“Does any man have the right to forgive sins? Some suggest that Jesus granted this authority to the apostles, and then, through them, to others (see John 20:23). Can you explain this passage?”
Shortly before His ascension, Jesus said to his apostles:
“Whose soever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained” (Jn. 20:23).
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Christ was actually granting to the apostles the authority to forgive sins, and that the apostles passed on to their successors (supposedly the Roman priesthood) the same license to pardon sin.
This position is false. Consider the following points.
First, no interpretation is to be placed upon a difficult and obscure passage (such as this one) that would place it in direct conflict with numerous other clear texts.
The fact is, though all Christians are to forgive one another, i.e., have a forgiving disposition (Eph. 4:32), ultimately, only God can bestow absolute pardon (cf. Psa. 130:4; Isa. 43:25; Dan. 9:9; Mic. 7:18; Acts 8:22). The Lord did not grant that right to the apostles or anyone else.
Second, there is a biblical idiom whereby one sometimes is said to actually do what he is merely authorized to declare.
For example, Pharaoh’s butler said regarding Joseph,
“me he [Joseph] restored unto mine office, and him [the baker] he hanged” (Gen. 41:13).
Joseph did not actually restore the butler to his office, nor did he personally hang the baker. He merely announced, by prophetic insight, what the fate of these men would be.
Another example is found in Jeremiah.
“Then Jehovah put forth his hand, and touched my mouth; and Jehovah said unto me, ’Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth: see, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down and to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant (Jer. 1:10; emphasis added).
Notice the active verbs. Did God appoint the prophet to actually destroy and overthrow kingdoms (Jer. 1:10) or merely to declare their destiny? The answer should be obvious. See also Ezekiel 43:3.
Grammar in John 20:23
We should also consider this important point. The Greek tenses of John 20:23 make it clear that the apostles were authorized only to announce the terms of forgiveness on the basis of God’s previous appointment.
Literally, the text suggests:
“Those whose sins you forgive, have already been forgiven; those whose sins you do not forgive, have not already been forgiven.”
The first verbs in the two clauses are aorist tense forms, while the second verbs are in the perfect tense. The perfect tense verbs imply an abiding state which commenced before the action of the aorists.
In other words, the apostles (and others since that time) were only authorized to declare forgiveness consistent with what the Lord had already determined.
In a comprehensive treatment of this passage, noted Greek scholar J. R. Mantey pointed out that the Greek “fathers” never quoted this passage in support of the concept of absolution (243-249). (For further comment, see: Blackwelder, 80-81.)
Day of Pentecost
Finally, that the disciples were authorized to announce the terms of salvation rather than personally granting it is confirmed by the fact that on the day of Pentecost, in harmony with the Spirit’s guidance, they did not personally forgive the sins of anyone. Rather, they merely proclaimed the conditions of pardon to which men and women were amenable.
To believers who sincerely inquired: “What shall we do?”, Peter responded, “Repent ye, and be immersed every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins” (Acts 2:37-38). Subsequently the reader is informed that: “They then that received his word were immersed” (Acts 2:41).
Hence, we conclude, upon the basis of this testimony, that by means of that word, they received the forgiveness of their sins.
John 20:23 does not sanction the modern Catholic clergy procedure of granting absolution from sin.