John 20:23 is a key passage for Catholics when it comes to biblical evidence for the sacrament of confession: “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 would argue, that Jesus gave the apostles the authority to forgive sins.
But not so for Protestants. There are a few counterarguments that they think proves the Catholic reading of this text is false. We’re going to consider two of them here.
The first says Jesus’ instruction is merely a command to preach the forgiveness of sins. Protestants who make this claim argue that this is what Luke records in his parallel account: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures and said to them, ‘Thus it is written . . . that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:47, emphasis added).
According to this objection, Luke and John are describing the same event but express the instruction in different ways. It’s further argued that Luke’s version sheds light on the “forgive” and “retain” language in John’s Gospel: the apostles were to go out and preach the gospel, and if people responded, the apostles were to tell them that God had forgiven their sins. But if people didn’t respond, the apostles were to tell them that God had not forgiven their sins.
Does this objection have the force that some Protestants think it does? Let’s take a look.
It’s true that Jesus’ instruction in Luke’s Gospel refers only to the preaching of the forgiveness of sins. But the objection assumes that the sequence of events in which this instruction is included (Luke 24:44-52) happened on Easter Sunday, and thus that it’s the same as the instruction in John 20:23.
A careful reading, however, indicates otherwise.
Several times in the verses preceding the sequence of events in question (Luke 24:44-52), Luke uses time cues to indicate that what he’s recording took place on Easter Sunday: “On the first day of the week, at early dawn” (v. 1), “that very day” (v. 13), “that same hour” (v. 33).
But when Luke begins the sequence of events that includes the instruction to preach the forgiveness of sins, he doesn’t tie it to Easter Sunday. He drops the time cues and instead uses conjunctions in a rapid-fire manner starting in verse forty-four: “And then he said” (v. 44; see vv. 45, 50, 51, 52, 53).
This suggests that Luke is summarizing a series of events that took place over a period of time after Easter Sunday. What period of time was that? It was the period of forty days that Jesus spent with his disciples prior to the Ascension (Acts 1:3).
Notice that Luke connects Jesus’ instruction to preach the forgiveness of sins with his instruction to preach his name “to all nations,” and that they were to begin in Jerusalem (v. 47). He also includes the Father’s promise to “send power from on high” (v. 49).
These are all items that Luke includes in his list of things that Jesus taught his disciples during the forty days before and on the day of his ascension (see Acts 1:1-10). Therefore, these instructions, including the instruction to preach the forgiveness of sins, likely were not given in the upper room on the night of Jesus’ resurrection.
One could even read these instructions as given on the day of the Ascension, since it has to do preaching to the nations (see Matt. 28:19-20), and Luke places them right before he records the Ascension.
Since the event involving Jesus’ instruction to forgive and retain (John 20:23) is most likely not the same event as that of the instruction to preach the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47), the objection struggles to even get off the ground.
Forgiving and retaining
A Protestant might respond, “Even if these things didn’t occur on the same day, maybe they mean the same thing.” But this is problematic for a few reasons.
First, nowhere in the immediate context of John 20 does Jesus talk about the apostles going out to preach the gospel.
Second, the wording itself doesn’t suggest an instruction to preach. The actions that Jesus’ ministers are to perform are forgiving and retaining: “If you forgive . . . if you retain.”
Telling someone to forgive is not the same thing as telling someone to preach. When I tell my seven-year-old daughter to forgive her ten-year-old brother for pushing her, I don’t mean, “Tell him that he what he did was wrong and that he needs to repent in order for God to forgive him.”
To suggest that forgiving sins (and retaining sins) means the same as preaching the forgiveness of sins is take the text in an unnatural sense. And since there is no evidence in the context to suggest otherwise, we’re justified in taking the language in its natural sense.
Moreover, if Jesus meant what the objection suggests (tell people their sins will be forgiven or retained by God depending on whether they accept or reject the gospel), then why does he say the apostles are the ones who will be forgiving and retaining (“If you forgive . . . if you retain.”). Of course, God is the one who forgives and retains sins. But the apostles are the ones whom Jesus highlights as performing the action.
A difference in missions
A third problem with the assertion that the two instructions mean the same thing is that it fails to take into account the connection that Jesus makes between the mission on which his Father sent him and the mission on which he’s sending the apostles.
The Father didn’t send Jesus merely to preach the forgiveness of sins; he sent Jesus to actually forgive them. For example, Jesus didn’t just tell the paralytic in Mark 2:5 about the forgiveness of sins; he told him, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Jesus makes it clear that he is sending his ministers on the same mission as the Father sent him: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21, emphasis added). And lest there be any ambiguity as to what that mission is, he tells them specifically that the mission involves forgiving and retaining sins.
Since Jesus’ mission didn’t involve merely the preaching the forgiveness of sins but the actual forgiving of sins, and since Jesus is unequivocal about his apostles doing the same thing that his Father sent him to do, we can conclude that Jesus doesn’t intend that the apostles merely preach the forgiveness of sins but that they actually forgive them.
This makes sense out of the command to forgive or retain. Like Jesus, the apostles are to judge whether to forgive or not to forgive. And since God doesn’t ordinarily give his ministers the gift to read souls, this further implies that the penitent would need to confess his or her sins and express contrition.
It’s interesting that Catholics are often accused of not being biblical enough when the Catholic understanding of this verse (and others) takes what the verse actually says literally and thus is more biblical. Therefore, the “preaching” objection doesn’t undermine the use of John 20:23 in support of the sacrament of confession.
A second counterargument appeals to the ancient Greek text. Many argue that it 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 (Exodus from Rome, ch. 11; emphasis in original).
For Baker, the perfect tense of the Greek words translated “are forgiven” (apheontai) and “are retained” (kekratentai) 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?
A matter of tenses
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 (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 1441). He does so, however, through the ministry of the apostles (CCC 1495).
The real question at hand is: when does God do 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, teteleiotai—perfect passive].”
This has the same structure as John 20:23:
In 1 John 2:5, John uses the perfect tense of teteleiotai 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, katergetai—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, pepleroken—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 [JBL] 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,” aphiemi, 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, apheontai—perfect passive] you’ . . . Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you [Greek, apheontai—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, apheontai—perfect passive], for she loved much.”
Luke did not intend to use the perfect tense of aphiemi 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 aphiemi 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 apheontai 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).
It would be arbitrary to deny the apostles the prerogative to forgive sins on account of John’s use of the perfect tense of aphiemi but to accept such a prerogative for Jesus when the same word and tense is used by Luke. It would also be a failure to leave one’s preconceived beliefs about the sacrament of confession at the door of scriptural exegesis.
In sum, both counterarguments fail to undermine Catholics claims of John 20:23 providing biblical support for the sacrament of confession. Jesus is not telling the apostles to preach the forgiveness of sins, and John’s use of the perfect tense of aphiemi doesn’t mean the apostles were to declare what God had already forgiven or retained.
If a Protestant wants to challenge the Catholic reading of John 20:23, he’s going to have to do so on other grounds.
But 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).
Sidebar 1: A Reasonable Inference
Some Protestants argue that if Jesus intended the apostles to forgive and retain sins as Catholics claim, then we’d have evidence of the apostles doing so. But since there is no evidence of the apostles administering the sacrament of confession, it follows that Jesus must not have intended the apostles to forgive and retain sins as Catholics claim.
It’s true there is no direct evidence that they did. However, we can reasonably infer that they did.
First, it would not make sense for the apostles to receive this command from Christ and never carry it out.
Jesus gives the apostles the command to baptize “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Now, nowhere in the Bible does it say that the apostles actually baptized with that formula, yet we can reasonably conclude the apostles baptized with the trinitarian formula. Why would Matthew record such a command if it was a command that was never carried out?
Similarly, John’s record of the command to forgive and retain sin gives reason to infer that the apostles would have administered the sacrament of confession.
A second response is that there is direct evidence that at least the “presbyters” of the early Church administered the sacrament:
Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders [Greek, presbuteros] of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14-15).
The apostolic office, the episkope (Acts 1:20), is the fullness of the presbyterate office. If the presbyters of the first-century Church anointed the sick with oil and forgave sins, it’s reasonable to conclude that the apostles would have done so as well.
Sidebar 2: The Apostles’ Successors
Early Christian sources testify that bishops succeeded the apostles in the apostolic office (see Clement of Rome’s First Letter to the Corinthians, ch. 44). They also testify that bishops, as the apostles’ successors, had the authority to forgive sins. Consider the prayer that a bishop is to pray when conducting the ordination of a new bishop:
O, God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . pour forth the power that is from you, of “the princely Spirit” that you delivered to your beloved Child, Jesus Christ, and that he bestowed on your holy apostles. . . .
Father, grant this servant, whom you have chosen for the episcopate, to feed your holy flock and serve as your high priest blamelessly night and day, and unceasingly turn away wrath from your face and offer to you the gifts of the holy Church. And that by the high priestly Spirit he may have authority “to forgive sins” according to your command (St. Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 2-3; c. A.D. 215).
If the early Church believed that bishops had authority to forgive sins, and the early Church also believed that bishops receive their authority inasmuch as they succeed the apostles, then it follows the early Church believed the apostles had authority to forgive sins. And where in the Bible might they have gotten that belief? I think John 20:23 is a likely candidate.
St. John Chrysostom concurs: “It would not be wrong, however, to say that they received then the gift of a certain spiritual power, not to raise the dead and do miracles, but to remit sins: Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them, and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained” (Homily 86, in Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels, Collected out of the Works of the Fathers: St. John, vol. 4, 607).