Did you know that as a Christian, you have the authority to forgive sins? In John 20:23 Jesus instructed His disciples to forgive sins. But what does John 20:23 really mean, and how do we apply it? This principle has the potential to radically improve your evangelism and your church life.
The Community of Forgiveness
“Do you have any sin to confess?”
Every week I meet with a small group of men who are determined to grow in spiritual disciplines and remain devoted to accountability. We go through a list of questions about our relationship with Jesus and others. We allow each other to speak into those areas of our lives and pray for us. The first question we always ask is whether anyone has sin they would like to confess.
This may not be popular, but I firmly believe that we should confess our sins to one another (James 5:16). We certainly do not have to confess sin to anyone but God, and there is no compulsion to do so. But sometimes we need to confess to a brother. If we have sinned, especially consciously and deliberately, our conscience will attack us. It will tell us that what we have done is wrong and help us align with the truth. We need to agree with our conscience (“Yes, that was wrong”) and turn away from our sin. Then we need to let the blood of Jesus cleanse our conscience.
Often we need help from other believers in order to go through this process. That is what confession of sin is for. It reminds us of the truth. It communicates our willingness to turn away from sin and affirms our commitment to honesty. It helps the cleansing of our conscience.
Whenever someone confesses sin in our group, we immediately respond with the authority given to us in Christ: “You are forgiven in Jesus name.”
Every Christian has authority to forgive sins in Jesus’ name.
The Disciples’ Conscience
John 20:21-23 – So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (NKJV)
Jesus said these words after He had risen from the dead. The disciples were probably still reeling in shock. They had all scattered and fled when Jesus was arrested. They watched His crucifixion, most from a safe distance. They wondered if their movement was over. Had the Messiah failed? Had they been wrong?
Mary Magdalene had reported the empty tomb, and Peter and John had run to see it. It was empty. But where was Jesus? Mary claimed to have seen Jesus, but they hadn’t. They were waiting.
I wonder how they felt when Jesus did appear. They must have been afraid. Jesus had to address their fear twice in John 20. They were probably in shock. They also probably felt the pangs of conscience. They had deserted Jesus. Peter had denied Him. They had not been faithful.
Jesus spoke peace to them, commissioned them, breathed on them, told them to receive the Spirit, and then told these ordinary men that they had the authority to forgive sins. The thought of the day was, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7), but Jesus instructed otherwise.
What Does John 20:23 Mean?
John 20:23 has been the subject of controversy and different views since we’ve had the Scriptures. Many evangelical scholars believe this verse doesn’t mean that individual believers have the authority to forgive sins on their own but that in conjunction with verse 21 and 22 God has given the Church the authority to proclaim the gospel. Those who believe are forgiven, and those who do not believe do not have their sins forgiven (their sins are retained). They point to the passive tense in the Greek and believe that the Church has a passive role in declaring forgiveness in its proclamation of the Good News.
I agree with this interpretation but believe we should take our application of this truth much further. We proclaim forgiveness to those who don’t believe and enforce it with those who receive the message. We announce that God forgives and has provided forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Those who acknowledge that they have sinned and need this forgiveness can put their faith in Jesus and enter into relationship with Him. We declare them forgiven and righteous and welcome them into the community.
I also believe that this verse relates to how we live in community today. The Church has the authority to discipline believers and enforce the forgiveness of those who believe. We do this by welcoming those who receive forgiveness into the church community. Those who refuse to admit that they need forgiveness and persist in sin in the community are disciplined (1 John 1:6-10, Matthew 18:15-20). Anyone who admits or confesses sin or wrongdoing and anyone who publicly repents of sin should be warmly welcomed by the community of faith and declared forgiven and righteous in Christ’s name. Anyone who persists in deliberate sin and refuses repentance should be warned. Those who persist in deliberate sin against the community should be disciplined by the church.
How Should we Express God’s Forgiveness?
Let’s make this practical. How can I apply my authority to forgive? It’s easy.
1) Proclaim the Good News that God has already demonstrated His love for the world through Jesus Christ and has provided for the forgiveness of sins. God offers forgiveness to all. Anyone can receive forgiveness by putting their faith in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, His resurrection, and His current Lordship (Romans 10:9-10). In order to do this they need to understand their need for forgiveness. They need to admit that they have sinned and need forgiveness.
God has already decided to forgive them. God has already provided for their forgiveness. God offers them forgiveness. He says, “I forgive you.” But unbelievers still need to receive it. To many unbelievers the words “God forgives you in Jesus,” don’t mean what they should because they refuse to acknowledge that they need forgiveness. This is why our Gospel proclamation must be accompanied by the power and conviction of the Holy Spirit.
When we proclaim, “God forgives you in Jesus’ name,” the recipient is genuinely forgiven. This doesn’t mean that they are righteous (that comes by faith). It doesn’t mean they are saved. But it does mean that their sin is no longer a barrier to starting a relationship with God.
2) Prophetically proclaim God’s forgiveness to your brothers and sisters in Christ every time they mention personal sin. If any believer, anywhere or at anytime, confesses sin, you have the right and ability to proclaim, “You are forgiven in the name of Jesus.” Jesus has given you the authority to forgive their sin. I have experienced so much life, joy, and freedom from confessing sin and hearing a brother in the Lord boldly and prophetically proclaim, “In Jesus name, you are forgiven!”
3) Participate in Church discipline. Church discipline can be scary for us, and this really deserves its own post. Let me simply encourage you to follow what Jesus commands in Matthew 18:15-20 in full expectation that any believer who sins will repent and receive forgiveness and fellowship in the Body of Christ. Anyone who repents will receive a new freedom in Christ and approval from the Church. Those who do not will become as outsiders. This too comes from the Lord and the authority of the Spirit as we protect the Body of Christ in a fallen world.
Practice Your Authority to Forgive Sins
Here is an exercise from my upcoming book Prophetic Transformation, which is definitely the next place to look for more information on how our proclamation of forgiveness and our authority to forgive fit into God’s plan for our holiness:
Get together with a close friend and read James 5:16. Take a moment to silently listen to the Lord and ask, “Is there any sin in my life I need to confess?”
Submission to Authority?
Confess to one another. When one confesses, let the other enforce God’s grace and forgiveness by saying, “You are forgiven in the name of Jesus.” Exercise your authority to forgive.
If the Lord does not bring anything to your mind to confess, don’t dig something up, and don’t pressure others to confess. Simply give the Lord the opportunity to work through confession. As you do you will find more freedom from sin and from a sensitive conscience. You will find yourself more conscious of the truth, more conscious of forgiveness, and closer to the Body of Christ.
May God richly bless you as you walk in the authority of the Spirit to express God’s forgiveness to others!