Questions From Readers
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.” Do these words mean that Christians can forgive sins?
There is no Scriptural basis for concluding that Christians in general, or even appointed elders in the congregations, have divine authority to forgive sins. Yet, what Jesus said to his disciples at John 20:23, quoted above, indicates that God granted the apostles special powers in this regard. And Jesus’ statement there may relate to what he said at Matthew 18:18 about heavenly decisions.
Christians can forgive certain offenses, in line with the apostle Paul’s counsel recorded at Ephesians 4:32: “Become kind to one another, tenderly compassionate, freely forgiving one another just as God also by Christ freely forgave you.” Paul was here speaking about personal problems between Christians, such as careless talk. They should strive to settle these matters, forgiving one another. Recall Jesus’ words: “If, then, you are bringing your gift to the altar and you there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar, and go away; first make your peace with your brother, and then, when you have come back, offer up your gift.”—Matthew 5:23, 24; 1 Peter 4:8.
However, the context of John 20:23 suggests that Jesus was referring to more serious sins, as indicated by what else he then said to this distinct audience. Let us see why.
On the day that he was resurrected, Jesus appeared to the disciples in a locked room in Jerusalem. The account says: “Jesus, therefore, said to them again: ‘May you have peace. Just as the Father has sent me forth, I also am sending you.’ And after he said this he blew upon them and said to them: ‘Receive holy spirit. 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.
Likely, the disciples mentioned were principally the faithful apostles. (Compare Joh 20 verse 24.) By blowing on them and saying, “Receive holy spirit,” Jesus symbolically gave them notice that soon holy spirit would be poured out on them. Jesus went on to say that they would have authority concerning forgiveness of sins. Reasonably, his two statements are linked, one leading to the next.
Fifty days from his resurrection, on the day of Pentecost, Jesus poured out holy spirit. What did that accomplish? For one thing, those who received the spirit were born again as spiritual sons of God with the hope of being corulers with Christ in heaven. (John 3:3-5; Romans 8:15-17; 2 Corinthians 1:22) But that outpouring of spirit did more. Some recipients gained miraculous powers. By that means some could speak in foreign tongues that they did not know. Others could prophesy. Yet others could heal the sick or raise the dead to life.—1 Corinthians 12:4-11.
Since Jesus’ words at John 20:22 pointed to this outpouring of holy spirit on the disciples, his connected words about forgiving sins seem to mean that the apostles had divinely provided to them through an operation of the spirit a unique authority to forgive or retain sins.—See The Watchtower, March 1, 1949, page 78.
The Bible does not give us a complete account of every time the apostles used such authority, but neither does it record every case when they used a miraculous gift to speak in tongues, to prophesy, or to heal.—2 Corinthians 12:12; Galatians 3:5; Hebrews 2:4.
One case that involved apostolic authority to forgive or retain sins involved Ananias and Sapphira, who played false to the spirit. Peter, who heard Jesus utter what we read at John 20:22, 23, exposed Ananias and Sapphira. Peter first addressed Ananias, who died on the spot. When Sapphira later came in and kept up the falsehood, Peter proclaimed her judgment. Peter did not forgive her sin but said: “Look! The feet of those who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” She too died on the spot.—Acts 5:1-11.
In this instance the apostle Peter used special authority to express a definite retaining of sin, a miraculous knowledge that God would not pardon the sin of Ananias and Sapphira. The apostles also appear to have had superhuman insight into cases where they were sure that sins had been forgiven on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice. So those spirit-empowered apostles could declare the forgiveness or retention of sins.*
This is not to say that all spirit-anointed elders back then had such miraculous authority. We can see that from what the apostle Paul said about the man disfellowshipped from the Corinthian congregation. Paul did not say, ‘I forgive that man’s sins’ or even, ‘I know that the man has been forgiven in heaven, so accept him back.’ Rather, Paul urged the entire congregation to forgive this reinstated Christian and show love for him. Paul added: “Anything you kindly forgive anyone, I do too.”—2 Corinthians 2:5-11.
Once the man was reinstated into the congregation, all the Christian brothers and sisters could forgive in the sense of not holding against him what he had done. First, though, he would have to repent and be reinstated. How would that occur?
There are serious sins that congregation elders have to handle, such as stealing, lying, or gross immorality. They try to correct and reprove such wrongdoers, moving them to repentance. But if someone unrepentantly practices grave sin, these elders apply the divine direction to disfellowship the wrongdoer. (1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 11-13) What Jesus said at John 20:23 does not apply in such cases. These elders do not have miraculous gifts of the spirit, such as the ability to heal the physically sick or raise the dead; those gifts served their purpose in the first century and then ended. (1 Corinthians 13:8-10) Furthermore, elders today do not have divine authority to forgive serious wrongdoing in the sense of pronouncing a serious sinner clean in the eyes of Jehovah. This kind of forgiveness has to be on the basis of the ransom sacrifice, and only Jehovah can forgive on that basis.—Psalm 32:5; Matthew 6:9, 12; 1 John 1:9.
As in the case of the man in ancient Corinth, when a gross sinner refuses to repent, he has to be disfellowshipped. If he later repents and produces works befitting repentance, divine forgiveness is possible. (Acts 26:20) In such a situation, the Scriptures give the elders reason to believe that Jehovah has indeed forgiven the wrongdoer. Then, once the person is reinstated, the elders can help him spiritually to become firm in the faith. The others in the congregation can forgive in the same way the Corinthian Christians forgave the disfellowshipped man who was reinstated back then.
In handling matters this way, the elders do not make up their own standards of judgment. They apply Bible principles and closely follow Scriptural procedures that Jehovah set out. Hence, any forgiving or not forgiving on the part of the elders would be in the sense of Jesus’ words at Matthew 18:18: “Truly I say to you men, Whatever things you may bind on earth will be things bound in heaven, and whatever things you may loose on earth will be things loosed in heaven.” Their actions would simply reflect Jehovah’s view of matters as presented in the Bible.
Consequently, what Jesus said, as recorded at John 20:23, is not in conflict with the rest of the Scriptures, but it indicates that the apostles had a special authorization regarding forgiveness, in line with their special role in the infancy of the Christian congregation.
Even before Jesus died and provided the ransom, he had authority to say that someone’s sins were forgiven.—Matthew 9:2-6; compare “Questions From Readers” in The Watchtower of June 1, 1995.