Jesus gave His followers authority to forgive sins in John 20:23, but does this mean what it seems to mean?
Last week I published an article by my friend Jonathan Ammon titled “God Wants to Forgive through You.” Jonathan gave great practical examples of what this can look like in the everyday life of the believer: proclaiming the Gospel, declaring forgiveness to other believers who confess sin to you, and participating in restorative church discipline.
A couple nights ago, a man named Sean commented to me on Facebook in reference to the article. He wrote:
I love ya Art, but this is too much. Only Jesus can forgive sins. There is not one verse where an apostle or disciple forgave someone’s sins. If we had that authority, we would have seen it practiced in the bible by others. The Greek word hamartia can also mean faults/failures, and I think that is much more applicable.
Protestant vs. Catholic Views on Jesus’ Commission to Forgive Sins
Sean’s view is a common one — especially among my fellow Protestant Christians. The main reason this is a popular view is that many Protestants try too hard to discredit Roman Catholicism. And since Catholic priests exercise the authority to forgive sins, some Protestant readers who have balked against such activities have tried to find ways to explain away John 20:23, where Jesus said, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
A more appropriate “Protestant position,” in my estimation, would be that this authority has been given to all believers, not just an elite priesthood.
The commission to the Twelve was a commission to all, as demonstrated in Matthew 28:19-20, when Jesus not only sent His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations” but added, “…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” If it was a command to the Twelve, it was a command to us all. Ephesians 2:6 tells us that all who are in Christ are presently seated with Him in the heavenly realms, which means we’ve been made partners in His authority. We all have a role to play in representing Him in the earth, and this proclamation of forgiveness is part of that picture. It’s part of the commission.
Theologian Craig Keener (one of my favorites, by the way) writes in his two-volume set on John (which I highly recommend for anyone who likes a scholarly approach to Scripture):
Immediately after breathing on them and announcing the Spirit, Jesus grants them the authority of representative forgiveness. It is anachronistic to read into this passage the later Catholic doctrine of penance or others’ views about admission to baptism; it is likewise anachronistic to read into it Protestant polemic against the Catholic interpretation of the passage. Read on its own terms, the passage makes good sense as it stands. (See The Gospel of John: A Commentary, page 1206.)
In other words, the verse reasonably means what it means at face value. Jesus gave His followers authority to forgive in His name. This doesn’t mean the Catholic view (of limiting this authority to an elite priesthood) is correct, but this also doesn’t automatically mean that Protestant arguments to the contrary should be read into the text. All these arguments belong to a different era. The verse says what it says.
“Only God Can Forgive Sins”
Neither Jonathan nor I would suggest that believers have an innate ability to forgive sins on our own, of our own accord. To do something “in Jesus’ name” means to do it on His behalf, with His authorization. It is to continue His ministry in the earth, which can only happen through partnership with Him (John 15:5).
In another (less complex) commentary, Keener states about John 20:23, “Acting as God’s agents (20:21) the disciples could pronounce the divine prerogative on His authority (i.e., pronouncing it when He would do so).” (See The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, page 311.) In other words, this ministry was not a matter of disciples choosing when to forgive or not of their own accord; it was a matter of the disciples ministering as agents of God, on behalf of Jesus — only as He authorizes.
When Jesus demonstrated how to minister God’s forgiveness of sins in Matthew 9:1-8, He stated, “…I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (verse 6). The term “son of man” here has two uses in Scripture. One is a name for the Messiah (as in Mark 14:61-62). The other is a general term for a human being (as happens throughout the book of Ezekiel). Which definition Jesus is using in His interaction with the paralyzed man is questionable. But note Matthew’s commentary on the situation.
Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, concludes the passage by saying, “When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man” (verse 8, emphasis mine). In other words, when Jesus used the term “son of man” in verse 6, this wasn’t necessarily in the Messianic sense but rather perhaps in the “humanity” sense. Regardless, however, the onlookers’ takeaway was not, “Wow! That guy is the Messiah!” Rather it was, “Wow! I had no idea God had given such authority to mere humans!”
My Reply to Sean’s Comment
Here is the answer I wrote to Sean on Facebook (with some minor edits for readability):
Thanks for the feedback, Sean. 🙂 You might be surprised to hear that I sort of agree with you. Here’s what I mean:
Only Jesus can heal. Not me. And yet He commands me to “heal the sick” (Matthew 10:8).
Only Jesus can raise the dead. Not me. And yet He commands me to “raise the dead” (also Matthew 10:8).
In John 15:5, Jesus said, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” Similarly, Jesus said that He could do nothing by Himself (John 5:19 and 5:30). The life Jesus lived as He walked this earth was as a complete human being (Hebrews 2:17). And during that life, Jesus surrendered His equality with the Father, taking the very nature of a servant (Philippians 2:5-8). The miracles and “good works” He did we’re not performed as God but as a human being in right relationship with God (Acts 10:38).
When the paralyzed man was lowered through the roof, Jesus forgave his sins first. Then, when everyone claimed it was impossible, Jesus proved His authority to forgive sins by healing the man.
In other words, the authority to heal and the authority to forgive sins are the same. If they were not, then the healing would not have proven anything. By using His authority to heal as proof of His authority to forgive, Jesus demonstrated that these are one and the same in principle: applications of the Kingdom through an earthly representative of the Father.
Remember, in John 14:12, Jesus promised that everyone who believes in Him would do “the same things I have been doing” (plus greater). [So if Jesus can forgive sins, we can forgive sins.] At the end of John’s Gospel, as Jesus came to initiate the fulfillment of His promise, He preceded His command to forgive sins with a powerful statement: “As the Father sent Me, so I send you” (John 20:21).
We are partners with Christ in the fulfillment of His mission. We can’t heal the sick, but He sends us to heal in His name. We can’t raise the dead, but He sends us to do so in His name. Likewise, we can’t forgive sins, but Jesus sends us to do so in His name. Whenever any of these work, it’s not because of our innate ability but because Jesus has done it through us.
As another thought, you suggested that “if we had that authority, we would have seen it practiced in the Bible by others.” In Matthew 10:8, Jesus gave us the authority to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the leper, and drive out demons.” We can find biblical examples of believers healing, delivering, and raising the dead; but we cannot find any examples of believers cleansing lepers. If we apply your argument here, then Jesus did not give His disciples authority to cleanse lepers because we never see an example of it. But that would require ignoring the plain reading of the text. The evidence of the authority they had is found in the command, not in whether or not there are anecdotal examples in Scripture.
In John 20:23, the command was, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” The Greek word used for “sins” here is “ἁμαρτία” (hamartia).
- This is the same Greek word used in Matthew 9:2-6, Mark 2:5-11, and Luke 5:20-24 as Jesus forgave “sins” and then healed the paralyzed man.
- It is the same word used in Matthew 1:21 when it is proclaimed that Jesus will “save people from their sins.”
- It is the same word used in Matthew 26:28 when Jesus said His blood was “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
- It’s the same word used by John the Baptist when he declared in John 1:29 that Jesus would take away “the sins of the world.”
- It is the same word used in John 8:24 when Jesus said people would die in their “sins” if they don’t believe in Him.
This same Greek word appears 174 times in 150 verses of the New Testament. I have checked every single verse, and without exception, every single use of the word means “sin” as we understand it. At no point is it intended to only mean “faults/failures.” So respectfully, it *seems* (forgive me if I’m oversimplifying your research into this) like you’re cherry-picking a definition from a dictionary that supports your view rather than looking at the overwhelming weight of evidence and scholarly commentary to the contrary. Reading John 20:23 in the context of forgiving actual sin is the most reasonable rendering of the verse.
Again, I agree with you that only Jesus can do it, but we are one with Him (1 Corinthians 6:17). We are participants in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). We no longer live, but Christ lives in us (Galatians 2:20). And we do everything He did as He walked this earth, plus greater (John 14:12; 1 John 2:6, and 4:17).
The declaration of God’s forgiveness is the mission of the believer. In Acts 13:38, we read, “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.” It’s “through Jesus”—not of our own accord. We could never proclaim such forgiveness without His authority or without union with Him. Naturally, a person has a decision as to whether or not they want to receive that forgiveness and be reconciled to God, but God is the initiator. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
I stand by Jonathan’s article and believe every Christian would benefit from joining Jesus in this ministry.
*It should be noted: There is a difference between forgiveness and salvation. When the paralyzed man was forgiven, the Holy Spirit did not come to live inside of him and make him a new creation. Forgiveness in this sense was invitational—granting a person freedom of conscience to approach God for salvation. We cannot save anybody through a proclamation of forgiveness. We can only remove relational barriers for the sake of giving them easier access in seeking God for their own salvation.
Thanks for taking the time to read my lengthy reply. Hopefully my intended respectful tone was conveyed throughout.
(If it wasn’t, please forgive me 😉)
There’s a Difference between Forgiveness and Reconciliation
As mentioned in my note at the end, there’s a difference between forgiveness and salvation. Along those same lines, there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is one-sided; reconciliation is two-sided.
If a person sins against me, I can forgive them in my heart, but this does not mean our relationship has been restored. I can even declare my forgiveness to them, and my forgiveness is very much real, regardless of whether or not they want to accept it. But until that person trusts my freely-offered forgiveness and is restored to me, the relationship will remain broken.
For this reason, Paul writes:
2 Corinthians 5:18-20 – All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. (NIV)
We can proclaim the Good news that God is “not counting people’s sins against them.” Even in the Old Testament, there was a recognition that “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love,” and, “he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:8,10). This reality of God’s proactive forgiveness — a forgiveness that is extended before we repent — is not what saves us or justifies us before our heavenly Judge. It merely means that:
- We’re allowed to continue living at the moment, even though we deserve death, so that we can perhaps hear the Gospel and repent, and
- Our Lord is waiting with open arms to receive us if we will heed His invitation to be reconciled.
Whenever we declare this forgiveness to people in Jesus’ name, they are alerted to the goodness of the God who beckons them. They are encouraged to surrender their independence and enter a life of communion and partnership with the Righteous One.
In short: If you’re already a believer, it is still meaningful to have someone reaffirm the forgiveness of God to you when you confess sin (as Jonathan discussed in his article). You also have the authority in Christ to declare that forgiveness to others on His behalf.
But if you need salvation, you don’t need a Christian to absolve you of sin. You might need a Christian to proclaim God’s forgiveness in the form of a Gospel presentation (and perhaps that’s what this article is), but there is nowhere to turn but to the God who already chose to forgive you 2,000 years ago.
In Jesus’ name, you are forgiven. Now, be reconciled to Him.
He’s waiting with open arms.