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Finding the Sacrament of Confession in Biblical Grammar

Protestants can't object to the Catholic understanding of sacramental Confession on the basis of grammar in the Gospel of John

John 20:23 is a key passage for Catholics when it comes to biblical evidence for the Sacrament of Confession. It reads: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

It seems clear, so a Catholic might argue, that Jesus gave the apostles the authority to forgive sins.

But not so for Protestants. Many argue that the Greek text reveals that the forgiveness and retainment of sins is something God has already done before the apostles declare it to be so. Protestant apologist Todd Baker, a former Catholic, makes the argument this way:

The phrases Jesus spoke “are forgiven” and “are retained,” are spoken in the perfect tense. The verse would then literally read: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are already forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are already retained.” Anyone familiar with Greek grammar here will know the perfect tense normally expresses a past action completed with ongoing results. Therefore, the forgiveness or the retainment of sins has already occurred prior to the disciples’ ability to declare this to be so. The perfect tenses used in John 20:23 are in the passive voice and at once show it is God who is acting alone, either to forgive or retain the sins of the one being acted upon. Jesus is giving the authority for the disciple to affirm or deny this is the case, where God has already determined the results of either action (emphasis in original).

For Baker, the perfect tense of the Greek words translated “are forgiven” (apheōntai) and “are retained” (kekratēntai) implies an abiding state that began before the actions of “forgiving” and “retaining” are accomplished. And this, Baker argues, implies God is the one forgiving and retaining, not the apostles.

How should we respond?

We need to first point out that the question is not whether God is the one forgiving or retaining. The Catholic Church affirms that God forgives (and retains) in the Sacrament of Confession (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1441). He just does so through the ministry of the apostles (CCC 1495).

The real question at hand is when God does this.

Baker assumes that the use of a perfect tense in the second part of a conditional statement—called the apodosis (“they are forgiven”)—necessarily refers to an action that is prior to the first part of the conditional statement—called the protasis (“If you forgive the sins of any”). This is why he interprets the passage to mean that the apostles merely declare what God has already done.

But Baker’s assumption is false. Consider what John, the same author, says in 1 John 2:5: “Whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected [Greek, teteleiōtai—perfect passive].”

This has the same structure as John 20:23:

Protasis Apodosis
John 20:23 “If you forgive the sins of any” “they are forgiven [perfect passive]”
1 John 2:5 “Whoever keeps his word” “in him truly love for God is perfected [perfect passive]”

In 1 John 2:5, John uses the perfect tense of teteleiōtai in the apodosis and yet the perfection is accomplished not before the keeping of Christ’s word, as Baker’s grammatical principle would require, but at the time of keeping Christ’s word. Clearly, his use of it implies an action that occurs when the condition stated in the protasis is fulfilled.

Here are some other passages where the action of the perfect tense in the apodosis doesn’t occur before the fulfillment of the protasis but at the time thereof:

  • James 2:10—“Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become [Greek, gegonen—perfect active] guilty of all of it.” The guilt is incurred at the time of failing in one point of the law.
  • Romans 7:2—“A married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies she is discharged [Greek, katērgētai—perfect passive] from the law concerning the husband.” The discharging from the law becomes real upon the woman’s husband dying.
  • Romans 13:8—“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled [Greek, peplērōken—perfect active] the law.” The law is fulfilled when one loves his neighbor.
  • Romans 14:23—“He who has doubts is condemned [Greek, katakekritai—perfect passive], if he eats.” Condemnation takes effect when the doubt occurs.

In light of these passages, we can conclude with the late American bible scholar Henry J. Cadbury, “one may simply assert that the action or condition implied in the perfect is not necessarily prior to that of the other clause” (Journal of Biblical Literature 58, n. 3).

So, Baker’s grammatical principle simply does not hold when compared to similar passages.

But we can go further in defending the Catholic understanding. Elsewhere in the Bible, the Greek word translated as “are forgiven,” aphiēmi, is used in the perfect tense and connotes sins being forgiven upon the action of the absolver. Consider, for example, Luke 5:20 and 23, wherein Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic: “And when he saw their faith he said, ‘Man, your sins are forgiven [Greek, apheōntai—perfect passive] you’ . . . Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you [Greek, apheōntai—perfect passive],’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk?’”

Another example is Luke 7:47. Jesus forgives the woman who anointed his head at the house of Simon the Pharisee: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven [Greek, apheōntai—perfect passive], for she loved much.”

Luke did not intend to use the perfect tense of aphiēmi in these passages to dissociate the forgiveness of sins from Jesus’ declaration of the fact. Rather, Luke, like the bystanders, understood Jesus’ words as a claim to forgive sins at the moment he said they were forgiven.

Consider what Luke records in both passages immediately following Jesus’ pronouncements:

  • Luke 5:21—“And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this that speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only?”
  • Luke 7:49—“Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”

If we’re not going to dissociate the forgiveness of sins from Jesus’ act of forgiving on account of the perfect tense of aphiēmi in these passages from the Gospel of Luke, then we shouldn’t do so for the apostles in John 20:23. As Cadbury writes, “Shall we accept a ‘sacerdotalism’ for Jesus from apheōntai in Luke and deny sacerdotalism for the apostles from the same word in John? Is it not better to treat the cases more alike” (JBL 58, n. 3)?

For Baker to deny the apostles the prerogative to forgive sins on account of John’s use of the perfect tense of aphiēmi but to accept such a prerogative for Jesus when the same word and tense is used by Luke would be arbitrary. It would also be a failure to leave his preconceived beliefs about the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the door of scriptural exegesis.

In sum, John’s use of the perfect tense of aphiēmi in John 20:23 fails to undermine Catholic claims of biblical support for the Sacrament of Confession. If a Protestant wants to object to such a reading, they’re going to have to do so on other grounds. And that’s going to be hard because the context shows Jesus empowering his disciples to do that which he commands them to do: “He breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23).

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