not good” (1 Corinthians 5:1-6).
However, about a year later, Paul told them that the man’s punishment and repentance were “sufficient” for them to “forgive and comfort him” (2 Corinthians 2:6-7).
Both the punishment and pardon were Spirit-led judgments.
Binding and loosing in Matthew 18:18 and Matthew 16:19
The same principle and Greek grammar are found in Matthew 18:18: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Several other translations bring out the proper meaning here:
- “Whatever you forbid ... on earth must be what is already forbidden in heaven” (Amplified Bible).
- “Whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven” (English Majority Text).
- “Whatever you bind on the earth will be, having been bound in Heaven” (Literal Translation Version).
- “Whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (NASB).
Likewise, this principle and Greek grammar apply to the wording in Matthew 16:19.
The proper translation of these three accounts underscores that God determines that which is bound or loosed, as opposed to leaving such decisions solely in the hands of men.The proper translation of these three accounts underscores that God determines that which is bound or loosed, as opposed to leaving such decisions solely in the hands of men.
Consider the Old Testament model of judgment
Some of Israel’s leaders (elders, judges, kings, officers, etc.) received God’s Spirit (Numbers 11:16-17).
Moses expressed the following during the early stages of the administrative system of judges: “You shall not show partiality in judgment; you shall hear the small as well as the great; you shall not be afraid in any man’s presence, for the judgment is God’s. The case that is too hard for you, bring to me, and I will hear it” (Deuteronomy 1:17).
When a judgment is Spirit-led, then the “judgment is God’s.” The same was true for the judgments that Moses would make in the more difficult cases brought to him.
This reality was even more applicable for the New Testament apostles, who, in compliance with John 20:23, would judge an entire body that—for the first time—would be comprised of Spirit-filled members (God’s Church).
Only God can fully forgive sin
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God’s forgiveness is supreme in that He cleanses one from sin or “blots out your transgressions” (Isaiah 43:25). This authority is reserved for God. As Mark 2:7 states, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Now, as Christians, we should “forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12), but this falls short of clearing one’s sins. Our forgiveness involves letting go of grudges, “lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:15). And this can be extended repeatedly—the implied meaning of “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). (Study more about this in our articles “How to Forgive” and “Grudges.”)
Nevertheless, we don’t have divine authority to both forgive and cleanse anyone’s sins—only God can do that.
The judgment is God’s
God doesn’t wait to see whom men will forgive before He forgives a person’s sins (upon repentance). Instead, God’s leadership strives to come to Spirit-led judgments, representing outcomes that God will have already determined as right or wrong.
Ultimately, the judgment is God’s!
Study more about judgment, repentance and forgiveness in our articles “Judgment of God: The Real Story,” “How to Repent” and “What Is Forgiveness?”