“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Roman Catholic theology distinguishes between mortal sin and venial sin. Mortal sins are serious offenses against God that take one out of the state of salvation, while venial sins are less serious transgressions that harm our relationship with the Lord but do not take us out of a state of grace. Roman Catholicism prescribes the sacrament of reconciliation—penance—for the forgiveness of both kinds of sin. This sacrament involves private confession to a priest who, as God’s representative, absolves the penitent person. Penance is not absolutely required for the forgiveness of mortal sin, but Roman Catholicism mandates confession to a priest at least once a year, and it gives priests sacramental power to be conduits of divine grace and to forgive sin. Today’s passage is one biblical text to which Roman Catholics appeal as the basis for the sacrament of reconciliation or penance.
But when we look more closely at John 20:23, the text does not justify the Roman Catholic conclusions. The Roman Catholic teaching requires that the authority to forgive sins be conveyed uniquely to the Apostles and then to their successors, the priests and bishops, who have a special sacramental authority. But we find no indication that Jesus gave perpetual, sacramental authority to those who come after the Apostles. The Apostolic office is distinct in function and authority from the offices of elder and shepherd (Eph. 4:11), and at any rate, Jesus gives authority to forgive sins to the entire church, as we see in Matthew 18:15–20, not only to select individuals.
But when we speak of the church as having authority to forgive sins, what do we mean? Certainly not that the church has the right to do something that is exclusively God’s prerogative. The scribes and Pharisees were right to believe that only God can forgive sins even though they failed to see that Jesus has that right because He is God (Mark 2:1–12; see Micah 7:18). What we mean is that the church has the authority to declare that God has forgiven the sins of those who repent and trust in Christ. John 20:23 may be translated more literally as “if you forgive the sins of any, they have already been forgiven [by God].” The context of Jesus’ teaching is the commissioning of the disciples—and the wider church—to evangelize the world (John 20:21–22). God promises to forgive all those who turn from their sins and believe in Jesus, so we can tell people that God has in fact forgiven them when they trust in Christ alone (Rom. 5:1; 1 John 1:8–9).
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
James 5:16 exhorts us to confess our sins to one another. While confessing our private sins to others is not required to receive God’s forgiveness, there is benefit in such confession. Others can remind us of God’s promises to forgive our sins and declare that God has already forgiven us if we have repented and trusted in Christ. If you have trouble believing that God has forgiven you, consider confessing your sins to a Christian friend.