Day 137: John 20:19-23 (spring AD 30, Sunday – the final evening of Passion Week, and one week later)
“If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven” (verse 23)
This verse has led to much confusion, being leveraged by those who seek an unbiblical power and authority over people. Those who consider themselves to have, or be the custodians of, an imagined divine authority to forgive sins. Catholicism says that if God gave the apostles the authority to forgive sins (which they think is what this verse means), then he’s given it to some of us, too, in the context of organised church. Therefore, if you want forgiveness you need to be in the church building, doing what the head of that church tells you.
Such was the life of the church, increasingly, during the years 400-1500AD while there was so little access to the Bible in the language of the people, and while the authority of the church remained absolute in Europe. The corruption of church leaders and wilful keeping of people away from God’s Word, is what gave rise to protests and the desire for reform, culminating in the Reformation and Protestants.
But this idea of God giving to people the authority to forgive sins, falls away quickly for two reasons. First, these verses are written with the ‘passive’ voice. Secondly, is the wider context of the rest of Scripture.
Taking the first point, note the two halves of the sentence: “If you forgive anyone’s sins”
If the disciples were the ones accomplishing/commanding the forgiveness, that phrase would stand on its own and there would be no follow-up clause.
Instead it’s followed by a phrase in the passive voice:
“…their sins are forgiven”, indicating that someone else is performing the vital act of forgiveness on their own authority.
That is, the ‘forgive anyone’s sins’ that Jesus refers to isn’t the legal justification, the taking away of guilt, but rather it’s just the same sense in which we commonly use it. If you tell someone you forgive them, everyone understands that means YOU don’t hold their sin against them, not that God definitely doesn’t hold their sin against them. That is, you and they know you cannot forgive sins, but you forgive them. If a victim of a crime forgives the perpetrator, that doesn’t mean the judge won’t punish the criminal, it just means the victim isn’t holding a grudge.
Then there is second reason, which is the wider context of Scripture. In all the tales of the works of the apostles, NEVER did they declare someone’s sins to be forgiven without that person having repented. They did not do the kind of thing Jesus did to the paralysed man, declaring forgiveness on him, having a knowledge of the man’s heart that only God has. So we know – contrary to what is claimed in some circles – that neither the apostles then, nor you/I now, nor any priest, have the authority to forgive sins.
Neither, obviously, did God decide whether to forgive someone’s sins based on the opinion, declaration or decision of the apostles. Otherwise they’d have been doling out forgiveness to literally everyone they met, town to town, ‘You’re forgiven, you’re forgiven, you’re forgiven, you’re forgiven…’. The idea, when you follow the logic where it must go, is an obvious nonsense.
So if Jesus wasn’t granting his disciples the authority to forgive sins, what did he mean?
In part it was simply a reference to their role spreading of the gospel, highlighting that all those who repent are saved, and the unsaved are those who refuse to repent. He may also have been granting them the same authority that churches have subsequently retained – that of affirming or denying the faith of someone who proclaims themselves to be a Christian. This is related to the practice of many churches that ask the membership to vote on a potential new member before accepting them, based on whether that person has offered a credible testimony of being a Christian.
That is not, of course, to apply a religious performance test to anyone. Rather – and the New Testament controversies we will encounter in the epistles bear this out – the tests were frighteningly simple, and frequently ignored.
Does the professing Christian accept Jesus as God and man?
Do they trust in God for forgiveness or are they trying to earn it?
Have they turned away from their sin, desiring to live life in obedience to God? Or are they obvious hypocrites, claiming to believe one thing but living in an opposite way?
And, in a less black-and-white way, do they love to be with God’s people?
You are not subject to the assessment of the Pharisees, or of priests, pastors or theologians. Whether you are in Christ or stand condemned, it will be on your own credible profession of faith, or your lack of it.
God is not told by any man whom he will forgive, but promises to everyone that all who repent and trust in Him will be forgiven. Whether a human forgives you something, or declares you forgiven, has absolutely no bearing on that.