Questions From Readers
● Does John 20:23 mean that some humans are authorized to forgive sins?—F. M., U.S.A.
It is to be noted at the outset that what we are considering are sins against God or a breaking of one of God’s laws such as by stealing, lying or committing sexual immorality. Occasionally someone may “sin” against a Christian by acting rudely, gossiping about him or in some other way personally transgress against the Christian. The Bible urges us to be forgiving in such cases. (Eph. 4:32; 1 Pet. 4:8) But what about serious sins against God in heaven?
The occasion of the statement at John 20:23 was an appearance of Christ to “the disciples” following his resurrection. After telling them that he was sending them forth, and indicating that they would soon receive holy spirit, Jesus said: “If you forgive the sins of any persons, they stand forgiven to them; if you retain those of any persons, they stand retained.”—John 20:21-23.
While this verse Joh 20:21-23 alone might seem to be saying that the apostles could forgive sins, we cannot ignore the testimony of the rest of the Bible. We need to be like the noble-minded Beroeans in “carefully examining the Scriptures” to see what is so.—Acts 17:11.
When King David sinned, from whom did he seek forgiveness? In his time there were God-ordained Jewish priests serving at the tabernacle. Still, David wrote: “I said: ‘I shall make confession over my transgressions to Jehovah.’ And you yourself [God] pardoned the error of my sins.” (Ps. 32:5) Did Jesus change this when he came? No, for he taught us to pray: “Our Father in the heavens, . . . forgive us our debts [or trespasses].” (Matt. 6:9, 12) And that is how Jesus’ disciples understood the matter. They knew that it was not some man, but God, who could ‘forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’—1 John 1:9.
How, then, were the disciples to whom Jesus addressed the words at John 20:23 involved in the matter of forgiveness? A comment Christ made earlier sheds light on this. In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus explained what one should do if his spiritual brother sinned against him. The final step was for the matter to be heard by the spiritually older men of the congregation. (Jas. 5:14, 15) If the sinner refused to repent of his serious sin, he was to be expelled from the congregation. Was it a matter of some men deciding to forgive or retain his sins? No, they would simply be acting in accord with what they could conclude would already have been done in heaven. How would they know this? By what God has revealed in his Word on such matters.—2 Tim. 3:16, 17.
This is evident from Jesus’ next words: “Truly I say to you, whatever you shall bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18, New American Standard Bible; see also NW, Ro, The New Testament by C. B. Williams) Though some Bible versions render this verse in a way that suggests that the heavenly action occurs after the earthly decision, noted Bible translator Robert Young said that it literally should be: “shall be that which has been bound (already).”
Hence, if a Christian was lying, for example, and when the older men of the congregation met with him about it he refused to repent of his dishonest course, God’s view, as revealed in his Word, would already be known. If a sinner would repent, God would forgive him. (Isa. 55:7) And Jehovah would forgive one who sinned unintentionally. But he would not forgive an intentional, unrepentant sinner. (Num. 15:22-31) Knowing this, the representatives of the congregation could decide from the facts and the sinner’s attitude how to deal with him. And since they know from the Bible what God’s view is, their decision about whether to expel from the congregation one who had sinned should be what God had already decided in heaven.
That the above is how Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23 were understood by first-century Christians is plain from 1 Corinthians, chapter five. There was a willful, unrepentant sinner in the Corinthian congregation. Could the older men of that congregation or even the apostle Paul personally ‘forgive the sins of that person’ or ‘retain the sins of that person’? No, but because they knew God’s estimation of such an unrepentant sinner, they were obliged to expel him from the congregation, demonstrating to all that evidently his sins were being “retained” on him by God and not forgiven.
While Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23 may have been spoken directly to the apostles, it is clear from what Paul wrote the Corinthians that the spiritually older men in each congregation were to apply Jesus’ words. This can also be seen in the messages to the congregations in Pergamum and Thyatira. (Rev. 2:12-16, 20-24) Christ held it against those congregations that they did not expel wrongdoers, thus binding on earth what was already bound in heaven.
But when a sinner does repent, those acting for the congregation can allow him to continue in the congregation, or accept him back in if he had been disfellowshiped. Apparently this is what later happened in Corinth. Knowing that God would forgive such a one, Paul urged the Christians to accept him back into the congregation. (2 Cor. 2:6-8) They would not themselves be forgiving his sins; Jehovah alone could do that. But by acting in accord with the principles in God’s Word they could conclude that his sins were forgiven by God in heaven. Thus, John 20:23 would be true: “If you forgive the sins of any persons, they stand forgiven to them.”